One of the biggest lessons of 2020, and one that I’ve seen proven time and again in my years leading companies large and small, is that there’s a difference between moving fast and moving smart. Speed and agility, as any athlete or business leader can tell you, are distinct advantages that produce different kinds of results.
The more I see the benefit of organizational agility—defined as the ability to rapidly pivot people, processes, and technologies to maintain business growth and competitive advantage—the more I’m convinced that it must be a priority for any executive focused on the long-term success of her enterprise.
Leadership at the C-suite level provides ample opportunities. Knowing when and how much to pivot the business in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, for instance, is rarely obvious. Digital technology gives us powerful tools to execute change, but pivoting before agile business practices are in place can lead, as they say, to suboptimal results.
Agility, as a necessary discipline, is not exclusive to tech startups. In fact, according to a new ServiceNow survey of executives in five major sectors—financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, public agencies, and telecom—nearly half of the largest companies ($5 billion or more in revenue) are leaders in enterprise agility.
Regardless of size, one clear factor separates agile companies from everyone else: They consistently invest in technology more than their competitors. For example, the most agile organizations have invested three times as much in machine learning and AI (32% vs. 10%), twice as much in IT (43% to 20%), and they’ve spent significantly more on digital workflow automation (43% to 25%).
Digital platforms drive agile business
A sentiment from former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty suits the moment: “Growth and comfort do not coexist.” Digital transformation can be difficult for any company, but the ESI/ServiceNow survey shows that the companies that lean into it, despite pushback from people who are uncomfortable with change, are better positioned to thrive and grow long-term.
Digital transformation strikes the right balance so that when the enterprise needs to adjust, everyone is moving in the right direction.
These initiatives can fail for many reasons, but one of the most common, historically, has been because people are afraid of change. One of my roles as CFO is to enable alignment, so everyone from the C-suite to the last link in the supply chain embraces new processes. The more you can automate those processes, the faster your people can move, and with less risk of human error. Best of all, it lets them focus on more substantive work by offloading routine tasks.
Agile leadership can yield a variety of connected payoffs. Agile leaders, according to the survey, are making good on their bigger investments in digital workflow automation. They lead all other companies by a wide margin (40%) in integrating those processes into enterprise platforms. The leaders in the survey also report far greater progress in employee and customer experiences.
In my experience, digital automation and digital platforms help everyone in the organization move synchronously, so that when they do need to change course, sharing insights and streamlining processes are easier. Digital transformation strikes the right balance so that when the enterprise needs to adjust, everyone is moving in the right direction.
The three Cs of agile leadership
Leading organizations with business agility comes down to three Cs. Embracing digital transformation, and driving it across the company no matter what size it is, requires the first C—courage, the courage to embrace new agile business models, strategies, and technologies.
[Read also: How industries transform]
The next is compassion. People are the glue that holds an organization together. Empathy for what people need and are going through amid change is critical. That means empathy not just for your employees, but for your customers, partners, and vendors, all of whom are facing similarly challenging times. Empathy can also help you discover new business opportunities and talent needs.
The third quality is curiosity—the desire to keep learning and be curious about what the future holds. Studies have shown that curiosity nurtures creative problem solving by letting us see what could be and can be different.
That can make all the difference when you’re moving fast to adjust to change. Add that to the capacity for rapid innovation you already have with digital technology, and you’re in position to pass the agility test—striking the perfect balance between speed and smarts.