Agile: What? Why? How?

“Agile” is the new buzzword for future success. Agile teams will innovate. Agile companies will survive when others fail. Agile individuals will get hired and move up the ladder.

Agile Organizations“Agile” sounds like a great idea, and the more you hear it, the more obvious and powerful it will sound. The problem is that, like many fads, it is long on description and short on explanation. I’m not really sure what others mean when they use the term, so I won’t try to clear up all the confusion. But I do know what I mean, and I’d like to share it with you as I consider three questions:

  • What does agile look like in the real world?
  • So what is the urgency for agile today and tomorrow?
  • Now what can you do to be more agile? 

What does agile look like in the real world?
The opposite of agile is “stuck.” You are agile as long as you don’t get stuck. When you get stuck, it is because you are not being agile. Sometimes you can look like you’re moving, but you are stuck in unproductive way of thinking or acting. That is not agile, but if you stay in inquiry and look for new and more productive ways to see, understand, and act, you will be agile. That may sound simple and a little redundant, but it isn’t always easy.  Here are some examples. 

One of our Associates was in charge of a software system to implement Obamacare. For many months, few things except the deadline were certain. What technology? What policies? What procedures? What data? What clients? What partners? It would have been easy to get stuck with too much pressure and too little information. She and her team kept moving. They used what they knew to do what they could and kept getting smarter as they went along. They were agile. 

A client wanted to support leaders as they created their own network for shared learning and action. Everyone bought into the vision, but when it came to real work, this project fell to the bottom of everyone’s list. Leaders needed such a network because they were so busy, but they were not able to create it because they were too busy. The project was stuck. Our client was undaunted, he consulted with each of the team members to see what they WOULD be able to commit to, then he found other resources to fill in the gaps. He was agile. 

I am sure you have examples of your own. Individual, team, organization, or community faces an overwhelming challenge. Rather than freezing, they renegotiate and find a way to move forward. They are the definition of agile.    

So what is the urgency for agile today and tomorrow?
Our assumptions, perceptions, and systems developed in a world that was simpler. It was more bounded, less variable, and easier to control. Today, we live and work in quite different conditions. Solutions of the past simply don’t work on the problems of the present, and they certainly won’t work in the future.  When you depend on old strategies and tactics to respond to new problems, you will get stuck. If our Associate and our client had stuck with the obvious solutions, they would not have moved forward. Instead, they saw the problems in new ways, understood what resources were available, and took action to move with agility toward their goals. 

Now what can you do to be more agile?
Action is the key to true agility. No matter what you see or what you say, you will not be agile unless you do something to get unstuck. You can do something in public or private. You can do something alone or with others. You can do something local or something global, but you have to do something. 

So, how do you move from stuck into action? Adaptive Action. Three simple questions will get you unstuck from any dilemma any time. Those three questions are the engine for agility. 

What?         So what?         Now what?

Adaptive Action is a cycle—every NOW WHAT? leads to the next WHAT? You might choose an action that isn’t the best solution, but when you try it, and it doesn’t work, you will learn something new and begin the next cycle smarter than you were in the last. 

Our friends avoided getting stuck because they used Adaptive Action. 

Implementing Obamacare, our Associate’s team asked the same three questions every morning:

  • What do we know for sure today and what do we wonder?
  • So what are our options, given what we know?
  • Now what can we do today and discover for tomorrow?

Creating a global leadership network, our client took Adaptive Action:

  • What barrier is holding us back?
  • So what resources are available?
  • Now what can we do to leverage all our resources to the best outcomes?

No matter how strange and surprising the world becomes in the future, you will always be able to see what is emerging around you (What?); explore multiple perspectives and interpretations (So what?); and take action to change the world and your relation to it (Now what?). You will be agile because you get unstuck and stay unstuck even when you are overwhelmed with complexity. 

On April 3, 2014 we hosted a Live Virtual Workshop about Agile Organizations. You can watch the recorded version here.

To dig more deeply into the topic of Agile organizations, consider taking our new HSDP Certification course. Network with a group of worldwide associates and master Adaptive Action. Watch my videos on how the Adaptive Action process can make your organization more Agile.

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