‘Agile’ is a managerial buzzword that you’ve no doubt heard bandied around in the modern workplace (right up there with my personal favourite: ‘synergy’). You might be aware that ‘agile’ is a formal project management methodology associated with software development, but the fundamental thinking behind that methodology can be applied more broadly to organisations as a whole.
According to author and organisational thinker Linda Holbeche, an ‘agile organisation’ (or adaptive organisation, as it is also termed) is one that has the capacity to respond, adapt quickly and thrive in the changing environment. An ‘agile organisation’ possesses flexible, nimble and dynamic capabilities that allow it foresee challenges and identify opportunities, and to constantly transform itself to meet future contingencies.
Organisational Agility Theory was popularised by academics and system thinkers in the 1980s and 1990s, including futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler and ‘learning organisation’ proponent Peter Senge. The Organisational Agility movement gained momentum as a result of the global proliferation of Japanese management practices in the 1990s – total quality management (TQM), Kaizen (‘continuous improvement’), business process re-engineering and lean / just-in-time methodologies.
As indicated earlier, the term ‘agile’ is derived from the software development methodology of the same name. ‘Agile’ software development supports short spurts of intense activity, iterative development, continuous feedback loops and speedy delivery, as opposed to more rigid and inflexible development methodologies (such as the more traditional ‘waterfall’ software development methodology).
This thinking can also be applied more holistically to organisations. As change continues its exponential climb in the modern era, every organisation will be challenged in ways that they have not been before. The ability to tackle those challenges when they arise – and to foresee them ahead of time – will increasingly determine whether an organisation prospers or withers. Businesses that wish to thrive need to adopt agile practices: to continually improve their product or service offering; to move quickly to account for market forces; to continually reinvent themselves; and to instil the mindsets and approaches that enable these things to happen as a matter of course.
It starts with leadership. An ‘agile organisation’ demands what Heifetz and Linsky call an ‘adaptive leader’, a person who ‘sits on the balcony’ to observe the machinations of the system (the ‘dance floor’) and designs interventions (often quite painful interventions) that bring about adaptive change. An adaptive leader provides a context for change; they provide strategic clarity; and they create a capacity to act on that strategic direction. An adaptive leader is prepared to take risks; to make decisions that enable change and innovation on a continual basis; and has what Heifetz and Laurie call a ‘stomach for failure’. The adaptive leader is authentic in their dealings with staff and stakeholders; they have a high degree of emotional intelligence; and they are able to work through historically dysfunctional relationships to create a more collaborative, whole-of-system approach for the future.
Beyond leadership, Holbeche suggests that the ‘real enabler of agility and resilience is embodied in the people and culture of organisations’. Paradoxically, people and culture are also the biggest barriers to adaptability. The more entrenched the mental models of the people, the more difficult it is to change their models of behaviour. Peter Drucker famously said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, suggesting that a disproportionate amount of a leader’s time is spent strategising, instead of addressing the more fundamental cultural issues that ultimately determine whether a strategy has any prospect of being executed effectively. Organisational agility is unachievable if the underlying culture is not aligned.
So, what does an ‘agile organisation’ look like? Broadly, it displays these characteristics:
- The organisation is customer-focused, ‘action oriented’ and is always searching for ways to optimise the customer experience
- Decision making and leadership is practiced at all levels and not only by people in designated leadership positions
- There is a flat structure, a democratic model of management, open lines of internal communication, and staff are actively engaged in strategy formulation
- The staff group possesses a diversity of skills, experience and mental models
- Staff are empowered, have delegation authority and there is a high level of trust and mutual respect between staff and managers
- There is a culture of accountability and a high expectation of individual performance
- The organisation is dynamically networked with external organisations, such as suppliers, industry bodies and alliance partners
- Innovation and learning is the norm, with staff encouraged to identify areas where the organisation can improve its performance and to act on those ideas
- Staff are resilient and adaptable and the organisation has a high level of ‘bounce-backability’ (Holbeche) after mishaps or uncertain circumstances
It seems quite Utopian – I can’t say that I have worked in an organisation that reflects all of these characteristics.
How ‘agile’ is your organisation?
Heifetz, R.A. and Linsky, M (2002), Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press
Holbeche, L.(2015), The Agile Organization, London: Kogan Page