What’s the best way to approach a big, transformational project—the corporate equivalent of a moonshot? Do you plan every detail in advance, plotting each point from A to B?
That might intuitively seem to be the way to go–and anyone who has logged time in the corporate world has seen an excruciatingly itemized project plan.
But I think that’s the wrong approach. In today’s fast-paced world, transformation requires working in a new, more agile method.
What does it mean to be “agile?” The word is used to mean many things. In software development, it describes an iterative approach to project management. Sometimes it’s just a synonym for “fast.” Speed is certainly a part of it, but I see being agile as a highly developed philosophy for leading, managing, and working that relies on continual improvement. Whether you’re a CEO leading a company-wide transformation, an individual contributor working on a solo effort or someone who wants to make a change in their personal life, embracing agile can help you become more successful.
Agility lets you tackle big, complex, and ambitious initiatives (aka moonshots) where the starting point and the endpoint are separated by a lot of distance and the way forward isn’t blindingly obvious. Three steps are essential:
Step 1: Pick a direction and have the courage to begin. It might sound strange, but it’s a mistake to waste time figuring out exactly where you want to go. The world–business, technology, society–is changing so fast that by the time you reach your original goal, the target most likely will have shifted. The important thing is to get moving quickly in the general direction of your North Star, or ultimate aspiration. Doing so requires the courage to throw away the crutch of your detailed blueprint. For example, I’ve taken guided tours of big cities while traveling, but some of my most memorable days were those when I just explored the streets without a set plan or even a detailed map to get started. I’d get advice and inputs from locals and shopkeepers.
Step 2: Next, you’ll want to seek out and integrate new information. Don’t operate with blinders. The target is moving, so your organization must be flexible and able to capture signals wherever they are. Has the market shifted? Have customer preferences changed? Is your original product concept incorrect? Remember, many people have a hard time accepting information that challenges their direction or goal. Employees need to be open to taking input and adapting. In fact, the most successful companies are filled with people who constantly have their antennae out and their receivers turned on, gathering new information and challenging their original ideas.
Step 3: These information gatherers provide the fresh data that will enable you to build insights. This is the tricky part. Early information that comes in at the start of a project is often messy and incomplete. There’s signal and there’s noise. That’s why you need to be open to new inputs. You must separate the relevant from the irrelevant–the signal from the noise–and then distill it into actionable insights.
It’s important to collect a lot of information: the more you have, the easier it is to identify patterns and generate insights. Once you have your insights in hand, you are ready to decide your next course of action and make any necessary changes that put you on a better path forward.
Practicing an agile way of working keeps you zigzagging ever closer toward a successful outcome, constantly assimilating new information, generating insights, and making course corrections as you go. An agile environment is in some respects analogous to a well-designed AI or machine-learning system that is always processing new information and growing smarter over time.
COVID-19 vaccination rates are a great “moonshot” example: President Biden’s administration recently said the U.S. would try to reach 1.5 million COVID-19 vaccines per day, up from one million, revising the initial goal based on a fluid environment and ever-changing data.
In building an agile approach, culture is key. Agility works best in organizations where people are curious and humble and lifelong learners–constantly exploring and being forthright in admitting when they’re wrong. In fact, the entire process is dependent on employees who continually identify weaknesses and misperceptions and move relentlessly towards a better outcome.
Just as AI benefits from diverse data because it assists in the learning process, agile systems benefit from diverse teams of people with different backgrounds and experiences. This prevents “group think” and fosters a “team of teams” that brings the best out in everyone.
There’s an adage that says, “The journey is more important than the destination.” But in business, the journey and the destination are inextricably linked. By adopting an agile way of thinking and working, you can help guarantee that you are heading, step by step, to the right place.
Tiger Tyagarajan is chief executive officer of Genpact, a global professional services firm focused on digital transformation.