Whatever the nature of their organisation or sector of activity, all business leaders are now sure of one thing: they must face uncertainty.
How, then, can leaders develop and implement an appropriate business strategy that is both suited to market fluctuations and delivers results? While it is fairly obvious how the notion of agility relates to times of crisis or simple flexibility within an organisation, it is almost counter-intuitive to connect it to strategy. Is it still possible for managers to anticipate? Are there methods and tools that foster agility? Can a company become agile in a strategic way or strategically agile overnight?
Jérôme Couturier, professor of strategy and management and academic director of the Executive Certificate in Strategic Business Management at ESCP Business School, sheds light on these questions – and their paradoxes.
Professor of strategy at ESCP Business School
Is strategic agility the new management buzzword?
As Jérôme Couturier says, “we’ve been hearing a lot about [strategic agility], even though the topic has been little written about in a serious way. Yet, it’s not enough to say that we must be agile: we must agree on what this notion means and how it has a tangible impact on the entire company. Moreover, we tend to think that the notion of strategic agility has emerged only recently in tech companies in the United States, which is not quite true.”
For a company to be agile, management must encourage autonomy and risk-taking in its mid-level teams and those working in the field. Employees must understand that it’s okay to make a mistake!
Defining strategic agility in concrete terms
According to Jérôme Couturier, strategic agility means applying an agile mindset at three key moments of a company strategy: the “design” stage, the “taking action” stage and the “implementation” stage. To be strategically agile means accepting the need to rethink assumptions regularly at the design stage. To realise that to move quickly requires incorporating disciplined experimentation and an iterative approach and that, at the moment of implementation, one needs to be able to adapt to unforeseen challenges and act swiftly.
“Think big, start small, act quickly”
Jerôme Couturier thinks that “we must be able to manage risks by constantly testing ideas and projects. This is known as “lean testing”, which took off in tech start-ups. An expression that perfectly sums up the essence of strategic agility is: “think big, start small, act quickly”.
While all companies can be agile or become agile, the most common examples that come to mind are start-ups, small flexible organisations and the fields of technology and innovation.
Tomorrow’s leaders will be agile, or they will not be leaders.
Ensuring strategic agility depends primarily on instilling company culture at all levels of management. For a company to be agile, management must encourage autonomy and risk-taking in its mid-level teams and those working in the field. Employees must understand that it’s okay to make a mistake!
Strategic agility and the kind of managerial culture it requires are a very good fit for Generation Z at both the management and team levels. Generation Z is considered sensitive to attentiveness, empathy and courage. They are also ready to give their all to their work, provided that they gain empowerment, responsibility and a sense of meaning. These qualities are essential in an unstable environment where the approach of strategic agility is best suited.
An expression that perfectly sums up the essence of strategic agility is: “think big, start small, act quickly”.
How to foster agility
Jérôme Couturier says, “a decentralised organisation, like the one theorised by Brian M. Carney and Isaac Getz with their “liberated company”, fosters strategic agility.” He also strongly believes in establishing concrete tools and practices to foster this “test and learn” mindset with methods such as “OKR” (O for Objectives and KR for Key Results) or TOWS matrix (Threats, Opportunities, Weaknesses and Strengths). However, he cautions that the tools that work for one organisation may not work for another. Even when it comes to fostering agility, flexibility is key.