Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

Leadership Agility, Team Agility, and Organizational Agility


Leadership agility is the ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions.  Team and organizational agility refer to the same set of capacities in teams and organizations.

Why Agility Has Become Essential

The term “agility” was first used in the 1990s to describe manufacturing organizations that could adapt quickly to changing customer needs. By the early 2000s, the concept of agility had broadened to mean the ability to “anticipate and respond to rapidly changing conditions” and to “effectively manage complex, interdependent relationships.” Because of mounting complexity and a relentless, accelerating pace of change in the global economy, it became clear that all organizations, including service firms, government agencies, and non-profits – and the teams within them – need to develop higher levels of agility. Over the course of this past decade the agile software development movement has also gathered considerable momentum.

It stands to reason that agile teams and organizations require agile leaders. But until recently, little was known about what agile leadership looks like in action and the underlying mental and emotional capacities it requires. We initiated an extensive, five-year research project focused squarely on this question. The results of this research, which included learnings from 25 years of work with leaders, is captured in our book, Leadership Agility.

What Does Leadership Agility Include?

Our book reports several key findings that are extremely important for leaders and leadership development professionals alike. (For more detail, see our Change Model).

  • First, leadership agility is not a single competency. It is an interconnected set of capabilities that includes (a) context-setting agility, how leaders select and frame important initiatives; (b) stakeholder agility, how fully leaders understand the perspectives held by differing stakeholders and how fully they create greater alignment with them; (c) creative agility, which is needed to solve complex, novel problems; and (d) self-leadership agility, how proactive leaders are in learning from their experience.
  • Second, to agile leaders apply these four kinds of agility in three key action arenas: leading organizational change, leading teams, and engaging in pivotal conversations.
  • Third, the capacity for leadership agility evolves through five clearly identifiable levels that correspond to well-established stages of personal development: Expert, Achiever, Catalyst, Co-Creator, and Synergist.

Some Key Characteristics of Highly Agile Leaders

Our research found that leaders at the higher levels of agility embody the following characteristics:

  • Highly agile leaders realize that we live in an era of permanent change, a turbulent global environment that is complex, uncertain, and fiercely competitive. They understand that these realities will require them and their organizations to adapt again and again to constantly changing conditions. They have an intentional, proactive approach to change. They anticipate emerging threats and opportunities by continually scanning their organization’s environment for new developments. They view the challenges they face with fresh eyes and a willingness to rethink past assumptions.
  • Agile leaders are creative thinkers with a deep sense of purpose. They actively engage diverse stakeholders, influencing and learning from them at the same time. Their ability to examine situations from multiple perspectives and to “connect the dots” between seemingly disparate issues allows them to generate novel strategic insights. As a result, their visions for the future are innovative, purposeful, and compelling.
  • Agile leaders have a broad repertoire of behaviors that allows them to rapidly adjust their leadership style to the demands of any given situation. They give appropriately balanced attention to short-term and long-term priorities, to top-down direction-setting and meaningful participation, and to fostering individual initiative and strong teamwork.
  • Agile leaders are resilient in responding to the difficulties and discomforts that change and uncertainty often bring. They seek feedback from multiple sources and use both mistakes and successes as fodder for continual learning and development. Finally, they are committed to creating agile teams and organizations and to helping those around them become more effective leaders.

Team and Organizational Agility

Our research has also shown that agility is also not a single team or organizational capacity, but rather a set of capacities, analogous to those needed for leadership agility. As with individual leaders, agile teams and leadership cultures are characterized by context-setting agility, stakeholder agility, creative agility, and the ability to be proactive in learning from experience.

The Need to Develop Higher Levels of Agility

Based on our research, we estimate that the percentage of managers operating at each level of leadership agility is: 10% pre-Expert, 45% Expert, 35% Achiever, and 10% Catalyst and beyond. Prior to the closing years of the 20th century, this predominantly Achiever/Expert constellation of leadership worked fairly well. However, the pace of change and degree of complexity in the global economy has now moved to a whole new level. To enjoy sustained success in this highly turbulent environment, leaders, teams, and leadership cultures need to operate at the Catalyst level of agility, at least at the more senior levels. This is the great leadership challenge for today’s organizations.

Next Steps

To learn more about levels of agility, see our Change Model.

As a way to ease into the book, read the Leadership Agility white paper.

Find out more about the award-winning book.

Check out the services we provide to help your leaders, teams, and organizations increase their agility and effectiveness.