The Need for Agility in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous World

July 29, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


By Bob Leonard and David Ross


In previous articles, we discussed the need to develop a compelling vision and build a business strategy from it. There was a time when it was a best practice to establish and deliver long-term and detailed strategic plans. For many organizations, this approach is still a core practice. In this Climate/VUCA era (at least several decades), it is perilous to deliver long-term strategic plans without frequent evaluations of progress. Agile course corrections to adapt to unforeseen changes in internal and external environments are necessary.


The Agile approach has been the norm for technical projects for almost two decades, yet it remains rare at a corporate level. The need for agility is abundantly clear as we all face a radically changing world transforming all aspects of our lives… personally, socially, professionally and economically.



The path to a true agility advantage is a complex journey filled with opportunities and challenges. It starts with you as a leader and strategist whose job it is to make sense of a complicated and turbulent world, and to respond to it quickly and effectively. We are living through a rush of innovation that is a core trait of the twenty-first century, a century driven by a digital revolution, rapidly expanding interconnectivity, radically evolving consumer expectations, plus a potentially disruptive climate crisis. This environment of accelerated turbulence is not going to settle down for the foreseeable future.


To succeed in this environment we must be agile – focused, fast and flexible. Strategies, people, processes and technologies must continuously adapt to changing conditions. We must constantly anticipate, monitor and adjust to evolving trends, new regulations, innovative competitors, evolving climate risks and more. C-suite leaders, board members, middle managers and other stakeholders must be continually aware of the need for organizational agility. Many leaders have already attempted to promote it in their organizations. Often these attempts fall short due to the challenges that many C-suite leaders face with adopting agility. They often have a need to control. In the context of agility, the leader who yearns to control may unwittingly or intentionally sabotage the process. With a challenge this broad and complex, a systemic and holistic approach is required.


Organizational Agility


Most paths to a goal are no longer linear. In a VUCA world, our paths are often “messy”. Organizational agility is a superior capacity to deliver stakeholder success in an increasingly VUCA world by sensing and responding to obstacles and opportunities better and faster at all levels of an organization. Organizations able to deliver on that proposition will have a competitive advantage, particularly when faced with exponential change. A true agility advantage is difficult for others to replicate.


Long established companies find it difficult to become agile, because once they are established they become hierarchical. They have processes in place. Everything works in predefined workflows. Policies are defined and enforced. This can result in an organization that is slow, rigid and bureaucratic. Embracing agility, for these companies, requires a change in culture. Transformation from a culture that disallows agility to a more flexible one is a struggle. Many business leaders, especially in established organizations with hierarchies, feel pride in keeping decision making authority to themselves.


One of the axioms for understanding agility is that we must operate with a “Yes, and… “ paradigm, and we must recognize that we cannot excel if we continue to think in terms of the trade-off propositions inherent in the “this or that” paradigm. We must be fast and flexible; we must be innovative yet reliable; we must deliver quality at speed. One cannot create a la carte agility – focusing on one aspect, driver or domain – and meet today’s demands. Lack of agility is an organizational illness whether leadership recognizes it or not. It cannot be isolated to just one area, function or department. Agile organizations are healthy and vibrant throughout. Organizations, like a natural organism, have always had to be sufficiently agile to adjust to changing environments. Agility is being increasingly discussed today because our VUCA world demands it.


Developing creative adaptability can ensure that an organization will thrive. Organizations are faced with executing current strategies to survive today’s challenges while remaining fluid enough to adapt to tomorrow’s turbulence. These VUCA contextual factors will ultimately set the bar for what agility really means. It’s like categorizing conditions in whitewater rafting. Are you navigating through Class 1 or Class 5 rapids? In addition to understanding the nature of your challenge, you need to assess the readiness of your raft (value proposition, business model, processes and technology) and your crew (leadership, culture and people). How would you rate your agility? 


Four Types of Agility Competencies


Successful leaders consistently use the following four types of agility competencies:


Context-setting Agility is the ability to scan the environment, anticipate what might change, and clearly see connections beyond the boundaries of their specific initiative, function, company, or even industry. This enables a longer-term focus, visionary thinking and true impact.


Stakeholder Agility is the ability to identify, seek out, and engage key stakeholders. It’s the capacity to understand and empathize with the views of multiple stakeholders while also honoring one’s own view. Effective leaders seek input from stakeholders not just to get buy-in, but to gain a better understanding from their diverse perspectives. The bold and innovative go further, co-creating new products and services with their key stakeholders – and reaping the benefits as a consequence.


Creative Agility is the ability to explore multiple views when dealing with a complex problem and to step back to examine the assumptions being made. Creative leaders comprehend and manage the cognitive dissonance that can arise when working with a diverse team of people. And to lead those teams to generate inimitable and elegant solutions.


Self-Leadership Agility is the capacity to constantly grow self-awareness, and to lead oneself first by understanding the kind of leader one aspires to be. Successful leaders have an interest in aligning their behavior with values, and seek to become more and more authentic. They use personal growth to fuel professional development.


The adaptability of an organization is driven by its employees’ capacity to adapt to changing priorities. That capacity is defined by the inherent adaptability of the individuals, and it is governed by their degree of empowerment. If they feel they cannot change course without permission from above, their hands are tied. An adaptive culture pays close attention to all of its constituencies and takes immediate actions when needed to meet changing concerns… even if that entails risks.


Need to Embrace Failure


A major challenge to agility is a fear of failure. This is often ingrained in company culture. Executives in most organizations are asked to set a strategy and targets – and are then held accountable to them. Failure to deliver can damage a career.


In an agile environment, failure is an essential part of the process. Agility means doing something new, discovering how well it works and assessing whether it achieves the desired results. This approach is valuable for companies that are seeking to innovate and find new ways of doing things. It requires risk taking – so a culture where failure is not tolerated is obstructive.


The traditional ‘fear of failure’ culture creates a situation where leaders will bend the truth to deliver ‘success’ from a project that has not achieved its goals. As a result, companies continue to move forward with failed initiatives, and course corrections aren’t instituted.


We appreciate how confronting this can be for some organizations, particularly for those with hierarchical cultures that value control and stability. However, by embracing experimentation and ‘test and learn’, you create a new culture of transparency, where every stakeholder understands the true performance of a strategy and can see when it needs improvement. This approach is clearly preferable to continuing with a transformation initiative that is based on flawed logic or ‘embellished’ performance reports.


Another common occurrence with strategy deployments is that the sheer cost and momentum force a resistance to agility. Most major projects involve expensive research, design, piloting and planning – significant resources have been invested before the transformation even begins. Professional reputations are at stake, so the goal of completing the project becomes more important than making sure it’s effective.


An organization will often discover along the way that there are obstacles or risks that had not been anticipated. But instead of stopping, thinking and adapting to these new challenges, a doggedness sets in that drives the project through regardless. A focus on sunk costs can be a powerful deterrent to innovation and breakthrough. This ultimately leads to a flawed, less than successful strategy.


Taking an agile approach to transformation means setting a long-term goal, but not the time or cost. The project is broken down into bite-sized phases, each with an individual goal. Then there’s time to make adjustments along the way… to map out and price next steps and to eventually achieve the desired impact.


The success of building an agile and adaptive culture comes not only from innovative ideas and plans, but through your employees. When hiring, evaluate candidates for agility and adaptability. Once they are on board, empower them to deploy their creativity, imagination and original thinking. 





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