Agile ways of working – is ‘being’ agile the same as ‘doing’ agile?

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Acting fast, being resilient and showing adaptability are just some of the characteristic trademarks of those organizations who adopt agile ways of working. However, ‘being’ agile, rather than ‘doing’ agile, is a cultural orientation that is deeply embedded in the values of the business and the overarching corporate purpose, as well as the behaviours and attitudes of its leaders.  It is not enough to be just hardwired into the organizational decision-making processes and systems.

My question is this: what does it really take to ‘be’ agile, rather than just ‘do’ agile, especially in a time of crisis and uncertainty?  Are they one and the same?

Focusing on what it takes to ‘be’ agile, rather than examining agile software or delivery of an intensive project development method, starts to reveal why so many non-agile organizations are experiencing significant business issues during this period of extreme uncertainty and anxiety across the globe.  The inability to respond to change flexibly and quickly, to divert resources to where they are most needed, and to accelerate governance and decision-making processes to empower teams and drive innovation, is currently threatening the existence of some organizations.

Research produced by McKinsey in June 2020,[1] illustrates how most agile business units in their surveyed businesses have responded better than their non-agile counterparts in their ability to navigate the shock of the recent downturn.  This was assessed across the three measures of customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and operational performance.  The ability to reprioritize business activity, continue to be productive, and to transition effectively to a new remote set up, stand out as some of the positive results for agile teams.

This is good news.  However, we should not forget that crisis is, and will always be, a human event. And arguably, one of most critical components of any organizational reaction to a crisis will be the nature of the response by its business leaders. To be truly agile as an organization, rather than just do agile, especially in a time of uncertainty, we need leaders who are (1) able to demonstrate humility and vulnerability, (2) are adaptable and willing to change, (3) able to articulate a clear vision of the long-term goals and objectives, and (4) are able to engage and relate to people who lie at the heart of the business response.[2]

When we align these four leadership competencies with multiplier key behaviours such as increased vigilance and alertness, evidence-based decision-making, and fast and effective execution, then we are getting closer to defining what it really takes to ‘be’ agile, rather than just ‘do’ agile.  It becomes a much more pervasive, ingrained way of working that inspires and equips us, as humans, to withstand a climate of inherent anxiety and prolonged uncertainty. In short, we begin to feel more safe.

At the end of the day, as leaders, we need to ask ourselves the following:  if we are constantly having to reinforce the processes and procedures of what we are doing to be agile, rather than truly believing in why we are doing it and embracing the underpinning values of how we should be through our own agile leadership behaviours and actions, is it really the right thing to do at all?