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Webinar with David Pemsel – A masterclass on How to Create an Agile Organisation

What does it take to shift a 200 year-old organisation in the face of this enormous change, where the battle is first one of survival before you can even think about thriving?

Agility in the face of disruption

When David took over as CEO of the Guardian Media Group in July 2015 he was faced with disruption on multiple fronts. An erosion of funding, where the old pay model just isn’t working any more. The erosion of trust in an industry that has become characterised by fake news and let’s face it, irresponsible journalism, and the explosion of digital, where the platforms are multiplying and the ad spend is dominated by Google and Facebook.

So, what does it take to shift a 200 year-old organisation in the face of this enormous change, where the battle is first one of survival before you can even think about thriving?

Most organisations can be agile in the face of a crisis but when the danger has abated the system reverts back to normal. What David and the leadership team did at the GMG was to structure in agility through process change and a mindset shift. Below are some of the fundamentals they used to lay the groundwork for this transformation and a sustainable approach.


Always start with the Purpose

We hear it all the time, but as David said, “Never was the mission of the Guardian more important”. Whilst it is implicitly strong in everyone at the GMG it was critical to continually reinforce this. Kath Viner wrote and published the article ‘A mission for journalism in a time of crisis’ which served to not only challenge the industry and put the Guardian at the forefront of its moral code, but unite the organisation further, even at a time when they were having to cut cost and restructure. In creating an agile organisation you are going to disrupt the lives and working practices of your people, so they need a clear and compelling ‘why?’

The unvarnished truth

‘Transparency and candour’ are the two traits needed most in leadership right now. We know when we are not getting it and are energised when we do.

David spoke about getting the reality of the situation really clear. The trajectory of the numbers, the cultural blockers, the myths and bureaucracy that hampers the organisation. There were four or five ‘unvarnished truths’ that formed part of alignment conversations with leadership across the business. Reality over reassurance to galvanise people, however painful and however many sleepless nights it might have caused David!

So, once you have the fundamentals of purpose and truth, what is the path to agility? Let’s be clear here, David is not a big fan of the word!

“Agility is an over-used word…it is full of clichés. What you need is the reassurance, as a leadership team that you can do things in a timely and efficient way.” I think that is a great framing for the Guardians approach.

“Do by Doing”

It’s one of David’s leadership principles but extremely suited to agility. This needs leaders with a restlessness and an eye on action at all times. In fact, he would find himself frustrated in meetings that didn’t seem to be focused enough on ‘great, so let’s just go and do that!’.

The quarterly sprints and OKR’s

The classic question: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time".

It would have been easy to become encumbered even paralysed by the enormity of the task here. They decided to shorten the cycle and focus the decision making. The annual planning cycle became quarterly sprints with teams set very specific objectives and key results by the exec. As someone said on the webinar chat, this was a brilliant way of engaging people who embrace accountability and ‘exposing the shirkers!’

“It allows you to sleep at night because at any one time you can see the goal broken down into 30 tasks that you can just get on with”

The clarity here was prompted by the book ‘Measure what Matters’ by John Doerr which became a bible for David at the time.


Team is everything

Agility invariably means breaking down silos and forging collaboration. It happens automatically in crisis but how do you structure it in. David and the leadership team created multiple cross functional teams to work on very specific problems. Designing the teams was paramount, bringing together journalists with commercial, technology with editorial and combining collaborators, challengers, thinkers and executioners.

Strategy on a Page

If you want people to think and act fast then don’t mire them with extensive power-point strategy decks. Boil the whole thing down to 1 page and make that the fulcrum of your communication and your decision making. Easy to say, hard to do but worth the effort.


And finally…

David talked about his preference to operate at the intersection of creativity and business. These often do not mix well, and leaders can be prone to destroying creativity by such simple things as their own body language! Yet in an agile organisation leadership must allow these two to co-exist and fuse. Pace and efficiency should not be at the expense of lateral thought.


Written by Matt White, Associate of Wavelength



David Pemsel is also part of eSpeakersHub and one of our most sought after speakers on agility and disruption. To view his full biography to book him to speak at your own event please click here.

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