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February 7, 1997

Agility

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When the environment is filled with movement, a leader has to be able to pounce and dodge.

Many video games take you through a digital terrain where dangers pop up unexpectedly and rewards suddenly appear for the taking. Level by level, the stakes become riskier, the point totals get larger, and the action gets faster. One wrong move, and the fun can be over in an instant.
Maybe it’s a good thing so many of today’s younger leaders grew up playing video games, because the business landscape is getting more like a gamescape all the time. Threats hurtle toward us. Opportunities seem elusive but are there for you if you’re quick enough in snatching them.
The point is, in this kind of world you’ve got to be agile.
For the purposes of Strategy 3.0, I would define agility as the ability to act and react both rapidly and effectively according to the changes in your organization’s environment. Agility is the sister of adaptability, the first cousin of flexibility and nimbleness. It is alert as a watchdog about what’s coming near. It’s as poised as a tightrope walker traversing a line while balancing imbalances. It’s as versatile as a thoroughbred making its way through the straights and obstacles of a steeplechase course.
If you dither over your decisions, or have the reaction time of a three-toed sloth, you may be on your way to extinction. McGill University management guru Karl Moore describes the kinds of leaders needed now and in the future:

Today’s organizational leaders are facing accelerating rates of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, all of which are showing no signs of slowing down. Whether it is the continuing digital revolution or expanding global markets, our current environment requires a constant state of innovation. For companies to continue succeeding, next generation leaders must be able to handle any curve ball thrown their way. Leading through this new business environment requires the capability to sense and respond to changes in the business environment with actions that are focused, fast and flexible. The best way to put it: next generation leaders have to be agile.1

In 2001, Emirates Airlines didn’t have any immediate plans to add to its fleet. But then, when air travel in the United States and Europe took an unexpected dip following the 9/11 disaster, Emirates put in an order for the new A380 aircraft that Airbus was suddenly having trouble selling. The carrier got several new planes at bargain prices. That’s agility.
When the advent of digital photography threatened Fujifilm’s business model, the company launched a line of cosmetics products using technology it had developed for film. Today, Astalift is one of the leading brands of anti-aging skin care and supplement products around the world. That’s agility too.
So, how agile are you?
Believe it or not, it’s possible to be too agile. Some leaders are trying to take their organizations through so many different changes so quickly that they’re seen as Whiplash Bob or Betty by their nervous, exhausted teams. Effective leaders are flexible; they’re not frenetic. Be ready to make a swift move, but be thoughtful and coordinated about it.
But then it’s also possible to not be agile enough. Maybe you’re change averse by nature. Maybe you’ve been doing business more or less the same way so long that it’s hard to even imagine doing it differently. Either way, you can develop agility. Like a stiff-muscled athlete doing stretching exercises before an event, warm up by practicing agility in smaller-stakes strategies before trying it out where it matters more.
Perhaps you can bring your whole organization with you on a journey toward greater agility.

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