Balancing Agility with Process is Really Hard!

Most of my professional experience has been in small, fast-paced organizations. I had one fairly short stint in a larger public company. During all these experiences, I’ve seen the constant struggle between agility and process. There are numerous studies that prove that companies need to react very quickly in today’s market in order to be competitive. Unfortunately, growth companies tend to pursue agility with pure disregard for process. McKinsey has done a few studies on this, here and here, that speak to the importance of agility but argue that the only way to achieve true agility is to have a strong backbone of structure and governance.

In my experience, the balance between agility and process (AKA structure) is very difficult to attain. When you are a company of 1 or 2, you do what works best for you. Hopefully there is some basic process around prioritization and execution, otherwise there might be a real struggle for viability. As you add additional resources it becomes more important to add some process. Resources need to understand the organization purpose (mission, vision, key performance indicators, etc) or everyone will be doing something different, making the whole very unstable.

Strong sales & organization leaders can overcome this, but they often do it at the expense of their own sanity. If a core group of people exert all their energy in developing sales and onboarding customers, they can compensate for the resources that are adding limited value. It’s at this point in the growth model where organizations struggle. It becomes apparent that some resources are severely underutilized while others are severely over-utilized. The focus of the conversation swings between the expense of training the under utilized resources or releasing the under utilized resources from the organization. In both these cases, the root cause has more to do with the process of onboarding resources. Does the organization invest the time to train the resources they have already or spend the time to find & train new resources? That depends on the resources and how they align to the organization. Some resources will be redeemable, while others are not.

Alternatively, there are many organizations that are so process oriented that they lose sight of agility. The focus becomes on making sure the process is followed, and the appropriate approvals are obtained. This is done at the expense of moving quickly.

Scale comes with being able to consistently deliver your product offering to your customers and add value in your area of expertise. If you have not designed a process around delivery or fully understand your product offering from your customer’s perspective (specifically how they derive value from your offering), you are likely to spend a significant portion of your time in fire fighting mode. Consequently, spending all your time fire fighting results in less time spent helping customers with the value initiatives.

I believe that there should be a balance between agility and process. Define a core set of processes that are critical to your product offering, set the groundwork for resources about why the organization exists (back to mission, vision & goals), but give them the space to make decisions and pivot as required.