9 ½ Lessons Working in Agile Business

Agile businesses operate like living organisms – able to adapt and respond quickly to change. With a flat management structure, multi-disciplinary teams and flexible resources, an agile business is characterised by rapid learning, fast decision cycles and constant response to unrelenting change.

From small independent ad agencies and technology start-ups to innovation consultancies, I’ve spent many years as a creative working within agile businesses. What I have learned isn’t pretty, comforting or nice to hear — but it is true, real and observed through first-hand experience. Here are 9 ½ things I wish to impart to anyone entering an agile workplace: 

1: Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Not only is change inevitable, it is necessary for survival in an agile environment. And when I say change, I’m not talking about getting a new coffee machine, or recycling bins or even a new managerial hire — I’m talking pivots, mergers, acquisitions and major internal restructuring. Consistent change is not only guaranteed, you will also never feel ‘comfortable’ or ‘safe’ in an agile environment — but you will feel alive! In agile, we laugh in the face of briefs, strategy is merely a guideline and there is no such thing as the .Final_Version of anything. 

2: Good enough is good enough. 

You need to determine when it’s time to let your work go out into the big bad world, once it passes a reasonable set of standards. It’s often difficult to let a piece of work go before you’ve had time to perfect it; this is especially true for creatives. In an agile workplace, however, excellence is valued over perfection. 

Striving for excellence means doing the right thing, while striving for perfection means doing the thing right. In an environment without briefs, templates or sticky strategy, and where often you’re doing things that have never been done before, there is no ‘right way’ to complete something — you’ll need to rely on your gut and intuition, and learn to part with your half-baked ideas (sketches over illustrations, frameworks over designs, bullet points over prose). 

3: Let go of ego.

“You are not your work” is a helpful mantra in an agile workplace. So often our self-worth is directly proportional to our value contribution at work. Removing your ego in the workplace means it becomes easier (for yourself and for your team) to critically evaluate and test the integrity of your contribution.

Accept that you will make mistakes, especially when you need to work at speed; and no matter how much you know, there will always be someone who knows more. Treat people who know less than you with respect, deference, and patience; because next week, this could be you.

4: Agile is not democratic.

An agile business cannot be a democracy — certainly not when making decisions. This can make it feel like you don’t have a say in the business you’re working in. And oftentimes, you don’t. At the helm of your agile business is a determined leader on a mission to make their millions in an ever changing environment wrought with threats and opportunities.

This does not mean your opinion isn’t valuable or necessary — it simply means your opinion is not ALWAYS valuable or necessary. It is important to discern when you have the floor to speak up and when you should simply accept things and take them in your stride. 

5: Everyone is replaceable. Even you. 

This is not meant as a threat straight out of the ‘lousy managers handbook’; it’s more a reminder that humility is essential in an agile space. While it’s true you will never find that same combination of talent, know-how, and character as the people you have on your team right now; it is also true that if any one team member left, everything will carry on — business as usual. It’s important not to think of yourself as irreplaceable, but rather work at becoming hard to replace and sorely missed when you’re gone. 

6: Your title doesn’t define you. 

In a meeting with one of my mentors I stressed how I was frustrated at work because “I’m a writer but I’m actually doing so much more than that; I’m building strategies, website wire-frames, workshop material and more than the scope of my job”. To which my mentor replied “I guess you’re not a writer anymore”. To me it felt that I was being taken advantage of, not given enough resources to do my job; to him it was quite simple, I was growing and just needed to acknowledge it. 

7: To make change happen, change yourself.

Sometimes, (actually, often), the biggest, most impactful change we can make is a shift in our own perspective. If you’re faced with a challenging situation at work and don’t know how to move forward, do something radically different in your own life: ditch your car and take the bus to work, dye your hair a completely new colour, rearrange all the furniture in your house, sign up for a weekly pottery class. I guarantee that once you try this, you will not view your challenge in the same light and will invariably find a way to work through it. 

8: Align with yourself, not the company.

Most of us want to feel the work we do is in some way meaningful, but many of us probably don’t. And while it might be normal to feel dissatisfied or unhappy at work, it certainly isn’t necessary. One surefire way to sustain your sanity and relative happiness is to identify your core values and align your career to them. In most cases, this action serves your company well, anyway. 

It’s up to you to figure what you want, from your job, your career, your workplace; and if these things align with the direction of the business, hooray! You will feel supported in your efforts and you will find success. If your organisation is not aligned to your interests and goals, well then you have a clear idea of what you want and where you should go instead. 

9: This is (probably) not your forever home. 

I’ve found there are three types of employees in agile business: Ripe, green and staple. Ripe employees are those necessary and good for the company where they are right now, but NOT where they are going. Green employees are those groomed to grow with the business; those positioned to learn how to execute their roles specifically in the fashion their particular organisation needs. Then there are staples; the veterans who have been in the industry longer than you’ve been alive. In an agile business, most people would fit into the ripe category. It’s nothing personal – it’s just business.

9 ½: Find a mentor. 

If you don’t already have a mentor you regularly meet with, find one TODAY. Your mentor should be someone within your industry, but not your company. Someone far senior to you who can offer an objective, fresh perspective and who can challenge the way you think. 

2 Replies to “9 ½ Lessons Working in Agile Business”

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