Building agile teams for company success

Article written by Judith Haupt, Partner at CONTRACT.


“We live in an age of continuous revolution,” says Gus Silber. The South African culture commentator was speaking on a podcast – the new radio. That appeared on YouTube – a new television. Talking about Twitter – which Silber tells us has replaced the newspaper. All these platforms barely existed ten years ago.

The interconnected economy necessitates that businesses become excellent at adapting to unexpected disruptions in the form of competitors, technologies and regulations among many. This means that they have to structure themselves to be fast-acting. AGILE is the new buzzword and it’s achieved with a focus on small teams, self-reflection, commitment to transparent communication and an obsession with customer orientation.

Here are four high-level steps that can help teams to build their agility for organisational success:

Step 1: Accept the new normal

Change and speed – welcome to your new normal. It’s not about putting out any particular fire and waiting for things to go back to the way they were. There will be no deceleration or comfortable day-to-day anymore. Coming to terms with this is the first step to thriving. Teams that accept curve balls as “normal” spend less time fighting or complaining about them, and more time looking for the opportunity in the unexpected. It’s a culture shift that starts with leaders being authentic and saying, “I don’t know exactly where we’re going with this, but we’ll figure it out together.”

TEAM TIP:  Encourage intrapreneur thinking: seek out and create opportunities and empower each other to pursue calculated risks to learn from.

Step 2: Know thyself

Companies are all concerned with improvement to gain market share and grow their bottom lines. Agile teams realise that in order to achieve this, they also need to be concerned with self-improvement – not just getting better at what they are doing but how they are doing it.  This team self-awareness is vital to ensure that your organisation does not lose productivity and money as a result of poor-quality working relationships or a failure to learn from past mistakes.

All teams have meetings to discuss their work; not many teams make time to discuss themselves. It’s important to openly reflect by asking “How did we approach that? What could we have done better? How did we relate to each other during that process?” It’s about practising a new level of team awareness and instilling a growth mindset culture.

TEAM TIP: Dedicate time regularly in team meetings to reflect on how you can improve what’s happening within the team itself.

Step 3: Get flat

Throughout history humans have organised themselves into hierarchies. Tribes, settlements and societies were led by decision makers who ruled by decree. And for a while it worked. But as systems have become more complex and interconnected, one person cannot have all the answers.  Rather, they are discovered between individual knowledge sets through a process of collaboration and communication. The most successful organisations therefore tend towards a flatter structure to enable small, agile teams that can talk frequently.

TEAM TIP: As a leader, let go of your ego (you cannot know it all any more), trust a bit more than you feel comfortable with, and coach people to take on more responsibility. They may make a few mistakes but if you give the right employees opportunity to take on extra responsibility, you’ll reap the long-term rewards.

Step 4: Communicate to create transparency

Trust is the glue that holds everything together and it needs to flow in many directions at once. Leaders need to slowly trust their teams with more autonomy, even if mistakes are made.  And employees need to trust that they can take a few risks without fear of failure. Communication is the foundation of trust – when people understand why and feel valued because they are trusted with information, they in turn, trust more.  But the type of interaction is most vital. E-mail and technology cannot replace human connection. More importantly, kindness is not often considered a business principle, but it is actually a significant one in building team morale. As the saying goes, culture [or the way things are done in a company] eats strategy for breakfast. Having happy, motivated staff members who feel valued and trusted, and who are comfortable to take calculated risks for the company’s benefit will serve its interests over a master-plan any day.

TEAM TIP: Communication is a push and a pull: managers need to say, explain and repeat (in person) a lot more than they think, and team members can always ask if they want to know more.


First published in CemAir magazine