How Much Agility Is Really Needed?

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Agility is, without question, the word of the decade for business leaders. It is used in many contexts, from processes, people, and enterprises, to change management projects. Used to describe how responsive businesses are to the expansion of the digital world, or how adequately they consume technological innovation, agility is mentioned at every opportunity.

As I think about this, I feel there is a more fundamental question: Is agility anchored in the ability to be flexible and responsive to change, or is it a way to manage when there aren’t clear plans or structures in place? Furthermore, is agility actually relevant in the corporate world? And if it is, how can we use and develop it effectively? Are we all thinking about the same thing when we speak of agility?

According to Michel Thiry (2015), agility is defined as “the capacity of an organization to redistribute and empower its resources where it really matters in order to stay relevant in its context.” I like this definition, particularly because of its emphasis on “where it really matters.” This points to the fact that agility is not needed all the time, everywhere.

Kodak is a good example of how relevant this idea is. Where did Kodak go wrong? Was it a lack of business foresight in identifying risks? Even today, the fact that they overlooked the huge potential of digital photography – a technology they invented – is referred to as a huge blunder. They misunderstood the concept and value of disruptive technology, so even as they invented digital photography, they pursued their existing traditional business model later, leading to the decline of film-derived revenues. Kodak displayed a lack of agility in leveraging and consuming its own innovation.

Traditional business models are centered around a sequential approach to devising and executing a strategy. The ability to embrace disruption in market trends as an enabler for reinvention, change, and growth is the exact opposite of behaving in a traditional way. According to CapGemini, strategic planners are confronted with increased market volatility, complex value chains, and power shifts among suppliers and consumers. One is the enabler of agility, the other consumes it. As such, agility needs to be built into any strategic planning process from the beginning, and look across enterprises.

It is now becoming clear that business foresight into trends, market changes, and changing consumers, combined with building agility into plans, is the only way to stay competitive and relevant.

This insight is not solely provided by CapGemini; according to the 2012 PMI Pulse of the Profession report, a 1000 participants (project, program and portfolio managers) study, 71% believe “organizational agility enables companies to respond faster” and a further 55%, indicated it improves overall efficiency and customer satisfaction.

It is therefore an accepted fact that organizational agility brings business benefits, but how is this reflected in the individual? A lack of clear definition of what individual agility represents can lead to misunderstanding and drive the wrong behaviors. These in turn can affect projects by introducing risk and confidence. In extreme cases, if individuals believe that agility means lack of structure, expectations will be misaligned, and this can be harmful to the business. Clarity is therefore key for predictive and reliable performance.

Like Ying and Yang, agility and stability go together and derive the best from each other. Like a climber who may change his route from the planned one to accommodate weather changes for example, the desire to reach the top is a constant, safety and technique are also constants. These underpin the climber agility in adapting his plans based on his/her own or external needs.

In the same way, companies need a clear vision and strategy – stability – but how they achieve this can vary using the latest technologies to help them stay fast and effective – agility. Creating the right culture, one which is diverse and combines the elements of stability and agility is a fundamental part of success. Design thinking is a good way to embrace change in a safe environment and rehearse solutions with colleagues. One example at SAP is called “io.SAP Run Your Way:” it enables employees and non-employees to share their innovative ideas with a panel to obtain funding and support. Organization who implement such programs are already actively developing agile thinking and skills.

Agility is about foresight, insight, and embracing disruption as an opportunity for growth at an organizational level and for individuals. Fostering agile thinking without deviating from the company strategy; this can easily be done through coaching, and innovative think-tanks that will ensure progress and growth.

A proactive approach to fostering agility internally and across organizations will create a palpable momentum. All your teams will be pulling in the same direction and able to adapt faster to changes as well as feed innovation in the context of a stable and clear company strategy.

Disclaimer: Please note that all statements are my personal views and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the ones of my current employer.

This article originally appeared in LinkedIn Pulse and was republished with the author’s permission.

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