How Agile Is Your Organization?

Identifying attributes that embody lively companies

Two in a seriesagility

Agility – the ability to spot and capture new business opportunities as they emerge – is a capability that is highly sought-after in today’s fast-moving world. But how do you know if your organization is agile? What traits do agile organizations exhibit?

When an organization is agile, employees are alert. They anticipate what might happen next. They see opportunities and decide quickly and capably which to pursue.

They move fast when action is needed – and after they take action, they monitor the situation assiduously to ensure that the intended results come to pass, and to take additional action when necessary.

It’s a pleasure to lead and work in these organizations. People care. They have energy. They jump on new ideas and are eager to reach across functional lines – or to partners outside the organization – to innovate. They are decisive.

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When an organization is agile, employees are alert. They anticipate what might happen next.

In contrast, organizations that are not agile are complacent and insular. The leaders of these organizations are often out-of-touch with customers and the front line. They repeatedly defer or ignore decisions on important issues.

When these companies do take action, it often peters out or unravels due to lack of clarity and commitment. Employees at all levels have “checked out” of the competitive game.

Agile companies possess the following five characteristics:

Sharpened senses. Employees maintain a continuous and keen awareness of emerging customer needs, new technology trends, likely competitor moves, changes in supplier markets, and the like.

Like a mill horse with its nose to the grindstone, employees can be blinded to what’s around them by the busyness and monotony of daily operations. Because changes – such as increasing customer interest in a certain product feature or discontent with another – happen gradually, they go unnoticed.

Agile organizations, however, are highly sensitive to market changes. They grant employees leeway to do something about the changes they see. As a result, employees notice more changes earlier and react more immediately and effectively.

Clarity and objectivity. Agile companies are objective about their own shortcomings and about where they excel. They are able to make sense of many market changes simultaneously – and can zero in on those that are important, while resisting the “sensory overload” that can lead to paralysis.

They are able to deal – rationally and proactively – with the uncertainties and risks inherent in any new initiative or strategic direction. They are willing to shed portions of the business that do not fit with their new direction, rather than becoming emotionally attached to “the way we’ve always done things.”

Their clear and objective understanding of the current situation enables them to be more adept at projecting what might happen next.

Ingenuity, resourcefulness, and openness to change. When a company faces a difficult strategic situation, its executives may see few strategic options and feel boxed into a corner.

But an agile organization can identify new strategic alternatives. Much as the human brain goes into overdrive when a threat is near, an agile organization responds positively to change – firing the synapses between functions, spurring creativity, and identifying nonobvious and groundbreaking strategic options.

• Fast, rational decision-making. Companies often get bogged down in indecision for months when assessing a potential change in strategy; they’re busy dealing with stakeholder objections and fretting over risks.

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Agile companies consider all the facts, risks, and stakeholder concerns and then make a quick decision about which direction to take.

Although the objections are usually legitimate, they’re usually surmountable. Agile companies consider all the facts, risks, and stakeholder concerns and then make a quick decision about which direction to take.

• Committed, yet flexible, action. Agile companies implement aggressively while anticipating change and building in flexibility to make course corrections. They are very much like skiers heading down a black diamond slope – committed to the path, fully alert, and ready to navigate the unexpected.

Because the skiers cannot see far ahead, they anticipate and prepare for what they might encounter. They keep their hips and knees loose and flexible. The skiers use the terrain to their advantage, working with the mountain, rather than against it. They’re fluid – almost rhythmic – in their agility. They let their adrenaline work for them – just as agile companies do.

In future posts, I’ll talk about how you can build the organizational capabilities required to be agile. Once you have these capabilities, you’ll find they provide a competitive edge that few can match.

You’ll see more business opportunities, and you’ll move faster to capture them. And, your employees will be happier, more energized and more focused on working together to achieve your business goals.goldbrown2

Adapted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World by Amanda Setili (Setili & Associates). Copyright (c) 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. Click here to learn more.

Amanda Setili is managing partner of the strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates, whose clients include Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and Walmart. She previously held positions with Global Food Exchange, McKinsey & Company, Asia Connect in Malaysia, and Kimberly-Clark.

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