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Madness as Usual

Agility, or: It’s Groundhog Day, again

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 18. August 2022
© Alexandra Kern

It was once the done thing for any manager of a firm, public-sector organization, army, or university to seek to promote ‘agility’. Consultants prefixed any noun one might find in the literature on management studies with the adjective ‘agile’: there was talk of ‘agile project development’, ‘agile process control’, ‘agile organizational development’, ‘agile quality management’, and ‘agile leadership’. There seemed to be no limit to the creative applicability of the term. But what does this once so highly praised concept actually mean?

‘Agility’, one typical definition went, ‘refers to an organization’s capacity continually to adapt to its complex, turbulent, and uncertain environment’. And the logical conclusion was: ‘For an enterprise, agility means the capacity to operate profitably in a competitive environment that is characterized by constant but unpredictable and changing customer requests.’ It was therefore of great importance that all employees possessed an ‘agile mindset’, for this would generate an ‘appreciative climate’ in which all within the organization could meet ‘on an equal footing’.

Such definitions of agility met with spontaneous agreement. What manager would object to the suggestion that her organization should be able to adapt to a complex, turbulent, and uncertain environment? Who would contradict the claim that it is necessary to have the capacity to ‘operate in a constantly changing, competitive environment’? And what employee would object to an ‘appreciative climate’ in which one can meet with others ‘on an equal footing’? The fact that these phrases received almost automatic acceptance was due, ultimately, to their underlying banality, a banality sometimes well hidden, sometimes less so.

The easy way to detect a banal definition 

A simple test can be applied in order to determine how superficial some manager’s injunction about ‘agility’ really is (Gälweiler 1987). Whenever doing the opposite would be simply out of the question, the recommendation is banal. The self-appointed management guru Stephen R. Covey, for example, recommends that one reacts proactively to surprises, and the negation of this recommendation shows its ultimate vacuity: there is obviously very little to be said for just letting oneself be surprised by surprises. He is also right to suggest that the most important things should be done first. The alternative, doing the most important things last, does not seem particularly wise.

In all the hype around ‘agility’ we can observe a fundamental structure that is shared by most of the management fads of the past: a principle that makes good sense for individual areas, or even for just one unit, of an enterprise is declared to be the key to the success of the whole organization. The idea of having teams without superiors in areas such as development, production, installation, or delivery, which in many cases makes good sense, was, in models of ‘agile organization’, blown up into a principle to be applied to the overall organizational structure. And the sensible idea of agile software development – in which goals are set from week to week rather than for months or even years – was transformed into the guiding idea for the whole system.

But the more the application of the idea was expanded beyond concrete cases, such as that of agile software development, and transformed into a broader approach to management, the less specific it became. At some point, the model of agile organization came to be no more than a set of abstract principles such as ‘courage’, ‘focus’, ‘passion’, ‘respect’, and ‘openness’. The basic idea was reduced to a mixture of rather nebulous maxims: ‘pioneering spirit’, ‘trust’, ‘personal responsibility’, ‘collaboration’, or ‘willingness to learn’.

Three central principles of agility

If we rid the approach of all these anodyne formulas, three central principles ultimately remain. First, there is the facilitation of collaboration through the dissolution of strict demarcations between the pillars of an organization, or, alternatively, the avoidance of such fixed divisions from the outset. Second, and concomitantly, there is a weakening (or even a complete abolition) of the basic hierarchical structure of the organization. And third, there is the avoidance of any strong organizational formalization, which, it is hoped, will produce forms of self-organization that will lead to more efficient and effective processes of coordination. 

In particular cases there may well be good arguments for the dissolution of divisions, the rejection of hierarchies, or the removal of formal control. But what we have been sold under the label of ‘agile organization’ is old hat. In the sixties and seventies, the same principles were propagated under the names of ‘synthetic organization’, ‘organically formed enterprises’, ‘temporary systems’, ‘ad hocracy’, or the ‘flex company’. Then, in the eighties and nineties, the same ideas were repackaged as the concepts of the ‘integrative-innovative system’, ‘multi-cellular organization’, intelligent organization’, ‘fractal enterprise’, and ‘modular organization’. After that, new labels came into favour: ‘unbounded organization’, ‘centreless enterprise’, ‘collaborative organization’, ‘horizontal system’, and ‘self-managing organization’. The popularization of the principles in question under the rubric of ‘agile organization’ was thus no more than another round in the never-ending process of inventing new names for (almost) the same things. 

Aloys Gälweiler, Strategische Unternehmensführung, Frankfurt a. M., New York: Campus, 1987. 

Author

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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