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BUSINESS AGILITY in Banks - A need for Structural Leadership Reorganization, plus looking beyond IT.

Ability and need to be nimble, like a blade of grass that bends to the waves of wind in any direction is possibly the right metaphor to use in comparing our ecosystem, in which we work that is notoriously volatile, and the demand therefore is to continuously adopt to change that is constant. Given this is same for all organizations, the ones that thrive, have one thing in common - that is in their ability to pivot and change, thereby accommodating to forces, which may be many times, more powerful than themselves. And to do so requires business agility. 

Its quite a common observation in organizations, that when they embark on a journey towards agility, its mostly the IT community that first starts iteratively working on software development, with an intend to adapt quickly to market changes thereby reducing time to market resulting in responding rapidly and flexibly to business demands, and lead change in a productive, timely, and cost-effective way, without compromising on quality. And as they continue to progressively move up the value curve in driving agility, in sometime the realization sets in sharp, that agility has to be beyond information technology (only), and therefore without pivoting into enterprise agility, bringing positive change at scale becomes difficult. 

So what is Business Agility? – In all practicality, success of enterprise agility is in removing the silos, which have traditionally existed in running any enterprise, and instead, bringing in agility between cross-departmental teams, be it technology, operations, human resource, finance, innovation or even procurement. While objectives may still be aligned to specific business value streams, however the philosophy of business agility demands that all functions move in tandem, together complementing a set of common goals. And the nucleus of such change is in first bringing change in how leadership has baeen traditionally structured vis-a-is how it should be if enterprises have to be successfully agile. 

Evolution of organizational models and leadership challenge - Organization models have traditionally evolved over time. Right from the period of industrial revolution, till 70s and 80s, we have had organizational models structured around departments like HR, finance, supply chain, IT, procurement etc. Round about late 80s, most industries went global and that’s when we got the matrix organizations networked around sectors, regions, geographies etc resulting in management of such setups becoming more complex. This really set people thinking on how there could be newer ways of dealing with matrix organizations which were global, and that led to the onset of a culture of management via KPIs, considered to be highly effective, and strongly prescribed by business schools which were also assuming very high prominence by then. This model prescribed that if a KPI was having a problem, the same could be solved by pushing some control and placing some management over it. For example, if there was an issue with sales, place a “head of sales”, if a problem was with finance – “head of accounts and finance” was the solution. For procurement – “head of procurement”, maintenance – “head of maintenance”. If innovation was taking a back seat, “head of innovation” was thought to be the solution. And likewise, for sectors and geographies too. “Head of each sector” and “head of each geography”.  This often led to raising inverted pyramids over teams and as a result, two consequences emerged. One - teams on the shop floor were never thought to be self-resilient, capable of solving their own problems or thinking of strategies. And two – clusters, departments, sectors and geographies started having their own and very siloed strategies, often not aligning towards a common end goal. This is how organizations continued to grow for a long time, thinking if there was a president or a vice president on top of every critical process, KPIs could be managed and that resulted in a web of matrices, mazes, and madness all together. While writing this, I am reminded of  an assignment I executed for a global bank in mid-2000, in which we had to first do a global study of their securities finance landscape that constituted 36 different applications doing the same functions across geographies and then come up with a recommendation to unify all regions under a single platform. Also, a good example is the way banks today consume reference data and market data across systems, service platforms and regions. How often have we found that just because of disparate strategies which would not have synced up in the past, the result is always that downstream systems end up subscribing to the same reference and market data via a highly inefficient subscription model that would have led to delicacy of data resulting in higher maintenance cost. 

And therefore, one of the root challenges that is at the center of driving Business Agility is always to solve the leadership paradigm. It becomes important to answer these two important questions. How many verticals must be there, without overlap? And does every vertical need a leader wearing a different hat? 

Burning the ship - Taking lessons from the above challenge, all organizations, at the onset of planning for agile transformation, must consciously first take the step to solve the leadership paradigm. Bring in transformation in responsibilities associated with leadership roles and this, first of all, strongly requires an iron-will to develop a completely different understanding of leadership and management, with no exercisable option in hand to roll back such a change. Around 334 BC, Alexander led a fleet of Greek ships into Asia in his endeavor to conquer Persia. Once he reached the shores, Alexander ordered his men to burn the ships, and told them - “We will either return home in Persian ships or we will not.” Drawing a parallel from this story, failure should be an option on the table while visualizing such a change as there should not be any turning back once convinced that the road to adopting business agility is full of exciting challenges as the operating models evolve from an old matrix setup to being agile. 

And all organizations and leaders, who are on the cross roads with hard to take decisions on hand about embracing business agility, must get reminded of what Mark Twain once said - “…years from now, you will more disappointed by things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So, throw away the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover….” 

In the same breadth therefore, the urge should be to commit to the change, as part of a larger objective to bring in business agility and thereby make every cross-departmental delivery stream within an organization as nimble, like a blade of grass, that can bend to any wave of change, which we know will be constant.  

 

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