How Agile thinking can liberate the workplace

River's COO, Tom Howlett discusses how Agile thinking can help us to create working environments that speak to our younger generation

If, like me, you keep one eye on the UK’s productivity levels, you’ll have spotted that it’s been almost completely flat for the last decade. While other G7 economies are rising, we seem to have settled into a trend which sees us stuck in neutral – and likely to go into reverse if levels don’t improve.

You don’t have to be an analyst to work out what this means for our new generation of graduates and young people entering today’s workforce. As a nation, we should be smarter – more people are leaving university with first class degrees – but (as the stats clearly show) this new blood is not being used effectively.

We need a new paradigm.

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Let me give you a quick example. As a teenager growing up, I watched as my Dad’s health deteriorated from long days in a dysfunctional office, frustrated by bureaucracy and infighting. And I grew up thinking there was something wrong with work. When I actually got into work myself, I saw why: I felt trapped in a cubicle, unable to collaborate or use passion and creativity. I had to sit and be told what to do, and that didn’t empower me with any freedom to work in a way that suited me better.

Luckily for me, I stumbled upon what was then the young and burgeoning Agile software community. An Agile mindset allowed me to work within a team and we could figure out our own ways to achieve our goals. It was a complete revelation and in stark contrast to project managers dictating when and how the work should be completed. The true philosophy behind Agile working is the team which is closest to the work holds the best answers to the challenges they face. The team is encouraged to self-manage and can implement changes much more quickly than a slow moving organisation based on layers of management and bureaucracy.

I ended up coaching teams in this philosophy for many years. And today, I believe it’s an approach that can be applied at scale to whole companies. But to do this, we need to improve the way we work and change the traditional organisational mindset.


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The new paradigm

When you think of Agile teams, you probably think of super smart developers building complex software, but there’s no reason why this philosophy can’t have a huge reach on all levels and salaries.

In fact there’s lots that can be learnt from the Agile philosophy when improving productivity and engagement. Agile starts with openness, when people are given autonomy and access to business data, they can make informed decisions about how to improve their work. But so often people only have sight of what they are doing in their little world and not the bigger picture. When you do, it’s really powerful and this is my own motivation for working with organisations that want to empower their people and provide a platform that allows teams to truly collaborate.

Rather than having to follow a predefined process, imagine giving your team the ability to come together and decide how they want to work. Think about how empowering that is. Then, supercharge that with access to KPI data so they can see the business impact of what they do. How much better would it be to share sales figures, show when they are dropping and where, and allow the relevant teams to act on it there and then, rather than waiting for direction from on high? The new paradigm is where everyone has the power to do something and make a difference, not just privileged managers.

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Out with the old

The old way was to protect business data with hierarchies but now managers need to share results with everyone. And in a modern, connected workplace there really is no reason why results shouldn’t be visible to all. At River, we work with organisations where individual teams are the first to see the results of an employee survey. It’s up to them to decide what to do about it at a local level. What’s more, they have the visibility to be able to experiment with things that other teams are doing to improve their performance.

In reality it’s not the people managers that constrain people, it’s the cultures and the systems in which they operate. If you create a mechanism for everyone to have a voice, it becomes an obligation for managers to do something with the ideas that their teams come up with. Managers should become facilitators of that.

Take an airline check in desk that’s experiencing huge queues as an example. The immediate team can come up with the ideas to alleviate their customers’ pain and the line manager has the authority to implement it. They should then also recognise where the idea came from and share that success publically. The ownership for improving customer service then becomes everyone’s responsibility.

It’s about shifting it round and changing the perception of control so that everyone is listened to and everyone has a voice.

If we can shift to this new paradigm, we’ll be able to create environments that speak to the hearts and minds of our younger generations. This is the future of our economy and where the ideas for business improvement will come from. Can you give people a voice and engage them with business goals that align with their preferred way of working?


River Agency