Organisational Agility as a Cultural or Strategic Capability

Given the increasing pace and unpredictability of change, it’s clear that Organisational Agility is a critical strategic capability for businesses to develop. Indeed, McKinsey found that three quarters of companies see Organisational Agility as a top 3 priority, while less than half had begun to address it at a company level. (Given that this data was gathered between 2014 and 2107, I’d hazard a guess that it would be at least as important now).

Organisational Agility does not equal Agile

While agile methods and organisational agility might be mutually supportive, let me be clear that they are not the same thing. I’m talking about agility as a cultural characteristic of the organisation, grounded in both how people think and behave, and the systems and processes that support it.

Organisational Agility as a cultural characteristic

If we do represent agility as a cultural characteristic, I’d also like to make it clear that it doesn’t mean throwing away the distinctive elements of corporate culture that make your organisation unique. It’s about considering how elements of your current culture either support or detract from your ability to be more agile: or to create (innovate) and adapt to change.

Basic cultural values

I think of culture in terms of eight basic values, to which your own corporate values will relate in some way. These are (based on Apter, 2002):

Achievement – the pursuit of goals and plans

Enjoyment – pursuing activity for its own sake

Fitting in – following rules and convention

Freedom -independence from rules and convention

Mastery – power, control, status and competence

Caring – relationships, affection and well-being

Individualism – self over others

Collectivism – others over self

Although these are useful for differentiating and pinpointing your corporate culture, when we talk more specifically about a culture of agility, it is helpful to think more about how these values can be expressed in support of the organisation’s ability to change itself.

All values contribute to agility

Developing Organisational Agility isn’t just a matter of spotting changes in the external environment and responding quickly to them, though that’s clearly part of the picture. Indeed, all of the above values have a part to play in agility. While the initiation of change is about responsiveness or a restless desire to improve, it’s critical that people can organise themselves effectively, that they stay focused on the strategic priorities, and that people are brought along for the journey. Without these ‘traditional’ elements of change delivery, the organisation is a characterised by headless chickens jumping from one initiative to the next, with no follow through or value.

It isn’t therefore, about saying that certain cultural values are more important than others. That’s why becoming more agile isn’t necessarily a case of changing what’s special and unique about your culture. That would be like saying to an introvert, “you need to me more extravert”. It’s about understanding how each value can help you (and how it might also present you with challenges), and where your strengths and opportunities to become more agile lie.

Critical agility questions

Without necessarily doing a full cultural assessment, I’d propose a number of key questions you can ask stakeholders:

  • To what extent is there shared commitment to the long-term vision and mission of the organisation?
  • How open are our people to to change and ready to adapt to the current and future external environment?
  • How inclined are we challenge the status quo; to improve products, services, processes and plans in support of the overall goal?
  • How safe is it to express new and different ideas, to be different and to take risks?
  • How consistently do we demonstrate the discipline and determination to see change through to completion?
  • To what extent do people want and feel able to collaborate and support each other to succeed?
  • To what extent is there a sense of emotional engagement with the greater purpose of the organisation and its place in society? and
  • How able are people to manage their own physical and emotional needs, with support from colleagues and leaders?

Now, to what extent do the behaviours of your leaders, your policies and practices, and your processes enable these cultural conditions? Where you can answer the questions positively, what are your sources of strength? How can you harness those to create change. Where are the opportunities to improve?

Tensions and Organisational Agility

As these questions suggest, organisational agility means being able to pull on the right levers at the right time in order to innovate and create change. This does not only mean initiating change or coming up with good ideas, but being able to see them through to completion and bringing everyone along on the journey.

What makes this difficult is the oppositional nature of the cultural values, which means managing some inherent tensions. This requires care and skill, and strengths that are overplayed can become weaknesses. For example, a shared commitment to the vision and mission of the organisation is essential, but if overemphasised through excessive focus on targets, it might make it harder for people to contemplate change or express new ideas. Similarly, over-emphasis on determination and discipline to execute might result in individual needs being ignored, or a failure to collaborate effectively

These tensions are something that I will explore in more depth at another time, but they key point is that balance is required. The exact nature of that balance depends on the prevailing culture, the purpose and mission of the organisation, and the demands of the external environment.

Where to start

Begin by asking the questions as a group. They could be addressed as a workshop, or a quick survey.

Look for areas of strength and opportunities to improve. Focus on actionable changes not only to behaviours, but to processes and systems.

Just remember, that if you are struggling in one area, it could be the result of an overplayed strength in an other.

Let me know how you get on :-)

Reference: Apter, M.J. (2002). Motivational Styles in EveryDay Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. American Psychological Association.