What agile strategy really means in the ‘new normal’

Economic Development | Insights

Charles Mindenhall, Blenheim Chalcot Founding Partner, spoke with Katie Hudson, Programme Manager for the SMART Guernsey Economic Development Programme, to discuss how adopting an agile strategy can help businesses navigate through uncertainty.

Katie: In your recent webinar, Agile Strategy – The Power of Pivoting, you discussed how adopting an agile strategy can enable businesses to survive and thrive during a period of disruption. Can you explain what you mean by an agile strategy?

Charles: There is no question that the period we are living through is requiring all of us to navigate unchartered waters, meaning governments, businesses and all of us as individuals are having to make decisions with the best information we have available at the time.

In an environment that is constantly evolving and where the future remains unknown, we must embrace uncertainty in order to succeed. Minimising risk in this climate means moving quickly and trying new things – often by adapting an agile strategy to focus on rapid iteration and experimentation.

Working in this agile way ensures that organisations are performance-oriented by nature. Quick, efficient, and continuous decision-making means that we can constantly make small decisions as part of rapid cycles, rather than making big bets that are few and far between.

The rate of change we have experienced over recent months is expected to continue, particularly as jurisdictions begin to configure a route through recovery. Businesses need an operating model that can keep up – one that moves beyond traditional processes and bureaucracy to empower teams at all levels to make effective and faster decisions.

Katie: We are all experiencing unprecedented disruption to our lives caused by the pandemic. How can businesses implement an agile strategy to navigate this period of uncertainty and what skills will be needed?

Charles: Agile strategy requires businesses to be responsive and flexible in the responding to the current environment. We can’t know in advance if things will work – and so, an element of experimentation is necessary.

Within our venture building process, our agile strategy is also about learning from experience: trialling new things, learning from mistakes and then changing and evolving our approach based on the additional knowledge and data we’ve gleaned about the environment in which we’re operating.

The hard bit is the embarrassment we feel when we try something that doesn’t work. We need to learn to overcome not just the fear of failure, but also the fear of embarrassment when things go wrong. This environment demands sensible “leaps into the unknown” where the “cost of leaps” is not so great, but where the benefit if even some of them work vastly outweighs the cost of them taken together. Decision-making in this context is better framed as a learning journey.

This is what pivoting is about – not just bouncing from one idea to another, but reflecting on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and having a frank discussion informed by data and experimentation.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen enormous shifts in the way we all live and work. There’s been a huge acceleration in the take-up of digital technology as we’ve been forced to do things differently, not just for our jobs but also for our personal relationships and wellbeing. As a result, we have vastly more digital skills now than we did before, both as companies and individuals, and we have to ask: what can we do with these new skills, and how do these skills enable us to operate differently?

We must remind ourselves of a saying by Charles Darwin, the father of evolution: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

This is the mindset we must embrace if we are to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Katie: Thinking about digital skills and knowhow, what thoughts would you share with local businesses about operating in a more digital world?

Charles: We’ve found over recent months that digital skills and capabilities are more important than ever, enabling businesses to operate in this new turbulent environment that will be our ‘new normal’ for some time to come.

As we have all done more things digitally, both as businesses and consumers, we have acquired more skills faster than we have ever had to do before. Think about where that leads our economies and businesses – many more things are going to be possible in the future than were probably possible before, and they’ll certainly be more possible more quickly.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), UK sales online represented 19% of total retail sales in February – and by May, this figure had increased to 32.8%. This is an extraordinary increase in just one area.

With that increased digital capability, we as businesses need to respond. We need to think about the impacts for our businesses in a world where people have far more digital knowhow, and what businesses need to do to deliver services now in a world that is changing rapidly.

My advice would be to double down on digital skills and capabilities by developing the people you have in your team and injecting those skills into your organisations in the future. Investing in our employees will be instrumental in enabling us to build a digitally-enabled and future-proof workforce – and will deliver more than skills. PWC findings suggest that upskilling programmes result in stronger corporate culture, greater business growth, greater innovation and higher workforce productivity.

Now is the time to ask what businesses we want to run, and who we want to be. While the challenges we face are huge, the opportunities we have to redefine the ways in which we live and work are even greater. For better or worse, our markets and economies were disrupted when lockdown came into force in March – it is now up to us to forge our path through this crisis, beginning with a willingness to be brave.

Charles Mindenhall is Co-Founder of Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture builder. Charles is a trustee of Onside Youth Zones, a charity providing state-of-the-art youth centres in deprived areas of the UK, and chair of Onside in London, where they are currently rolling out 4 Youth Zones in the capital. He is also a trustee of the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, MHI (Mental Health Innovations) and Charity Digital Trust.

Katie Hudson is the Programme Manager for the SMART Guernsey Economic Development Programme. Her role is dedicated to working in partnership with Digital Greenhouse, Hive Learning and AVADO to support the development of Guernsey’s digital economy.

The full recording of Charles Mindenhall's webinar on Agile Strategy can be found via the Guernsey Innovation Network, available here.

Charles Mindenhall