Five ways to become more agile and responsive to your customers’ needs


About a month ago I wrote a piece called: Are You Sure Your Customers Will Wait Two Years For You To Change? The title and thrust of the piece was based on a conversation that I had had with Mark Lancaster, CEO of SDL, where he said:

“When an executive team, in a large organisation, decides to do something and when it actually gets done can take up to two years.”

The piece caused quite a bit of discussion and debate. Therefore, I thought it would be worthwhile exploring the issue a bit more. As a result, I thought I’d ask a number of people I have interviewed over the last few months to give their thoughts and feedback on the issues that the article generated. The people that provided feedback include:

Their feedback suggested that they largely agreed with Mark’s comment. But, they also went on to say that the ability to become more ‘agile’ and more responsive to customers needs is an increasingly important source of competitive advantage.

I then asked them to identify the sort of barriers that organisations face in the battle to become more ‘agile’. They identified the following issues:

  1. Complexity – The bigger the customer base, the bigger the company, the more complex a business becomes and that, in turn, can have a serious impact on a firm’s ability to be ‘agile’.
  2. Different customers are at different points of their product/service lifecycle – Companies will have customers that are at different points on their customer life cycle. Therefore, you can’t change customer relationships wholesale across a business, you have to change them one at a time, and at the appropriate stage of the customer life cycle. That can mean that a firm’s ability to change can be limited by the speed of the cycle that they are going through with their customers.
  3. Lack of knowledge and understanding of customers – Even now, many companies struggle to understand their customers, their needs and who their ideal customer is. That lack of understanding and insight can be a serious impedance and risk to many change efforts.
  4. Lack of understanding of the changing environment – Despite continuously changing and challenging market and competitive conditions, many firms are still coming to terms with how their markets have changed and what to do about it.
  5. Fear of change – Change is always a challenge in organizations and tends to be resisted due, in some part, to fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the speed of change, fear of competition, fear of the customer etc etc. Fear, however, if not managed, can often lead to paralysis.

Given these barriers, I then asked what Mark, Jim, Charlie, David and Kevin to suggest what they think companies should be doing in their quest to become more ‘agile’ and more responsive to their customers needs. They came up with the five following things:

  1. Joined up working and thinkingMark Lancaster suggests that “organizations need to connect up their silo-ed functions so that they work more in a joined up way.” This, he believes, can be facilitated by using technology to deliver a unified view of the customer across the business. However, he warns that “this is not a panacea and giving employees a platform to share and exchange information is only a good first step. Firms should focus on helping their people access the information that they need and filter out the information that they don’t need, thus, reducing the signal to noise ratio”.
  2. Understanding the impact and managing itJim Dicso adds a different dimension and suggests that “defining what it means to put the customer at the centre of your business is the first level of driving change.” He then goes on to say that “The next important thing is to understand the impact of any proposed changes to your business, your business model and your financials so that you can then better manage any proposed changes.”
  3. Constant stream of incremental improvementsCharlie Peters builds on those and suggests that firms should focus on incremental and constant change rather than transformational change. He says that “customers benefit from a constant stream of incremental improvements, that preserves those elements of product or service which they historically value. Improving customer service likely involves evolution versus transformation”. He goes on to say that “Those C-Suites that engage will prosper, as long as they show some progress year-by-year. The corporations that continue to focus on the short-term and deny or ignore the momentum of the digital world remain the most threatened. In today’s financial world, with pressures to pay back expensive investments the next quarter, many management teams ignore opportunities of this nature. Ultimately though, they will lose ground to the more progressive.”
  4. Improve speed of decision-makingDavid Lloyd says that, to become more ‘agile’ and more responsive to customers needs, firms should focus on improving their decision-making and how they make decisions. He elaborates that “To keep growing and adapting to market needs, firms need to continually improve their decision-making processes, with a focus on making them as swift and nimble as possible.” David goes on to say that “In practical terms, this could mean setting internal timelines for how long decisions should take and empowering department heads and other senior staff to make decisions, since they’re often in the best position to do so.” In line with Charlie’s earlier comment, David says that “In many cases the approach to analysis and decision making should be iterative, not “big bang”. Thus, it is possible to make decisions in a short amount of time without needing to take unnecessary risks.”
  5. Get rid of fear by building self-awareness – Finally, Kevin Kelly talks about the C-suite and leaders themselves and cites a paper by Bill George that was published in the Harvard Business Review in February 2007. In the paper, 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council were asked to what they thought was the most important attribute for leaders to develop. They answered, almost unanimously: self awareness. Kevin believes that ‘self-awareness’ remains one of the biggest challenges for organizations today. He goes on to say that if firms are to become more ‘agile’ and more responsive to their customers needs “leaders should be creating cultures where fear is acknowledged, welcomed and moved through. For this to happen at an individual level they need to be aware of who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, their fears and their dreams.” Only then, will boards have the confidence in themselves and each other to navigate the complex and ever changing challenges that lie ahead.

What are your thoughts on the five ways that we have identified? Would you add any to the list?


This post originally appeared on my Forbes column here.


Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

7 comments On Five ways to become more agile and responsive to your customers’ needs

  • Adrian,

    I think we are a very risk adverse species, we are deeply worried by the thought of loss, far more so than gain.

    Any organisational change impacts the status quo, people get new jobs, new targets, new bosses and this never seems like a good idea. Consequently we are hugely resistant to change.

    Unfortunately I don’t know what the answer is, if I did I’d have written a best selling management book.


  • Adrian,

    I think “fear of change” is a huge factor. Perhaps “analysis paralysis” is another problem. I also wonder if there’s a difference between European and American executives/organizations.

    Annette 🙂

    • Hi Annette,
      I would bet that analysis paralysis is a problem too but think it’s probably intertwined with the fear of change. In terms of the differences between European and US organisations, I’m not exactly sure what they might be but think, given the spread of backgrounds of the contributors, that many of the issues are the same for all large organisations.


  • Hello Adrian,

    It occurs to me that what passes for advice in this post, is mostly useless. By useless I mean it is the equivalent of business success advice ‘buy low, sell high’. Great. The challenge is knowing what to buy low and sell high. And when the time comes being in a position to buy low and sell high.

    How do you connect up silo’d functions? And even if you connect up silo’d functions how do you get people who operate in the ‘taker’ context to play as ‘givers’ and/or ‘matchers’. Which is my way of saying that connecting silo’s is huge challenge. One that just about every CEO stays well clear off. When you are thinking in terms of 24 months you don’t stake your status-paycheck on connecting silo’s.

    Furthermore, the devotion to technology is misplaced. Powerpoint did not make people more effective at pitching-selling. Powerpoint has made people slaves to PowerPointing – spend less days-months on producing pretty slides. Social media has not made people more social in any significant manner. What it has done is to allow people to be less truly social: to play at social without paying the costs that comes with being truly social. Collaboration software has not increased collaboration in many-most cases. Why would you collaborate in an organisational context of competition?

    I am versed in the agile philosophy and practices. Agile calls for a revolution in our ways of being, showing up and travelling in organisational life. Agile calls for genuine teamwork. Agile calls for speed-iteration and accepts fast failure especially learning from failure. Agile calls for a willingness to experiment, to be vulnerable, to take risks…. None of that sits well in organisational contexts – especially in larger-established companies. In most companies, Agile is just talk that masks the existing way of doing things.

    All the best

    • Hi Maz,
      Thanks for your comment.

      Having re-read the input from the people that I spoke to, it seems to me that many of them are advocating an evolutionary and interative approach to the development and the challenges that many firms face. Therefore, I’m not sure why you don’t think this is in line with an agile approach.


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