Agility has a PR problem – and it needs to be fixed

Business agility is undeniably important, but do we know what it actually is? (Picture Source, CFPRO)
Business agility is undeniably important, but do we know what it actually is? (Picture Source, CFPRO)


Leading, working and performing in a more complex environment and at an ever-increasing pace is probably one of our biggest challenges today. Disruption and continuous change are now ‘normal’ and expected in most industries.

But this is not necessarily new and has been going on for some time. So how are we doing at managing this increased complexity and pace and what seems to be working for those who have led the way?
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Agility as a solution

Organisational agility is well established as one of those critical organisational competencies that has helped organisations successfully adapt to a more complex and rapidly changing business environment.  For more high-profile cases, just look at what Netflix or Amazon have done with their business models over the last 10 years.

Agility is also established as a well-researched quality in future-proofing organisations and employees for future challenges and opportunities. Many business writers and researchers have identified Agility at organisational, team and individual level as the most common and necessary quality in dealing with rapid and turbulent change.

The basic and quite compelling argument is that, if business leaders can improve an organisation’s agility and build it into the organisational culture, structure and processes, they will have gone a long way in dealing with the ‘complexity challenge’ and in preparing their organisation for the business challenges and opportunities of the future.

So far, so good.

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The problem with Agility

While agility has been around forever one way or another, more modern agile principles and practices for today’s context have been developing in areas like software design and product development in recent years.  These principles and practices have now begun to spread into the wider enterprise.

But there is a problem. As a deliberate organisation wide strategy and competency, Agility is often inconsistently defined and unevenly executed. Is it just simply about change or adaptability or is it something else? Is it a mind-set, methodology or culture or a mix of all these?

Bill Joiner
Bill Joiner

Bill Joiner neatly captures the multi-faceted elements of Agility with one definition amongst many that exist out there – “Agility is acting with purpose and flexibility, collaborating with disparate stakeholders, developing creative solutions to complex problems, continually learning and changing”.  However, many leaders and employees struggle to agree on what Agility actually means for them and their organisation let alone how deep it should go or how it should be implemented and managed.

There can also be a healthy conflict or tension between the practical consequences of agile mindsets and principles compared to the traditional command and control cultures and more comfortable ways of working of the past. McKinsey and others also fairly point out that you can’t have agility without stability thus prompting the question amongst leaders as to where and how to strike that important balance in their organisation.

These are some of the reasons as to why making real progress on implementing Agility has remained in the “want to have but hard to do” category with more pressing, sometimes conflicting short term challenges often remaining higher up the priority list.

Given the prize and opportunities that come with Organisational Agility, the important question is what does it really mean and look like for your organisation, your leaders and your employees – and how can it be delivered appropriately at organisational, team and individual level in your specific context and situation?

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The Agile Leader

As well as leaders conducting a structured, high level and honest scan of Agility for their organisation, one of the early places to start is with leaders themselves, helping them think through how agile they are as leaders and what impact this is having on the wider organisation.

In their book, Leadership Agility (Jossey-Bass, 2006) and subsequent research, Joiner and Joseph define the natural and progressive development stages of the ‘Agile Leader’.

From the tactical and problem-solving orientation of the “expert leader” to the more strategic and outcome oriented “achiever leader” and then the more visionary and facilitative/empowering “catalyst leader”, Joiner and Joseph describe the practical skills of progressively leading in a more agile way.  This helps to clarify and call out typical leadership development stages through the lens and language of agile principles and practices.  Such self-awareness and clarity of language and behaviour is an important requirement for any organisation seeking to be more deliberate and mindful in developing genuine organisational agility.

Leading in a more complex and rapidly changing work landscape will remain one of the most important organisational, leadership and personal challenges into the future.  Agility is also one of the more compelling solutions to leading in this future but, as a concept, it needs some work with its definition and its image at organisational level.  Otherwise the Agility paradox will continue.

With input and support from the leading international experts in their fields, the IMI Senior Executive Programme (SEP) sets out to support senior leaders explore strategic topics such as Agility in detail and to forge their own ‘next practice’ in strategically leading their organisations, their employees and themselves through this evolving environment.

 


Photograph by Zak Milofsky
Photograph by Zak Milofsky

Kevin Empey is Programme Director of the IMI Senior Executive Programme and also Managing Director of WorkMatters Consulting.