Agility: The Ability to Zig and Zag

Image source: Pinterest

As a dog owner and animal lover, when I hear the word, “Agility,” I first think about dogs jumping hurdles and running through tunnels and chutes, taking sharp turns, making U-turns, and doing it all as a race for time and accuracy. Then, I discovered a video on of a squirrel racing along a complex obstacle course including running along wire, through tubes, up poles and making sharp turns, all to get nuts! (enjoy the video, “Mission Impossible Squirrel” below!)

These are fun examples of how animals change on a dime at speed, facing unexpected obstacles and resolving complications to get what they’re after. Each time, they need to access their memories and apply past learning to deal with each glitch. Wild animals, have developed agility to survive throughout their lifetimes.

Our work environments are extensions of the world, integrated with it and impacted by its constant change — in the economy, technology, customer needs, and advances made in industries as well as by competitors. We are routinely faced with opportunities and problems that require adjustments or even wholesale changes in our approaches. So, today’s organizations recognize the critical requirement for agility for both short term and long term survival, growth and prosperity.

It is not enough for a few leaders among a board or leadership team to be skilled in agility. To be successful, employees need to build agility skills. Organizations must rely on their people for agility, to know when to adopt new technology, and agility to drive change quickly.

Agility skills are important in all aspects of our lives, at work and outside work. We often experience the unexpected, events we cannot plan or control, that require us to make timely, if not immediate, changes of course. Agility is the capability to do that effectively.

What, then, is agility? The word Agility has different meanings depending on the context. It’s much more than an attitude of openness and flexibility. It’s a way of living and working day in and day out, and it employs a set of skilled that can only remain honed through continuous use.

Agile people are ready to make adjustments and view it as a natural part of being. Seeking and spotting solutions to problems as well as improvement opportunities, is, for the agile, are routine.

To stay with or ahead of the market and organization must build, collectively, knowledge and skills to read the business environment and respond quickly and effectively to changes in organizational needs.

People re-shape their lives and businesses adapt to continuously changing circumstances.

Bersin by Deloitte defined agility as “…a person’s ability and passion to quickly study a new problem and to apply his knowledge and prior learning to form a deep understanding before making a decision. It is not, for example, the ability to shoot from the hip.”

Experience itself is not enough to guarantee learning. People must take take to reflect and find meaning, to understand what happened and why it happened. Agility is not simply the ability to shift but is the ability to do so speedily. Lisa Haneberg wrote, in her article for ASTD, “Training for Agility: Building the Skills Employees Need to Zig and Zag,” Lisa said “Agility is our capacity to be consistently adaptable without having to change. It is the efficiency with which we can respond to non-stop change.”

To be agile is a life skill. It’s the ability to be in a constant state of readiness — to adjust, to find a new solution, to shift direction swiftly in response to the unexpected.

Examples of agility in business abound.

Agile leaders who are focused on the future can change the course of their organizations to find new success. For example, Robert Gavin, CEO of Motorola in the mid-1960’s, realized that the retail industry was changing due to Japan’s emerging presence. He strategized with his leaders to move Motorola away from retailing radios, televisions and stereos to focusing on chips and wireless communications. By the 1990’s Motorola had divested its former retail product lines and become a dominating force in cellular communications.

We can intuitively understand why our leaders need to be agile and future-focused. But, what does it mean to build an agile organization? Does everyone need to focus on the future while they do the work of today?

Building an agile organization means building agility in its individuals, teams and groups. We need to develop agility skills as Hanenberg defines them. And, we need to provide people with a shared purpose, a cornerstone made up of information about the Company’s business strategy, in particular, the value proposition. The cornerstone provides a most important benchmark as they think about what they do and how they do it.

Lisa Hanenberg’s article also provides us with a sports analogy: Imagine a profession tennis player named Bjorn. What may be the value proposition he needs to deliver? Perhaps it is to win the season. Hanenberg wrote, “…in between tournaments, Bjorn practices dozens of shots with a variety of practice partners on hard, grass and clay courts. Each tennis match is unique, but he will be better able to respond to each new challenge because he has trained himself to adapt quickly.

To build our agility, we can train as Bjorn does to increase our abilities to respond to new situations without having to change. Agile work approaches can be practiced day in and day out, enabled by an individual’s desire to improve his work product or process. This is different from change management, which is a process we use to implement and manage change. While agile work processes require adjustment, change has a broader scope.

The culture of an organization may need to be changed to make people more comfortable hacking their work methods. In organizations where hierarchy and standard procedures are emphasized, leaders will need to develop a strategy for agility, and to drive change in the culture, policies and leadership to create an environment conducive to agile behavior. In an organization where agility is defined as a core competency, is part of the business strategy, and can fit within the culture, managers can lead by example, and a learning/training organization can provide training in skills and behaviors that foster agile work practices.

Building skills through practice in the following areas can help develop agility:

  • Problem solving techniques
  • Self-regulation
  • Developing new habits
  • Stopping undesired habits
  • Submitting suggestions
  • Developing alternatives
  • Conducting experiments

Leading by example, managers can introduce systematic approaches that develop capability to apply learnings from past experience. For example, routinely conducting project or production post-mortems as a team, to learn from successes and failures, without finger-pointing.

Fostering and building agility effectively can provide a multitude of benefits. As people become more agile:

  • Changes do not stress people, because they are constantly on the ready to make adjustments
  • They can identify and act on possibilities
  • Ability to deal with stress improves
  • Skills in resilience, the ability to bounce back, can be strengthened
  • They learn to see the positives in change

In today’s fast-paced, changing world, our ability to continuously learn and adapt will determine how well people and businesses thrive, short and long term.

Video: Mission Impossible Squirrel

Link to Video from YouTube:

Are you interested in building agility? Please share comments, thoughts and questions.

Copyright May 10, 2021 Rosanna M. Nadeau

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