IAN MANN REVIEWS | Seizing opportunity when the unknown looms large

Ian Mann (supplied)
Ian Mann (supplied)

Agility: How to navigate the unknown and seize opportunity in a world of disruption, by Leo M. Tilman and General Charles Jacoby

"To thrive in the years ahead, all organisations, both public and private, will need to make a concerted and ongoing investment in the knowledge, capabilities, processes and cultures that foster a distinctive and all too rare organisational quality—agility," assert the authors, Tilman and General Jacoby. This book was written in 2019, but I cannot think of a more appropriate book for business executives today.

Only those businesses that work at their agility will be positioned to respond to changes we are undergoing. It will be those that will be able to exploit uncertainty deliberately and decisively and reap the benefits of the unprecedented possibilities (yes, possibilities) of this new era we are living through.

What then is 'agility'? "Agility requires the capacity to rigorously assess a situation and decide in a timely manner how, when, and to what end our talents and resources should be deployed." An agile tennis player shapes a strategy and then uses an arsenal of different shots, based on past experiences and knowledge of the opponent, and repeats this throughout the game. The dynamism of the tennis image adequately captures the dynamic nature of an agile organisation.

The need for agility in business as in warfare (from where the authors draw heavily), comes from the uncertainty and complexity of the environment in which you compete.

One of the central messages of this book is that all organisations can achieve agility with understanding of what this entails and with appropriate effort.

Agile organisations must be agile at both the strategic and tactical levels. Strategic agility enables the entire organisation to maintain relevance so they avoid falling behind what customers or the market requires. Tactical agility has the employees moving with the speed of the challenge.

Detect, assess, respond

Agility starts with the detection of environmental changes that require action. There are three principles supporting organisational agility: "detect, assess, respond". In practice this requires three essential core competencies—risk intelligence, decisiveness and execution dexterity.

'Risk intelligence' is the organisational ability to recognise and assess environmental changes in real time. Every organisation has a fluid portfolio of risks, of which the list drawn up by the accounts department is only one sort. The risk taken by NASA that resulted in the disaster of the space shuttle Columbia, wasn't limited to the loss of life and material, but to the national morale and the willingness of government to support further exploration. Risk intelligence cannot be limited to the accounts department, but must include HR, marketing and so on.

Why are businesses generally not structured to think in term of a portfolio of risks? Because it is hard work. The authors refer to the ongoing monitoring of the full scope of risks and uncertainties as "fighting for risk intelligence". Knowing what to stay alert to, and  gathering intelligence and managing risk, must become an essential element of everyone's responsibilities. This means at all levels of the organisation, from frontline staff to the back office and through the C-Suite. Think of business today as a battlefield. Think of the cost of not using all troops to report on risks.

When the organisation focuses on 'risk intelligence' instead of avoiding, controlling and mitigating risk, it can start thinking of exploiting, managing and channelling risk and uncertainty in pursuit of their goals.

As I have repeated many times in my columns, chance plays a part in every action and counteraction. That is why few plans survive contact with reality: assumptions could be incorrect, competitors act in unforeseen ways, or because our actions change the operating landscape itself.

Our organisations can be designed for agility so that we can make adjustments to our tactics and strategies "out of recognition that fog, friction, complexity, chaos and intensifying change are part of our permanent reality."

It is useful to remember that the bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle at every management level. "No physical capabilities, knowledge or special talents can compensate for the lack of courage to make hard decisions or for the mistrust that undermines our ability to act as a cohesive team," the authors remind us.

In the US military they have realised that having a clear, succinct central operating objective, was vital in formulating a command-and-control philosophy that supports fostering agility rather than stifling it. If we want staff at all levels in the organisation to have a bias for deliberate action, there has to be a common understanding and clear communication of what must be achieved and why.

Only then can leaders at all levels be expected to exercise initiative, safe in the knowledge that they and their teams are operating within clearly defined boundaries. Based on this understanding, they can act aggressively and independently to accomplish the organisational mission.

'Execution dexterity' is the result of the organisation's ability to flexibly and effectively use all the organisational resources and capabilities—individually and in combination—in ways that are perfectly suited to the current circumstances.

To get people at all levels to feel both accountable and empowered to improvise and take well-calculated risks, they need to trust that their leaders and colleagues have their backs. Operating in the unknown requires courage, conviction and tolerance for setbacks and failures.

The "fog and friction" that we are operating in today often leads to destructive organisational behaviours incompatible with agility. Chief among them is micromanagement. Being able to delegate authority requires a confidence in people and tolerance for honest mistakes and failures.

"All competitive environments, with their complexities, threats and opportunities, exhibit significant parallels with military conflicts," the authors remind us. Let us not forget that mistakes in military combat leave your people dead or wounded. That harsh reality focuses the mind which is why the modern military is such an excellent source of leadership and organisational management wisdom.

Readability                   Light ----+ Serious

Insights                           High +---- Low

Practical                         High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own.

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