Picture the scene: you’re watching the team you’ve been a fan of all your life playing in a season-defining game. The score is 1–1 with five minutes left on the clock and the team coach makes a substitution that alters the whole team’s formation. In this knife-edge situation, everything in your instinct as a fan tells you that this is the wrong move. Blind panic or blinding insight? The next five minutes will tell…

Putting the debate about whether sporting analogies in a business context are useful or not aside for one moment, let’s dig a little deeper into the mechanics of the situation. A coach who panics might just be rolling the dice one last time, but a self-assured coach knows the players and their strengths, weaknesses, aims and ambitions, how each player feels physically and how they trained over the last week, and crucially that coach can see how this might impact all other players on the field. Knowing what each player is capable of is insight, knowing how to deploy that player in a game to affect a favourable outcome is wisdom.

What role then does organisational agility play in this? It could be argued that what is being demonstrated on the field of play is in fact an example of organisational agility. Defined as ‘the capability of a company to rapidly change or adapt to changes in the market’, organisational agility can be summed up as comprising three organisational capabilities ¹:

  • Sensing: the ability to detect, identify, and assess the opportunities and challenges presented by the changing external environment.
  • Securing: the company’s effectiveness in mobilising the required resources from around the organisation and externally in order to capture value from opportunities the company has identified.
  • Shifting: the ability to shift not just the company’s resources but also its old way of working to reflect the new external environment demands.

Applied to our sporting scenario, we can see the parallels to the business world. The need for a change to affect the result has been sensed, the appropriate resource secured, and the players and the team have shifted to a new formation. This evokes an almost mechanical, unemotional approach to agility, though it’s never that simple of course, dealing as we are with people. We’ve all witnessed the waning of the superstar striker, salesperson or entire team unable to perform in a different setting, and we’ve all seen the previously unproven team member flourish given the chance to develop in the right environment. And the difference? Engagement. Put simply, engagement catalyses organisational agility because engagement aligns individual goals with organisational goals. Knowing what to do is the basis for any change, planning how to do that is clearly essential, but the key to lasting change is to connect people to the ‘why’ of change. After all, it is people who will sustain that change, so understanding not just who they were yesterday, or who they are today, but who they want to be tomorrow allows you to match the needs of your business with the needs of your talent.

In addition, the move towards adopting an agile organisational approach appears to be inevitable and happening in a shorter timeframe than many might believe.  In a recent survey of HR leaders², 90% of respondents said that skills shortages and difficulties recruiting permanent staff are driving them to develop a more agile workforce, and 86% believed that their organisation needs to develop a fully agile workforce within the next two years in order to remain competitive. The research revealed a range of drivers for this: better cost management, customer demands and productivity, changing employee expectations and the need to improve the employee experience, economic uncertainty around Brexit, and the growth of the gig economy. Tellingly, 93% of HR leaders in the research consider agility to be as much about skills as it is about process, and 92% believe that it is as much as about individuals as it is about organisations.

And what was the score at the end of our imaginary game? Well, you decide, but bear in mind that this particular sporting analogy is heavily flawed for a business context —in the normal course of events, there’s no time limit in business, no countdown, no final whistle, even if a regular statutory reporting rhythm might fool us into believing there’s a finish line or even a series of them. And of course the opposition coach can also apply her own knowledge and wisdom to impact the game in her favour. The reality is that success in business is about being ahead of the competition. Not just once, maybe not constantly, but consistently enough to remain ahead overall.

Knowing, planning and engaging your people has never been more critical to business success than before – and the technology exists today to make that happen in a way that hasn’t been possible before.

  1. IESE Business School & Oliver Wyman Insights April 2018
  2. The Race to an Agile Workforce – Capita Resourcing