Agile Leadership? Or Fundamental Truth?

Agileadjective: able to move quickly and easily. Or, increasingly, relating to software development: relating to or denoting a method of project management characterised by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans

And – even more increasingly – the new buzzword in management thinking. We’re now supposed to be agile leaders and agile managers. Our companies need to have an agile culture and, of course, the work is done by our agile teams.

But is ‘agile’ really a new way of thinking? Or is it simply the latest spin on what have always been the best business practices? The Emperor’s latest new clothes – and maybe I’ve seen them all before…

The more time I spend working with business owners and entrepreneurs, the more I’m convinced that – to borrow a line from a classic – the fundamental things will always apply. Hire good people: don’t hire for the sake of hiring. Give them responsibility and remember that your job is to lead. As Stephen Covey said, “keep the main thing the main thing” and – as this blog constantly repeats – never stop learning. If you don’t grow, your business cannot grow.

Unquestionably business is moving at an ever faster pace. It used to be only companies like Dropbox that boasted of employing staff all over the world: I forget the exact quote but it was something like ‘thirty staff in ten different countries in 12 different time zones.’ But now I notice an increasing number of local entrepreneurs working with suppliers and contractors in different countries, knowing exactly what time it is in the Philippines and as happy to price in dollars as in pounds.

Agile-leader

Is this ‘agile?’ No, it’s change. As an entrepreneur said during one of this week’s inevitable discussions on Brexit, “We’ll do what business has always done: we’ll adapt.”

What about the ‘agile culture’ we’re all supposed to use in our offices as we build our ‘agile teams?’ I saw it suggested recently that we should use an agile culture ‘to foster a healthy and positive working environment that takes advantage of the talent within.’

“No surprise there, Sherlock” as the PG version of Dr. Watson would have said. No entrepreneur succeeds alone – and if you don’t foster a positive working environment and take advantage of everyone’s talents, you’ve no chance. In the seven years since this blog started I have lost count of the number of times I’ve preached the benefits of trusting people and giving them responsibility. You should never be the only person in your company with the ability to say ‘yes’ to a new idea. That’s not ‘agile,’ it’s simply the best way to build a business.

…As is constantly being aware of the way your market – and new markets – are developing. “Agile leaders constantly see their business as a start-up” was another quote I read. If you started in a railway arch and you’re now employing 100 people and turning over £25m I suspect it’s quite hard to still see yourself as a start-up. But every entrepreneur I know who has built to that level is as open-minded and outward looking as any fresh-faced start-up.

My big fear with ‘agile’ is that we’ll all feel we should work at a faster and faster pace: that if we’re not Skyping Chicago at 9pm or instant messaging Manila at 5am we’re failing as entrepreneurs. I remember, nearly 20 years ago, reading an article about Gerry Robinson when he was building Granada – and famously, going home to his wife and children at 5pm. His philosophy was simple: if he couldn’t achieve it between 9am and 5pm, he was unlikely to achieve it between 6am and 8pm.

Trends, theories, buzzwords – and lucrative book deals – will continue to come and go in the realms of management and business but, whatever they’re called, the basics will never change.

…And a little over a month into my new role with The Alternative Board, I’m delighted to see those basic beliefs, practices and values running through every TAB franchisee and every TAB member that I’ve met. Yes, of course the next two years are going to throw up difficulties – some that none of us have yet contemplated – but there will be opportunities as well. And I know every TAB franchisee and member will do what businesses have always done – adapt, and meet the challenge.

 

The Billy Index

I hesitate to write about current affairs, given that last week I devoted 700 words to the Budget on Tuesday, only for the Chancellor to change his mind – and cause a re-write – on Wednesday. But the P in the PEST analysis seems to be impinging on all our lives and businesses so much at the moment that you can’t ignore it.

According to one of the Sunday papers there was going to be a snap General Election: Comment Central followed up with the same story on Monday. Downing Street swiftly dismissed the idea as ‘nonsense.’

If you’re planning a holiday the rumoured date is May 4th – just six weeks away: and just about when we find out if France is going to follow Holland down the path of common sense, or whether Marine le Pen will be in the Elysee Palace. In which case, ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ as Shakespeare wrote.

Over the next few weeks and months I suspect we’re all going to spend more time with the news bulletins than we’d like to – especially after Wednesday’s tragic events. So let’s turn to something lighter this week; specifically, Ikea’s Billy bookcase.

bookcases

In our time we’ve all shopped at Ikea: for beds, sofas, desks for our office and yes, a bookcase that even I can put together on a Saturday morning. The ubiquitous Billy bookcase: dreamed up in 1978 by a designer called Gillis Lundgren and sketched on the back of a napkin in case he forgot it.

There are now more than 60 million Billy bookcases scattered around the world – in very round figures, one for every 100 people on the planet. And so common – and far-flung – is the Billy Bookcase that Bloomberg use them to compare purchasing power. For example, a Billy costs £79 in Egypt: just £31 in Slovakia.

And thinking about the Billy Bookcase Index set me wondering: what other unusual economic indicators are there?

So let’s start with another tick in the ‘never say never’ column. I never thought I’d use the phrase ‘bodice ripper’ in this blog but yes, bodice ripping romance novels fly off the shelves in tough times. Sales were up 32% in 2008, the year of the economic crash. And the ‘high heel index’ confirms that heels also get higher during a recession.

Another indicator of tough economic times – sales of men’s underwear fall sharply, as we look to economise in areas that won’t be noticed. Hopefully… And, of course, more people grow their own fruit and veg: the number of households growing their own fruit, veg and herbs was up 19% in 2009.

What other indicators of the economy tanking are there? Fortunately we’re past this stage but a key indicator is the ‘Diaper rash index.’ During hard times parents try and save money by changing their babies’ nappies (yes, diapers to my American colleagues) less often – so sales of nappy rash cream increase.

Moving through life’s journey, there is an increase in first dates during a recession as people look to brighten the gloom. Match.com reported that the second quarter of 2008 was its busiest period for seven years.

And sadly, long after the mystery of the first date, there is an increase in the re-sale of burial plots when the economy is struggling, as people decide that cremation will be a cheaper option.

But my favourite indicator of hard times (literally) is the ‘marine intensity index.’ With the economy in trouble, more and more people apply to join the US marines. So to discourage applications from anyone who’s not 100% committed the Marine Corps toughen up their ads. Fast forward four years and if you see a marine wearing swimming trunks, carrying a 40lb pack and wading through Arctic water you’ll know that Trump’s economic reforms haven’t worked out too well…

What’s the best indicator that the economy is doing well? Garbage, rubbish, trash… As we produce and consume more, so there’s more rubbish. An analysis by Bloomberg put the correlation between volume of rubbish and the health of the economy as high as 82%.

As we might expect, we’re more willing to get divorced as the economy improves and the Swiss watch index soars into the stratosphere.

More worryingly (given my new role) the New HQ index also rises as the economy improves. Companies are more ready to spend the money on a new headquarters – not always with successful results. There’s an old stock market saw that says sell your stock when the MD or CEO announces an expensive new HQ and recently The New York Times, AOL and Time Warner have all fallen victim to the curse.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I can announce that TAB UK will still be at 15 Hornbeam Square next week – and I’ll be back with a post on ‘agile leadership…’