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What Is Agility and What Makes an Organization Agile?

By Ben Baran

CEOs and other executives have plenty to keep them up at night: the possibility of shifting economic cycles (i.e., recession), trade concerns, cyber security, acquiring and keeping top talent, adapting to changing customer preferences, regulatory influences on their business, and more.

Additionally, technology continues to advance rapidly, requiring organizations to adapt quickly or risk obsolescence. These pressures all require change; but in particular, these pressures require organizations to become increasingly agile—or nimble—as they proactively navigate their given industry or sector.

Given these elements of the business environment, it’s becoming increasingly common to hear about “agility” and “Agile.” These terms, however, often elude definition or people use them in ways that seem to mean reactive flexibility or imply that organizations should continually reinvent themselves.

Neither of those are entirely accurate.

In a recent white paper that the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology asked me to write, I addressed agility and related concepts both in terms of definition and in terms of identifying what the social science suggests regarding how leaders can create agile organizations. Here’s a summary of some of the key concepts from that white paper, along with a few additional ideas.


What Is Agility?


Agility is a capability. People, teams, and entire organizations can have agility or be agile—meaning that they can proactively sense and respond to the change around them. For individual employees or managers, agility involves anticipating what might happen, managing the unexpected, and adapting to new situations.

For teams and organizations, agility often is about sensemaking, or working together to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. Some of what we know from organizations that succeed in highly risky conditions—think about naval aircraft carriers, high-performing surgical teams, or nuclear power plants—applies here. In those types of contexts, everyone is on the lookout for what could go wrong, and when they notice small problems or weak signals of an error, they speak up and address it as a team. This keeps small problems from spinning into disasters.

Additionally, agile organizations are good at fostering conditions that promote experimentation to determine what may work in an ambiguous situation. This often involves putting new products or services in front of real potential users earlier rather than later, with a bias toward quick learning instead of attempting to reach perfection through time-consuming planning upfront. It also often involves quickly recognizing strategic opportunities and “pivoting” toward them. 


What Is Agile?


Alongside the ideas of agility and “being agile” as a leader, team, or organization is a set of practices and methods known as Agile—often referred to as a proper noun. Agile refers to sets of values and principles that have become increasingly popular within software development. Specifically, these values and principles were publicized in The Agile Manifesto in 2001. Agile places high value on teamwork, delivering value to users, responsiveness to change, self-organizing teams, and frequent reflection by team members regarding how they can continually improve.

In my study of the agility as a research topic and Agile as a movement of sorts during the past decade and more, I’ve noticed that Agile—although comprising many good ideas and practices—often fails to reach an audience beyond an organization’s information technology related functions. Additionally, some attempts by organizations to “go Agile” end up becoming bureaucratized rules or procedures that then become rather rigid themselves—contrary to the very purpose of Agile in the first place.

A better example of using Agile principles and values to build agility as an organizational capability is Spotify. This video describes some of what they have done over the years to build their agility, and one reason that their approach likely works is that it focuses on a culture that values agility over a specific list of practices that everyone must do.


What Should Executives Do?


My research—along with my practical experience with organizations seeking to build their agility—suggests that executives should consider the following:

  • Lead with why: Executives must communicate why agility is a strategic necessity to their organization, and then help them understand what that means for their day-to-day interactions and work.
  • Train agile behaviors: Some of the methods from systems like Scrum can be helpful for teams to build a common framework for faster, more productive interaction.
  • Create great teams: For tasks that require interaction, select people who are both competent and willing to work with others. Focus on clarifying roles, workflows, and productive communication patterns.
  • Empower decision making: If you want to be faster as a team or organization, let people who are lower on the organization chart make decisions. Ensure they’re competent, but then get out of their way.
  • Support agile behavior: Executives must set expectations about agile behavior and recognize people and teams when they act in those ways. Don’t tell people that they can make decisions and then react negatively the first time they do so.
  • Iterate toward better: Learning quickly and adjusting based upon feedback is central to agility, so creating an agile organization requires a growth mindset—realizing that people can and do improve over time. Create a climate in which everyone feels comfortable to speak up and coach others regardless of where they sit on the organizational chart.
  • Evaluate organizational structure: The people who do the actual work likely already have good ideas about how they should organize to get faster and better—beyond traditional structures based upon function or proximity. Executives just need to ask them and support their ideas.
  • Promote an agile culture: Holding a few training sessions on agility or Agile methods won’t create an agile organization on their own. Instead, executives should focus on being good role models of agility, instituting practices that recognize and reward self-organizing to solve problems, and supporting candor, collaboration, humility, and continuous learning through feedback.


What Should Researchers Study?


The scholarly research on agility includes work on strategy and adaptability, whereas much of the research on Agile is in the domain of project management and information technology. Given the importance of behavioral, cultural, and psychological components that support agility, a few promising areas for research include:

  • Exploring more about the elements of organizational culture and climate as they pertain to agility,
  • Understanding more about how agile teams form, maintain high performance, and evolve; and
  • Studying how organizations can use leadership development and talent management in a way that supports broader goals of building organizational agility.


Key Conclusions


Given the forces of change that continue to challenge executive leaders and their organizations, agility is important. Building an agile organization requires a holistic approach toward matters of strategy, leadership, culture, teamwork, and project management. No “magic bullet” exists that will create agility, but an approach that integrates what I’ve described above for executives to do is a good way to start.


About Ben Baran


Ben Baran is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a military uniform, or in a corporate boardroom advising top management teams. He is an award-winning assistant professor of management at Cleveland State University, a cofounder and principal of the consulting firm Indigo Anchor LLC, and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He regularly consults leaders and organizations across a wide range of sectors and industries. He earned his undergraduate degree from Villanova University and his master’s in industrial and organizational psychology and PhD in organizational science from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. For more information, visit www.indigoanchor.com and www.benbaran.com. Contact Ben at ben@indigoanchor.com or on Twitter @benbaran.

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