McKinsey & Company
How to create an agile organization
Transforming companies to achieve organizational agility is in its early days but already yielding positive returns. While the paths can vary, survey findings suggest how to start.
Rapid changes in competition, demand, technology, and regulations have made it more important than ever for organizations to be able to respond and adapt quickly. But according to a recent McKinsey Global Survey, organizational agility—the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities—is elusive for most.11. This definition of organizational agility was given to respondents when they began the survey and reflects McKinsey’s proprietary definition, which is distinct from how we define organizations with agile software-development processes. Throughout the report, we will use “agile transformations” to refer to transformations that focus on organizational agility. The online survey was in the field from February 14 to February 24, 2017, and garnered responses from 2,546 participants representing the full range of regions, industries, company sizes, functional specialties, and tenures. Of these respondents, 207 work at nonprofits and government agencies or departments. But we will use the word “companies” to refer to all respondents’ firms, whether in the private or public sector Many respondents say their companies have not yet fully implemented agile ways of working, either company-wide or in the performance units where they work,22. “Performance unit” refers to a part of the organization (for example, a functional team, cross-functional team, or business unit) that is responsible for the delivery of specific performance outcomes. We asked respondents to answer the survey with regard to the performance unit in which they are most familiar. Forty-four percent responded on behalf of a business unit, 31 percent on behalf of a cross-functional team, 23 percent on behalf of a functional team, and 2 percent on behalf of another type of unit. though the advantages are clear. Respondents in agile units report better performance than all others do, and companies in more volatile or uncertain environments are more likely than others to be pursuing agile transformations.
Few companies are yet reaping these benefits, but that may soon change; the results also indicate that organizational agility is catching fire. For many respondents, agility ranks as a high strategic priority in their performance units. Moreover, companies are transforming activities in several parts of the organization—from innovation and customer experience to operations and strategy—to become more agile. Finally, respondents in all sectors believe more of their employees should be working in agile ways. For organizations and their performance units that aren’t yet agile, the path to achieving agility depends on their starting points. But the results indicate some clear guidance on how and where they can improve, whether they are lacking in stability or dynamism.
Organizational agility is on the rise
Across industries and regions, most survey participants agree that the world around them is changing, and quickly. Business environments are increasingly complex and volatile, with two-thirds of respondents saying their sectors are characterized by rapid change. In such environments, the need for companies to demonstrate agility is top of mind: the more unstable that respondents say their environments are, the more likely they are to say their companies have begun agile transformations (Exhibit 1).
To date, though, few organization-wide agile transformations have been completed. Only 4 percent of all respondents say their companies have fully implemented one, though another 37 percent say company-wide transformations are in progress. When asked where their companies apply agile ways of working,33. The survey asked which of 12 agile ways of working were currently applied in respondents’ performance units. The 12 options were cross-functional teams, self-managing teams, knowledge communities, innovation hubs, scrums, integrator roles, staffing portals, hackathons, flow-to-the-work pools, Skunk Works, scaled agility frameworks (for example, Scaled Agile Framework, Large Scale Scrum), and holacracy. respondents most often identify activities that are closest to the customer: innovation, customer experience, sales and servicing, and product management.44. Innovation includes R&D, new-technology development, and/or idea generation; customer experience includes marketing, branding, campaigns, customer journeys, and/or customer-experience design; sales and servicing includes customer services, sales, and commercial and/or account management; and product management includes product development and/or product engineering. This is not too surprising, since customer centricity is cited most often—followed by productivity and employee engagement—as the objective of agile transformations. Companies are also focusing on internal end-to-end processes. At least four in ten respondents say their companies are applying agile ways of working in processes related to operations, strategy, and technology, while roughly one-third say they are doing so in supply-chain management and talent management.5
Looking forward, the results suggest that companies have higher aspirations for agility. Three-quarters of respondents say organizational agility is a top or top-three priority on their units’ agendas, and more transformations appear to be on the way. Of those who have not begun agile transformations, more than half say plans for either unit-level or company-wide transformations are in the works. Respondents across industries also report a desire to scale up agile ways of working. On average, they believe 68 percent of their companies’ employees should be working in agile ways, compared with the 44 percent of employees who currently do. By industry, respondents in telecom and the electric-power and natural-gas industries report the biggest differences between their actual and ideal shares of employees working in agile ways—followed closely by respondents in several other industries: media and entertainment, the public sector, oil and gas, pharma, and advanced industries.
What’s more, the survey also confirms that agility pays off. Eighty-one percent of respondents in agile units report a moderate or significant increase in overall performance since their transformations began. And on average, respondents in agile units are 1.5 times more likely than others to report financial outperformance relative to peers, and 1.7 times more likely to report outperforming their peers on nonfinancial measures.66. The survey measured financial performance as the revenue, growth, market share, cost efficiency, and profitability of respondents’ performance units, relative to units at competitors’ organizations that do similar work, and nonfinancial performance as performance units’ development and innovation (that is, of products, services, processes, and/or solutions), responsiveness to customer needs, time to market, productivity, and employee engagement, relative to units at competitors’ organizations.
Agile organizations excel at both stability and dynamism
In previous work, we have determined that, to be agile, an organization needs to be both dynamic and stable.77. For more information, see Wouter Aghina, Aaron De Smet, and Kirsten Weerda, “Agility: It rhymes with stability,” McKinsey Quarterly, December 2015. Dynamic practices enable companies to respond nimbly and quickly to new challenges and opportunities, while stable practices cultivate reliability and efficiency by establishing a backbone of elements that don’t need to change frequently. The survey scored organizations across eighteen practices (see sidebar, “Eighteen practices for organizational agility.”), which our research suggests are all critical for achieving organizational agility. According to the results, less than one-quarter of performance units are agile. The remaining performance units lack either dynamism, stability, or both (Exhibit 2).