What is agility?

Agile is on everybody’s lips these days. Everyone’s talking about ‘going agile’ or ‘being more agile’. But what does this actually mean?

Perhaps a bit of the history of agile is on order first. The term ‘agile’ started to emerge around the turn of the century in the software development community.  After many failed attempts at delivering software following the engineering principles & practises used in tradition engineering (the Waterfall Model),  they soon realised that the way they were developing software wasn’t working and that they needed to change. Thus was born the many variants of agile methodologies and practices that we see today, such as Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS, etc. What’s really critical here is that we don’t focus on the methodologies but rather on the fact that these luminaries understood their customer’s needs and the environment in which they were working and adapted accordingly.

This is the crux of agility:

…being able to quickly respond to changes.

The first ingredient for agility is customer delight – being able to satisfy the customer’s needs as quickly and as often as possible with valuable products and services. Customer’s needs change regularly in this complex, digitally connected world and businesses need to be able to adapt and change in step with them. When we focus instead on the inner workings of the business we fail to notice when the customers takes a left turn. We we finally look up we’re surprised that the customers aren’t there anymore.

The second key ingredient to agility is to reduce complexity by descaling work. In a VUCA world, we generally have the best success when we deal with small, manageable problems one at a time, and then moving on. Trying to deal with a massive amount of moving parts is a recipe for disaster.

The third ingredient is a recognition that the organisation is a system and that agility needs to be embraced organisation-wide. Each part of the system is inter-related and needs to works together, so if one area changes, all areas need to change. This isn’t someone else’s problem – if you’re part of the system, you need to be part of the change.

Underpinning all this is probably the most important ingredient of all – a culture that supports and nurtures learning, change & growth. Leaders need to hold the space, giving permission for and accountability to people to figure out the best way to delight customers, knowing that the efforts may not always work, but supporting them in their efforts to learn, grow and adapt from their experiences.

Put all these ingredients together in the right quantities, provide the right cultural environment to allow for growth, and you’re on your way to true business agility. But don’t expect it to be easy – change is difficult and you’ll be challenged at every turn. But with change comes growth. 

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein

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