How To Become More Agile and Beat the Competition

Nov 2, 2015
8 Min Read

To survive in today’s quickly changing marketplace and outmaneuver the competition, companies and teams must learn how to identify the right opportunities and then react quickly. Learning to be agile can’t be part of future plans – it must happen now.

One of the biggest challenges for organizations today is being able to make changes when and where they need to in order to survive. If they’re about as agile as a 90-year-old with arthritis, they’re not going to be in business much longer, as many defunct companies can now attest.

But how do companies quickly identify opportunities for growth, avoid potential threats and take advantage of a changing marketplace, all while trying to sustain quality day-to-day operations?

Amanda Setili, author of “The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World,” has worked with companies such as AT&T, Georgia-Pacific and UPS. She says through those interactions she has learned the keys to capitalizing on opportunities being created in the marketplace, and how to move the organization in that direction.

For example, companies wanting to be more agile must give employees the flexibility to respond to changes that they see, instead of just requiring them to stay within their job descriptions. If employees are given more leeway, then they are much more likely to notice changes earlier and react sooner and faster, she says.

In addition, organizations must also be able to ditch parts of their business that don’t fit in with a new direction and not get caught up in the sentimentality of doing things the way they’ve always been done. They’ve got to be willing to make decisions quickly, she says.

“Companies often get bogged down in indecision for months when assessing a potential change in strategy because they’re busy dealing with stakeholder objects and fretting over risks,” she says.

Setili says that becoming more agile often involves setting aside fears and concerns, and instead developing a strategy for staying ahead of the competition by being able to:

  • See what the competition cannot. There’s a reason that Amazon seems to jump so quickly on trends: They pay great attention to what customers are saying. Since the early days of the company, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos regularly reads customer emails. The customer focus that comes from the top has led Amazon to spot trends before the competition and to implement dozens of customer ideas.

If you’re only focused on the competition, then you’re not looking at trends and what the customer wants next. Setili suggests that if you want to be the first to respond to customers, then you need to spend more time with them. Employees need to be given the opportunity to get away from their work stations and go out into the field with customers or other workers so they can see problems firsthand. IT needs to see how customers are reacting to changes in software, for example, and talk personally with those who are using the product. Companies must be willing to dig deep and get a variety of perspectives.

However, when gathering customer input, Setili cautions against using conventional market research because it often focuses on your biggest, most established customers and “you often see only what you’re looking for.”

  • Pivot at the right time. While it makes sense to invest in products and services that are doing well, it’s more difficult to know which customers and products are growing the fastest or which ones might be the most profitable to serve. Starbucks, for example, might not be where it is today if CEO Howard Schultz had focused on declining coffee consumption in the U.S. instead of the increasing interest in specialty coffees. When considering your own business, ask why fast-growing customer groups are buying more of your product or service each year.  Do they find hidden value? Are their end-user markets growing?
  • Shape the future.  Look at microeconomic and macroeconomic trends to help you get a handle on the changes that can affect your business. Prioritize your actions, looking for alternate  approaches and view troubling trends as potential opportunities. “Today’s most successful companies all make a habit of avoiding complacency and are constantly challenging conventional business wisdom,” she says.
  • Capitalize on changes. Diverse teams and creative people from throughout an organization can be  tasked with looking for new opportunities, but it’s also important for everyone in an organization to be able to shake up the status quo and ask provocative questions. Also, don’t discount taking something away instead of thinking that adding something is the only solution. For example, IKEA has learned that the customer is willing to do more work in putting furniture together if it means it’s available immediately and they can have it home and set up in three hours, she says. “Experiment with taking something away and seeing if anyone notices,” she says. “Sometimes the customer will welcome it.”
  • Tackle risks head on.  Executives can often get paralyzed at the thought of risk – or plunge ahead with little focus on what they need to learn to increase the chances of success. It’s a good idea to discuss and debate potential scenarios and the strategies needed to succeed before events demand immediate action. That way, teams are prepared to react rationally when one of those scenarios does occur.

Setili says that those organizations striving for agility must innovate continuously, looking for ways to improve existing products and processes, even in small increments. With that philosophy, she says, organizations cut the chances of becoming obsolete or allowing the competition to get the upper hand.

“Agility isn’t something you can leave to chance,” she says.

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