Psychology of Agility
Everyone is talking about agility at the moment. Birigit Werkmann-Karcher and Michael Zirkler wrote a book on this topic, which was published by Springer Verlag in August 2020. I had the opportunity to support both of them in this project and conducted research interviews for the book at different locations in order to “track down this strange phenomenon of human experience and behaviour in the world of work” (Werkmann-Karcher & Zirkler, 2020). This article is intended to give a brief introduction to the topic and provide insights into our research and the publication.
The term Agility is not new
What does agility actually mean? The term agility is not new. It was already used in systems theory by organizations in the 1950s (Parsons, 1954). Today's understanding of agility has changed. However, the various definitions are still very broad. Agility should be a possibility to meet today's demanding VUCA conditions (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), which are all presented in the world of Work 4.0. Rose (2018, p.15) provides a simple but accurate definition:
« [Agile is] the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment. Instead of relying on extensive up-front planning, solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross functional teams utilising the appropriate practices for their context. »
Doing Agile vs. Being Agile
In the relevant literature and in practice, a distinction is often made between “doing agile” and “being agile”. It can be concluded that there should be something like an agile personality (being agile). However, if you search for the agile personality in professional psychological databases, you will not find it. At the moment there is still no well-founded and tested theory clearly stating what qualities an individual should have to be agile. In practice, people often speak of an agile mindset. In their book Werkmann et al. (2020) show some possible connections to existing constructs, e.g. to the model of learning agility (De Rue et al., 2012) or to character strengths (Seligmann et al., 2004). From a psychological point of view, the agile mindset can currently be referred to as a mixture of different skills (values, orientations, working principles, social skills). Personality traits are also part of it, but they do not exclusively determine the agile mindset (Werkmann-Karcher et al., 2020).
In order to be agile as a team or organization, the mere adaptation of processes and organizational forms is not enough. The «chance» must be lived, animated and energized so that new patterns of thought and behaviour can develop and stabilize. It has to be a holistic process. A pure top-down introduction without corresponding support from the workforce could turn out to be very demanding. Management must have the courage and confidence to hand over centralized decisions to the grassroots. If such framework conditions are created, a room for novel thought processes and agile structures can appear. Laloux (2016, p.59) illustrates this power of agility in a vivid way:
« There can be hundreds of thousands of birds in a flock, flying at high speeds. And in the blink of an eye, when a predator appears, this whole dense cloud changes direction. How do the birds avoid mass collisions? It’s almost a miracle. Hierarchy and centralized decision- making could never master this level of speed and complexity. Coordination is embedded in three rules that all birds play by. Coordination mechanisms, rather than hierarchy, keep the flock agile and safe. »
Learning Agility as the Path to «Being Agile»
In order to put individuals or teams on their learning paths towards agility, psychology would determine the current situation, which could reveal those possible learning paths. Unfortunately there is no empirically tested diagnostic that knows how to measure the construct of agility, therefore this approach cannot be proposed at the moment. On the individual level, learning paths in the 1st and 2nd order can be used. While opportunities already exist in the area of the 1st order (doing agile) (Kanban, Scrum, coaching), in the area of learning of the 2nd order (being agile) it is a question of procedures that must be discovered first, then developed and tested (Werkmann-Karcher et al., 2020). The concept of “learning agility” can offer good access for teams and groups. It is divided into different areas of learning: People Agility, Results Agility, Mental Agility and Change Agility (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).
Agility is not a High-Performance Sport
Agility can certainly be a possible answer to the demanding conditions in today's working world. If misunderstood, agility can also turn into a “high-performance sport”, which can lead to a social and organizational exclusion. It should not be there to displace employees who cannot go along with every change immediately. Rather, it should also serve to accompany and support these people during the change. At the end I would like to quote the following (from my research interview in a company with agile and holacratic structures). It shows well that agility can serve to expand our scope of possibilities, but limitations in the application should also be seen:
«Agility is more an extension of our field of action and our tool boxes than the stone of wisdom. It is often said: That now supersedes everything, be it agility or holacracy or whatever else there was in the past, such as Scrum, etc. We have so much human history behind us, very little of it is documented. I don't believe that we are just now finding the philosopher's stone that will solve all our problems. And adaptivity and agility are beautiful, whatever the next step includes, so it is certainly something that continues without having to proclaim that it is the only right one. »
Psychology of Agility - a book by Michael Zirkler and Birigit Werkmann, with the collaboration of Dominik Grolimund
The term agility is not new. And yet it plays a major role in the world of work 4.0. So far, we are familiar with the term "doing agile" in the form of Kanban, Scrum or Coaching, but we still struggle with the agile mindset. Here, learning agility can offer good access to “being agile”.