In this article, we cover what agility is – as definitions are essential – and what the workplace can look like, when it lives in agility, and watch challenges, you will face in bringing this into the workforce.

Eric Vigo

Managing Director and Founder of Rebooter Group

Originally authored by

KEY TAKEAWAYS

1. Agility, defined as the ability to quickly adapt strategy and business models to capitalize on major market opportunities, has become an essential leadership skill.

2. Leaders may face resistance from employees comfortable with the status quo, lack of buy-in from senior management, difficulty breaking down silos, and employees feeling pressure to constantly innovate.

3. Ongoing training and reinforcement of agile principles is needed to drive lasting change. In summary, an agile mindset is essential for organizations to adapt and thrive.

The Importance of Agility

The use of Strategic Agility (SA) and Organisational Agility (OA) by leaders is crucial for survival and pivoting during the 2020s cost-of-living crisis. And as we are living through an era where change is constant and unpredictability is now the norm, the need to learn to handle these crises well has become essential.

Definition of Agility

While there are many definitions of agility, the Agile methodology for software development provides a framework for teams to work in an iterative, collaborative way.

However, the ability for teams to be agile is what truly powers the Agile methodology and makes it work. That agility is based in soft skills, which is where applied improvisation comes in. So the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines agility as: “the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly; intellectual acuity, and the ability to move quickly and easily within an organisation, especially in response to changing circumstances“. We will refer to this as an “agile mindset.”

Application of the Agile Mindset in Business

Operational Agility (OA)

OA is the execution of the agile mindset within an organisational context.

OA is about making existing products and services better, faster, and cheaper for existing customers. It involves continuously improving processes, products, and services to meet customer needs.

While this is important, OA alone does not generate significant financial gains in today’s highly competitive markets where customers have many choices.

To truly thrive, companies need something mor wide-reaching to go the next level, and that is to embrace strategic agility (SA).

Strategic Agility (SA)

A gives a company the ability to quickly adapt its strategy and business model in response to changes in the market environment. It involves creating new markets with innovative products and services to reach new customers. Companies can  detect and capitalise on major opportunities that could be game-changers. Key aspects of SA include:

  • Quickly mobilising resources to the most attractive business areas,
  • Communicating a clear vision of success to align the organisation,
  • Maintaining focus on strategic goals while adapting to changes, and
  • Scanning the environment, collecting information, and responding rapidly to shifts.

Process and People Challenges that SA can Address

It would be fair to say that a common issue with leadership the culture of the staff to one which is more agile, is going to come up against pushback. It should also be noted that, just because someone says they agree that this culture should change, does that mean that they want sabotage it. Which reinforces the point of clear, authentic and proven examples will be what leads rather than statements.

Many of those who could be more called managers also are more content with issuing statements and letting others sort it out. These managers may know that what they are saying, is going to have little effect, so they are just ticking the box in order to uphold an image in front of their superiors.

Five ways in which staff may resist living a more agile mindset. Agile practices being implemented superficially without a true mindset shift is ineffective. Ongoing training, coaching, and reinforcement of agile principles is needed to drive lasting change.

Challenges
SA (Strategic Agility) Response
Resistance to change from employees who are comfortable with the status quo.
Leaders need to clearly communicate the benefits of agility and provide support for those struggling to adapt
Lack of buy-in from senior management who may not see the value in agility.
It's crucial for top leadership to model agile behaviours and champion the transition
Difficulty breaking down siloes and getting different teams to collaborate effectively.
Prioritise cross-functional projects, rotating team members, and celebrating collaborative successes can help
Employees feeling pressure to constantly innovate without enough time or resources.
Balance agility with realistic workloads and providing dedicated innovation time is important

Linking Improvisation to SA

Cunha et al. (2020) link improvisation to SA and discuss how through SA, improvisation enables organisations to deal with the paradoxes of strategic consistency versus the value of rapid change related to unexpected problems, opportunities, and fast-moving trends. This work is consistent with that of Ambituuni et al. (2021), who also link improvisation and SA to paradoxes of human resource management (HRM) such as enabling freedom versus control, work desegregation versus segregation, and peripheral vision versus focal vision.“①

An interpretation of this is that SA allows organisations to flexibly adapt to changing circumstances while still maintaining some consistency. It helps them navigate the contradictory demands they face in managing people and strategy.

While research has established the connection between improvisation and SA at the organisational level, it is equally important to understand the role of improvisation in leadership and how leaders can apply it to drive agility within their teams and organisations.

 

The Importance of Improvisation in Leadership

Bob Kuhlan, who runs a successful applied improvisation for business organisation in the USA called “Business Improvisation“. They offer programmes that allow leaders to bring applied improvisation within high-level management scenarios. The goal of these programmes was for these executives to head back to the office and use their newly learned improvisation techniques while analysing a client’s portfolio, putting together a quarterly report, facing a board meeting, connecting with an investor, or in any number of other real-world business challenges.

These executives effect through this formula:

Adaptability + communication = improvisation

The key is to adopt this agile mindset and embed it into the organisation’s strategy development, execution, and governance processes. This allows for rapid sensing of changes, continuous adaptation, and alignment across teams and the board to drive sustainable success. 

Dealing with Staff through SA and Applied Improvisation

More importantly is lifting your staff to think with SA.

There are five ways that this can be done smoothly, efficiently, and more importantly, effectively.

This involves introducing and establishing a new type of culture within the organisation seamlessly. Leaders will need to themselves be at ease and safe within an agile culture. The beauty of doing this is that not only are there improvements across the whole bottom line, but the leader only has to personally deal with the change in connection and communication with their immediate management team.

It is up to the managers themselves and team leaders to help institute this new culture across the whole staff cohort. In theory, this should be a much quicker and easier pathway using the common hierarchical structure of organisations, and using that structure to bring about change that is beneficial to everyone in the organisation.

Five Ways SA can be Implemented by Leaders

1. Embrace Flexibility and Rapid Adaptation

Shift your own mindset to swiftly adjust plans, processes, and resource allocation based on real-time insights from staff on the ground.

This signals to the staff that they have a voice, have a level of autonomy in decision-making, and that that voice is being taken into account. It is much easier to integrate staff with the strategic vision when hierarchies do not default into rigidity.


Leverage SA/OA and applied improvisation frameworks, and processes to increase transparency, collaboration, and responsiveness to staff needs.

Nurture a Culture of Experimentation and Learning

Encourage staff at all levels to be at ease with experimenting with new ideas, taking calculated risks, and learning from failures.

For this to be more than just words, leadership will lead by example – be open to trying new approaches, pivoting strategies based on feedback, and admitting mistakes.


It is vitally important that the leadership creates safe spaces for staff to voice concerns, share learnings, and co-create solutions through open dialogue.


Without this, the nurturing will be severely limited.

Apply Hands-On, Scenario-Based Learning

Make sure in your learning and development that you include real-world scenarios to help staff develop strategic thinking and decision-making skills. It is only in low-stakes environments that they can then apply those learnings in high-stakes environments.

What is highly important is that the leadership takes part in these alongside the staff, not as a layer above the staff.

At the end of each session, gather feedback to inform strategic adjustments and improvements.

Prioritise Cross-Functional Collaboration

Commit in words and actions to create the most effective cross-functional teamwork working environment, and tap into diverse perspectives and expertise. You want to see silos break down intrinsically.

By showing that you lead by example, such as being visible, accessible, and actively engaging with staff across different functions and levels, listening and taking into account people’s voices and suggestions, you are living the example of cross-functional collaboration. This beats words on a value sheet by a country mile.

You will also notice that as these come into effect, there is an increase in knowledge sharing, mentoring, and joint problem-solving across teams and departments.

Leverage Feedback Loops

Establish frequent and transparent communication channels with staff, sharing strategic updates and seeking input.

To do this, you want to be short and sweet – use concise, multi-format communications (emails, videos, data visualisations) to effectively reach all staff.


Continuously gather staff feedback through surveys, town halls, and other channels to inform strategic pivots.

References

In conclusion, an agile mindset is the essential component for any effective operational agility and strategic agility direction. By nurturing this culture, businesses can adapt, innovate, and thrive in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world. As the saying goes, “The only thing constant is change,” and the agile mindset equips organisations to embrace change with confidence and resilience.

In Summary

Dusya Vera and Mary M Crossan (2/2023), ‘Character-enabled improvisation and the new normal: A paradox perspective’, SAGE – PMC COVID-19 Collection’,

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9478631/

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