Becoming agile is both critical and within reach for Asia… and you (wherever you are)

“In Asia, people want to save face”, have I heard countless times. ‘To save face’ means not being caught saying something untrue, being wrong, or having failed. And, indeed, Asian do not like to look bad. Not in person. Not in public. Not online. Not at all. But wait… Are Asian special that way? Do Americans look forward to looking foolish? No way! Do the French? Non! Do the Spanish? ¡Pues, claro que no! If ‘saving face’ is an Asian concept, self-preservation is a concern to all of us.
Taking a stand, daring anything new, always carries a risk of being wrong or failing. It is risky for employees to dare: risky to surface problems or risks, risky to ask questions or explore opportunities, risky to share new ideas, and risky to question plans.
The problem lies not in the risk, though; it lies in the cost. The upside of daring is quite subjective and distant: pride, team award, maybe small bonus. But the downside is vividly personal and swift: shame, blame, labels (alarmist, trouble-maker, time-waster), or even poor stack-ranking, demotion, or job loss. Loss of face, if not more… for little reward? Not worth it.
When the cost appears too high, people keep their heads down. They accept the status quo, and let the ship go adrift. As a result, many organisations are painfully slow and ineffective. They can’t spot risks or problems, make good decisions, or execute on them. They can’t read situations or course-correct. Endeavours fail. Value is lost. People feel miserable. Onto the wall they go…
If downsides disappear, people start daring. Organisations become faster and more effective. They start spotting risks and problems early, making better decisions, and executing on them. They start sensing how they are doing, and adjusting to new conditions. Endeavours succeed. Value gets captured. People flourish.
… This is what agility does!
Agility makes it safer for employees to contribute: safer to surface problems and risks (even without solutions), safer to ask questions and explore opportunities, safer to venture ideas (however incomplete), safer to adjust plans. It keeps expectations manageable. It makes checkpoints frequent, and setbacks small. It transmutes setbacks into wisdom, through learning… and wisdom is nearly as valued as successes.
Agility makes you look great if you succeed, or wise if you don’t.
Either way, agility makes you look good! Agility saves faces!
But scratch the surface… See what really happens.
As you become agile, it helps you become successful, and wise at the same time.
Agility actually makes you better! Esse quam videri. To be, rather than to seem to be.
That is how it saves faces… but also projects, value, and souls!
And simple mindsets and practices bring you this agility:

  • Accept whatever comes: needs and challenges are what they are. No arbitrary selection or false prioritisation.
  • Go for small, many: many small commitments, small batches, short iterations cause less pressure, frequent progress.
  • Grow with experiments: constant practice, controlled experiments and setbacks, grow collective wisdom and outcome.
  • Collaborate closely: creators, users, managers working together towards the same goal forge one strong side.
  • Adjust to what works: customer priorities, technical feasibility, and team skills drive the sequence and the pace.
  • Own whatever happens: challenges and outcomes are what they are. Celebrate wins and learn from setbacks.

Unknowingly, with some leeway and no other choice, we had adopted these agile mindsets and practices at KPMG Silicon Valley SAP practice, years ago. In ’99, Y2K and B2B web were selling like hotcakes; SAP standard offerings were not. What was next for mature SAP clients? Unclear. But status quo weakened the practice. As we tested ideas, residing in Silicon Valley forced our choice: mobile- and web-enabling SAP. It struck a chord everywhere. So, starting with 3 consultants on the bench in April, we grew gradually through other offices, partners like HP, 3Com, Ariba or Vantive, and clients like Armstrong, Citi, or Pirelli. We played and learned, and grew practical mobile and web solutions that met real client needs… 8 years before the iPhone.
By early September, we had faced too many breakdowns to count. But we had things to show. Hard work had made us lucky. At SAPphire tradeshow kick-off, every device, every live demo worked. It captured executives’ interest… The journey was choppy. We got played by competitors posing as a prospect. We flunked pitches, crashed servers. Lost face? Felt great, rather. And by September ’00, we had a great team round the world, USD200M+ in sales across US, Mexico, Germany, Italy, UK, South Africa and Singapore, and 3 live clients.
That was us, in Silicon Valley, in ’99. But I could mention an insurance in Indonesia, a high-tech OEM in Netherlands, an airline in Hong Kong,
Now, look at the list again.
Could you do it, here, today? If you see it, you can do it…

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