Agility is fundamental to leading a team through times of change. – Sandra E. Peterson

You’ve heard it more than once…the ability to lead through change is critical for an organization’s long-term success. And if there is one characteristic that distinguishes the organizations that can adapt, learn from mistakes, and succeed within the complexities of the rapidly changing, ambiguous and turbulent world we live in, it’s agility.

Most leaders understand the importance of agility, but few actually prioritize the development of this crucial skill. Yet for others, it comes naturally.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta is the world’s busiest with over 104 million passengers annually. Outside of the airport sits a rock quarry, along with a concrete and construction debris recycling business. Stephens Industries, now part of Luck Companies, helped build the airport. It provided the materials for the airport runways and recycles the used concrete. The former owner, Mr. Stephens, saw an opportunity and jumped on it.  He was a natural change agent – open to trends in the market and adapting to meet them. Today, the current VP of Luck’s Southeast Region, Joe Carnahan, has not lost sight of that spirit of risk taking and experimentation.

Not surprisingly, Joe’s leadership aligns with InnerWill’s belief about our own business: Experiment, learn from the experiment, and then innovate.

So how did you balance the very real costs of experimentation and risk taking with necessary operational efficiencies?

Organizational agility means taking a calculated risk, most likely making some mistakes, and then applying lessons learned to add value to the business. Rather than being paralyzed or waiting for the perfect solution, organizational agility requires experimenting in small ways, before making the big bets.

But just as consistency can become rigidity, agility can become a lack of focus when it isn’t tempered by stability — and in extreme cases cause organizations to fall into chaos. Agility is not incompatible with stability—quite the contrary. Agility requires stability in order to provide a consistent and reliable product or service. As a leader you must manage that tension between the need to innovate, change and rapidly adapt with the need to be efficient, consistent and meet revenue goals. And it’s also your challenge to find the sweet spot between agility and efficiency.

As a leader, it’s up to you to create the kind of environment where people are willing to try new things and an environment where people can learn from mistakes. If it’s never okay to fail, you’ll fail to do anything new for employees, customers, and the community at large. Agility is the only way organizations can thrive in rapidly changing and ambiguous marketplaces.

Five Ways You Can Strengthen Your Organization’s Agility

  1. Get curious about developments in your community or marketplace. Get outside of your own walls on a regular basis, talking to customers and stakeholders and even unrelated organizations with the intent to learn everything you can and apply the lessons.
  2. Look inside your own house. Ask, “What are my strengths and opportunities?” Know that it’s often easier to focus within your organization than outside of it—although there are lessons to be learned in both places.
  3. Experiment, take risks, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. These things require courage. Acknowledge that your concerns might be valid, but engage resistance and communicate the value of trying something new.
  4. Establish a safe environment to take risk – one where people feel secure and encouraged to experiment. You may have to look in the mirror and ask what you are doing that makes it safe for others to try something new or what you are doing that shuts that behavior down.
  5. Pause and reflect. Look back at what you’ve learned from those experiments and then apply those lessons going forward.

Cultivate these behaviors and you will build the leadership horsepower that is better equipped to overcome the obstacles to organizational agility. And is also less likely to face those obstacles in the first place.


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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