As a business and entrepreneur advisor, I have no trouble getting owners and managers to agree that change is happening faster and faster in the consumer and technology world, requiring them to keep their business more agile, just to keep up. The challenge is that too many are confused on what that means for them, and what it takes to make their business competitively agile.
I just finished a new book, Agility: How to Navigate the Unknown and Seize Opportunity in a World of Disruption, by Leo Tilman and Charles Jacoby, which has helped me net out the key principles for businesses to become more agile. These authors, and I agree, define agility in business as the ability to detect and assess changes in the competitive world in real time, and then take decisive and effective action.
We also agree that agility enables a business to stay healthy and outmaneuver competitors by seizing new opportunities earlier, better defending against threats, and acting as a well-orchestrated and empowered whole on innovative initiatives.
The book brings a wealth of examples to the picture, based on author strategy consulting with major companies, governments, and the military. In their experience and mine, the essence of business agility is embodied in the following five principles:
- Early detection of change and the need for change. This may seem obvious, but most small business leaders are so busy with current issues, and running the business today, that they spend very little time or resources looking for customer culture changes, analyzing new technologies, or political and economic realities that will impact them.
Crisis-driven agility is not enough today. You need time and resources looking ahead for change. Perhaps failure to look ahead was not the primary reason for the demise of Blockbuster and Kodak, but I see it happening to smaller businesses every day.
- Effective assessment of change drivers and alternatives. It starts with everyone being encouraged to look for the surprising or unexpected, and not being penalized for bringing bad news. Sometimes you need to use outside consultants and listen to your advisors, before the crisis, to overcome cognitive biases and evaluate response options.
Often the answer may be a quiet change in marketing strategy, or adding a new demographic, but real change may require a bigger response. Apple, as an example, has made agility and new markets their brand image, as well as their source of growth.
- Timely response with smart risk-taking and innovation. Cohesion and team unity are integral to timely agility, expedited by a willingness to take and share risks. These imply a special brand of people leadership and a culture of trust throughout the business. Often I find that small businesses slow down as they grow, and become more risk-averse.
Jeff Bezos and Amazon are an example of continuous growth, where you can see how far and fast constant change, innovation, and risk taking can take your business. They started with a focus on books, but expanded online access to cover almost everything.
- Culture of purposefulness and decisiveness. Every business needs a strategic purpose, vision, and values that are regularly updated, visualized, and clearly communicated by senior leaders to everyone in the organization. True agility also requires a willingness and ability to make decisions and execute in stride, at all levels.
Examples of business today who have focused on a higher purpose and values includes Whole Foods and Patagonia, where evidence indicates that their average return, brand image, and growth are much greater than other companies in their space.
- Sustaining a will to win, with a bias toward the offense. Agility requires a mindset and culture grounded in the competitive will to win that encompasses what is called a bias toward offense rather than defense. It’s the only way to avoid losing. Team members look up and down the command chain for role models and positive direction in this regard.
If you think of successful entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk and Richard Branson, you will find them primarily in offense mode. Both are capable defenders, but spend most of their efforts pushing new limits in aerospace, advanced technologies, and new markets.
In summary, both the authors and I see agility as the overarching quality which encompasses many important other more specialized business traits, including adaptability, resilience, flexibility, and dynamism. If you intend for your business to survive and thrive in today’s world of rapid change and global competition, it’s time to start now making agility your leadership strength.