Things Agility Can Teach Us About Leadership

More and more we hear about ‘agility’ in project management, agility leadership, agility in martial arts and canine agility …

dog agilityWhat exactly is agility?

Dog’s agility, easiest to explain, is a competitive sport in which a dog is directed through obstacles in a course that is timed and watched for accuracy. Easy that one!?

Let’s frame what is ‘agile project management’ - it refers to iterative and incremental method of managing the design and to build activities in a project with aim to provide new product or service in a highly flexible and interactive manner. A bit harder?

martial art agilityFurther, we find that agility training is fundamental to any (great) martial artist as well. In martial arts it is definitely true that some genetics play an important role in the development of agility; nevertheless, with the adequate practice anybody can improve his/her agility. That’s understandable.

Going even deeper to define agility we meet the use of the word ‘agility’ in leadership, too. What does it mean? Leadership agility is a mastery competency needed for sustained success in today’s complex, fast-paced, business environment. Such a leader has the ability and/or agility to operate in any manner and to think and react in a number of different ways. Does this sound more complicated?

Seeing very different connotations and the use of the same term, let’s pose a question – “How could we suggest a common denominator and explain it?”

Obviously agility could be defined as the ability of any ‘system’ to rapidly respond to change by adapting its initial current or stable ‘configuration’ to new ‘impulses of environment’. With animals and in martial arts agility is the capability to change the direction of the body in an efficient and effective manner. So here we are proposing a physical meaning of agility. That brings in a lot of other ‘effects/attributes’ into a play such as stability and adaptability, speed and strength, static and dynamic balance, co-ordination (most of which I have already described in my previous blogs).

Let’s take some time to discuss how to practice agility in physical sense?

In martial arts the ideal way to improve previously mentioned ‘effects/attributes’ would be in a fight. But to fight without practice could be devastating for someone that has no experience and knowledge about it. Therefore, practice and sparing give the anticipated results in performance, body and fight techniques, which all ask for better agility. The same goes for the dogs training in an agility competition. Practice and repetitions!

Agile model
But how can we practice agility in the same way in project management or leadership where rather mental than physical ‘effects/attributes’ are needed?

To come with an answer allow me first to describe agility (agile methods) as a concept.

Agile methodologies are the alternative to ‘waterfall’ – the traditional sequential development - that helps teams to respond to unpredictability. ‘Agility’ was introduced in 1970 by Dr. Winston Royce in a paper Manage the Development of Large Software Systems in which he criticized sequential development. Agility provides openings to evaluate the direction of a project throughout the development lifecycle. The openings are achieved through regular cadences of work, known as sprints or iterations. It is like today’s event driven programming made for interactive use of applications where events (initiated by users) drive changes in a (software) process.

One can easily imagine that a process that is agile is more likely to be effective than the rigid one. This is specifically true when we do things that are complex and subject to change. Why? Because the ability to adapt is necessary for a system not to break down. That is exactly how the nature works all the time.

But the agility without a well-defined effective process means only chaos. Therefore, it is very much about the knowledge to discover the right balance of constrains and flexibility! If a process is to behave as agile –it needs to embrace a clear ‘understanding’ of where, when and how to change.
project management agility
Project management and leadership are both processes where a change may take place on the fly, upon the decision of the performers at the team level or because of an external interruption – in such cases the principles of agile methodology are to be applied if a positive result is foreseeable.

Not every team or individual has the wisdom to do the right thing at the right moment. Because of it we need some kind of constrains that frame the system’s behavior. Anyhow those constrains should not be too narrow as we need them to define the limits of processes, but they must add value to the leadership process and/or the project and not break down the running process.

To summarize the discussion on agility (in leadership and/or in other fields) we need to support an effective, flexible process that gives people the ability to adapt to the needs of the current situation and not to constrain them on what for years we are (were) doing ‘in the same way’. To achieve that, some means of security (and not insecurity! – see blog: Insecurity drains the life out of employees have to be built into the system, such means that would allow people to freely make decisions and also to make (some) mistakes.

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