The Prescription for Business Agility: Insights from Boots Ireland

In brief:

  • Meeting the demands of ongoing disruption requires substantial business agility.
  • In this blog, co-written with Stephen Watkins, Managing Director of Boots Ireland, we introduce three key ways to increase business agility in your organisation.
  • These opportunities include: (1) recognising change, (2) responding to change, and (3) supporting teams with the right capabilities. 

We’ve all lived through rapid and drastic disruption over the last year—disruption that has impacted our personal and professional lives. Businesses have had to pivot quickly and adapt not only to the unique turbulence created by the pandemic, but also to a variety of other factors, including social equality movements and regulatory changes (e.g., Brexit).

Meeting the demands of ongoing disruption will require substantial business agility. Put simply, agility involves the ability to balance both the pace and stability of delivery, empowering an organisation to rapidly take advantage of changes without compromising fundamental business activities.

In practice, this involves:  

  • Being able to recognise change and know the right way to respond to generate value for your customers and the organisation.
  • Ensuring that you have the capabilities to deliver those responses across people, process, and technology.
  • Understanding how to balance the pace at which you respond to deliver timely value, while maintaining the essential activities of your organisation.

Insights from Stephen Watkins, Managing Director of pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer Boots Ireland, reinforce the agility imperative:

“At Boots Ireland, 2020 made the need to respond to evolving customer needs even more important,” Watkins says. “We are in unprecedented times, and there is uncertainty about which customer behaviours will continue, and which won’t. Despite the challenges of the last year, 2020 brought to light the critical role we play for our patients and customers and showed some real positive opportunities. For example, everyone’s role has had to change and adapt to being more virtual, and nobody would have predicted in early 2020 that the majority of the office-based workforce would transition to a more remote and virtual-based role. Boots Ireland, in partnership with the Irish Cancer Society, adopted this virtual shift and developed their No7 consultations to be online to support those affected by cancer.”

In this blog, co-written with Watkins, we introduce several considerations for increasing business agility in your organisation. Although agile transformation journeys take years, not months, you can start effecting change now with three key steps:

  1. Recognise change: Stop thinking about “projects” and start building customer-relevant “products.”
  2. Respond to change: Enable robust prioritisation and governance based on value.
  3. Support your teams: Develop the right capabilities and structures.

Recognise change: Stop thinking about “projects” and start building customer-relevant “products.”

Successful agile organisations have shifted from thinking about projects (delivering outputs) to a customer-centric, product mindset (delivering outcomes and value creation). This mindset provides the flexibility and autonomy needed to deliver more efficiently and effectively.

Companies can achieve a successful product mindset by connecting the work actually being delivered (activity) and its outcomes (value) to the long-term customer goal (vision) that is guiding it. Then, they test the assumptions about whether the activity is indeed providing valuable outcomes.

Formula for Business Agility

For example, Boots Ireland has seen customers shift from in-person to online sales during the pandemic. Many legacy organisations would have taken this information and used the project mindset to create focused projects designed to improve online functionality and the user experience. By instead applying a product mindset focused on value, Boots Ireland asked more meaningful questions, including: What is our vision for the future? What outcomes and interactions do our customers want to have and where? Are we truly omnichannel in our approach to link together online and in-store? And how can we focus our activity to drive more value for the customer?

By answering the above questions, rooted in an understanding that human interaction is also important from a customer health perspective, Boots Ireland was able to think beyond website functionality and increased fulfilment capacity to develop an omnichannel offering that helped ensure its activities drove value for all customers.

“What we realised is that we need an omnichannel front door policy with the ease, flexibility, and convenience factor to ensure we are meeting all of our customers’ needs where and when they need Boots most,” Watkins says.

Respond to change: Enable robust prioritisation and governance.

Once you have shifted from projects to products, start to think about how you can evolve prioritisation criteria to better respond to change and create value. As many leaders know, transformation is always complicated, and achieving target outcomes doesn’t guarantee business results. By focusing on value creation, agile organisations can iterate and adapt transformation initiatives to ensure success.

In the case of Boots Ireland, the demand for a better digital experience sparked a very real need to accelerate existing priorities to create a digitised pharmacy (a true omnichannel pharmacy service). However, bringing forward the delivery of some of those target outcomes required a flurry of activity at a time when Boots Ireland needed to pivot quickly and effectively. This meant going quickly beyond the minimum viable product (MVP) test-and-learn cycle and dedicating resources to delivering a minimum functional product (MFP) to get in front of customers. Specifically, this approach enabled Boots Ireland to stand up new products, including a COVID-19 PCR testing service created in three weeks, along with development work focused on enabling customers to buy certain medicines online. In developing the solution, Boots Ireland responded to a specific combination of demands: Customers wanted to keep themselves safe and quickly collect medications in-store, in turn, helping them feel more comfortable throughout the experience.

“Agility is about accelerating your business priorities and at the same time evolving to be even better for your customer,” Watkins says. “For me, it’s critical to ensure you prioritise the right things; not trying to do everything and understanding what is actually relevant to your customers takes precedence.”

To learn more about building the muscle to tie the executive vision, the work that gets done (activity), and desired outcomes (value) together, check out our Transformation Value Office (TVO) paper.

Support your teams: Develop the right capabilities and structures.

Finally, to effectively increase business agility, support your teams with the right structures to enable value creation.

Increasing awareness and knowledge of business agility requires the entire organisation’s involvement. Building a shared understanding up front of what business agility is (as we’ve defined it above) vs. what it isn’t (e.g., Agile software development) can help organisations increase their capabilities. With this foundation in place, organisations can start to assess the required competencies, roles and responsibilities, identify skills gaps, and create learning pathways and “right-level” governance controls (e.g., delivery guardrails) to start truly enabling business agility across the organisation.  

Tackling this all at once is clearly going to be a challenge, so start by identifying or creating a small team or community in your organisation that best embodies the growth mindset that epitomises agility. Then, empower and enable the team to tackle a new idea or challenge using the tools, techniques, and behaviours that underpin agility. Just as important is aligning the organisational culture with agility by broadcasting and celebrating the team’s successes and failures.

However, targeted capability building in isolation is often not enough. Fundamentally, your vision, operating model, performance metrics, and value streams need to be aligned in encouraging the dismantling of siloes and establishing a shared direction of travel for the organisation. Also consider revising internal mobility policies or people policies like performance, rewards, and recognition to promote and champion business agility.

As always, there is no single approach that will work for every organisation. However, it is critical to agree on the characteristics of business agility that are most relevant—and agree on what they look like in practice. This will require leaders to be hands-on in driving initiatives, recognising gaps, encouraging ideas, and leveraging the power of relevant data to course correct as they go.

“Now more than ever, there is a need to continually listen to our customer needs and reassess our offer, ensuring we continue to provide best-in-class health and wellness solutions alongside exceptional customer and patient care,” Watkins says. “It is vital that we continue to expand and deliver products and services that meet these needs during these challenging times, and continuing to build our agility as a business is critical to achieving that.”

So, what does 2021 hold for organisations looking to embrace business agility?

Our recent experience—and that of Boots Ireland—suggests that the path to business agility will take organisations through multiple phases, from uncomfortable initiation to value-based adaptation and, finally, honest embedment in the operating model. Each step will require a shift in mindset, culture, and essential capabilities as well as governance and conscious steps throughout the organisation to continue delivering value to customers.

About Stephen Watkins

Managing Director, Boots Ireland 

Stephen Watkins

Stephen Watkins is currently Managing Director of Boots Ireland, where he oversees pharmacy-led health and beauty retail operations nationwide. He leads a team of more than 2,000 people across the company’s network of 90 stores and headquarters in Ireland.

Prior to being appointed to his current role, Watkins spent more than 20 years in a variety of store and field positions at Boots, including his most recent role as Director of Pharmacy and Digital Healthcare, where he was responsible for the Boots prescription service as well as leadership of digital healthcare initiatives. He is a qualified pharmacist and has also played a leadership role in Community Pharmacy Scotland negotiating with the Scottish government to develop the pharmacy contract in Scotland.