Unleashing the power of communication in agile transformations

More organizations are seeking to become “agile”—a term that began in software development but now encompasses many efforts to work faster and more effectively in teams built around customers rather than silos.

Communications around agile transformations are different than in other transformations:

  • Agile is a philosophy rather than an outcome. High-frequency, two-way communication is required to gather sufficient feedback and pivot principles and objectives as needed.
  • Agility often means moving to a flatter hierarchy and empowering employees at all levels to make decisions, forcing leaders to find new ways to influence and manage.
  • Messages will be different. The distinctive language and terminology of agile can be bewildering or alienating, and people may be skeptical about the need for change and feel overwhelmed by new ways of working.
  • The cycle time is quicker in agile transformations, and messages and terminology must be repeatedly communicated to sink in.

In light of these differences, how can communicators prepare for and shape a successful agile transformation?

  1. Prioritize inspiring leaders and showing what leadership looks like in an agile world. Agile “go-and-sees” allowed a Filipino retailer to hear first-hand experiences of peer organizations that embarked on similar transformations. Dedicated “Ask Me Anything” sessions can also help frontline managers understand the rationale behind the approach. Such a session helped leaders in a hierarchical public-sector organization become comfortable with empowering their teams and giving up control.
  2. Start with the why. Successful messaging shares context, aspirations, and tangible benefits. Communicators should be honest and transparent when discussing implications for individuals, including what happens to jobs, teams, career progression, and performance evaluation. For example, a regional insurance player ran a series of change story workshops to help senior leaders craft their personal narratives. Detailed FAQs were also invaluable in preparing leaders to communicate rationale and implications for individual roles.
  3. Plan for triple or quadruple the normal volume of communications—and start early. Use multiple channels, clear materials, and multiple voices to ensure the size of the change is understood. Quickly release high-level content (e.g., aspirations) and later increase the level of detail (e.g., precise set-up of agile units). Don’t wait to build the perfect plan. Objectives will change as the transformation scales, from initially building awareness of agile concepts to creating conviction and commitment in subsequent phases.
  4. Go direct, using a combination of formats. A global bank scaling agile across its organization combined CEO-led townhalls, high-quality videos, and a comprehensive microsite to bring concepts to life and explain meaning for the organization. Such leadership involvement is particularly important at the start for credibility.

    As frontrunner adopters gain momentum, authentic stories from the frontline can also demonstrate value and benefits. One telecommunications company mobilized a network of peer change agents to gather feedback and refine approaches.

    Additionally, modern communication methods signal a new approach. One company made a series of podcasts with internal experts and encouraged employees to listen during exercise breaks. Another used superheroes as a visual metaphor to demonstrate an agile team of specialized experts working towards a common mission.

  5. Role model through communication. Internal communications must display formidable agility itself. Communicators, like their colleagues, must become comfortable with working quickly and correcting where necessary. Nothing undermines agility like lengthy approvals—communicators need to temper their instincts for caution and make bold decisions.
  6. Apply “MVP” thinking and refine constantly. Minimum viable product (MVP) thinking often means starting with imperfect products, then iterating and improving. Daily or weekly meetings and collaboration platforms can enable fast decision making and content iterations. Successful communicators also gather real-time data through short pulse surveys and quick informal feedback, then apply learnings to their work.

An agile transformation means change for everyone, including leaders and communicators. The above guidelines will ensure that the whole organization is on the same page—leading to a smoother, more agile transition to new ways of working.

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