“The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility, that’s it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate.” — Jeff Bezos
We always hear in business conferences and public fora the need to be agile. Speakers from global companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google trumpet their agile practices, while business executives nod and cheer in agreement.
Yet, these self-same executives lament at the fact that their companies remain to be traditional, that is, hierarchical, bureaucratic, and slow to respond to the market. One executive of a local conglomerate I spoke with said, “We always invite these big tech companies to speak in our leadership summits, but we remain to be the same traditional company”.
This is because of the gulf of a difference between the current state of companies in the country, and the idealized agile practices of global tech firms. This is compounded by the lack of understanding of what organizational agility is, and how to develop this company-wide.
Agility is the ability to understand, learn, think, act, and move quickly and easily. When it comes to business, there are four levels of agility that companies need to develop — individual agility, team agility, organizational agility, and leadership agility
Individual agility is the one skill that Google is looking for in an employee because the skills that one knows now will not be applicable in the future. Hence, agility enables an individual employee to unlearn and learn, explore, expose, adapt to changing situations, and work on mission-critical projects.
Learning agility and professional agility are two equally important components of individual agility. To learn quickly and easily requires critical thinking and creative skills — a disciplined process of actively conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/ evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, and reasoning.
On the other hand, professional agility requires listening, communication, and collaboration skills, apart from being resourceful and proactive in finding solutions to problems. They need to have the courage to fail fast and the empathy to work well in diverse teams.
When agile individual employees work together for a common goal, they become agile teams. A team is agile when team members work and organize their individual functions in order to be responsive and adaptive to the changing demands of the company.
We first saw this movement and philosophy in information technology (IT) departments, such as in agile software development, which refers to iterative development where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams. Now, this movement has caught up in all functions of a company such as agile HR, agile marketing, and agile manufacturing.
When departments and functions within a company are composed of agile teams, then the whole organization becomes agile. Organizational agility is the capability of a company to rapidly change or adapt in response to changes in the market. A high degree of organizational agility can help a company to successfully respond to the emergence of new competitors, the adoption of new industry-changing technologies, or sudden shifts in customer preferences.
To recruit, develop, and sustain agile employees and teams, leading to an agile organization, there’s a need for leaders to be likewise agile; hence, the emergence of agile leadership. This is the ability of a leader to lead well in a wide range of circumstances especially new, changing and ambiguous situations. It demands certain skills from a leader, such as systems thinking, strategic thinking, and complex problem-solving and agile decision-making.
With the interplay of individual, team, and leadership agility, it becomes part of the organizational culture. This is where the difficulty lies for large established companies. How can they be nimble and flexible amid the established bureaucracy and processes?
Large established companies can start with establishing an innovation team, reporting directly to the chief executive, tasked to take on innovation projects to explore new business models, optimize operations, and respond to customer needs. They will have all the qualities of agility, unencumbered by the company’s bureaucracy.
In parallel, the organization development group of the company can implement interventions to transform the company’s culture to an agile one, by making agility as the prime qualification for recruitment, and retooling the mindset and skills of its employees. More importantly, incumbent leaders of the organization should take it upon themselves to shake off their old mindset into an agile one; otherwise, they will be forced to adapt.
But all of these do not mean that the stability of the company will be compromised to give way to agility. Stability and agility are not opposite ends of a pole, but are complementary.
Reynaldo C. Lugtu, Jr. is CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm. He is the Chairman of the Information and Communications Technology Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.