Going beyond resilience: agility matters
'The difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them.'
Is resilience enough? Or do we need individual and organizational agility?
In this post I explore the need for a shift towards agility, arguing that it is more than just a buzzword, or a temporary fad.
The Economist Intelligence Unit has defined organizational resilience as ‘“staying power”—the ability to react to crises, but also the ability to structure and run a company in a way that minimises its exposure to disruptions, whether from internal or external causes’. In contrast, various definitions of agility can be summarized as the capacity for change, innovation, and high performance in conditions of uncertainty, and complexity.
Agility is the systemic ability not just to adapt in some passive way to external change, or be resilient in the face of ‘disruptions’, but to be proactive, even to benefit from disruption. This point of view resonates with Nassim Taleb’s notion of ‘antifragility’.
There are common philosophical threads that do connect agile methods in project management, and software or product development, with agile working, leadership, and enterprise agility. Agility is a way to think about the health of all human systems, and even a way to think about countries and their economies. As an approach to individual and organizational effectiveness, it builds on resilience, and goes well beyond it.
Admittedly, resilience has evidently helped people cope with arduous commutes, excessive hours and unsustainable workloads in badly designed workplaces, and to accept poor standards of leadership. Resilience is helping many people right now deal with COVID. However, agility places a greater emphasis on creativity, on the art of the possible. This is not to say that resilience is irrelevant – it just reframes its role. Right now, an assumption of infinite reservoirs of resilience at a national level would lead to months of repeated lockdowns, rather than alternative solutions which are pragmatic, targeted, and nuanced.
COVID-19 has made the importance of agility at a national level particularly salient in my mind. Research by the United Nations Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the professional services firm KPMG on ‘change readiness’ is, in a sense, a measure of country-level agility. The research underlines the importance of governance, leadership, and institutional effectiveness to a country’s ability to implement change and create opportunity for citizens. Agility may, therefore, also be linked with human and economic development.
For example, Singapore has demonstrated a capacity for change since the end of British rule just fifty-seven years ago, and to a great extent, over the last six months. That is why it ranks consistently highly in the UNDP’s global change readiness index. Singapore has taken a clearsighted, evidence-based, structured, and coordinated approach in its response to a global pandemic.
The Singaporean public responded to new ways of living and working speedily, constructively, and responsibly. This response is built on solidarity, humility, and what the eminent psychotherapist Malcolm Parlett calls 'whole intelligence', across civil society. It has not been a case of simple childlike compliance, or mere cleverness. As a small country with several existential uncertainties, Singapore has invested deliberately in public services which are agile by design, making learning and change part of the public sector’s DNA. There are going to be profound learnings as result of COVID-19, naturally. Singapore has the discipline to establish these learnings fast and operationalize them.
The current efforts to create vaccines has the potential to be the best case-study of collective human ingenuity - and agility - that we could possibly envision. According to the World Health Organization there are over 120 proposed vaccines for COVID-19, with several in various stages of clinical evaluation. Early signs from collaborative efforts, including Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca/the University of Oxford, suggests that amazing progress is being made.
Especially striking, is the fact that an entrepreneurial German company such as BioNTech, founded in 2008 by two scientists of Turkish origin who are a 'husband and wife team', is partnering with a mature US organization such as Pfizer, to work in an incredibly agile way. As in the case of Singapore as a nation, in the case of BioNTech, with less than 1500 employees, in contrast to Pfizer's headcount of over 88,000, "small is beautiful". Partnerships, or acquisitions, are frequently utilized by large companies to inject creativity and dynamism into their own culture, and need to managed carefully to ensure synergies are realized.
An effective global vaccination programme requires millions of people working across cultures, disciplines and sectors, to bust bureaucracy, use hierarchy efficiently, learn by doing, seek common ground, engaging head, heart, and hands. As a result, there will no doubt be multiple vaccines made available that allow for safe, flexible, fair and large-scale deployment. Hopefully, following the US election, the role of the WHO to provide global oversight and support to this highly emergent process of innovation will also be reinforced.
This would be agility in action.
Is COVID-19 exceptional? Or is it a sign of the times? Resilience is helpful for a world in crisis – but it is only one aspect of an agile way of leading. This pandemic is showing that organizational and individual resilience is critical, but it is not enough. Agility and ‘agile’ are amongst the most used buzzwords of this era. Beneath all the hype, however, there is a paradigm shift in organizational theory and practice, which is being accelerated by COVID-19. This period promises to spark wide-spread, radical innovations in the way people can work together to achieve extraordinary things.
To what extent do you think agility is a meaningful and important concept – or is it just a business buzzword?
What do you think is the relationship between ‘resilience’ and ‘agility’ in psychological terms? What is the implication for people?
See also -
Eoyang, G.H. & Holladay, R.J. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books.
Gale, A. (2016). ‘Agility’ is becoming a meaningless buzzword. Management Today. August 4th, 2016. Available at https://www.managementtoday.co.uk/agility-becoming-meaningless-buzzword/leadership-lessons/article/1404677.
KPMG and United Nations Overseas Development Institute (2012). Change Readiness Index.
Scharmer, O. & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the Emerging Future: From ego-system to eco-system economies. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York, United States: Random House.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose