In October last year, the boss of a well known firm uttered those fateful words ‘we need to become a more agile company’.
Both the sentiment and the jobs cuts that followed would have been unremarkable, except for the fact that the company in question was Wal-Mart.
Agility requires flight of foot, the ability to turn on a dime, as the Americans put it. Wal-Mart is a $450bn leviathan with over two million employees. It’s like your 70 year-old mother getting a sprawling Kendrick Lamar tattoo to get down with the kids. Just... no.
The agility buzzword finally seemed to have lost all meaning.
Agility... doesn't that involve backflips?
The term originated in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development in 2001. It was a specific approach in a specific sector, but soon its core principles - moving quickly to build a minimum viable product, using iterative development to improve it on the go, with testing and feedback built in at every stage rather than just at the end – became fashionable across the corporate world.
To test how agility is seen today, I asked an array of ‘thought leaders’ how important it was. Almost all of them said it was essential. One went as far as to say that 'if a business has survived without a certain level of agility, it is by accident'.
Agility has come to mean adaptability, which as a business principle is obviously a complete no-brainer. What chief executive with any sense has ever chosen to ignore changing market conditions?
If that’s all it means, agility is genuinely meaningless, another word business leaders use to sound dynamic and edgy (often while laying off staff), like disruptive, innovative or even ‘intrapreneur’ (yuck).
Of course, the 21st century economy does require leaders to be more adaptable than before. Digital transformation isn’t just a figment of some slick management consultant’s imagination – from cabs to Kodak, there are countless examples of firms and sectors that have been brought low, fast, by disruptive forces.
If that’s what a chief executive means when she says she wants to be more agile, then fine. Except surely the devil’s in the detail. The essence of adaptability is speed – markets are changing faster, so we need to adapt faster. But speed for speed’s sake brings its own set of problems.
Speed: remember the tortoise and the hare
‘Getting reaction times down to Usain Bolt levels is the ambition of many leadership teams,’ says Trevor Hardy of The Future Laboratory.
‘Another view is that speed kills. That fast decisions result in actions that are good for the immediate or short term but harm our future. The cult of immediate gratification of consumers has infected the boardroom.’
This isn’t to say you can’t act or react quickly, only that agility is no excuse not to think. Rushing into drastic decisions without careful consideration isn't the future of anything, except possibly failure.
This is all the more true when you consider that rapid change can create productivity-draining emotional turmoil for employees, particularly if they fear for their jobs.
Here is where agility can regain its meaning. In the original Agile manifesto, there was a strong focus on individuals and teams rather than processes imposed from the top down. Employees were participants, not pawns in their CEO’s game of lightning chess.
‘Companies haven’t been focused on change readiness in the workforce and have instead often misconstrued the idea of agility. They see it as flexible thinking or comfort with ambiguity, but our data suggest those areas don’t distinguish the people who are willing and able to change,’ says Jean Martin of best practice insights company CEB.
She says businesses wanting to be able to react quickly and effectively to changing conditions need employees who show initiative, problem-solving skills and the ability to empower and collaborate with others.
Achieving that is about more than just some creative hiring and firing. Largely, it comes from involving employees in the ‘how’ of the change, rather than just imposing it from above.
So the next time you hear someone at a conference banging on about their agile approach, ask them for a few specifics. If all they give you is a vague desire to speed things up, then the term is lost.
But if they talk about how it will help their organisation respond to unpredictable change – whether through iterative product development or giving employees more space to take initiative – then perhaps there’s hope for agility yet.