I’ve been thinking a lot on the term agility as our company prepares for and undergoes changes in our business environment.
What does it mean, exactly, to be agile? And what can we learn from a buzzword so favored by business leaders today?
I recently heard a colleague describe the act of leading as being constantly poised with one foot in front, all of your weight leaning in that forward direction – a stance that surely gets uncomfortable at times, he remarked.
And beyond uncomfortable, I thought, it can also be dangerous, as that pose does not allow for agile movement. With one foot forward, businesses can only move in one direction easily, and that’s straight ahead. They may find themselves unbalanced, unable to react to threats from the side, incapable of taking a step back to reevaluate their momentum.
The example of Apple comes to mind, a hands-down leader in the consumer technology industry. Apple’s forward-leaning stance may have prevented it from registering a threat from Samsung, which challenged the market with a “good enough” smartphone at a lower price point. Had Apple saw the threat and reacted with agility, the iPhone may have maintained its once near-monopolistic market share.
As a lifelong competitive athlete, I think the visual that best illustrates agility is the “ready” stance: feet shoulder-width apart, weight on the balls of your feet and knees slightly bent. In this position you can anticipate the need to pivot. You can step left, step right, skip backward or forward, instantly and as the need arises. You can chase the ball, prepare for a pass, sprint to the goal and dodge a block.
That really describes the agility cycle. It’s about quick sprints that anticipate strategy, react to results and reconfigure the game plan to meet the changing needs of your business environment. And then it’s about getting back in that “ready” stance to prepare for the next play.
Which is probably why agility is not a trait that comes naturally to most of us. It’s much more comfortable to rest back on our heels, to let momentum carry us down a well-worn path as we stay safely planted in what we already know. This is something I refer to as organizational inertia, and it’s the biggest challenge to business agility and transformation efforts.
Of course we all know what happens to businesses that strike that pose. They get knocked down and overrun by the Netflixes, the Ubers, the Dollar Shave Clubs of the world. To have any chance of survival, organizations must be ready to pivot and adapt with an eye on getting and maintaining the lead.
But to do this, all of us – from our CEOs and CIOs down to the ranks of our employees – need to be agile. We need to be aware of the changing business climate, the threats and potentials that face us – and be ready and willing to respond.
How, as leaders, can we encourage this environment? I can think of a few key ways:
- Through effective communication at all levels of the organization
- Through decentralized decision-making that allows for homegrown ideas and innovations
- Through training and investment that empowers employees
- By viewing failures as “learning experiences”
- By pushing employees to continue reaching beyond their current roles
- By keeping an eye on the future, and encouraging staff to do the same
- By always questioning the status quo – what can we do better?
And I can think of one strategy to definitely avoid: benchmarking against your peers. By looking only at known competitors and in a backward-slanted way, you get a warped and dated view of your business environment, which lulls you into complacency and blocks you from seeing new market entrants.
The days of putting up one’s feet and riding coattails to success have long passed. We must all strike a pose now that allows us to adapt, to pivot, to change course and leap forward at a moment’s notice. Time to start stretching!