Corgi leaps over pole on an agility course

Adapt and overcome: the case for small business agility

Friday, April 28, 2023

Agility is a recognized sport for a reason. Dogs and their handlers spend countless hours training together, learning to face all kinds of obstacles and respond within moments. It’s clear we find it compelling — YouTube clips of agility competitions have millions of views.

There are a lot of ways to discuss the concept of business agility, but this (in our opinion) is the most accessible way to start. Running an agile business doesn’t mean you’ll never experience hardships. It just means you’ve trained yourself to move nimbly through challenges and unexpected circumstances.

You may think it’s a concept better suited for middle managers at mega-corporations. In reality, there’s a strong case for business agility as an entrepreneur’s most baked-in competitive advantage.

This blog will equip you with practical tips on applying agile practices to build a stronger, smarter business that can withstand any crisis.

Read on to learn:

Manager and employee whiteboard about agile principles for their business

What is business agility?

Agile principles require you to be fast and flexible — ready to turn on a dime to handle market changes like shifting customer needs or the release of new technology. That means making important decisions quickly, like changing what you sell or how your business is structured to manage threats or take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Basically, you want to move toward your goal without losing momentum, regardless of what setbacks or surprises pop up along the way.

The agile framework came out of the software development scene in the early 2000s, but you may be more familiar with it than you think. If you were in business before the pandemic, you likely had to pivot to survive. If so, you’ve had an exercise in agility. (And even if you weren’t, you don’t have to suffer through a pandemic to learn from it.)

Coffee shop owner reviews business documents showing the results from newly implemented agile practices

Why it matters

Change happens whether we like it or not. In this day and age, it happens faster than ever. Avoidance may be tempting if you feel like you have a recipe for success. But when you don’t tweak that recipe based on new information or shifts in the business environment around you, it’s very hard to stay competitive.

Without meaning to, you could expose your business to the worst of every crisis instead of shielding it. And if that happens too many times, it’s difficult to survive.

Tweaking your product offerings or business model quickly is a great example of how agile transformation is easier for small businesses than for larger companies. Even if they want to make a small change or experiment with a new idea to see if it’s worth pursuing, it takes them longer. There are countless meetings, layers of approvals and a slow rollout. You’re in the sweet spot to do it on the fly with no red tape.

Another way to picture it:

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a Jack Russel Terrier can weave through the poles on an agility course faster than a Great Dane can. In this case, your small business is the Jack Russel and your enterprise competitor is a Great Dane. Don’t ignore that when you could take advantage of it!

Hallmarks of an agile company

Even if your business naturally leans toward agile practices, cultural change will be necessary to make it an intentional approach. McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, published a report on the characteristics of agile organizations.

As you’ll see, true business agility requires you to walk an incredibly thin line: maintaining a reliable backbone while also supporting flexible capabilities.

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Shared vision and goals

Agile teams are fiercely customer centric, aiming to meet needs throughout the customer lifecycle and create value for all sorts of stakeholders. They share this vision and related goals with all team members, creating shared ownership and emotional investment. This sets employees up to make smarter decisions at any given moment when a pivot may be necessary.

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Flexible teams and structure

Agile companies believe in their people. Employees are given clear authority and responsibility to meet goals. This leaves them free to collaborate with others, dream up creative solutions and hit the ground running. A single point of contact for high-level decision-making and a group of players who work as one is the key.

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An action- and data-oriented approach to learning

There’s something to be said for instinct, but metrics can help you make educated decisions with confidence. The old approach focuses on minimizing risk with detailed planning from the top. Agile embraces uncertainty and relies on trusting the data, making choices and knowing if you fail, you’ll fail fast and move forward.

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Passionate employees

This isn’t just about finding people who love what they do. It’s about trading managerial control for trust in empowered employees. By encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset, any employee can move the company forward. Danny Meyer put it well when he said, “My job when I come to work is to serve the people who I am expecting to serve our customers.”

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The right technology

Functionality is important, but it isn’t the only box you should be checking when it comes to the technology that runs your business. Is it intuitive to use, built to scale as your business grows and backed by experts when you need support? Will it integrate seamlessly into your operations to speed things up and save you time?

Manager behind the restaurant counter talks to owner on the phone about an article documenting market changes

So speed is key. What slows things down?

Silos, bureaucracy and top-down hierarchy tend to form in enterprise-level organizations and prevent the agile methodology from taking root. But as an entrepreneur running a small business, you don’t have to worry about enterprise agility pitfalls, right?

Not exactly. It’s easy to separate yourself as an owner or leader, not giving your employees the ability to make decisions. It’s also easy to become so convinced of your own instinct and skill that it harms your business initiatives.

Christina Tocci, Founder of MilkBar discussed this exact idea when she visited The Entrepreneur’s Studio.

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“Your business is a living, breathing thing. You have to keep your finger on the pulse of it. You have to always be thinking and open. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be rigid when you should be flexible, etcetera, etcetera. But they’re all really humbling moments. And I remember the day that I was like, ‘What are we doing? The only thing that’s holding this business back is me.’ And it was because I was operating from a place of fear. I was operating from a place of a very rigid mindset, a fear of the unknown.”

In short, be willing to embrace iteration — refining things over and over — until your idea is “selling like hotcakes.” According to Forbes, “it’s not set until it’s proving itself.” And even then, you should be on the lookout for ways to refine your thinking. As the world continues to change, you must seize business opportunity or risk being left behind.

Team members discuss their company’s agile transformation and emerging opportunities

Simple steps to become more agile

It’s easy for the agile methodology to sound complicated and academic at first. Hopefully, we’ve walked you through an explanation and examples that seem practical and valuable for your business.

Getting started doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Use the principles below to keep your mind in agile mode no matter what challenge you’re tackling.

  • Create, share and invite people into your vision

  • Find and empower the best people

  • Work toward efficiency

  • Use data and analytics to make faster, more informed decisions

  • Commit to constant improvement

  • Communicate openly and honestly: Customers, investors, employees, vendors, etc.

You’ll find it becomes second nature over time. You won’t have to sit down and think, “What’s the agile approach to this situation?” when you’ve trained yourself to consistently stay curious about opportunities, fast and flexible.

As your team watches you lead with an agile mindset and communicate honestly about your vision, you can increase employee engagement alongside organizational agility.

Retailer reads up on business agility

Stay curious and embrace tech in every part of your business

Curiosity may have killed the cat — but as we’ve covered, agility is a sport for clever canines.

There are plenty of ways to stay alert and adapt to your changing environment. Using your time wisely is one of the most straightforward ways to supercharge your agile transformation.

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Technology can do a lot to free up your days. Finding a partner who offers a comprehensive suite of solutions will help you streamline operations and collect the kind of data that’s necessary to respond to customer feedback, boost employee retention and gauge the success of your latest initiatives.

Connecting with a community of people who get it also helps. Why not benefit from the experience of others? The Entrepreneur’s Studio is an on-demand suite of lessons, tools and tips from entrepreneurs who have been in your shoes.

If you’re ready to get inspired by the stories of successful business owners who’ve overcome the odds, tune in to the podcast today!

Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at