Strategy & LeadershipHR EffectivenessThe Problem with Agility

The Problem with Agility

'Agile' has come in for some criticism of late. But what does it actually mean to be truly 'agile'? Kevin Empey, People & Leadership Consultant & Coach and HRD Thought Leader, tackles the problem of agility.

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.

Agility as a solution

Organizational agility is now well established as one of those critical organizational competencies that has helped organizations successfully adapt to a more complex and rapidly changing business environment. Nothing new there.  For the more high profile cases, just look at what IBM, Netflix, Microsoft 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 organizations and employees for future challenges and opportunities. Many business writers and researchers such as McCann and Selsky have gone through the data to prove that Agility at organizational, 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 organization’s agility and build it into the organizational culture, structure and processes, they will have gone a long way to future-proof their organization for the business challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

And 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 – AgileHR, Agile Procurement and even Agile Finance are now common topics in fashion as the traditionally support oriented functions adapt to the speed at which the commercial, product and technology parts of the enterprise have had to move for some time.

So far, so good… all perfectly rational, just like how we know that regular exercise a proper diet is good for us!

Agility has a PR challenge…

But there is a problem. As a deliberate organization wide strategy and competency, Agility is often inconsistently defined and unevenly executed. 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”. We are told that agility implies both stability and flexibility, to be able to sense and respond – again all annoyingly rational phrases but not of much practical help in themselves.

So it is not surprising that many leaders and employees struggle to agree on what all this actually means in day to day practice for them and their organization 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 organization.  The reflex (and sometimes negative) association of “Agile” terminology and tools such as scrum and sprints that seems to automatically come fairly early on with every conversation on strategic or organizational agility can also be a barrier to making progress on the broader aspects of the topic and how it might be confronted or advanced.

These are some of the reputational reasons as to why making real progress on Agility has remained in the “want to have but hard to do” category with more pressing, short term challenges often remaining higher up the priority list.Given the prize and opportunities that come with organizational agility, the important question is what does it really mean and look like for your organization, your leaders and your employees – and how can it be delivered appropriately at organizational, team and individual level in your specific context and situation?.  Business leaders, and HR in particular who influence so many ‘agility levers’ in any organization from compensation to culture, need to be able to move beyond this PR challenge and work towards the opportunities and benefits that Agility in its widest sense can deliver.

The Agile Leader

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As well as leaders conducting a structured, high level and honest scan of Agility for their organization, 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 organization.

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 understand, 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, habits and behaviour is an important requirement for any organization seeking to be more deliberate and mindful in developing genuine organizational agility.

Leading in a more complex and rapidly changing work landscape will remain one of the most important organizational, leadership and personal challenges into the future.  Agility is one of the more compelling solutions to shaping the future of work and we need to get beyond the challenges of its definition and image.

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