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Defining and Practicing Organizational Agility

Jun 15, 2023
Anna Jane Parrill

If the past few years taught businesses anything, it's that change is a constant. Throughout this time, many organizations struggled, adapted, and finally reoriented strategic objectives, market goals, and workforce in the face of rapid change and an uncertain climate. Understanding agility is one of the first steps toward preparing your organization for future growth and inevitable change.

What is organizational agility?

Agility is a hot topic these days. The terms "agile" and "agility" are used in board rooms and conferences to impassion organizational leaders, but what do they mean? Agility represents an organization's ability to adjust quickly and revitalize itself in response to a rapidly-changing, uncertain, and chaotic environment. Organizations demonstrate a high degree of agility when they adapt to the emergence of new competition, technology, and shifting market conditions. At its core, agility refers to an organization's ability to respond to change.

Flexibility & fixedness

It is essential to understand the difference between true agility and what so many organizations think agility means: flexibility. Organizational agility focuses on the speed with which an organization can change directions, while flexibility is the capacity to do different things with the same resources. Flexibility is an integral part of an organization's overall agility, but it has downsides and can sometimes decrease the efficiency of workflows.

At its core, agility refers to an organization's ability to respond to change.

Agility requires an organization to balance flexibility with fixedness. 

Fixedness reduces variability. It allows a team to focus on specific goals and become well-versed in executing all aspects of their functional area, including using the best processes and tools to perform their particular function. However, fixedness can create inefficiencies when it impedes a set process, tool, or team member in any way.

To begin assessing your organization's agility, you must first understand where you can stretch existing resources and goals to do new things—in new ways—and what specifics need to be kept the same to enable faster adoption and productivity. Too much flexibility can bog down decisions and processes. Too much fixedness makes it very difficult to change in response to new information.

How can organizations become more agile?

While change doesn't happen overnight, setting some goals can help clear a path for organizations to increase their agility and create a more responsive workplace.

Hire and inspire with core values.

Successful organizations focus on creating a work team that demonstrates an ability to collaborate, respond to change, and act resiliently. This goes beyond hiring employees with specific skill sets or work experience. Using an organization's core values as a guiding principle will often help hiring managers and recruiters read between the lines of resumes and find candidates that will align with the organization's true purpose. Building a workforce with an authentic, unified vision makes it easier to foster teamwork and accountability and fight workplace fatigue.

Adopt a culture of learning and growth.

Agility requires organizations to invest in continuous learning for their employees and foster a culture of responsive discovery. Teams should feel that regular analysis is an excellent way to increase the value of their work. Team members at all levels should be able to make mistakes and, more importantly, to learn from them in an open environment. Leadership and decision-makers should regularly ask: "What have we learned lately, and how will that help us deliver more value to our customers?"

Stay opportunity-oriented.

A cornerstone of the agile mindset is an organization's ability to recognize changing market conditions and new opportunities and react quickly to beat the competition. An agility-focused workplace culture makes it easy for all team members to share ideas, develop new strategies, and execute quickly on those strategies. Leadership should encourage the "entrepreneurial mindset" in the workforce for customer-facing work and internal initiatives that add value.

Agility & leadership

Unsurprisingly, organizational strategy and culture are only sustainable if they start at the top. Leadership should focus on the following to help improve agility within an organization:

  • Foster internal mobility, encourage cross-functional assignments and break down silos.
  • Move organizational pieces around quickly and nimbly; rapidly disassemble and reassemble teams to enable the sharing of ideas and talent.
  • Inform strategic alliances; facilitate buy-in and break down resistance from strategic partners and external resources engaged in the change process.
  • Eliminate conflicting priorities (especially those that do not align well with the strategic priorities).
  • Retire outdated bottlenecks in the decision-making process, reevaluate decision-based safeguards, and delegate decisions to the owning teams wherever possible.

What are the benefits of organizational agility?

In the long run, genuinely agile organizations are well-prepared to:

  • Adapt to changing market conditions and evolving workforces;
  • Stretch existing resources and the organization itself to do new things in new ways;
  • Support faster change within the organization; and,
  • Add the most value possible to the customer, keeping the organization strong and, ultimately, profitable.

Taking the initiative to assess your organization's agility represents the first step in a growth-oriented strategic redesign. As we look forward to a new post-pandemic business era, organizations must reflect on their agility and build a clear vision for the future.

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