Earlier this year, a large Indian FMCG company had a situation on its hands: a massive opportunity had mushroomed in the market for its hygiene and sanitisation products due to Covid-19, but stringent lockdown restrictions meant that tapping this opportunity was not going to be easy. In this time of need, the organisation benefited from agile practices.
Fundamental changes to its ways of working, ruthless prioritisation and exemplary teamwork helped it deliver what would have been dismissed as impossible in pre-Covid times. It launched 50 new product and pack innovations in a matter of a few weeks and managed to ramp up production of a core category product by as much as 100 times.
Such examples — of companies adopting agile practices to respond to one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns — were the norm and not exceptions in recent months.
We saw India Inc making three main agile shifts. First, it adopted new technologies in record time. At a pharma manufacturing unit an app to track the temperature and location of employees in real-time was launched within days.
Second, companies removed silos and convened cross-functional teams. A modular construction company deployed cross-functional teams to deliver mobile toilets to remote locations in two days, instead of the usual 30 days.
Third, leaders at all levels spent more time connecting with their teams. The top executives at an essential goods supplier conducted twice-daily meetings with their teams to discuss progress and remove roadblocks.
All these steps enhanced productivity and efficiency, led to revised employee value propositions and accelerated decision-making. Consequently, not just new product lines and projects, entire business models pivoted in a few days. Within a week of the lockdown, a holiday rental company shifted its business model to hosting personal and corporate events online.
Turning to agile then woke up many less-agile organisations to hidden possibilities within and across their business units. So how did companies with higher agile maturity fare?
While nearly all companies applied one or more agile principles to mitigate the Covid shock, our research shows that agile teams responded faster and better than their nonagile counterparts — by measures of customer satisfaction, employee engagement and operational performance.
Conducted in partnership with the Harvard Business Review, our research incorporated inputs from 25 organisations (across seven sectors) that had undergone an agile transformation. Each one of them highlighted that their agile methods and practices — such as empowered front-line teams, full transparency on backlog and outcomes, and robust processes to cascade changing priorities — put them in better stead.
A case in point was a bank that has been an early adopter of agile. The bank has so far constituted more than a dozen agile teams to fast-track key projects, which helped it acquire 3 lakh customers despite the lockdown. A critical enabler was a digital feature launched within just two weeks of conceptualisation by one of its agile teams.
As agile practices permeated the industry, they dispelled several entrenched boardroom myths, used earlier by organisations to explain their hesitation to take agile leaps. First was the idea that large organisations operate at close to 100 per cent efficiency. Clearly, organisations were a far cry from this mark. What else explains their accomplishment of months of work in days, that too with just a fraction of their workforce?
Second was the common belief that IT systems are bottlenecks to change. The lockdown exposed this myth, showing that legacy technologies and systems can be replaced overnight and new applications rolled out within days.
Third was the conviction that colocation, even for agile teams, is a prerequisite to high productivity. This was debunked by the fact that many organisations reported no changes in productivity even during the lockdown; some, in fact, witnessed a productivity boost.
Fourth was the view that large corporations are incapable of delivering at start-up speeds because of their essential handover processes and complex institutional layers. The lockdown dispelled this myth, as many industry behemoths did not just move fast and break things, they smashed all records.
With new pockets of efficiencies revealed by agile methods, it is no surprise that more nonagile enterprises now want to either embark on large-scale agile transformations or make incremental adjustments to their operations. Their agile peers, on the other hand, are looking to embed agile principles deeper in their organisational fabric.
Both these groups could do well to carefully analyse what worked and why it worked and then follow a pilot-and-scale approach. They must also move fast — given we are already seeing examples of companies transferring lessons learned in recent months to leapfrog their peers. The clock, as the cliché goes, is ticking.
Dotiwala is partner and Subramanian is senior expert in the Mumbai office of McKinsey & Co