Friday, July 06, 2007

On the notion of 'Agile Capability'

In which we ponder the question, "What makes an individual (or an organization) agile?"

Today’s business environment is characterized by a rapidly changing technology landscape, rising customer expectations, and accelerating competition. Thus, agility, which can be described as the ability to respond quickly and effectively to environmental change, is a critical imperative for organizations today.

So far, so good. But do we really know what being agile means in practice? What qualities constitute agility?* Most practicing managers, if asked to enumerate these qualities, would be able to list a few intellectual and mental faculties such as receptiveness to change, and the ability to learn continuously. But this is at best a partial list.

One key to answering this vexing question (what qualities constitute agility?) is to realize that while agility certainly is a function of mindset, it is also a function of many attributes that have little to do with mindset. To get an idea of what these other attributes may be, let us posit a first-cut, working definition of what we might call 'agile capability':

'Agile capability' is the ability of an individual (or organization) that allows that individual (or organization) to transition into, and become adept in, a new discipline.

Let us pause for a minute to consider the implications of this definition. Does being 'agile' mean that we expect a person adept in the discipline of software engineering to become a great bridge-builder? Instead, agility here would probably mean an ability to continue to be an excellent software engineer even as new technology platforms, development methodologies and tools come into vogue. Thus, agility is not an ability to transition effortlessly across massively diverse, utterly unrelated disciplines**. In other words, the notions of agility and agile capability have meaning only when delimited by the context of a specific discipline, or perhaps a few closely related disciplines.

We can thus update our definition as follows:

'Agile capability' is the ability of an individual (or organization) that allows that individual (or organization) to deliver continued high performance in their chosen discipline in the face of change, or to transition into a related discipline.

This of course means that the notion of agility is inextricable from the specific, pertinent discipline; it is unrealistic, perhaps even utopian, to define a generic concept of agility that encompasses the ability to transition effortlessly across disparate disciplines.

The capability to be agile must thus be defined in terms of a bundle of competencies, some relating to subject knowledge of the relevant discipline, some to the skills required to excel at tasks demanded by the discipline, and others to mindset.

We have embarked on the task of deconstructing the capability to be agile into its constituent qualities. The result is an Agile Capability 'Stack' that represents the various competencies that collectively make up the capability to be agile. The results are being published in a forthcoming issue of OD (Organization Development) Journal. If you are interested in learning more, send me a mail and I will send you a reprint of the article when it appears (expected in late July).

The ingredients that go to make up 'agile capability' have long been known to great companies that have thrived in the face of business and technological change. Think Intel transitioning from a RAM maker to a world-leading maker of microprocssors. Or Canon transitioning into digital photography as conventional photography has faded away. Or IBM retooling itself to emerge a formidable competitor in Information Technology services. However, collecting these ingredients under the ambit of one concept, concretizing that concept, and according it the status of an explicit capability - 'agile capability' - will enable agility to be consciously recognized and cultivated.

* it is worth noting that the term 'agile' is used in the general sense of being adaptive to change, and is not to be confused with the connotation common in the software world, where 'agile' often refers to a class of lightweight software development methodologies that emphasise speed, rapid development and so forth.

** Such an ability, perhaps, would not be agility but alchemy!