The race is on for start-ups to achieve scale before large organizations master agility
We are inundated with news that the world is changing, the make-up of our workforce is changing, and how people choose to work is changing. What we haven’t fully appreciated is that our definition of economic success has not yet caught up to the new world. Economists are beginning to suggest that agility, not productivity, will define the future success of our economy. According to the Chief Economist at the Institute of Directors, “The future will belong to firms who are fast-moving, agile and can respond to consumer demands as quickly as possible.”(1) In other words, if agility isn’t the number one priority in your organization, it should be.
At the organizational level, agility is the ability for a company to renew itself, adapt, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous environment. It’s underpinned by a paradox: agility requires stability. To master this balance, organizations must make conscious choices about where and how to be agile, designing a robust backbone of structures, processes, and governance. At the same time, they must also create looser, more dynamic elements that can adapt quickly to a changing context and new opportunities. Picture a dancer. A strong and stable core enables every expression.
Dynamic movement is deliberate and coordinated, and even when the figure is motionless, small tweaks are taking place in every muscle to adapt to its surrounding.
The agility paradox also exists at the leadership level. To master agility, leaders need to balance a strong identity with flexible practice. Specifically, leaders need a strong sense of who they are as leaders and why they lead, combined with flexibility in how they present themselves as leaders and how they adapt to their contexts.
Viewed through identity and practice, leadership development becomes a continuous journey. Great leaders have a strong identity and understand why they lead. Extending this identity, agile leaders embody a growth mind-set; they are lifelong learners and intellectually curious. In practice, agile leaders continuously experiment and consciously adjust their habits to facilitate growth and transformation. Most importantly, agile leaders are sensitive to their context and the role they play in the stable and flexible elements of their organization.
The reality is that agility inhibitors fill large organizations. Agile can be in your organization’s strategy but can go against the way you measure success. As far back as 1954, Drucker noted that performance is not just about how well the company is doing today but how well it will do in the future.(2) The way your organization is set up can be anti-agile: reporting relationships and team structures may misalign incentives. Perhaps most simply, change itself is hard. Leading with agility can often mean going against our instincts.
We already know that the future is agile. What will you do to make sure you are ready?
As a leader:
- Get to grips with your context. How does your role balance agility and stability?
- Get serious about identity. Ask yourself, why do I lead here?
- Get real about behavior change. Get feedback about how you show up in practice and commit to making a small change to try something new.
If you develop leaders:
- Get in shape to support a new way of developing leaders. Design your leadership development interventions to focus on adapting to context, exploring identity, and enabling behavior change. Build the ecosystem to make development easy with user experience, incentives, and managerial support reinforcing the way.