The Agility Factor, an article on the strategy+business website is a good one, and worth reading. Why? It puts into business langauge the concepts that strategic foresight pracitioners like me have been saying with different words for some years now. I've written about the need for agility before, where I said that it's easy to write about, and really hard to do. This article articulates very clearly how you do it.
The authors - Thomas Williams, Christopher G. Worley, and Eduward E. Lawler III - first explain what agility is: an unusual ability to successfully respond to and learn from external events, to innovate technically and organizationally, and to plan and execute new courses of action (page 2).
This relates to what I call futures ready strategy: flexible strategy that positions your organisation to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges and uncertainties of the future. If an organisation is agile, it has futures ready strategy, built on a strong foresight capacity.
The authors identify four routines that underpin agility:
strategizing dynamically - shared purpose, change-friendly intentity and a robust strategic intent,
perceiving environmental change - crowdsourced intelligence to sense change, communication of changes identified, and interpretation of that change for potential impact on the organisation,
testing responses - trying out new ideas on a small scale, continuous learning and improvement, which requires organisational 'slack' - people, money and time that doesn't go directly to the bottom line, but allow the agile organization to rapidly deploy resources against opportunities that may or may not pay off, without jeopardizing day-to-day operations (page 5), managing risk and learning from results, and
implementing change - internal change management capacity - management and organizational autonomy, embedded change capability and performance management.
Some comments on these and their connection with foresight approaches follow.
Operationally, the elements of strategizing dynamically provide us with the new structure for the conventional stategic plan. Instead of the over-used and now meaningless vision, mission and goals, we now have purpose, identity and intent. These are, I think, more immediately relevant than the older terms which have outlived their usefulness, and together provide a new framework for strategy development. This is my interpretation of what is defined in the article (page 4), and helps to move us beyond traditional strategic planning approaches in which so many organisations find themselves stuck today.
From a foresight perspective, the purpose question is 'what do we do?' or what Hardin Tibbs calls, our enduring and guiding social purpose. In my view, purpose can only be defined by thinking beyond today so that it is indeed enduring. Today's purpose will not be sustainable when it comes into contact with the future unless the process for defining it takes the future into account. It informs decisions about identity - who do we have to be to achieve our purpose and intent - what we will do today to achieve our purpose.
Perceiving environmental change is what foresight practitioners call environmental or horizong scanning. It's the core capability for organisations who want to strategise dynamically - thinking in deep ways about the potential impact of the change they are seeing. If you don't have good intelligence about change in the external environment, and if you don't monitor it over time, you will not see change coming, and you won't be able to respond proactively. My webinars and Strategic Futures Guide on Environmental Scanning: what it is and how to do it show you how to perceive and use environmental scanning in your strategy processes.
Testing responses sounds a lot like design thinking, and the key point is the need for organisational slack - to be truly responsive in a strategic sense, you need a group of people whose job it is to monitor change, communicate what they are finding, set up processes for thinking about that change, and help the organisation change. That is, of course, the organisational foresight unit. I used to manage one of these at one university I worked at, but it fell victim to the types of beliefs and attittudes as shown in the cartoon here, not to mention being too busy to think about the future!
One of the most common things I hear from senior managers today is that they cannot think strategically because they can't escape the operational work. A foresight unit supports busy managers by setting up the framework for strategy development that gives them the information they need when they need it, in the form they need it to make strategic decisions.
Implementing change is underpinned by authentic empowerment and clear alignment across the organisation with identity and intent. The authors recognise that this is easier said than done, and specify the need for an embedded change capacity - the pragmatic ability to change collective habits, practices, and perspectives is embedded in line operations, not isolated in staff groups (page 4). This is about making everyone responsible for change in their patch, and avoiding those cumbersome and often pointless large project offices that spring up when there is major organisational change afoot. For me, this is at its most basic, about changing the way you think and letting go of the old behaviours that just won't work any more - this is the hardest part of moving an organisation to being truly agile, and in my experience, it's that part of the process that gets the least attention, because it is also the hardest task. As the authors say:
Managing agile organizations means being willing to give up the activities that make you successful today but that would be appropriate tomorrow - over and over again (page 8).
Not many organisations have worked that out yet. Universities face significant change today (albeit as they have always done throughout their history), yet most responses we see today are about fitting that change into existing frameworks. This is not to say that no universty is exploring in a deep way those alternative frameworks that will allow them to change collective habits, practices and perspectives that are not longer appropriate. Rather, the majority response is still to put in place short-term fixes and doing whatever they could do return to their old ways of operating (page 1). As a result, they miss important inflection points in the market (page 8), when action could have been taken to respond to change proactively instead of waiting for it to hit them in the face.
For me then, an agile organisation has futures ready strategy that is developed through the use of strategic foresight approaches and tools. What does agile mean for you? Look forward to hearing your ideas here or on twitter @mareeconway.