Justin Hughes is Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy which accelerates organisational effectiveness. ​Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and served for 3 years on the Red Arrows.  He is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and the author of The Business of Excellence, published by Bloomsbury. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinMissionEx.

It’s in our DNA

At Mission Excellence, we run some exercises within client programmes on innovation and creative thinking, to demonstrate that while we might not all be able to design an Alexander McQueen dress, we all have the potential to come up with creative solutions to problems. It’s innate. The exercise just needs to be set up properly to free us from our internal and organisational constraints on creative thinking.

It’s the same with agility. We might be wired to have some resistance to change, but, in fact, we routinely react to events ranging from the minor to the life-changing in our daily lives.

We re-adjust, cope, display remarkable resilience and sometimes even exploit or thrive in our new circumstances.

Empowerment – buy one, get one free

If agility is in our DNA, why do we hear so many organisations soul searching about the need to become more agile in the information age? The issue is that agility requires empowerment.

It’s a word that organisations tend to like the sound of, before imposing all sorts of controls and internal processes to stifle any potential outbreak of autonomy, common sense or morale.

However, it’s a pretty powerful weapon. Not only do you free people up to actually solve the problem, you also motivate them.

Daniel Pink writes of our three biggest motivators in the workplace being mastery, purpose, and autonomy.  Having some ‘skin in the game’ is intrinsically rewarding and motivating for many people.  Better outcome AND better motivated…

Alignment vs Autonomy

The challenge for large organisations is how to set people free but keep them all pointing in the same direction (and compliant with regulation!).

Faced with a choice between alignment OR autonomy, alignment wins every time.

But the challenge for those in pursuit of excellence is not which to choose, but how to have alignment AND autonomy. 

Dr Stephen Bungay has studied military history extensively to better understand how the lessons from leading and managing armies faced with ambiguity, imperfect information and high-consequence decisions, can be applied to 21st century organisations.

At Mission Excellence, we draw on both our own experience and our work with Bungay, and promote a simple mantra: 


With absolute clarity in the intent and direction, a common approach for how to get there and effective communications to update, you can now set people free to solve their local challenges in the knowledge that they understand the wider context and implications of their decisions.

It has to be in that order though.

We want both but alignment comes before autonomy. You earn the right to deviate from standard operating procedures.

It’s Leadership, Stupid

People don’t generally get up in the morning and go to work with the aim of being difficult, blindly complying with process irrespective of the outcome, and taking no ownership of anything they do.

I have used the word ‘organisation’ above to depersonalise the responsibility, but if people are behaving like that, it’s because they do not believe that they have permission from their bosses to act any differently.

Changing that perception is a leadership issue and one which senior executives need to be equipped for. 

The solution is rarely training ‘for the workers’.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: ‘It’s leadership, stupid’… And that means that the need for agile 21st century organisations is an issue for HR.