Monday, April 06, 2009

What is Agility? Part 1 - Business Agility

Kicking off my series of posts on the subject of "What is Agility?" is this first posting on Business Agility, and how agile methods got its name from those roots...

Some of you may already know that before Agile methods used the word "Agile", the term "Lightweight methods" was being generally used to describe them. It wasn't until the February 2001 gathering at Snowbird, Utah that they began using the term "Agile", and the "Agile manifesto" was born.

At that time, the term "Agile" was already in use to refer to "business agility" by those in the field of organizational change and learning. I know of at least a few people (Mike Beedle for example) who were there at Snowbird that knew this and even liked the term and used it from time-to-time before that now famous gathering.

So the then lightweight methods community intentionally adopted the terms "agile" and "agility" in this context. Let's explore our roots and see exactly what "Business Agility" means. I surfed the net for some time and gathered a number of definitions.

Business Agility is ...

    “the ability to both create and respond to [anticipated and unanticipated] change in order to profit in a turbulent business environment.” —[James Highsmith and Highsmith2]
    “the ability to adapt rapidly and cost efficiently in response to changes in the business environment.” —[Wikipedia]
    “the ability to sense environmental change and to respond efficiently and effectively to it. Sensing the need for change also includes the proactive initiation of change.” —[Gartner1 and Gartner2]
    “the capability to be flexible, responsive, adaptive, and show initiative in times of change and uncertainty”—[BNET]
    “the ability of enterprises to cope with unpredictable changes, to survive unprecedented threats from the business environment, and to take advantage of changes as opportunities” —[Agile Business: The competitive weapon. Market research study in four business segments (2004)]
    “the ability to swiftly change businesses and business processes beyond the normal level of flexibility in order to effectively deal with unpredictable external and internal changes.” —[Business Agility in the Netherlands: Research Study Public Sector (2005)]
    “the capacity to gain competitive advantage by intelligently, rapidly and proactively seizing opportunities and responding to threats.” —S. Meredith and D. Francis (2000)
    “the ability to cope with unexpected changes, survive unprecedented threats from the business environment, and take advantage of these changes as opportunities.” —Z. Zhang and H. Sharifi (2000)
    “The ability to thrive in a continuously changing, unpredictable business environment.” —R. Dove (1999)

Those are some nutshell definitions. They are focused on the dynamic capability to swiftly sense and rapidly respond to change using a combination of adaptation (for unforeseen changes) and flexibility (for foreseeable changes).

Let's look at some more details from a few more sources ...

From Process Transformation for Reaching Agility: CIO Role
  • Business agility calls for quick decisions and action. Agility is the ability of a business system to sense environmental change and respond efficiently and effectively to that change. Any framework for agility must address issues that go well beyond selection of the latest technologies.

  • Business system's willingness to be agile, its understanding of its own business system building blocks and its enablers of agility, and its adherence to an "agility cycle" are just as important as the judicious use of agility-influencing technologies.

  • The following four fundamental capabilities enable a business system to increase agile performance across the agility cycle. They are essential to being able to allocate corporate activities to measurable categories:

    • Awareness (the right information through data and event monitoring mean knowing what is going on)
    • Flexibility (the right options by rule modeling and simulation render possible confronting expected change)
    • Adaptability (the right reactions by rapid rule modification enable confronting unexpected change)
    • Productivity (the right policies, procedures and operations through automation for executing well day to day).

From What Lessons can the Agile Community Learn from a Maverick Fighter Pilot? and Thriving on Chaos:
  • The key to thriving on chaos is a skill Boyd calls agility, which is “the ability to rapidly change one’s orientation—[or] worldview—in response to what is happening in the external world.”

  • In the context of battle, agility involves four distinctive activities: observe your environment (yourself; your opponent; the physical, mental, and moral situation; and potential allies and opponents), orient yourself to decide what it all means, reach some type of decision, and attempt to carry out the decision. Observe, orient, decide, and act.

  • It turns out that the most critical step in the agility cycle is the first one: observe. This is much more than a process of looking around. Rather, it is a relentless search for the truth about your situation. The idea is to “go out and get all the information you can by whatever means possible.” Why? Because you can never be sure beforehand which stray idea will prove essential.

  • In Boyd’s conception, the first step—observe—is the only input from outside yourself. For this reason, how well your orientation matches the real world is largely a function of how well you observe. You are looking for mismatches between your current worldview and the world as it actually is. “A general rule is that bad news is the only kind that will do you any good….

  • You must seek out and find data that doesn’t fit with your worldview and you must do this while there is still time.” Otherwise the world will change and you will find yourself disoriented. You will have lost the initiative, which is dangerous in any conflict. However, if you are able to get the facts right and are willing to orient yourself to them, then astute decisions and effective actions will follow.

From Towards Agile Government:
  • In practice, agility features the following four characteristics: short term frontline responsiveness, strategic adaptation, outcomes focus. preventing or reducing problems before they arise.

  • Agile organisations are ‘hyper strategic’, tackling challenges wrought by turbulent external environments, while also preparing for future changes that are not yet apparent. They move through an agility cycle, seeking out and interpreting information to inform short, medium and long term decision making and action. The agility cycle is a four-step process through which organisations:

    • scan emerging trends and issues
    • sense opportunities to translate information into actionable solutions
    • respond to opportunities and risks
    • shape future environments.

From Agility thru SOA (Master’s Thesis)
  • Business Agility is the ability to sense internal and external changes, as well as being able to swiftly adapt, in reaction to sensed changes, businesses and business processes beyond the normal (operational) levels of flexibility, effectively using internal and external resources, to effectively manage unpredictable external and internal changes.

  • Different types of agility:

    • Product Agility – the ability to easily change between various products to address changing needs
    • Process Agility – the ability to easily adapt the internal processes to address changing circumstances
    • Market Agility – the ability to easily enter and change markets
    • Network Agility – the ability to easily coordinate and cooperate with various partners, ranging from suppliers to customers

So what did we learn? Share your thoughts! (I'll share mine in my next blog-entry.)

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