Agility means being able to adapt and react in real-time as issues arise. It is the skill of being flexible and changing your processes in order to fit the situation.
This doesn’t mean that agility is just working on the hoof or “making it up as you go along”. Agile action needs to reflect the situation you’re working in, and the solutions you implement need to be situation appropriate.
In order to act with agility, you need to be sure about the context that you’re operating in. This requires you to look at the bigger picture and ensure the agile changes you’re making fit with what you want to achieve.
Transforming or performing
Let’s say a company has a quota to hit by the end of the day for how much inventory they need to ship out. In this performative context, the company has a productivity need to deliver results quickly. Here it would be beneficial for them to ramp up the speed to get the shipments out.
However, if they were trying to rethink and revolutionize the way in which their inventory was shipped – a more transformative context – they would need to take a more flexible approach.
The context determines what agility looks like and whether speed or flexibility needs to be applied. No matter what the situation, we need to ask ourselves “what are we committed to?”. Once we know what the common commitment is, we will know what agility-based solution is needed.
Sometimes organisations need an overhaul of the way they are working, and need to completely transform their processes. Other times, the way in which an organisation is operating works well enough to deliver what’s needed. A pit stop crew doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel before they can get an F1 car back on the track.
Our context is decisive and if we exercise agility as a blunt instrument without considering the context in which we’re using it, it isn’t going to be effective.
In order to achieve a breakthrough result, everyone on your team needs to be driving towards the same collective commitment.
While a team can operate within competing contexts – you might need to operate within transformation sometimes and performance other times – if everyone isn’t striving towards the same commitment, the goal will never be achieved.
For example, a construction company may have the collective commitment to get a building made for an R&D department. This seems like a straightforward enough goal, but if there are other background commitments going on too, it can muddy the waters.
If the construction company misses the point of agility, thinking of it only as iterative design, and innovating on the fly, they will end up building walls only to knock them back down again.
Agility is needed to help strike a balance, and an aligned commitment is needed to decide on what the end goal is. We need to be straight talking with our commitments so that everyone is on the same page. Otherwise we’ll be left with an intriguing but only half-constructed building.
Leaving “business as usual” behind
Part of being an agile leader is leaving business as usual goals behind and having the bravery to put your head above the parapet to create a breakthrough commitment. There’s some difficult decision-making in the agility paradigm. If you’re aiming for a transformational future and you’re agile enough to envision this future, then you may need to cut short-term results in favour of the bigger picture.
If you have an ambitious growth rate target that you want to hit by a certain date in the future, everyone on your team has to be fully committed to it in order to achieve it. There’s no room for lackadaisical, half-hearted efforts, and everyone needs to be committed to what it’s going to take to achieve, not just be committed to the end result.
This sometimes means cutting the short-term productivity results that we get from BAU. Take the infamous Kodak example. They invented the digital camera but side-lined it as a product as they didn’t want to disrupt their BAU of selling film cameras.
This approach of sticking to business as usual had a damaging effect on them as a company. Organisations need the innovation to create – that’s how we get such gems as the digital camera – but they also need the initiative and bravery to step outside their comfort zone and risk departing from BAU for a time.
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