Agility is a highly valued capability. We appreciate agility and ease in people, but also in things and processes: an agile process will always be considered better than one that is not. The dictionary defines the adjective agile as a) that which moves with ease and speed, b) said of a movement, skilful and quick, and c) all that acts or develops quickly and promptly.

In the last two decades, agility, however, has transcended the physical field, and the concept has been introduced into the educational field (emotional agility) or the organizational field (agile organizations).

Agile Manifesto, the key to agile organizations

Agile organizations are those that have the ability to create value by responding to constant change. They meet customer needs as quickly as possible. There are many reports, methodologies (e.g. Scrum or Kanban) and initiatives that invite to streamline organizations.

A turning point in this movement towards organizational agility was the Agile manifesto signed by 17 leaders in the software development industry. The manifesto is organized into 4 values and 12 principles worth reading. Some of these principles are: “Our top priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of software with value” (Principle 1) or “We deliver functional software frequently, between two weeks and two months, with preference to the shortest possible time period” (Principle 3).

The manifesto has not only been a point of no return for the software development industry, but also for many other organizations not necessarily in the technology sector. There’s a clear call for agility, and the pandemic has only underscored this fact.

 

 “There is a clear call for agility, and the pandemic has only underscored that”

 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be more agile, neither as a person, nor as an organization. However, some critics invite us to think about the costs of agility, its B-side, because the benefits are clear, but what is the price agility entails for my organization? What is the price of agility on me?

A possible mistake has been to confuse and assimilate agility with speed. A couple of the aforementioned principles announce it: “respond as quickly as possible”. In fact, the dictionary itself gives much strength to the idea of agility as speed in its three meanings.

However, it´s Professors Sheppart and Young who stress that agility consists of changes in speed and direction in response to a stimulus.

“Confusing agility with speed can be one of the most common mistakes”

 

Two important considerations are important here: that agility manifests itself in the face of a stimulus (changes in the labour market, the outbreak of a pandemic), and that the changes are not only in speed, but also of direction (adaptability).

With the implementation of methodologies to transform companies into agile organizations, one can get the feeling, with its dynamics of sprints and immediate deliveries, that agility is not understood in the sense of Sheppart, but in the sense of the dictionary entry.

To understand agility only as speed, regardless of stimuli, would be to imagine the gazelle constantly running. We can all imagine a bad end. The perversion of agility is to invite people to think that to be agile is to run constantly. It is to clothe speed in agility. Although speed comes with some short-term benefits (value creation, or customer satisfaction), there are serious costs for organizations and directly for their employees (exhaustion, tiredness, fatigue) that require reflection.

From agile organizations to the fatigue society

One of the great thinkers of our time, the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, reflects on the silent change of paradigm that Western society has undergone until it has become what he calls the Society of Fatigue, which arises from the Society of Performance. In this new social scenario, it is ourselves who self-exploit ourselves at work to the point of exhaustion; we become subordinate and, at the same time, foreman of our own person who asks us to always perform better. Every age has its illnesses. Ours, as a consequence of this self-demanding self-indulgence, the neuronal ones: depression, occupational burnout syndrome, hyperactivity.

According to Han (2017), our daily self-criticism is a clear sign of the performance society in which we are immersed, facilitating the “exhaustion of the soul”. For the South Korean philosopher, a country built on performance in recent decades, the “pedagogy of looking” (at oneself and the other) is necessary, as well as the “practice of non-doing” for short and long periods, to save us from infarcted and exhausted lives.

Agility well understood by companies

Organizations must be agile, and it´s good news, but this does not directly imply that all the people who make up such organizations must move and work at high speed constantly. It’s essential to be agile like the gazelle or the fish, unveiling and taking advantage of our latent alacrity at the necessary moments.

For contemporary organizations genuinely interested in agility, these points could be very relevant:

  • Do not confuse agility with constant high speed. The direct Madrid-Barcelona High Speed train is a marvel. It is fast, efficient, but it’s not agile. You cannot go to Gijón tomorrow, you are forced to go to Barcelona; if you want you can go to Zaragoza, or to Camp de Tarragona, and not to Barcelona, but certainly not to Gijón. It is crucial to distinguish agility from speed.
  • Study in detail the benefits of agility in our organization (value creation, customer satisfaction), and at the same time study in detail its costs (how is the team? Is there absenteeism? Is there turnover? Are there any illnesses?)
  • Avoid fostering a culture of haste if it’s not We must be in a hurry when there’s a hurry, but living in a state of eternal haste increases the risk of mistakes, reduces the ability to empathize, to tune in to others or to make truly the right choices. It also reduces sympathy and care.
  • An agile organization is crucial in our times. In fact, it has always been crucial, but it´s necessary to ponder with serenity and slow reflection the benefits and costs of the programs we have in mind.

Bibliography:

Han, Byung-Chul. 2017. La Sociedad Del Cansancio. Herder Editorial.