Achieving Organizational Agility

October 15, 2019

Achieving Organizational Agility

Authors Leo M. Tilman and General Charles Jacoby share their expertise in building agility throughout the organization. Working from a shared understanding of agility, leaders must cultivate the right mindset, empower employees, and recognize the right risks to take. 

HRPS: How would you define agility? What are the main features?

Tilman & Jacoby: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is barreling forward and the pace of disruption is accelerating. Senior leaders—across business, government, the military, healthcare organizations, educational institutions, and the world of NGOs—know their organizations must change and become more agile, but they don’t know precisely what agility means or how to achieve it. We set out to create a comprehensive theory of agility and then make it come alive as an operational doctrine and leadership practice. This involved defining agility, explaining how it’s different from other competencies, and deconstructing it into parts that can be deliberately developed and put into practice. 

We define agility as the organizational capacity to effectively detect, assess and respond to environmental changes in ways that are purposeful, decisive and grounded in the will to win.

We put forth a consequential premise: agile organizations possess both strategic and tactical agility. Strategic agility enables entire organizations to detect and assess major trends and environmental changes and dynamically adapt their vision, business models, human capital and strategy to the new reality. Tactical agility enables employees to take smart risks, capture opportunities, improvise and innovate as they execute a clear strategy.

HRPS: Agility is a current challenge for many organizations. What do you recommend to build agility for large organizations?

Tilman & Jacoby: One of the central messages is that organizational agility is achievable. It can be taught, learned and consistently practiced via methodical inquiry, preparation and planning. It is a choice followed by action and hard work. It requires a specific organizational setting, quality of knowledge and set of capabilities that must be deliberately created and relentlessly nurtured by senior leaders. The capabilities of agility become ingrained in thought processes, practices and culture only if they are positioned as essential priorities and standards of excellence—and embraced as such by the whole organization. With this purposeful and disciplined approach, agility becomes a mindset, a way of thinking that determines how we study environments and how we operate on a day-to-day basis. When we make the choice to become agile, adopt the agility mindset, equip ourselves with requisite knowledge and capabilities, embed agility into our processes and culture—and stay vigilant in continuously nurturing it throughout the organization—agility becomes an enduring state of being.

It's worth noting that whether your organization is small or large, the principles of building agility are the same. 

HRPS: What are the hallmarks of an agile culture? An agile work environment?

Tilman & Jacoby: First, leaders must make a deliberate choice to build an agile organization and create the agility mindset (as above). Once that choice has been made, they must put in the hard work to develop key capabilities, including risk intelligence, decisiveness, and execution dexterity. This is all supported by an agile culture of honesty, trust, empowerment, and accountability.

HRPS: What is the role of risk in agility?

Tilman & Jacoby: Every organization today may abruptly find itself heading toward an environmental shift that poses an existential threat, a transformational opportunity, or both. The disruption across all domains is already staggering, and it’s picking up speed. In this whirlwind of change, we're monitoring the developments we’ve deemed relevant. But are we focusing our attention on the right targets? Are we scanning the horizon broadly and vigilantly enough? Are we committing enough resources and taking vigorous enough action? 

This is where risk comes into play. Risk intelligence is one of the three pillars of agility. It is crucial for leaders to develop an understanding of the major trends and factors that impact their environment. By recognizing and managing their portfolio of risks on an ongoing basis and aligning those with goals and resources, leaders can assess and respond to changes, whether presented with a threat or an opportunity. We believe that leaders and whole organizations must become risk intelligent and agile in their approach. By developing ways to understand risks and uncertainties and proactively manage them, they are more likely to succeed.

HRPS: How can executives show strong leadership but also decentralize execution and decision-making?

Tilman & Jacoby: We present a command-and-control doctrine (adapted from the U.S. military’s doctrine of Mission Command) that is specifically designed to foster agility. Many executives and consultants confuse an effective command-and-control philosophy and practice with micromanagement. But the goal of the command-and-control doctrine is to seamlessly meld centralized vision and planning with decentralized empowered execution. This means that senior leaders must attend to senior leader business (vision, planning, directing, creating the culture) and empower others to exercise initiative and take smart risks in getting the mission, task, or strategy accomplished. This makes people feel valued and engaged. Thus, the strategy is executed in a disciplined fashion—while harnessing the talents and ingenuity of the entire organization. 

HRPS: How do you cultivate an agile mindset throughout the organization?

Tilman & Jacoby: Agility is a choice followed by action and hard work. It requires specific experience, understanding, and commitment. It demands engagement across the organization as well as a concerted investment in people and processes. Adopting the agility mindset allows organizations to thrive since it provides a new way of studying environments, making decisions, evaluating threats and opportunities, building cultures and relationships, defining True North (strategic and moral), and decisively executing. First, leaders must fully understand and embrace what agility means. Then they and their subordinates must be trained. It is through that shared understanding, training, and practice that the agility mindset is created. 

The mindset is developed and nurtured when:

  1. the entire organization is educated on what agility means and on what it takes for an organization to be agile,
  2. then the mindset is exemplified in the behaviors of senior leaders and consistently practiced at all organizational levels, out to very edges.

The agility mindset has many components. To illuminate, let’s explore one example: the bias for the offense. 

Seamlessly and dynamically switching between defense and offense is a hallmark of agility. When facing a favorable environment, agile organizations grab the initiative and keep competitors off-balance. When having to fend off dangers, they make a concerted effort to pave the way to resuming the offense when the time is right. 

The importance of a bias for the offense is often underappreciated in business, government, even in the military. Agile organizations take the following to heart: when, thanks to our bias for the offense, we seize the initiative, the ability of our rivals to exploit our weaknesses is diminished. When we grab an opportunity or de¬velop new capabilities, this often creates vulnerabilities for our adversaries. On the flip side, when we are mired in inaction or indecision, we expose ourselves to new threats and don’t accomplish our mission.

The Authors: 

Leo M. Tilman and General Charles Jacoby are co-authors of Agility: How to Navigate the Unknown and Seize Opportunity in a World of Disruption. Tilman is President and CEO of Tilman & Company and author of three earlier books. Jacoby (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a military leader whose career in uniform culminated as four-star Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command.