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Clinton Wingrove

Pilat HR Solutions

Principal Consultant

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Agility – fit for purpose


Many people believe that ‘agility’ is about reacting quickly. Not so! We can actually look to athletes to learn about agility.

A high-jumper is agile in that they are able, at precisely the right time, to produce an explosion of energy to
leap over a bar. However, faced with a marathon, they would fail. Likewise, the marathon runner can adapt their pace to suit the pack and sustain performance for over two hours. Face them with the high jump and their muscles would surely not cope. So, ‘agility’ is not only about being able to respond, but also, being ‘fit for purpose’.

Since the earliest academic research on how best to manage organisations and their workforces, change has been known to be key factor. Change has mattered both because organisations and individuals have to be able to respond to evolving circumstances and demands as “not to change is to regress” and also because the right change has repeatedly been found to re-energise and motivate individuals – hence the proliferation of initiatives and apparent panacea solutions emanating largely from HR.

More recent circumstances have moved change from something we ought to consider to a survival issue:

  • Complexity is increasing all around us (technological, financial, cultural, etc).
  • Client demands are increasing due to greater exposure to choice
  • Employee demands are increasing due to new social-economic environments.
  • Our ability to control things is reducing (globalisation, new economic powers, lobbying, personal power etc).

So, uncertainty is increasing.

Research carried out in the last couple of years by multiple reputable organisations has repeatedly identified change as a critical issue. For example:

  • In the Conference Board’s CEO survey, “speed, flexibility and adaptability to change” was rated as the top challenge by 46.6% (a rise of over 22% on the previous year) and beaten only by “excellence in execution” (55.4%) and “consistent execution of strategy by top management” (47.0%).
  • IBM’s “Unlocking the DNA of the Adaptable Workforce” said that: “The HR function has a unique window to make a strategic business contribution by shaping the adaptable workforce. If ever there was a time and an opportunity for HR to prove its strategic mettle, it has arrived.”
  • Accenture’s “Creating an Agile Organisation”, report said that: “The new business environment will favour those companies able to execute strategy faster, with more flexibility and adaptability, and move their companies ahead briskly.”

Unfortunately, much of the talk about change is mere rhetoric – like the individual using the fast food drive-through who claims that the salad they’ll buy will help them lose weight so it will become easier to exercise. We need to practice change not merely over engineer it; doing the latter saps the energy from the process.

Organisational agility
At an organisation level, consensus appears to be forming around a number of characteristics of agility.

Agile organisations understand the difference between leadership and management. They must have leadership that can proactively guide the organisation and, more importantly, the individual employees through continuous change.

The view that people resist change has become a self-fulfilling prophecy
For an organisation to be agile, individual employees need to have RESPECT:

  • Respect for the organisation in which they work – its vision, mission, values and strategy – proud to say, “I work for…”
  • Respect for the leadership, especially their immediate supervisor – believe they are competent, ethical, make good decisions and treat people fairly.
  • Low employee engagement is not an accident – it is an outcome.
  • Respect for team members – believe they are competent, honest, supportive and willing to pull their weight.
  • Respect for the work – find it challenging, rewarding, interesting and of value.
  • Respect for themselves – FROM the organisation, their immediate supervisor and their fellow team members.

The drivers of RESPECT:

  • Recognition – employees feel appropriately acknowledged, appreciated and rewarded.
  • Empowerment – employees feel set up to succeed (with resources, information, support, autonomy and, if appropriate, protection).
  • Supportive feedback – employees feel feedback is timely, constructive, and specific and delivered for reinforcement or improvement.
  • Partnering – employees feel like business partners; informed and involved. Passion, commitment and excitement drive performance; goals direct, channel and measure it.
  • Expectations – employees feel they know the precise standards by which their performance is evaluated and that they and others are held appropriately accountable.
  • Consideration – employees feel that others care and are thoughtful towards one another.
  • Trust – employees feel trusted to demonstrate their skills and abilities and trust their leaders to keep their commitments.

Effective leaders will drive and communicate the organisation’s strategic vision throughout the workplace, daily, incessantly and consistently. They will role model this through their own actions and the processes that they implement and support – these will be totally integrated.

Adaptable workforce

Agile organisations have a workforce that is not only highly skilled but:

  • Is happily willing and able to learn new things and skills, not merely to enhance those already held – even if this means changing jobs
  • Can be adapted in terms of scale e.g.: by outsourcing and paying for only the capacity needed, you may be able to convert fixed costs into variable costs
  • Is cross-trained in many different skills before they need them, not merely when they need them.

Agile organisations minimise on-boarding time and maximise the speed at which new incumbents can access the prior incumbent’s network.

Talent management

Agile organisations:

  • Proactively predict skill needs.
  • Attract, engage and retain excellent and especially agile talent.
  • Move out talent that is no longer required; no retention without engagement.

Agile organisations provide their managers with the means to:

  • Know immediately what talent they have available to them.
  • Locate quickly the experts/talent they need.
  • Effect collaboration across boundaries if that is needed to bring together appropriate talent.

Business intelligence
Agile organisations collect and integrate data to enable their managers to:

  • Improve operational excellence.
  • Drive top line growth.
  • Manage efficiency.
  • Make informed workforce decisions.

Focus on performance
Agile organisations focus on the customer; they predict their needs not merely respond to them. According to Daryl Conner in ‘How to Create a Nimble Organisation,’ the “defining moment for customer service will be not when established needs are expressed, but will be when the unexpected requirement materialises over night.”

Agile organisations know and nurture their core organisational differentiators; they identify and define their non-negotiables and put these in the centre and inhibit change to those from anywhere else; they decentralise negotiable and empower employees to change those.

Agile organisations focus on individual performance and the contributions individuals make to the whole organisation.

Individual agility
At an individual level, consensus appears to be forming around a number of characteristics of agility.

Identifying the need for change
Change, especially to a business vision or plan, is difficult and spotting the need for it even more so. But it must be done – change or die. There are four critical skills:

  • Looking ahead – proactively takes action to learn about, extrapolate or guesstimate the future.
  • Situational sensitivity – actively connects with those with whom they deal and detects changes in views etc; empathetic.
  • Striving for improvement – continuously seeks to improve processes and outcomes.
  • Being open-minded – welcomes input; suspends judgment until well informed.

Responding promptly (including learning)
The speed of response to change can dramatically impact the outcome; too reactive and opportunities can be destroyed; too slow and they can be missed. There are some critical skills:

  • Flexibility and adaptability – responds positively to both changing demands and circumstances; finds new solutions to existing challenges and shifts focus to new challenges.
  • Pace – adjusts speed of response and work rate to match demands and circumstances.
  • Risk tolerance and handling ambiguity – views risk as a normal part of decision making and copes well with incomplete data.
  • Curiosity – questions and challenges to establish the best possible understanding of situations.
  • New learning – learns totally new knowledge and skills with ease.

Devising action
Before change can happen someone has to determine the change that is needed. There are four critical skills:

  • Investigating – challenging and checking; making sure the best possible data is available.
  • Analysing – making sense of data; applying rigour; understanding cause and effect.
  • Exploring, creating and evaluating options – maximising practical choices.
  • Deciding and making judgments – achieving prompt decisions; defining the action.

Achieving action
Change only happens when people take action; the challenge is to make it happen. There are four critical skills:

  • Leveraging contacts – achieves buy-in, uses networks.
  • Demonstrating courage and independence – steps up to the plate; willing to act.
  • Influencing others – persuades and negotiates to achieve buy-in and support.
  • Inspiring – builds confidence and acquires followers.

HR and agility
As an HR professional, how do you ensure that your organisation can attract and retain agile employees? Richard Shafer, of the Centre for Leadership in Dynamic Organisations at the School of Management at Cornell University, challenged traditional HR organisations and structures when he said that: “This move toward agility will create a new role for the HR function. In many organisations, existing HR systems are major impediments to creating agile workforces. For the most part, HR systems are designed to reduce variability and to standardise behaviour, not to promote flexibility and adaptive behaviour.”

He predicts that HR organisations will become smaller. “Hiring criteria and processes will be altered to reflect agile attributes…job descriptions will be eliminated and compensation systems redesigned to pay relatively more for enterprise-wide results and relatively less for individual outcomes.”

HR’s role is to create an organisation that constantly builds its capacity through building the capacity of the people it employs. HR designs and administers most organisational systems that contribute to agility:

  • Creates roles that adapt and flex to meet organisation needs.
  • Creates selection, testing and hiring criteria that identify agile, ‘best-fit,’ as well as skilled people.
  • Provides orientation that emphasises the organisation’s expectations for agility.
  • Assists and coaches leaders to communicate the vision and develop an environment that removes barriers, de-emphasises hierarchical control, emphasises empowerment and puts people directly into contact with customers and suppliers.
  • Provides opportunities for people to experience collaborative problem solving.
  • Creates an environment in which learning new knowledge and skills before they are needed is the norm.
  • Pushes decision making as close as possible to where the decisions will be implemented so people are not waiting for decisions before taking action.
  • Designs a feedback system that provides ongoing, daily feedback so people know how they are doing.
  • Holds people accountable for their performance. There are consequences for met and unmet expectations.
  • Implements effective recognition and reward processes that truly reinforce agility and high performance.
  • Base promotions on true potential and aspiration; not merely on performance.
  • Encourages intelligent risk taking and open discussion and even some conflict over diverse ideas and viewpoints.

Clinton Wingrove is EVP and Principal Consultant at Pilat HR Solutions

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Clinton Wingrove

Principal Consultant

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