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Thoughts On Agility

by David Brock on May 28th, 2018

Agile is one of the “hot” business buzzwords these days, right along with digital, transformation, and disruptive.  (You get double buzzword bingo points if you can use, “disruptive, agile, digital business transformation” in a single sentence on a PowerPoint slide.)

But much of what I see under the “agile” banner is far from agile.

The concept of agility focuses on improving individual and organizational ability to respond to quickly changing business conditions.  Whether they are market shifts, competitive disruption, dealing with overwhelm and complexity (Internal, customer, market), being “agile” helps us both recognize these and take action to respond.  Alternatively, some approaches to agile would claim to drive those shifts/disruptions.

Velocity is an important concept in being agile.  It is the ability to recognize problems, challenges, understand and respond to them quickly.  But too often, we confuse speed and velocity.  Velocity measures the same thing as speed but has a directional component.  Executing with speed, being busy, being active without a direction is meaningless, wasted action.  It achieves nothing, in fact, it can take us further from our goals than doing nothing.

Yet, this is what we see, organizations executing lots of things, people who are crazy busy, but without direction or purpose.  This isn’t agile, it’s quite the opposite.

Empowerment and trust are key to being agile.  In order to respond to changes, quickly, we need to get people as close to the work/action as possible to recognize the need to change, and we must trust they will do the right thing in driving change activities.

Yet, “I have to check with my manager….” is the norm.  Or subtle “command and control” structures dominate.  No one likes that term, but it’s manifested in too often, in different ways:  “Do things this way, don’t change,”  “This is our process, you have to follow it,”  “Here is the script, make sure you stick to it,” “Check with me before you make a commitment,”  or “We need to go get approval for that….”

If everything has to funnel back to management, they become the bottleneck and the weak link in being agile.  There is no way management can possibly identify and respond to all that needs to be achieved in the agile organization.  There is no way that managers have the depth of knowledge/understanding on everything to be able to respond in meaningful ways.

Collaboration, fluidity are key concepts in being agile.  We “swarm” problems, we have “stand-ups,”  we keep everyone who needs to be involved and informed, aligning priorities and developing action plans to address.

Yet, too often, we see our organizations dominated by silos and departments.  These organizations are optimized around achieving individual, departmental, and functional goals–which may not be aligned with the expected end results.

Agility requires structure and process.  We cannot be agile in the absence of these. Structure/process provide context in which to understand which actions are most important and how to drive change.  At the same time, agility recognizes the need to continuously improve and adapt.

Without structure and process, chaos reigns, and agility is meaningless in a chaotic environment.

Agility requires purposefulness and direction.  Without these, we don’t know what we are trying to achieve.  At the same time, agility recognizes we have to adapt and change as the world around us changes.

Many think they are being agile by constantly shifting priorities, by adopting a “program du jour” mentality, changing aimlessly.

Agility requires alignment, across the organization.  If the entire organization isn’t aligned in goals, values, culture, priorities, it’s impossible to be agile.

It requires accountability, without accountability, it’s impossible to take meaningful action.

Agility only exists in an environment of constant learning and improvement.

Agility is about people–hiring the best, expecting the best, giving them the freedom to be the best and supporting them to achieve

There’s a lot more to being agile.  We aren’t agile just because we say we are.  We aren’t agile because we constantly shift goals, priorities, people.  We aren’t agile because we worship speed and quick changes.

There is a lot to being agile, unfortunately, too few understand and execute the things required to be truly agile.


  1. Noel Peberdy permalink

    Your “Thoughts on Agility” article is very insightful. Thanks John.

    • Noel: Great to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the article, I know “agile” is near and dear to you.

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