This article was first published on Forbes.
As is often true during challenging times, the voices that claim to have an immediate answer are becoming deafeningly loud: Agility is the solution of the decade, and the straightforwardness with which its necessity is frequently proclaimed suggests a false sense of know-how. Entertaining the thought that there is a recipe for making a company fully adaptive and agile brushes over the complexity of the endeavor.
It further reveals a mindset embedded in an old paradigm: We may have developed linear processes for Lean or Six Sigma in the past. Enterprise agility, however, requires ambidextrous, nonlinear and often counterintuitive skills (e.g., “learning from the future"). While business improvement processes build on being in the know, agility requires a sense of not knowing. Because of that, we must admit that we are often left in the most uncomfortable of all places: a space of deep vulnerability.
As a business owner and change, growth and innovation lead for companies around the world, I have come to embrace agility as a process in which the desired result is never fully achieved and therefore can also not be linearly maintained. Ironically, doing so has allowed me to closely look for signs, together with my clients, that indicate an increasing lack of agility.
To help companies monitor their need for action regarding their agility levels, I'd like to discuss five crucial signs that indicate that a company is not agile.
1. A 'Hurry, Let's Wait' Culture. Agility means being able to proactively balance two different innovation threats. For one, there is the consistent known pressure of having to perform faster, better, cheaper because that's where the market is always headed. This example of a sustained innovation creates the need for a consistent, quick-footed, extremely focused ability to change, regroup and exchange information as well as resources at the speed of light. On the flip side of this stands the realistic fear of being disrupted. Mitigating the fear of disruptive change requires the exact opposite skillset: Instead of improving what is, we need to imagine what could be.
A truly agile organization has processes that address both needs on a daily basis. If these are not in place or have lost their effectiveness, in my experience, fear tends to kick in. That fear translates into a "hurry, let's wait" attitude, which slowly results in a loss of effectiveness. That, in turn, can aggravate "hurry, let's wait" tendencies.
2. Willful Blindness And Other Cognitive Biases. An agile organization knows when it is time to make changes and takes proactive steps long before the threat occurs. Consistently learning from the future as it emerges, an agile organization can proactively assume which business model, product or service innovation might occur from incumbents we haven't even heard of so far. Therefore, balanced and consistent steps can be taken in the right direction at all times. If a company fails to learn from the future, it knowingly turns a blind eye. That willful blindness can dangle like a sword of Damocles or stifling shadow over a company. Such forms of organizational depression lead to inactivity and are a clear sign of lack of agility.
3. Frantic Change And Hyperactive Opportunism. As enterprise agility balances sustained and disruptive innovation threats, lack of agility can also lead to constant pressure, frantic change attempts or hyperactive opportunism. When we notice only one of these indicators, it's time to refocus on who we are. If we strengthen unique success factors, we can focus on how we want to influence the market, rather than being subject to its constant changes or blindly believing in opportunities that might not be as rosy as they promise to be.
4. Identity Loss, Consistent Pressure And Disengagement. Oftentimes, points one to three appear simultaneously as a very normal, downward-spiraling, cause-and-effect dynamic. If they do and stay in place for too long, an organization can lose its own identity, a subject I researched for my dissertation. An identity loss will trigger further negativity, which can result in unnecessary pressure and employee as well as customer disengagement.
5. Hubris And A False Sense Of Know-How. Hubris coupled with believing we have figured out "how things work around here" are incompatible with agility. If we want to stay agile, we have to be humble and understand that we cannot know. Fully leaning into the unknown is an agility competency that can soon become our strongest competitive advantage.
In sum, enterprise agility is an endeavor without easy answers. Considering the counterindications of agility continuously flexes our organizational agility muscles as a collective. Not addressing these issues will have a detrimental impact on a company. You can count on that happening with a much higher certainty than you can of any agile initiative leading to a guaranteed success.
Erika Jacobi, Ph.D. is the managing director of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc. Erika specializes in agile organization design at scale. She is a C-Suite adviser and Top Executive Coach for organizational change, growth, and innovation matters. Her design and organization development principles are geared to translate enterprise agility into organizational reality. Read Erika Jacobi, Ph.D.'s full executive profile here.