Agility and flexibility aren't the same

Increased agility is achieved by establishing the right balance between flexibility and fixedness

Organisational agility – the ability to rapidly adapt while delivering innovation and customer-centric strategies – is increasingly recognised as key to enduring success.

Agility goes beyond being flexible. A flexible business is able to make changes within the current organisational system when a predicted event occurs. Agile businesses are able to change the overall system completely in response to an unpredictable external force.

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The agile leadership paradox

Increased agility is achieved by establishing the right balance between flexibility and fixedness. It is about being nimble, proactive, strategic, and able to spot and make opportunities. It involves a new wave of working practices and structures that enable empowerment.

While agile practice is common in start-ups and software companies, scaling agility in a traditional business may require significant shifts in mindsets, skillsets and culture.

Yet a growing number of organisations are proving this is possible. They have developed resiliently agile cultures and structures that facilitate change within the context of the situations they face.

They have an intensive focus on customers. Organisational members understand and are involved in the success of the business. Staff are willing and able to give their best – but in a sustainable way. There is a learning mindset in the mainstream business and underlying lean processes and agile routines to drive innovation. There is an emphasis on experimentation and iteration, a shared sense of direction and clear accountabilities for business units, functions, teams and individuals.

Since work is increasingly carried out by empowered teams often co-creating with customers, it’s important to create some ‘guardrails’ for the kinds of behaviour that will help organisations thrive – such as focusing on the customer, taking accountability for actions, and collaborating and sharing intelligence with colleagues. In GE these are called ‘beliefs’, at Atkins they are called ‘operating principles’.

Empowerment is also made real for employees by having opportunities to contribute to evolving business strategies and challenges via multiple communication media. There are mechanisms to learn and improve performance over time, that help build connectivity and networks across and beyond the organisation.

As a general rule the task of leaders in agile organisations is to engage people around a broad vision for the future and to focus on building or acquiring capabilities. Command and control styles of leadership are out of sync with the goal of catalysing willing input from employees.

The job of managers is to coach and develop team capacity and enable knowledge-sharing. Leading change well means being curious and able to respond intentionally, not just react to pressure. Leaders need to see the whole system at work and actively disrupt ‘stuck’ patterns that make the organisation rigid.

Many CEOs struggle to make the shift. To build their own agility and resilience, leaders have to become comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing all the answers. They have to develop mental toughness yet also be able to empathise with the people they lead. Such leadership approaches take time and practice to develop. (I include some examples of leaders who have made the shift in my forthcoming book The Agile Organization.)

To build their own and their organisation’s capacity to thrive during change, leaders must actively put the principles of agile resilience– anticipate, focus, iterate, learn, collaborate and persevere – into effect, and use themselves as role models for new ways of thinking, working and being.

By doing so leaders can help embed agility and resilience into their organisations’ DNA in a way that makes for sustainability over the longer term, whatever the future throws at us.

Linda Holbeche is co-director of The Holbeche Partnership