Maintaining Business Agility Amidst Evolving Workplace Needs
By Laura Woodard
Google Corporate Engineering Program Manager
May 15, 2019
It seems counterintuitive. Agility should feel flexible, right? But even the most flexible person has a backbone. Agile companies succeed because of their anchor points, which in addition to acting as a mission statement can also be the primary structure everything else is built around. Aaron De Smet, a principal in organizational design at McKinsey, expands on his interpretation of business agility with the following: “Agile companies tend to keep the primary and secondary axis of their organization structure pretty constant so that people have a clear home—it’s clear to them where they belong, where they build up expertise…they provide mechanisms for quickly assembling teams with the right talent to address the challenges and opportunities that are coming up.”
This idea of having a core axis around which multiple teams and projects flow is how Spotify stays competitive. The music streaming company, which actually employs “agile coaches,” is divided into autonomous squads that are given the opportunity to develop and innovate, with each squad leader acting as the problem solver. These squads also tackle a problem that holds companies back from agility: hierarchy. Each squad is viewed as equal and operates with a peer review system, so everything is fair game. Squad members can also cross-pollinate by working with other teams within their “tribe.” They still report to the same leader. While this could be messy because, let’s face it, egos often get in the way at work. Agility in company culture is anchored in egalitarianism and allows Spotify to thrive.
Apple is another example of a company culture steeped in egalitarianism. Under Steve Jobs’ leadership, Apple’s anchor point—or mission—was to “make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” Even when the company erred in product or software design, this objective never changed and was, arguably, met with every product the company released. Years ago in a garage, Jobs likely didn’t expect his company to be the driving force behind selfie culture or act as the launchpad for hundreds of new artists to host their music. Those developments—hi-res cameras on the front and back of iPhones, plus iTunes and Apple Music—were the hallmarks of the company adapting to the consumer zeitgeist.
But how does the physical workplace support an agile business? Interestingly, Apple designed its stores with sculptor Tom Sach’s “Always Be Knolling” (ABK) in mind, which is why their spaces are so inviting.
Always Be “Knolling”
Knolling is the organizational process of arranging items in parallel or at 90-degree angles. It’s a practice many stores use to make their products visually appealing or how individuals maintain sanity in their offices or homes. However, we can look at knolling more broadly as the process of putting everything in its rightful place, which won’t be the same all the time. We can apply the ABK principle to the workplace within the framework of agility. According to De Smet, agility requires two things: “a dynamic capability, the ability to move fast—speed, nimbleness, responsiveness” and “an anchor point that doesn’t change while a whole bunch of other things are changing constantly.”
Do my spaces have key anchor points across the country and across the globe? Is there a pattern that’s clear if I’m navigating a new office or new floor? Do I have a space that can adjust to an organizational leaders needs in an appropriate time frame? What changes can be done in hours? What changes require weeks or months?
Leadership can be the biggest inhibitor of agility, according to a report from the Business Agility Institute. Managers like stability. It reflects well on them, which means they may be the least likely to adapt. But managers are the ones who should set the core goals and give teams flexibility in how those goals are met. How we “knoll” in business is to shift our processes into the angle that meets the needs of that moment, not throw out the process entirely. Agility doesn’t mean a reinvention, rather a reinterpretation, to best accomplish the business goal.
As we are aware of the need for agility, and educate business leaders about the opportunities to flex the workspace, we can support the visionary aspirations of our company.
Keep reading: Corporate Agility: A Modern Workplace Must-Have Trait
About Laura Woodard
Laura Woodard is Corporate Engineering Program Manager for Google in New York. She currently leads strategy and operations for software engineering teams building technology for Google’s Legal team. Ms. Woodard has more than 18 years’ experience in change management, scaling operations and organizations for high growth. Her past roles at Google include global real estate lead for Google’s merger, acquisition, and divestiture activity, Regional Facilities Manager, East Coast, and Facilities Manager, New York.
Ms. Woodard is a real estate and workplace services (REWS) consultant for SpaceIQ, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company that’s leading the digital transformation of the workplace with a cloud-based platform that turns facilities from cost centers into strategic business assets.
Ms. Woodard is a New York University graduate and is a member of IFMA NYC.