We have found that many people, upon hearing the word „agility“, mainly think about frameworks and methods such as SCRUM and Kanban. Agility is much more, though. It is also a set of principles, mind-sets and values, it is a certain „way of thinking and of doing things“ which permeates and shapes the whole organisation. In their very helpful book „Organisation in einer digitalen Zeit“ the authors Malte Foegen and Christian Kaczmarek make a useful distinction into six „levels“ of agility, which, taken together, give a good impression of what an agile organisation is really about.

We would like to take their pyramid and elaborate a bit on these six levels.

Strategic Agility

In the good old past, strategy was often very much static. Once a strategy was on paper, it stayed there unchanged, possibly for years. Fixed cycles of „strategic planning“ were the norm and between the regular planning sessions the organisation was set to implementation mode.

In fluid environments, even strategies must become fluid.

This model does not work anymore: the speed of strategically relevant change has increased so much that the strategy itself must be constantly under review. Windows of opportunity open up for a very short time – these need to be exploited fast. Strategically relevant threats arise overnight – reactions need to be swift.

Strategic agility is therefore the ability to not only launch new products and services but to alter the core business, renew the fundamental business models and to unlock new sources of value creation without losing one’s step.

The strategy is always work-in-progress, always „in beta“.

Core competencies for strategic agility include a constant awareness and sensing of relevant developments in the world (shifts in customer expectations, technological developments, competitor behaviour), the ability to make sense of these developments quickly, to formulate answers quasi overnight and the flexibility to shift resources as quickly as possible. The strategy never wanders into a dark drawer, but is always on the table.

Business Agility

Although the boundary to strategic flexibility is somewhat blurry, business agility refers to the tactical exploitation of opportunities within the current setup of the core business. We prefer to make the distinction that whereas strategic agility encompasses a change of vision, business agility is the ability to quickly come up with new ways to realise the vision by coming up with new ideas, products, services and solutions.

Business agility is the company’s capability to constantly adapt to and evolve with its environment.One core aspect of business agility is the concept of co-evolution: the organisation is constantly evolving with and adapting to an ever fluctuating and shifting environment. As the demands of customers, technology, regulations, competitors’ products etc. change, so too does the organisation. If we were to get poetic, we would say that the organisation is „dancing“ with the environment.

A prerequisite for this dance to happen is that the organisation must be able to adequately represent the environment’s complexity. Traditional bureaucratic command-and-control structures are utterly unable to do this. Self-organisation, dynamic decision making, complex webs of interactions and resource autonomy are some of the ingredients of an agile organisation.

Here, too, the concept of „always in beta“ holds true: constant experimentation and iteration are the rule.

Organisational agility

Often used as synonym for agility in total, here we mean specifically the organisation’s ability to constantly change it’s internal configuration, it’s structure, processes and ways of cooperating and communicating.

Organisational agility is the application of the practices of agile product development onto the organisation itself.It is here where static cast-in-iron traditional organisations with their typical artefacts like centrally managed org charts, job descriptions, titles, „performance management systems“ (as if performance could be managed) come to an end. The search for the new paradigms and models of organisational design is underway and there are loads of experimentation going on. Holacracy, sociocracy, emergent structures, empowerment, self-organisation, dynamic governance, decentralised decision-making, flexible office spaces, evolving roles, circular structures, flat organisations: this is just an unordered list of some of the concepts which are currently being tried out.

Common element of all these approaches is that these forms of organisations have the built-in capacity to modify themselves continually. No large re-organisation projects driven by a central staff, but a continuous evolution and reconfiguration.

Product Agility

Product agility is when products themselves evolve frequently. Look at how often the version numbers of the apps on your smartphone change. This is product agility in action. Flexibility is built into the product from the beginning. The ease of modification and adaptation is a central design criterion.

“Always in beta.”While of course there is a longer-term vision for the product, there is also the ability to quickly adapt to shifting customer expectations and feedbacks, competitor behaviour, market opportunities and the like.

Design Thinking, lean startup and agile development are three (often combined) approaches which have product agility as a central goal: a constant short-cycled loop of exploring, building and testing. Rinse and repeat, never stop.

Tools Agility

Here it gets rather technical. Tools (or technical) agility is mainly about two things: making sure that your processes, methods and tools are flexible and adaptable to changing requirements – you don’t want to your tools to dictate how you work, you don’t want to be forced into rigid processes because the your tools do not allow another way of doing things – you want your tools to adapt to your changing way of working.

The second aspect is the use of tools which by themselves enable agile work and collaboration: these are mostly project and task management as well as visualisation, collaboration and communication/information sharing tools. There is a huge and somewhat confusing number of software tools on the market, some of them “small helpers”, others gargantuan and a bit intimidating software monsters. Some of the best-known and most widely used are Jira, Trello, Asana, Wrike and Slack.

Personal Agility

And here it gets very personal, and it needs to. Ultimately, everything above is just the “skeleton and skin” of an agile organisation – the actual heart and meat are people. Actually, it is the first of the core tenets of the Agile Manifesto that “individuals and interactions should be valued more than processes and tools”. This means that “being an agile organisation” is more about having agile people than about having agile processes. In practice, this is huge challenge for many organisations, as we observe again and again that companies start by implementing all kinds of processes and tools which make the company look superficially as if it was working in an agile way (“See, here is our Kanban board! And Jack has been named our agile coach! And we have standups!”), but is, in reality, just a façade. In the Scrum community, the term Zombie Scrum has been coined for this kind of “make believe” agility.

Becoming agile is a deep and comprehensive transformation – and not just the implementation of “agile” practices.If there is an intention to become truly agile, this requires foremost a change of the principles people hold in esteem, a change of mind-set, an acquisition of new skills and deep changes in behaviour: starting with the company’s leadership and management, for whom “agile transformation” possesses the biggest challenge.

We will come back to discussing personal agility in the future.

Summary

Agility is a very multi-faceted concept. It reaches from the changed attitudes and behaviours of each member of the organisation all the way up to unfreezing the organisational structure and even to radically rethink what the organisation means by the term strategy. There is no clear rule where to begin with this strategy – at the top or at the bottom. You cannot “implement” or “roll-out” an agile transformation in the way change programs were implemented in the past. These stand in direct contradiction to what agility means. There need to be new ways to bring the new into life. And there are no recipes you can follow. An agile transformation needs to carry the agile principles and values in it’s core: a spirit of experimentation, adjustments, feedbacks and iterations; of continuous improvement; of really open and honest communication; of trust and a radical empowerment of teams.

If you want to explore how “becoming agile” might work for you, please do give us a call.