Why agility is key to disruption – and how to achieve it

One of the key strategies of a disruptive business is agility, the ability to pivot and change direction on a project.

We asked the business leaders at our Disruptors round table, sponsored by Clarion, BHP and SPG, what challenges they faced in staying agile, and how they overcame them.

Matt Hodgkinson, co-founder of design consultancy Hodgkinson McCambridge, said the sunk-cost fallacy was a significant barrier to overcome.

“Because so much money is invested, it definitely becomes a barrier to pivoting,” he said. “We’re afraid now to make the change. We know what we need to do, it’s how to do it. I think with big changes, it’s about trying to deliver micro value much quicker – how can we take an aspect of that big delivery? Is there a way we can release just a part of it? Maybe a product is not treated as software as a medical device, it’s just software. Then, all of a sudden, we’ve cut the requirements for that aspect and we can release it onto the market and start generating some income. It’s about finding incremental value.”

Matt Gibson, one of the partners at Hull software house Sauce, recommended using a scrum master, who oversees complex projects where change is expected and guides and mentors teams through to completion.

“You have to prioritise the most important features, the most valuable features, and that’s down to good structure, good development structure of iterative design processes, getting good feedback from users. Scrum masters are very important.”

Philippa Barber, account manager at digital marketing platform Campaigner agreed with Gibson. Citing challenges affecting different teams and territories, she said, “There has to be a scrum master, a project manager who says, right, this is the way forward. And everybody has to get on board behind that, because if we were all left to our own devices who knows what would happen?”

David McKee, managing partner of Counterpoint Technologies, saw another source of agility: collaboration.

“We spend about 20% of our time talking to our competitors, looking at how we regard competition, to collaborate on the realities a lot of the time. The market’s big enough for most of us to play together, particularly where it’s mission-driven, because we’re all interested in improving the lives of our customers together.”

Ben Martin, chief operating officer of B2B data encryption firm S4Encrypt, was looking to pivot into the consumer market. These days, he said, anyone taking up a new service at a bank or law firm or anywhere else had to hand over their data for identification as part of onboarding. 

He said: “We want to put the control of that data back into the hands of the person who’s being on-boarded, so that they’ve got their own specific place to hold that data that they can manage themselves and share with people according to requirements.”

A key component of disruptive strategies is developing the right people and corporate culture to seek innovation and opportunity.

Law firms are not necessarily thought of as disruptive. That’s not how Jonathan Simms, partner at rapidly-growing firm Clarion, sees it.

“We are legal dream makers,” he said. “We’re the third fastest growing law firm organically in Europe. If we were a tech firm people would be getting really excited about us, but we’re not. We’re a law firm.”

One of the keys to Clarion’s success was pivoting from purely legal services by adding consultancy services.

“That put us ahead of the conversation,” he said. “That was the key difference in terms of our growth, just being ahead of where the conversations were happening. We took the power base away from the accountants and the bankers.”

Developing and taking advantage of opportunities like that requires the right corporate culture and finding and developing talented teams, he added.

Dean Pearson, tax partner at accountancy firm BHP, noted professional services firms were people-oriented businesses. His firm was using technology to handle mundane tasks that would have been handled by trainees 20 years ago.

“In the recruitment market these days, trainees are not really coming in to do those basic tasks. They want to do the value-added stuff, they want to do the exciting stuff. Our pivot is dealing with people. If we can make the mundane bits easier from a process point of view, our people can do the things we really want to do and add more value to the client. We become a more proactive service.”

At the opposite end of the technology spectrum, cybersecurity training firm Esc is moving away from technological solutions with a series of escape rooms designed to teach security principles without computers.

Founder and CEO Amy Stokes-Waters said, “I’m literally building stuff that’s anti-technology. I’m trying to use as little technology as possible in our security training because people are not interested in sitting behind a screen.

“The next escape room that we do is going to be Sherlock Holmes-themed and it will have no technology at all. It’s got stuff like Victorian flower code and fan code, but I’ve translated them into cybersecurity lessons.”

The overall consensus of the group was that many principles behind disruption – creative innovation, finding opportunity in unmet needs, corporate agility and a growth mindset – though often associated with technology companies – are applicable across sectors.

This is the second of two articles from the Disruptors round table. The first looked at developing product ideas and the use of data in decision making.