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by Jennifer Jordan
April 06, 2020
“Agility” has become a hugely popular management buzzword. But what does it really mean?
My first introduction to the concept came long before I studied management, let alone talked about it with executives in the classroom. My first exposure to agile was in the ballet studio, when I was studying to be a dancer. All young dancers aspire to agility — to be up there with the leaping Baryshnikovs, the twirling Kents, and the gliding Nureyevs. But now, far from the ballet studio, I see many of the characteristics that are required in ballet transferring to the executive suite: core strength, ability to change focus quickly, extreme flexibility and range of motion, and knowing where you want to go.
First, to be agile requires core strength. For a dancer this means that the abdominal and back muscles are strong enough to support the turns, jumps, and extensions that they have to perform. Core strength also provides a visual esthetic of stability in the midst of rapid and sometimes extreme movements. For a manager, core strength is also at the heart of agility, requiring that the manager know his or her core values — that is, what they stand for and what provides them with purpose in their life and in their business. It also means that they are not blown from one direction to another by the next fad.
Core strength is not to be confused with rigidity. In fact, core strength allows one to avoid rigidity, which results from a perceived threat of being set off balance. If a manager knows his or her true North Star, he or she will be able to explore the full range of motion without fear of being thrown off. An example of a leader who harnessed core strength for agility was Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry and later the head of retail for Apple. Ahrendts brought Burberry back from obsolescence by harnessing what was at the core of this 150-year-old company: the trench coat. By resurrecting its core competency in a way that acknowledged the tastes and trends of the next generation, Burberry was able to reemerge as a digitally relevant fashion brand.
Second, agility requires the ability to change focus quickly. For a dancer, this means constantly transferring weight from one side of the body or one foot to the other, or from the toes to the heels. For managers, changing focus is the realization that what they once thought was the right route from Point A to Point B might have changed, given the evidence at hand. This kind of shift requires core strength but it also requires confidence in movement — knowing where they ultimately want to be but being open to different ways of getting there. Hilti is a company that was able to change focus and keep up with changing trends in. Known as a top-quality producer of construction tools, Hilti transitioned to being a full solution seller for the construction industry, providing service contracts and making tools that not only could share data with one another but also transfer that data to the cloud.
Third, agility requires extreme flexibility and the accompanying range of motion. One mark of a great dancer is being able to contort the body into shapes and spaces that mere mortals are unable to attain. This is known as flexibility. But dancers also need a broad range of motion, including the ability to make themselves very small — to diminish the body— as well as to take up all the space that one is in — to seem larger than they actually are (think about a petite female dancer leaping across the full stage of Lincoln Center in New York City). For a manager, flexibility is required not only in the change of direction, but also in how ideas are conceived, where those ideas come from, and the expertise brought in to solve problems. Range of motion is necessary to know when one should step out of a space — and also when to forge ahead. IBM is a company notable for this quality. Faced with a reality of rapidly-decreasing computer sales, IBM was able to move into the cloud computing space by enabling its Watson technology and partnering with other companies like Samsung, Visa, and H&R Block.
And lastly, agility requires knowing where you want to go. Every dancer knows that to perform a piece correctly, the mind needs to be at least one beat ahead of the music. That is, to predict the immediate next move and to move with deliberation. It doesn’t mean that the dancer predicts movement 60 or even 30 seconds in advance — to do so take him or her out of the present moment — but it does mean being slightly ahead of the next step.
For managers, knowing where they want to go means that while they might not have a three-year plan, they do have a clear vision of what they ultimately want to achieve. The Singaporean bank DBS is a prime example of creating a vision and realizing it through short-term steps. First, the CEO, Piyush Gupta, decided to move out of Singapore into Southeast Asia, India, and China in order to be a big player in the region. Leadership also set the goal of improving internal operations and customer service by achieving consistency of systems across the bank and measuring customer service performance with over 1000 different measurements. Their ultimate goal of reducing the time it took customers to wait for various services by 10 million hours. DBS won the Euromoney magazine awards for “Best Bank of the Year – Global” and “Best Bank in the World” in 2018 and, more recently, “World’s Best Bank” in 2019.
Agility is not to be confused with pushing oneself beyond the one’s physical or mental limits. Yes, just like a professional dancer, being a top corporate athlete requires an incredible amount of hard work and dedication. But top dancers know that the body and mind have limits and when you try to push them beyond these limits they will tell you by becoming exhausted or injured — anything but agile. Thus, as the pace of business pushes people to work longer and longer hours, fostering agility starts with managers’ prioritizing things like sufficient rest and good nutrition. A relentless pace is not conducive to agility.
I’m not suggesting that managers put on their ballet shoes and learn how to leap across the stage. But the world of ballet can give us a clear, concrete definition of agility, as well as direction on how to achieve it.