Horváth Innovation Insights

Agility - Why the Tardigrade Should Become our Role Model

Similar to “SCRUM”, “Design Thinking” and “Holacracy”, “agile organization” has increasingly become a buzzword. But rapidly changing market requirements and the opportunities offered by agility do not make the term superfluous; it should rather be enriched with knowledge and best practices.

What Tardigrades and Agility have in Common

The fact that agility is often misunderstood or dismissed as a buzzword is more due to inadequate implementation than to the principles represented by the term.

An often-used image compares “agile” with the flexibility, speed, and grace of a cheetah. However, the success rate of the hunter is constant at only 40%. This indicates that he does not adapt his technique flexibly to the weaknesses of his prey and that there is no learning effect. Speed and mobility alone are not enough to exploit his inherent potential.

On the other hand, a creature that embodies agility better than any other is just one millimeter in size: the tardigrade. It lives in the mountains of the Himalayas as well as in the deep sea. It is the only animal that can even survive in a vacuum. His ability to adapt so agilely to his circumstances is because he can repair his own genetic material and integrate the DNA of foreign life forms. Companies that would like to withstand the dynamics of the markets in an “agile” way should not blindly focus on speed, but rather intelligently adapt to the circumstances of their environment and learn from the example of other market players. Thus, agility can be found in the small, in projects or product developments, but it can also be applied in larger dimensions. Agile organizations are changing their entire structure to act on the premise of flexibility and team orientation.

How the First Agile Organizations Emerged

The story of the founder of one of the most famous agile organizational forms, Brian Robertson, helps to understand the advantages of these structures. Robertson was the founder of a software company when he had an ‘aha’ experience in his spare time: he completed his first solo flight at the end of his pilot's license test. During this flight, a warning light that he did not know the meaning of suddenly lights up. But since all other instruments, such as the altimeter and the fuel gauge, remained unchanged, he continued to fly, almost resulting in a crash. This brought him to the realization that we deal far too rarely with the small warning lights in our lives. Companies, in particular, often ignore the most important sensors in their business: their employees. Combined with his knowledge as a software developer, a business idea was born. Robertson develops an “operating system” for companies that relies on the self-organization of their employees and thus want to make the internal warning lights heard. The “Holacracy” was born.

Principles of Agile Organizations

In fact, Brian Robertson is not the first to come up with exactly this idea. Frederic Laloux, for example, made it to the bestseller list with his book “Reinventing Organizations”, which proves that the market is open and ready for the new way of setting up organizations. In addition to “Holacracy”, the “Teal Organization” is created and triggers a whole movement of agile forms of organization. What they all have in common are six core principles.

The Six Principles of Agile Organizations

Teams before hierarchies: Traditional line organizations are organized as a pyramid “from top to bottom” and the management hierarchy is in the foreground. Agile organizations, on the other hand, are organized in teams and circles - there is no “above” or “below”. Decisions are made where they arise, and where consequently the responsibility lies. Hierarchies no longer have a place here.

Self-organized before externally controlled: In classically structured companies, rules, procedures and workflows are defined centrally. “From above” instructions and approvals are passed on to lower hierarchical levels. Agile structures promote self-organization - each employee assumes responsibility for his or her actions and decides within the comprehensive scope of action set by the team. Vacation approvals or signature guidelines are not available. Any form of heteronomy is avoided as far as possible.

Together before hierarchical: Hierarchical organizations are structured in such a way that goals and decisions are set by managers and then pelted down to the “ordinary employees” who only perform. A manager would say: “We have to cross the river. You're building a bridge now”. In agile organizations, on the other hand, the team or individual members would realize that it is necessary to cross the river and work with colleagues to find a solution. But the solution could also be much more fundamental: Who says that a bridge is the best solution? Perhaps it saves time and is more useful to build a simple raft. Management thus focuses on what is supposed to be achieved, rather than on “how”. There is also the principle of “Distributed Leadership”. This means that the former tasks of a manager are divided into many roles and then passed on to the team. For example, team members can take on the role of resource planning, moderation, representation or personnel development. This strengthens the personal development of the team members and relieves the coordinating role.

Roles before job descriptions: Titles are searched in vain on business cards of agilely organized companies. There is no longer a “head of” or “department head”. Instead, roles are developed to fit the tasks that arise in teams - completely independent of the people who will later fulfill this role. Role descriptions include the purpose that the role fulfils, the responsibilities it assumes, the social and professional competencies that serve as a prerequisite and the domains, the territories of the role. Roles can be adapted, re-created or discarded at any time during specific team meetings in order to respond flexibly to environmental requirements.

Consent before consensus: No, it's not a spelling mistake. The consenT is a specific form of decision making of agile organizations. Instead of asking, as in consensus, “are all in favor?”, the question remains “is there serious opposition to it?”. How a serious opposition is formulated is precisely prescribed so that decision-making processes are accelerated. Lazy compromises are thus avoided. The aim is that each role in its area of responsibility is free to decide and does not have to ask superordinate institutions for permission first. This slows down processes unnecessarily.

Dynamics before statics: At the core of agile companies is the ability to adapt quickly to the demands of the market. These organizations leave the comfort zone to remain competitive in the long run. In general, “safe enough to try” is the rule. Agile organizations do not strive for perfection, but allow for mistakes, so that the customer sees results quickly and subjects can be tried out easily. This also includes the famous "MVP" (Minimum Viable Product) idea - to launch a first product with the minimum requirements as fast as possible, which provides the customer an initial added value.

These principles are intended to ensure that employees, the “warning lights” and generators of every organisation, are given more responsibility and can act in a self-organised manner. At the same time, they enable companies to gradually adapt to the tardigrade principle, because just like the tardigrade, teams develop independently and learn from others - faster than anyone else.

We make you a Tardigrade

Horváth & Partners supports many companies through these transformations and thus has the expertise to pass on the abilities of the tardigrade to you - including how genetic material can be adapted or interwoven by other organizations. Not only do you react quickly to environmental influences, you also create a culture in your company based on self-organization, personal responsibility, and trust. This culture and flexibility are the basis for a sustainable competitive advantage and resilience in constantly changing markets.