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What are we talking about when we talk about agility?

September 01, 2018
Sova Assessment
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The second best-selling management book of all time (after Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People) is Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices by Peter F. Drucker. In it, Drucker sets out to “equip the manager with the understanding, the thinking, the knowledge and the skills for today’s and also tomorrow’s jobs.” Although first published in 1985, the book deals with many issues that we would still recognise today, including diversity, innovation and social responsibility. There is, however, one surprising omission: a quick glance through the substantial index will show you that the issue of “agility” is not covered at all. Compare and contrast the last six months’ worth of Harvard Business Review publications, more than 1,000 of which contain references to agility or agile working.

Over the last 30 years, it would seem, the topic of organisational agility has gone from being a less than marginal concern to one that is addressed in every other Ted Talk, HR conference, LinkedIn article and work-related blog post (this one being a case in point). The data confirms this impression. Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) research conducted in the aftermath of the global financial crisis shows that senior executives around the world believe they are operating in an extremely turbulent environment, and that this environment demands radical improvements in organisational agility.

But what exactly does “organisational agility” mean? Pay close attention to those myriad conferences, articles and blog posts, and you will notice the concept of agility being used in a variety of subtly different ways. Here are just a few examples we have encountered in recent months.

The technical definition

Agility is the capacity to bridge the widening gap between the exponential rate of change in technological capability in the world and the much slower, logarithmic rate of change within most large organisations. In other words, technology naturally changes more quickly than organisations do, and agility is what enables organisations to catch up. This idea is best illustrated by the diagram below.

The sophisticated definition

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writer of the 2007 book The Black Swan, has proposed the term “antifragility” to describe the property of those systems that do not merely resist shocks and stresses but actually become stronger and more effective in response to them. A similar concept can often be found in conversations around organisational agility, with commentators equating it with a capacity to thrive on change, not simply withstand it.

The poetic definition

Dr Kiran Chitta, organisational psychologist and Sova strategic partner, takes a similar but perhaps also a slightly more poetic view, comparing agile people and organisations to whitewater kayakers who deliberately seek out the most challenging rapids. In this analogy, agility enables competitiveness, growth and innovation by encouraging organisations to see unpredictability and disorder as part of the adventure rather than obstacles to be avoided.

The cynical definition

As with any business idea, there is clearly a risk of agility becoming little more than a corporate buzzword. The cynical among us might be tempted to say it does not really mean anything; it is simply the latest way of describing the age-old difference between those companies that survive and those that do not.

On this point, however, the cynics are wrong. Organisational agility demands attention and deeper scrutiny because, beneath all the hype, it signals a serious shift. As companies increasingly digitalize their operations and implement agile practices, the concept of organisational agility – and how precisely that concept is used and understood – is likely to have a significant impact on all our working lives.

For an in-depth exploration of the topic, including a detailed discussion of what organisational agility is and how best to achieve, read Dr Kiran Chitta’s white paper on agility. Leadership and organisational agility is critical for performance in a variety of assessment and development contexts. These ideas are also explained in much greater depth and detail in his forthcoming book which is aimed at experienced HR professionals and OD practitioners. Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world, will be published by Troubador in November 2018.

To find out how Sova can help you create a more agile workforce, visit sovaassessment.com

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