Research - 18.10.2019 - 00:00 

Increasing flexibility with agile working methods

Companies need to adapt at an ever faster rate to changing market and customer requirements. Agile working can be an important key to success with this. But how agile are companies really? This is the question that is tackled in the 1st Future Organization Report 2019, which surveyed more than 500 managers and employees. The findings show what the key success factors are and where the biggest risks lie.

18 October 2019. The 1st Future Organization Report 2019 is published by the Institute of Information Management at the University of St. Gallen (IWI-HSG) and the management and technology consultants Campana & Schott in Frankfurt. As well as surveying managers and employees, they also interviewed decision-makers. The report shows both the success factors involved and the hurdles faced in Germany, Austria and Switzerland when transforming into an agile company. With descriptive practical examples, it also gives inspiration as to how challenges can be overcome.

Company-wide awareness of the transformation

The key factors for success include a company-wide awareness of transformation, organisational engagement and the “empowering” conduct of managers. While many companies do work using agile methods such as Scrum and Kanban ("doing agile"), they haven't yet embedded agility into the minds of their employees and in their company culture ("being agile"). In addition, agile structures and methods are predominantly being introduced one area at a time. However, it is important to create a company-wide awareness of agile transformation, for example by means of an appropriate vision. This will increase work satisfaction, team focus and psychological security. At the same time, it increases company performance and the level of agility.

According to the decision makers, it increases the open discussion of who is working on what and why, the motivation of employees and enables a better prioritisation of tasks. This increases the speed and efficiency of making decisions and implementing them. However, it must be noted that a portion of those surveyed see that the increased transparency bears a risk of unwanted controls.

Organisational engagement

New skills are required for agile working methods. Employees know this. Although 81.2 percent feel well-equipped for the current tasks, 75.4 percent say that the development of new skills remains essential. Two thirds (65.7 percent) even agree strongly with both aspects. As well as specialist knowledge, the ability and will to collaborate are important. Those who enjoy working in a team stress the importance of coordinating with others (48.5 percent) as well as holding discussions within the group (30.4 percent) and like to turn to others for help (32.8 percent). Almost a third of those surveyed state that they achieve the best work results when they work as a team (30.5 percent).


Agility is often put on a level with flat hierarchies. The study does show, however, that the dismantling of hierarchical levels is not necessarily the first step for a successful agile transformation – and indeed it may even harbour risks. Instead, what is really important is that the cooperation, communication and decision-making is done on a level playing field, regardless of each hierarchical role. This is therefore where the focus should lie.

The empowering conduct of managers

Managers in agile companies already delegate a lot of responsibility and create freedom. A third of those asked (33.5 percent) say that their manager "empowers" them. That means that they are motivated to take the initiative themselves (65.7 percent) and have more power (64.6 percent) and a positive outlook on the future (60.9 percent). Almost two thirds (60.2 percent) are also able to organise their work themselves.

But how agile are the companies really? Only around a quarter of those questioned attested (27.5 percent) to their own company having a high to very high degree of maturity where agility is concerned. This figure is higher among managers (30.5 percent) than it is among the workforce (21.7 percent). In all, 40.9 percent of those asked believe they are agile. Of those, managers estimate themselves to be much more agile (50.3 percent) than employees (25.1 percent). This holds potential, since the management must also set an example to overcome resistance and to provide motivation for new working methods.

The most important risks and hurdles

The greatest risks are: inconsistent implementation, lack of change in company culture and loss of employees or their motivation to work. Companies are not yet tackling agile transformation strategically and holistically. Among those asked, there is often no roadmap with defined interim goals. However, companies should at least establish a rough plan. Checking and adapting the previous KPIs is also necessary, since an agile organisation creates other KPI-relevant conditions.

The fear of mistakes and lack of communication are the greatest hurdles to an agile way of working. But when it comes to error culture, there is a huge need for action in companies. Only every fifth participant (19.2 percent) said that errors are not used against the individual. One in two cannot even address problems and difficulties internally and only 13.9 percent believe that they can safely ask colleagues for help. Only 30.5 percent feel confident taking a risk. This is where, above all, management are required to model a "trial & error" culture.

Not all employees want and can go along with the agile working method. Open communication, external coaches and an awareness of sensitivity help to break down resistance and keep employees in the company. For example, 36.1 percent of employees surveyed would like to be involved in team recruitment, i.e. the selection of personnel in their team. Another 30.4 percent are already involved. For example, cooperation and harmony with the team is tested on trial work days.

Photo: Pixabay / Gerd Altmann

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