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Coaching change the agile way

by Vanessa Nicol

I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.

This was the opening line from Andrew Robertson, the global CEO of BBDO, early this year at our worldwide conference.

The quote was in reference to the times we live in: the NOW environment, where constant change is the new norm. Keeping pace with consumer demands, technology and market competitors has us all constantly on our toes, in an adrenaline-fuelled state.

As agencies we are experiencing and navigating the NOW environment: I want it now. I need it now. New process now. New campaign now. We are putting in place strategies to embrace this change, and help ourselves and our clients prosper in these times of uncertainty.

Want it. Need it. Got it? Change it.

Inwardly, we are shifting the dial in our own business. And we are also partnering with our clients while they go through their own change-management journey. Having the conversations, helping to figure out how they achieve long-term relevancy and sustainability in their industry. As CHEP, we are championing our partners’ business transformation, not just their comms.

Right now, many companies are moving towards agility as an organising principle. Why? Quite simply, agile organisations operate differently.

Agile: The antithesis to traditional structure

Traditional organisations are matrix-built structural hierarchies, where decision-making is top down, and processes are primarily linear. There are silos, structures, strict KPIs.

Agile organisations unite a network of cross-functional people from various disciplines to work collaboratively in rapid learning and decision-making cycles. They are nimble, progressive in approach, and put the customer or business problem at the heart of the solve.

Agile means focusing on outcome first and foremost. And working alongside whoever can get that done, whether they’re in marketing, engineering, data, CX, or any other specialty.

Businesses that transition to agile are seeking:

  1. Customer centricity – ultimately the customer is our boss
  2. Value creation at speed, scale and impact
  3. An open, inclusive and collaborative culture
  4. Embracement of uncertainty and ambiguity

Ad land’s adaptation

You could view agile organisations as living systems that thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

In a way, agencies have been working agile for years, though we may not have been defining our practice with that exact terminology. Uniting a diverse, cross-functional team to ideate around a client’s customer or business challenge. Operating in a rapid decision cycle. Fostering creative thinking as our method of problem-solving. This is not new for us.

Agile organisations are people-centred, and one of the biggest factors in their success is the human transition to new ways of working. For those who’ve been operating in hierarchical organisations, it’s natural to have gained strong muscle memory of working that way. These are people used to closely controlled processes, governance and structures.

By contrast, organisations that are agile seek for their employees to be comfortable with constant changes in requirements. They require employees to collaborate with customers, work closely in a squad with a cross-section of disciplines, working at pace with frequent and incremental delivery.

The leap of faith

Agile brings uncertainty. New values are presented in contrast to old ways. People are tasked with being open to the new – being vulnerable to a certain extent – and going on this agile journey, when in reality many are feeling fearful and anxious. We need to acknowledge that, for a lot of people, this is a big ask.

All of us, and particularly those in marketing and product, experience our clients being worried about their jobs and how they will fit in to this new paradigm. Some genuinely can't get their heads around how it works. There is a lot of faith and trust required by each individual, when as people we’re hardwired to hate uncertainty.

This is where we need to exercise some empathy. As agencies, our own transition to agile may not have been as dramatic as those we are partnering clients through. We must be mindful of the scale of the task and the impact it’s having on the people involved. We need to partner from a human point of view.

Be both coach and cheerleader

With agile, mindset is EVERYTHING. And we all have to be willing to learn and try and do things differently. This is the biggest change we are coaching our clients towards, and we need to do exactly the same.

Unlike old, traditional structures, there is no big boss to say ‘no’. Instead, we should encourage an open platform for different ideas to flourish and prosper. Could we do this? Why don’t we do that? How would this work? What would that look like?

We need to be there among the squads and missions; leaning in to the new ways; understanding the mythologies; attending the boot camps, ceremonies and training. Embracing the uncertainty. And, most importantly, being open to testing, learning and failing together.

Transformations start at an individual level, and in agile we are all part of the living system. We can do this by:

  1. Adapting our personal mindset and behaviours
  2. Learning to work and coach in new ways of working
  3. Building and fostering enterprise agility

As a partner, be empathetic to our clients, support them, and nurture your own journey as you coach others through theirs. Offer reassurance, provide direction as required. And remember that every client will do agile in their own way, depending on industry and brand. Ultimately, agile is a method. It’s the humans operating within it who will dictate failure or success.

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