Are Organizations Born or Made Agile?

Key Takeaways:

  • Most of today’s businesses are striving to cultivate organizational agility (which is “the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment”)

  • Additionally, startups and small businesses, especially those active in industries with higher technology quotient, are natively more agile-friendly than other organizations

  • However, any firm can nurture organizational agility by implementing a set of good practices

67% of the respondents to a 2021 Deloitte survey set business agility as a key priority for their organization, to mention just one of many facts and figures about the benefits of agility.  

While most business leaders and gurus concur on the importance of embracing agile practices, behaviors and mindsets, many organizations worldwide are still struggling in their effort to go agile. 

This blog post strives to provide new insights and perspectives on the matter by exploring the roots of organizational agility. What makes an organization or a business agile? Is agility an inherent quality, or a trait grown and developed through education and experience? Is agility nature or nurture? And how can a business nurture it successfully? 

What Agility Means

By way of introduction, let’s make something clear: the agility we deal with in this paper is NOT the Agile framework for product development management. Although Agile methods share a number of common tenets and values with the concept of agility, the former are about doing agile, while the latter is about being agile

First, we’ll focus on organizational agility. McKinsey defines this as “the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.”

Then, let’s try to break down and illustrate the meaning of business agility. “Agile” behaviors and assets include:

  • Quick thinking and quick learning. When paired with the ability to analyze data and understand the implications fast, this allows for timely course correction.
  • Values of transparency, open-mindedness, and humility to accept that a course correction may be needed.
  • Fluid communication and seamless collaboration across teams and departments. This encourages the flow of information throughout the organization and bolster coordination.
  • A strong strategic vision and an inspiring leadership. This aligns all stakeholders around a high-level mission statement that’ll serve as a guiding light in times of disruption.
  • Accountability at the team and individual levels, based on a shared understanding and ownership of objectives.
  • An inclusive, trusting culture where everyone is encouraged to speak their mind, to experiment, and even to make mistakes to drive continuous improvement.

Native Agility

Another key point: to what extent are the above mentioned traits embedded in the DNA of organizations, and to what extent can they be cultivated?

A statistical approach tends to substantiate the case for “agility by design”, as the size, activity, and profile of organizations are often correlated to their agility scores.

Besides, Deloitte found that smaller companies (with under 1,000 employees) are embracing business agility more willingly than larger enterprises. Overall, large corporations usually sit among the ranks of agility laggards. Perhaps because 40% of businesses with 30,000+ employees report struggling to understand the rationale behind agile transformation initiatives. Or maybe because these long-standing institutions have a legacy and an established managerial hierarchy that’s often based on time-tested control mechanisms.

So, an organization’s line of business and industry may also impact its organizational agility. Some “traditional” industries (e.g. agriculture, personal services, etc.) were less disrupted than others by the waves of digitalization and transformation and are therefore less likely to feel the need for organizational agility.

In contrast, the industries that are the most impacted by today’s market uncertainty and volatility — such as the high-tech sector — are usually among the most agile.

To sum it up, some organizations boast an “agility edge”.

However, agility is a mindset rather than an attribute. And you can cultivate a mindset.

Nurturing Organizational Agility

Business leaders looking to flex their organization’s agile muscles should consider taking action around the following areas: 

  • Data visibility and clarityInformation should be readily available to all in real-time to enable alignment, engagement and timely decision making. Agile organizations need the support of robust systems providing data centralization, analytics, collaboration and communication capabilities.
  • Training and coaching. Formal training and education programs might go some way towards teaching employees valuable skills that’ll help them to work in more agile ways, but, most importantly, your workforce should learn how to think and breathe agile. Coaching, experiential learning, informal practical training are all great ways to foster a culture of responsiveness and adaptability. Leading by example is particularly effective when it comes to triggering change in mindsets and behaviors: leadership teams (including the middle-management) should exemplify the traits that you wish you promote in the workforce. 
  • Conducive environment. To cultivate agility internally, make sure you offer your staff a supportive, fear-free work environment that accepts and values diversity of perspectives and encourages calculated risk-taking.

Finally, true organizational agility requires some sense of stability: teams need an anchor point to hold on to as everything else around them is changing constantly. This may take the form of a clear process and a sound governance that will serve as a foundation and a framework within the boundaries of which your teams will be empowered to be agile

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