It Takes More than Agile Principles and Practices to Create Agility

“In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

References to ‘disruption’, ‘innovation’, and ‘the future of work’ are ubiquitous, conjuring up images of fast-paced environments, chaotic demands, and amazing new capacities both enabled and driven by the power of digitization. Not surprisingly, the call for greater ‘agility’ is equally pervasive, asking individuals, teams, and whole organizations to seek novelty, handle unprecedented levels of ambiguity, and focus on the barest essentials to achieve productivity and profitability goals.

This reality raises three very important questions for executives, performance improvement professionals, and organization development practitioners:

What makes agility possible?

What is my team/organization’s current capacity for agility?

How can I help my team/organization increase its capacity for agility?

As commonly understood, Agile is a project management methodology that helps teams iterate more quickly, effectively and in closer alignment with customer needs. When successful, Agile projects are 28% more successful than traditional projects (Source: Price Waterhouse Cooper).  However, success is not a given. According to VersionOne, 63% of respondents in one study blamed the clash between their business’s culture and Agile’s business philosophy as the reason for their failure. In other words, Agile principles and practices alone cannot ensure agility. The behavioural norms and meaning system of the organization need to support Agile ways of working for the ‘agile’ functionality to emerge.

Translating the conversation from Agile principles and practices into behavioural and cultural terms shifts the emphasis away from structure, process, and technologies, toward attributes of the ‘human system’. More specifically, it asks whether the workforce’s preferred ways of reasoning, relating and acting are in harmony with the demands of Agile. If they are, Agile is likely to take root and succeed. If not, the risk of failure is high as the methodology is asking large numbers of people to work against their own natures.

Aggregate behavioural propensities are possibly the most precise and relevant way to understand this fundamental alignment question. Why? They give insight into how readily the human system in an organization can create and sustain the change-speed-achievement oriented dynamic that Agile is designed to enable. Structures, processes, technologies and resources cannot, of themselves, exercise agility. However, teams with the right aggregate behavioural propensities, supported by suitable structures, processes, technologies and resources, can.

This does not mean that every member of a team needs to be strong in the behavioural preferences that are at the heart of agility – achievement orientation, profit and results focus, and an overwhelming desire to quickly adapt and create a new future using imagination and insight when the status quo is challenged. What it does mean is that the overall profile needs to emphasize these preferences, while also guarding against the downsides of this style (more task than people, more what than why, more action than consideration).

By gauging how big the gap is between the needed and actual aggregate propensity profile of a team, leaders can assess the risk of failure and take compensatory actions.

Three obvious avenues for strengthening agile capacity include:

Identifying/allocating talent to build a more suitable aggregate propensity profile.

Providing development opportunities to members with the greatest potential to learn the required behaviours (i.e., closest to demonstrating these talents naturally.

Practicing intentional teaming whereby team members learn to demonstrate their preferences more or less forcefully, to give required propensities more air time.

Given resourcing constraints, all three enhancement strategies are often needed to help the ‘agile’ functionality become an active reality. While Agile is a response to the need-for-speed, strategic workforce design and talent management are the best way of ensuring its success.


Germaine Watts is a thought leader, author, speaker and co-founder of Ensentious – a consultancy and workshop/retreat provider dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations thrive. As a mindfulness coach, SuccessFinder expert, and facilitator with the Centre for Courage and Renewal, she seeks to foster connection between soul and role in ways that supports personal, organizational, and societal transformation.