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The Mantra of Agility: What is it Really?

“When the going gets tough, the tough agile get going.”

Business agility has for a long time been a much sought-after ability. The coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has spawned have brought agility to the fore again as many companies prepare for a rough time ahead before they make it to the other side of the turbulence.

But is ‘agility’ merely a mantra that can be made to mean virtually anything? Or can it actually be defined with clear contours, making successful adoption more likely?

At the most fundamental level, agility is a function of speed and flexibility. Anyone who has seen a National Geographic video of a cheetah on the hunt in the savannah knows what this powerful combination means. The grace, speed, and responsiveness of the explosively fast feline predator is a mesmerising and unforgettable sight.

But when applied to the business world, the word agility acquires additional qualities – and some qualifiers.

Aaron De Smet, an expert on agility at McKinsey & Company, believes that, in addition to speed and adaptability in a rapidly changing environment, agility also means maintaining stability while responding quickly to change. So, the powerful image of action that agility conjures up needs a stable foundation to play out. Put another way, the cheetah must always remain a cheetah when doing its thing with bursts of incredible speed and spellbinding somersaults. The basic nature of organisation and beast must remain steady for agility to operate.

In start-ups and smaller, growing companies, stability as well as agility reside in and flow out of the founders and, usually, a core group around them. That said, companies of this size tend to perform better on the agility score than on stability, as the imperatives of survival and rapid growth make constant agility a necessity for these firms. But companies that have grown beyond a certain size in their industry to reach that medium-to-large level need a sense of organisational stability to be agile.

Otherwise, in the absence of stability, they are at risk of failing prey to its dreaded opposite: fragility. The most common and apt metaphor for fragility is glass. The capabilities that are needed for an organisation to be agile are stressors – only a solid, stable company can withstand the pressures that come from the ability to maintain successful agility. Companies with shaky structures and irresolute leadership can quickly become fragile in an environment (such as the current crisis) that demands agility. The risk in this precarious situation is apparent.

There is one standard go-to for truly agile companies that seek to harness the twin mustangs of stability and agility: Innovation. In the face of a broad crisis, many leaders jump to lift budgets for innovative initiatives. But there are potential risks as well as possible rewards in this reflex. Because a sudden transformation of the organisation to drive innovation can be destabilising – the last thing you want to provoke in a time of turmoil. The best approach would be to always have a healthy innovation culture, so that, when the time comes, the company is able to maintain stability while hitting the pedal on a controlled ballet of agility to dance nimbly through the storm.

At MyTreasur-e, we are passionately focused on the ability of our state-of-the-art treasury management software to maintain stability in our clients’ business, while helping them be agile at the same time. Because, when the going gets tough, the agile get going.