Approximate reading time: 2.8 minutes

How agile are your employees? That is, do they react quickly and easily to new situations, adapting rapidly without endless guidance or direction?  

Just some of the forces making companies reinvent how they do business and demand agile employees include: globalisation, instant communications, virtual business networks and empowered customers. 

It’s a particularly live issue in India for example. In that fast moving environment even if managers manage their talented employees well, they increasingly want ones who can react and adapt to situations quickly.

They need not merely engaged people, but ones who can be agile.

You probably won’t find agility listed as a skill on many competency charts or descriptions of training seminars.

Nor are you likely to hear someone in the company cafeteria mumbling “my boss said if only I had more agility I would have been promoted”

We also tend to think of agility merely in physical terms. For instance with athletes it’s essential for winning team games.

Take a midfield footballer such as Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany. He moves the ball so fast Manchester United is hoping to persuade him to join them.

Typically when he swiftly dribbles and gives a cross to the striker, by the time the latter heads the ball into the net, this agile midfielder will have already repositioned, strengthening the defence.

Actors too must be agile and ready to respond to unexpected situations. For example, an actor due to pour wine in one scene suddenly realises the glasses on the table are already full. 

Or a fellow player forgets her lines yet the response must still be immediate and appropriate.

The business climate for many companies is similar.

To be successful, organizations must react quickly, reposition and act fast.

Of course business people generally have more time to react, than say footballers or actors. Yet they too need to create a seamless process that deals rapidly with fast changing situations.

Nor is agility confined to business or sport. The police too need this ability:

 "The Force is keen to develop a culture where agile working is the norm for those posts which are suitable and this will eventually be reflected in Post Profiles" says Richard Ingham, Commercial Services Director, North Wales Police.

We can quibble endlessly about the exact meaning of agility and there is a difference between developing agile employees and creating an agile business.

A recent Pricewaterhouse report for example defined an agile business as “anticipating likely change and addressing it deftly, all while keeping your business on course and your customers satisfied.”

Developing agile employees is about having your people confident and ready to rapidly change in how they do things.

Specifically the Work Place Intelligence Unit, defines agile working as: “Empowering employees to work where, how and when they choose, to maximise their productivity and deliver the greatest value to the business.”

Truly agile employees seldom arise spontaneously.  Employers wanting this capability must expect to invest in showing why it is so important, how it fits with company values and what it might mean in actual practice.

Let’s say customer service is a top priority. A salesperson is in the middle of writing a report for senior leadership when the phone rings. Caller ID shows it’s one of her customers, though not her biggest account.

The senior leadership report is due shortly and there’s still much work to be done. But she doesn’t need to ask a supervisor for guidance on what to do. She simply picks up the phone because she knows her company’s values. She is agile.

Seven signposts towards agile employees:

1)      Know why you want your employees to be agile—what is it meant to achieve?

2)      Help employees appreciate and become enthusiastic about rapid and constant change and its implications

3)      Offer practice at making fast decisions and at adapting to new situations

4)      Make sure mistakes are seen as inevitable and merely a route to learning

5)      Praise and reward employees who show agility with unusual responses to new situations

6)      Use stories about people successfully adapting to show what it means in practice

7)      Use scenario planning to help people imagine what agility might mean in practice

 Thanks go to Supratik Bhattacharya at Maynard Leigh Associates India, for proposing this topic.

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