Just a few decades ago, businesses were built to last. The successful companies were the stable companies—those that consistently, dependably offered a product or service desired by the masses. The goal for those running these businesses was to eliminate uncertainty, complexity, and variability where possible. Lengthy, tedious planning cycles and bureaucratic processes are hallmarks of this type of business. The uncertainty in complex projects is dealt with by planning experts who would attempt to pre-determine every possible detail prior to implementation. Success is measured by the extent to which the plan is followed, and predetermined milestones are achieved.
While this traditional approach to business management persists in some types of organizations today, it is often being replaced by a more dynamic, agile approach.
Today, businesses are built to change. Rather than being viewed as problems to eliminate, complexity, uncertainty, and dynamism are seen as inevitable factors involved in meeting ever-changing customer demands. The most successful organizations are those able to constantly evolve to continuously add value to their customers’ lives.
Thanks in part to the rise of the Agile methodology, it seems that every business is focused on increasing its agility. It’s worth noting that there is a difference between (uppercase) Agility—related to the practice of the Agile method—and (lowercase) agility. By definition, Agile organizations should be agile, but not all agile organizations are actually Agile. For the purpose of this post, we’ll focus on (lowercase) agility.
What is agility?
Before we discuss the business agility definition, let’s first define agility in plain terms. When you think of the word agility, you might think of a border collie dashing through an agility course or a football player gracefully tiptoeing his way around the defense to score a touchdown. Although not directly related to this business agility definition, these definitions help to illustrate the stability, speed, and precision that true agility involves.
Dictionary.com defines agility (of any kind) as, “…the power of moving quickly and easily; nimbleness,” with this secondary definition: “the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly; intellectual acuity.”
One could argue that a true business agility definition is a combination of these two definitions: It’s the ability for a business to think, draw conclusions, and move quickly and easily.
Stability and dynamism
For another business agility definition, we look to researchers at McKinsey&Company, who defined the term as
“...the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities…”
In their survey of professionals practicing Agile across a variety of industries, the firm found that business agility requires a balance of stabilizing and dynamic practices.
Stable practices cultivate efficiency and sustainability by, as McKinsey writes, “...establishing a backbone of elements that don’t need to change frequently.” Similar to the way good habits in your personal life—making your bed, getting enough sleep, getting your oil changed in your car—enable you to devote more energy to growth and progress, stable practices enable organizations with the efficiency, reliability, and structure needed to scale.
Dynamic practices are those we often think of when we discuss business agility. Dynamic practices enable teams to respond quickly and nimbly to new threats and opportunities. They also help keep organizations, even large, complex enterprises, on their figurative toes, prepared to tackle any new obstacle.
According to the firm’s research, balancing these two forces—dynamism and stability—is the key to business agility. And it’s not easy. Of the (self-identified) ‘Agile’ organizations surveyed, only 22% were found to be trulyagile, meaning they have achieved a balance of dynamism and stability. The other organizations surveyed lacked either dynamism, stability, or both.
The organizations who favored dynamic practices (28%) operated like small startups, lacking the stability practices necessary to scale. Meanwhile, organizations who favored stability practices (27%) maintained processes rooted in bureaucracy, making it difficult to respond to opportunities and threats. The companies least equipped to withstand disruption were lacking in both stability and dynamism (23%), which McKinsey classifies as ‘Trapped’.
Boosting business agility
If you’re looking for ways to increase the agility of your team or organization, examine the list of 18 agility-boosting practices and identify opportunities for improvement. Like with most things in life, it can be helpful to start small, rather than trying to magically transform into an agile organization all at once. Aligning around shared vision and purpose can be a great place to start.