As far back as 1995, in their book “The Boundaryless Organization”, Ashkenas, Ulrich, Jick & Kerr recognized that, in a climate characterized by unprecedented, unparalleled, unrelenting and largely unpredictable change, organizations stumble and sometimes fall, because the rate of change in their external environments simply outstrips their capacity to keep pace.

Organizations have sought ways of keeping up with the pace of change. Many approaches – including but not limited to skunk works, process reengineering, cross-functional product development teams, and employee empowerment – have been devised and introduced. To varying degrees they have helped, but at best seem to offer only partial solutions.

Recognizing the deficiencies of these and similar approaches, the concept of agile organizations has emerged. This views organizational adaptation not as a one-time or even periodic event, but as a continuous process. Agile organizations are expected to develop a built-in capacity to shift, flex, and adjust as circumstances change, and to do so in appropriate and affordable ways.

The value of organizational agility is increasingly recognized within both the private and the public sectors. According to recent research, most executives now understand that agility is critical to the success of businesses – and that its importance is growing. Business executives expect the benefits of enhanced agility to include higher revenues, more satisfied customers and employees, improved operational efficiency and a faster time to market. Clearly, then, the stakes are high. And not just in the private sector; in the public and not-for-profit sectors the mantra of “achieve more with less” is generally the order of the day.

Recognition of the need for agility is a crucial step towards achieving lasting organizational health. Finding workable solutions is of course another challenge entirely. The world now changes more unpredictably, more dramatically and more rapidly than ever before. And the drivers of change – including the financial crisis, the role and influence of government, ever more demanding stakeholders, massive shifts in buying power towards emerging markets, and new challenges to human and natural resource management, to name a few – add complexity and unfamiliarity to the mix.

Standing still is not an option; unfortunately, you may have precious little time available to work out where to head. Organizations are under such intense pressure that they can barely keep up with everyday demands, let alone create the space to fundamentally review their business models.

But they must. In today’s turbulent world there is a genuine need to re-think.

  • Re-think the way we obtain, interpret and use information
  • Re-think how we respond to changing circumstances and demands
  • Re-think how we utilize all the resources available to us
  • Re-think how we secure and sustain organisational engagement

In a nutshell, organizations must strive to achieve systemic agility.