Building agility in the British Army’s headquarters

The British Army’s headquarters is the central hub of strategic thinking and planning for more than 80,000 regular and 30,000 reservist soldiers deployed in the United Kingdom and across the world. The army’s operating environment is arguably more complex now than ever, and the nature and purpose of military force have shifted significantly. In the field, the British Army is exceptionally agile and flexible in its operations (see sidebar “In operations, the army knows how to be agile”), being well prepared for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) situations—VUCA is, after all, a military term from the 1990s.

As the pace of change accelerates, the threats faced by the British Army are myriad—particularly in a time of constant competition and rapid technological advancement. Embracing this era of transformation has required Army HQ to modernize its way of working for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

One way to bring the clarity and flexibility needed to prosper in an uncertain and fast-moving world is to adopt agile working practices and approaches. The British Army has initiated this transformation in the heart of its HQ in the Directorate of Personnel, which comprises 250 civilian and uniformed employees responsible for the design and delivery of personnel strategy and policy that increases inflow, minimizes outflow, and maximizes the talent of all personnel, in order to enhance the operational effectiveness of the army.

Some of the leaders involved in the transformation, Lieutenant General Ivan Jones, Major General Sharon Nesmith, and the directorate’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Karen Graham (see sidebar “Biographies” for more on their backgrounds), recount the agile journey. The following is an edited version of their remarks.

McKinsey: What motivated you to change the way the army HQ operates?

Ivan Jones: The army-HQ environment is traditionally a hierarchical organization, where we tend to work in “stovepipes.” The world that we live in is increasingly volatile and changing, and we need to be much more dynamic in order to keep pace. In the army context, this means being able to react to the many different changing priorities from our government but also to global events.

When I took on the role of Director of Personnel, I could see we had great people doing their best every day. But the organization lacked clarity and purpose, and there was little flexibility. The start point was to be clear on our raison d’être and ensure it became part of our organizational approach—called “DNA” for “develop and nurture our people so they can achieve.” This helped shape our vision.

We know how to be agile. On operations, we are very agile, yet somehow, we had lost this spirit in the HQ. We needed to figure out a way to transform the way we worked in HQ to be much more like operations and be dynamic and agile. I decided to start this transformation within the Personnel Directorate.

McKinsey: How did you determine the first steps to take?

Ivan Jones: The transformation broke down, roughly, into a three-step process:

  1. structurally change our organization and teams to be more purpose based
  2. change the way the executives and teams worked with one another
  3. provide the individual teams with both a new mind-set and strong set of practical tools to conduct their work more efficiently

These three steps collectively tackle the categories that we found in many other organizations that had undertaken an agile transformation—for example, structure, people, and process.1The five trademarks of agile organizations, January 2018.

The three steps seem clear now in retrospect, but at the time, we knew the transformation would require a level of learning on the go. We made sure we had the right team, charted out the first key steps, and set off, comfortable with the fact that not everything was planned 100 percent. Sometimes in a transformation it is hard to cross the Rubicon, but we decided to take that first step.

Karen Graham: To overcome organizational inertia, we focused on crafting a North Star vision. From there, we redesigned our previous hierarchical structure into purpose-based teams, and we rapidly implemented the structural change that got the transformation going.

One of the benefits of our structural change was being able to set priorities for the work of each team. This freed resources for a change team to focus on the most important work across the directorate.

While this reorganization made us more responsive to change, we quickly realized we could not truly achieve agility by simply reorganizing our floor plate.

McKinsey: How did you gather the right momentum and alignment across the organization?

Karen Graham: We have a very strong and unique team culture in the army. This culture helps us understand agility because we fundamentally know what it feels like from operations. The challenge was figuring out how to embed this team culture across a diverse workforce within a strategic HQ.

We really wanted our staff to feel part of this transformation. So from the start, we focused on cocreation and listening. This involved running team health-check sessions to understand pain points and strengths. We also ran the first team training with just the team leads—colonels—to ensure early buy-in and input.

It was important that this transformation was co-led by the teams themselves, so we crafted the training around a series of team-level interventions. Team training consisted of three full days of both learning and reflection, allowing teams plenty of time to just talk and figure things out together.

In our fast-paced world, we rarely take this much time out to invest in our own development; every team member appreciated this. On reflection, I think the uniqueness of the army’s team culture and our ability to develop a flexible training solution significantly contributed to our overall success.

McKinsey: What has changed for the executives and other leaders in the directorate?

Sharon Nesmith: We are in one another’s minds—we think and act as a leadership team. This really started from our two-day off-site [meeting] for the senior leaders, focused on agile leadership mind-sets and behaviors, where we also got to know one another much more deeply. We collectively developed a vision of where we wanted to take the directorate and the type of leadership we want to breed within our respective teams. This thinking formed the team-level work crafted by our Chief of Staff, Colonel Karen Graham.

To role-model that, we now provide more timely guidance and support through our coaching and enabling mind-set. We seek early opportunities to help one another unblock our work, and we have raised our horizon—so increasingly, we have more time to think and plan ahead rather than to be fixed with the today.

Practically, what this means is that the directorate is running with a new, much faster cadence: what we call a “battle rhythm” [Exhibit 1]. We developed a way to scale agile beyond just the teams, and this has provided a structure for operating that supports the new type of coaching and enabling leadership really well.

An established ‘battle rhythm’ helps British Army headquarters run at a faster pace.

The directorate took elements of various scaled agile frameworks, like quarterly business reviews and big-room planning, adapting them to fit the army context, to create a repeatable cadence of interactions across teams that ensures transparency and surfaces risks. Teams working in this new battle rhythm have the means to raise risks and issues for support, resulting in leaders spending more time problem solving with their teams and less time trying to gain situational awareness.

McKinsey: As you implemented the approach across the directorate, when did you feel was the tipping point? When and where was impact felt?

Sharon Nesmith: For me, I knew this felt different at an early executive team meeting—in our new executive stand-up, we were prioritizing outputs against the army’s command plan. Amazingly, this was a task that we hadn’t done as a team in the past, and yet there we were around the glass wall, armed with sticky notes, debating cross-directorate tasks, highlighting the synergies and areas for collaboration between teams, and deprioritizing activity. Only when armed with the full picture could you take a balanced view. In the end, not only did we have a clear single vision on what we were set to deliver, but we decided to tidy up our work and keep it on this glass wall. We made it double sided and let the entire directorate and our stakeholders engage with our prioritization. As a leadership team, it felt like we were leading: we were engaged, transparent, and collaborative.

How the British Army’s operations went agile

How the British Army’s operations went agile

I believe all organizations that are running at full steam need to take the occasional pause to reflect on how their leadership team is providing direction.

Karen Graham: For me, the tipping point was after our first directorate sync, a “scrum of scrum” of sorts. We started to observe how teams were becoming more resilient. It was evident that team leads had a clear view on what their priorities were, had already deprioritized work to enable more focus, and were more confident exposing tasks where they thought they needed additional support, advice, or resources. This level of cross-directorate transparency enabled immediate resolution of a number of issues raised, with only a few needing further escalation. This ability to prioritize and resource what’s important at the team level was further reinforced after our big-room planning,2 where, for the first time, I felt, as a directorate, we had agreed on clear priorities for the next quarter—and, perhaps more important, had made some key decisions on what we were going to stop doing to ensure we achieved them.

McKinsey: The public sector—and the military, in particular—is often thought of as a hierarchical place. How did you face into that and steer away from the command-and-control mentality?

Karen Graham: One of the foundational pieces we set in place early was a set of values that reflected the kind of agile organization we wanted to be [Exhibit 2]. These values are based on the original Agile Manifesto and the five trademarks of agile organizations.3The five trademarks of agile organizations, January 2018; the report set out the characteristics and practices of agile organizations in their approach to strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology. We provided early training on the values expected in an agile organization and asked the exec and teams to translate each of these values into a set of behaviors they would collectively relate to and hold each other to account on.

A set of values guides the British Army Personnel Directorate’s agile efforts.

One of these values revolves around connected leadership, which requires leaders to have much more of a coaching mind-set, providing timely guidance and support to their teams rather than traditional command and control.

Enabling better collaboration across the directorate at the team level has also been key to breaking down branch silos. Pan-directorate, fortnightly syncs have enhanced transparency between team leads, identified key dependencies earlier, and reduced the need for detailed command and control from the exec. This meeting has formed the central core around which a clear and repeatable process cadence, or battle rhythm in army lingo, can be communicated out directorate-wide—and beyond, to our stakeholders.

McKinsey: What are the priorities in sustaining this transformation?

Sharon Nesmith: We, as an executive team, are continuing to discuss what investments are still needed for the long-term sustainment of the new mind-set, culture, and way of working. One of the things we are focusing on is how we make sure that new people that join the directorate quickly understand our way of working. An induction process that includes agile will be key.

We are also measuring how well we are doing in embedding agile. Teams are producing end-of-sprint self-assessments, and we intend to reissue our health check after six months. These data points will be key for us to know how we will continuously improve—a key aspect of any agile organization.

McKinsey: Would you share your reflections with regard to the potential use of agile more widely in other organizations?

Ivan Jones: As I reflect now, looking back at the directorate and what it has achieved, I think there are really exciting opportunities in how agile reorganization could be rolled out—not simply across the army but also more widely. We have demonstrated the ability to deliver three profound benefits: improved productivity, a more empowered workforce, and a greater ability to respond to an ever-changing world.

Sharon Nesmith: For other organizations, I believe there is a real balance to be achieved between planning and just taking the first steps. We spent the right amount of time to set our aspirations before stepping forward and testing the waters. We really benefited from the learnings gained from the first steps, like our initial training sessions, allowing us to adapt and improve our approach. I would advise other organizations to spend the up-front effort in thinking through their aspiration but also to identify the right pilots or first steps to get going and iterate with your teams. The learnings will be invaluable and mitigate the risk of only looking for incremental improvements.

For more on the British Army‘s overall agile transformation, see the companion interview, “How the British Army’s operations went agile.”

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