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Agility in Organisations

November 10, 2017, Author: Chris Breen

This Blog on Agility in Organisations is Part One of two Blogs I wrote in early November 2017 in preparation for a talk/workshop I was going to give later that month in Switzerland. The company had embarked on a training/learning programme which focused on Agility and so I wanted to start thinking about some dimensions about what this might mean. Part Two explores the theme of Plasticity in Organisations.

My story about the workshop at this stage before I have given the talk is that the audience of around 70 professionals will mainly consist of young to middle-aged very smart fast-thinkers (mainly men) who will confidently believe they are at the ‘top of their game’. Their preferred way of working will be very competitive and largely alone and highly focused and driven where they set high performance standards for themselves and get a buzz when they reach their targets.

My (subjective) image of them in action is something like the video below:

I’m interested in what exactly is understood by the word Agility and discover in conversations with different people in the organisation that its meaning is fairly Humpty Dumpty-like!

So I turn to google to look for definitions and find that an initial definition of Agility is ‘the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness’

So my image immediately moves to a different kind of professional displaying Agility!

He is certainly moving easily with nimbleness! Did you notice the guy on the treadmill next to Mack? Or the others on the other treadmills?

And then I think of the competitive world of work and the way that individual excellence is rewarded and if Agility is the new skill to be achieved in order to stand out then pretty soon we will have KPI’s on Agility and experts will rise to the fore such as the one below!

He’s preening himself and enjoying the fuss that others are making. And the guy on the treadmill next to him?

So is this just a flight of fancy where I can vicariously watch people exercising? I am having fun and I also think there are some insights that could be applicable to Agility-in-Action.

Firstly, those around Mack the Knife man are looking fiercely ahead and carrying on with their own routines where they look with supreme focus and purpose into the future and just keep going. Clearly it’s not easy to change any paradigm that has been enculturated into our being for a long period. It’s not easy to introduce a new culture into the world and, initially at least, no-one pays any attention to the intended change.

Secondly, the drive for increased Agility in a competitive  community inevitably almost inevitably leads to the creation of a new glitterati in the community. Agility becomes a highly valued commodity and those who demonstrate their supreme skills get to show them off to a wild and fawning audience. It’s worth noting that the display of Agility here has become a show and a stand-alone end in itself rather than a skill used to enable anything useful. And did you notice the guy on the adjoining treadmill? He has earphones so that he can listen to his own music and give his full focus to his own familiar routine.

Contrasting Mack and Trainer is interesting. Which of the two is having more fun? Who is more in flow with the nature of the treadmill? Who has conquered and subjugated the treadmill? Who is the more agile?

I notice two other aspects of these videos. The treadmill basically defines and limits the field in which the skill of Agility takes place – there is no sense that the field has been expanded. In particular, the nature of the field (the treadmill) means that Agility seems to be a solo action. What possibility exists for collegiality?

We have some co-operation here, but still each is on their own treadmill; they are both facing the front; their actions have importantly now become less opportunistic as they have to be carefully choreographed; and those nearby are doing their own thing…

Enough of treadmills and nimbleness, let me turn to another definition which is presumably more along the lines intended by the organisation. Agility is ‘the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly; intellectual acuity’.

Reading further I find another definition that is specifically geared towards organisations. Agility is the ‘ability of a business system to rapidly respond to change by adapting its initial stable configuration; to rapidly adapt to market and environmental changes in productive and cost-effective ways’.

So I can understand at first glance why the organisation has decided to focus on Agility – the above all sound as if they are worthwhile goals.

But my initial exploration into treadmills has served a useful purpose and leaves me rather concerned.

  • Surely the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly is already a prized asset that these ‘champions of the world’ have already perfected? What does the theme of Agility offer them that will entice them to do anything other than their focused treadmill session.
  • The focus seems to be on adapting to the market with a product/mindset that is already fairly defined. How does one go beyond the field limitations of the treadmill?
  • How does one with with others with agility if the field is defined?
  • Further reading on Management in Agile Organisations states that ‘direction and focus in this environment is provided by leaders who drive and communicate the organization’s strategic vision throughout the workplace, daily, incessantly, and consistently. People internalize this vision and perform their work to maximize its attainment’. So is it only the leaders who define and exhibit Agility (defined to suit their own subjective abilities?). Is the strategic vision that is mentioned here fixed or Agile?
  • There is nothing in the definitions that forces a change from the comfort zone of working alone. There does not seem to be any motivation in this understanding of Agility to develop much-needed collegial and co-operative ways of being and operating in the organisation.
  • This is clearly a cognitive skill for the mind so there is no apparent opening to include the wisdom of the heart and body is not addressed and is actually business-as-usual.
  • And finally, the definition of Agility in Organisations uses the word ‘rapidly‘ in each of its sections. So I’m left with a disturbing energy of high octane successful quick competitive thinkers being exhorted to do what they are already doing but much more rapidly. My image of these ‘champions’ and their treadmills transforms into something  frighteningly familiar!

At the end of this reflection on Agility, I want to explore the theme of Plasticity in Organisations in my follow-up Blog.