Strategic Agility, Defining Culture and the Ingenuity of Elon Musk’s HyperLoop

Product Management, Leadership

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amanda_setili_btpAmanda Setili is managing partner of Setili & Associates, a strategy consulting firm. She has advised organizations in industries as diverse as consumer and industrial products, financial services, technology, non-profit, and retail. Before starting Setili & Associates, she served as director of marketing for Global Food Exchange, consulted for McKinsey and developed products and optimized manufacturing operations for Kimberly-Clark. Amanda is also author of The Agility Advantage.

Thanks for speaking with us, Amanda! Can you tell me a bit about your background and how Setili & Associates came to be?

Amanda: Absolutely. I began my career as an engineer with Kimberly-Clark. My work was to understand customer needs, and figure out how to deliver on those operationally. I worked on a cross-functional team to drive innovation, and that’s been a thread that’s carried throughout my life.

I later went to business school and after that, worked for McKinsey as a consultant in Atlanta and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For the past 17 years I’ve run my own strategy consulting firm, Setili & Associates. We’ve been lucky enough to serve clients like Delta, Home Depot and Wal-Mart. It’s been a great experience.

I’m sure, they must have been interesting to work with. With regards to your approach, what makes Setili & Associates unique? Is it that emphasis on understanding customer needs before all else?

Amanda: Where we differentiate ourselves from other firms is our emphasis on speed. The world is changing faster than ever.  Our clients face new threats and opportunities in the marketplace—new technologies, business models, competitors and customer behaviors—and aren’t equipped to respond as rapidly as they would like.

Many of these companies became very successful because they were highly efficient. They spent decades driving cost out and creating highly repeatable, dependable processes.

We help clients achieve strategic agility®, the ability to act quickly to take advantage of changes in the marketplace.

That’s actually something that I’ve never considered, that efficiency and agility could be at odds. Would you mind elaborating a little bit on what you mean by that?

Amanda: [Laughs] Well agile is very efficient for innovation, but most companies operate in a competitive market where low cost and high consistency are crucial. The problem is, market changes are coming faster than ever.  Even companies in traditional markets, like transportation, retailing, financial services or industrial products, are challenged by the pace of change. They need to be able to respond immediately to change, while still doing the basics very well and at a low cost. That’s the challenge!

Absolutely. Along the lines of challenge, what would you say are the primary challenges or concerns of the C-Level at these enterprise companies?

“The challenge for CEOs and other members of the C-Suite is how to act with agility to take advantage of change while executing on “business as usual” and delivering on the quarterly financial metrics that investors expect.”

Right, that makes sense. Since we work with a lot of agile product managers at Wizeline, I’m curious to know if there’s a resounding through-line between agile methodology and your book The Agility Advantage?

Amanda: Absolutely. My book, The Agility Advantage, is about what all functions across the organization can do to identify and act on new opportunities being created by market change. When doing research for my book, I looked for examples of companies who do this well.

After the book was released, people started calling me saying, “We do agile product development, but how can we expand this to other parts of the organization?”, or “We’re doing agile software development, but it’s at odds with our process for contracting with customers, and responding to feedback from them.”  So I began to research agile product development techniques, and found there was complete consistency between what was developed by agile professionals and what I had learned through my research for the book.

I need to add it to my reading list ASAP. Actually, as a marketing team we strive to be agile and you mentioned that agile is applicable beyond product management…

Amanda: Yes. Let’s take sales as an example. This is another part of the organization who has to respond to changes in the marketplace. New technologies and processes for prospecting and outreach—for interacting with customer, and communicating the value of your product—are emerging every day. The sales function needs to be very agile in adapting to these trends.

“Any function in the organization can adopt agility principles. The real magic is thinking about it systemically for the entire company, and asking ‘where do we need to go next as a company?’ Agile isn’t just for product.”

Totally agree with you there. So I just read this Accenture report about executives citing culture as a key element in enabling organizational success. Do you see culture as a significant component in adopting agility?

Amanda: First, I want to define culture because it’s an amorphous word that means different things to different people. I define culture as “the way we work together to get things done”. In an agile culture, we have a predisposition to get something into the customer’s hands for immediate feedback. We quickly adapt organizational structure in response to market needs. We have an intense focus on speed and learning.

In an agile culture, we don’t over-plan. We are clear about the intent—the destination we want to head toward as an organization—but we are flexible about how people get there. We give employees the resources and leeway to respond to what they see in the marketplace. When everyone has the same destination in mind, the thousand dispersed decisions employees make every day tend to align, across functions, levels and geographies.   

How exactly do you define an agile company?

Amanda: I break it down into three pieces. The first I call market agility, which is the ability to sense what’s going on out there, so that you can identify emerging opportunities. This requires being in tune with what customers are experiencing, and getting fast, frequent feedback from customers. It also requires being aware of “outlier” customers—the edge cases—so that you spot new opportunities as they emerge.

The second piece I call decision agility. This means when you spot an emerging opportunity, you develop a smart and differentiated way of capitalizing on it. You take action right away, so you can begin to learn.

The last of three I call execution agility, which is the most difficult but most powerful. As I touched on before, that’s the ability to align the entire organization on the same path, so that people can work autonomously and yet still get to a unified destination.

Amanda, those were all the formal questions I had. As we come to the hour, I was wondering if there are there any particular books, podcasts or other sources of inspiration that you turn to?

Amanda: Well this may end up being off the record if it’s too much a tangent, but I think The Four Hour Workweek is a really fun book.

I love that book!

Amanda: The author takes something that all of us deal with—how to achieve work-life balance—and sets a really aggressive goal. If we want to work only four hours a week, we need to ask what we can create that people need, and what we can outsource or simply stop doing.

Similarly, companies no longer need to “do everything” to be successful. If they know what they want to accomplish, they can access the assets, talent and capabilities of the world to achieve their goals. They can crowdsource, outsource and make use of freelancers, individual innovators, and myriad partners to achieve far more than they could on their own.

HyperLoop is a great example of this. Elon Musk and his team came up with the idea for the HyperLoop—a new concept in transportation that might whisk us from San Francisco to LA in only 30 minutes. They put a PDF describing the idea on the Tesla and SpaceX blogs, and waited to see who wanted to work on it. Companies sprouted up to further develop the concept.  One of them, HyperLoop Technologies, enlisted 200 part-time experts time, using only 10% of each person’s time. They paid them only in equity. They created a virtual organization to solve a futuristic problem—a great example of creating something from nothing.

I’m sure there are folks who shirk the idea, because they read it as a literal four hour workweek. When it’s really just challenging yourself to be more efficient and effective.

Amanda: Definitely. And when you apply that thinking to everything you do, asking “how might I do this ten times faster?,” it forces you to think in new and innovative ways.

Luisa Posted by Luisa on Monday, August 22, 2016.

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Mar 23, 2017

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