Agile Leadership for Organizational Adaptability, At-A-Glance

“Agile requires core strength… ability to change focus quickly… extreme flexibility and accompanying range of motion… knowing where you want to go… and, NOT pushing oneself beyond one’s physical or mental limits”1

Jennifer Jordan, Professor of Leadership and OB, former dancer

As you would imagine, changing the traditional hierarchical operations for a large enterprise to be more Business-Agile and faster, is a complex proposition.  While not every element of every methodology is necessary, a robust methodology is necessary as a base.  With nearly 20 years of foundational experience in software development, Agile is returning to its innovation roots2 to meet the next level of Business-Agile requirements.

In the following sections we briefly touch on some of the high points of Business-Agile.



Strategy and vision are essential3 to guiding all the decisions and managing all the knock-on effects of a Business-Agile organization and transformation.  For example, consider McChrystal Group’s four principles of organizational agility,4 beginning with “a compelling goal”— the clarity of its North Star.

  1. The network has a compelling goal
  2. The network comprises small groups
  3. The groups have an action orientation
  4. The network is the sum of the small teams



Business-Agile does not replace traditional operations, but complements those operations which need to be more innovative and faster.5  Agile operations in this sense are similar to Kotter’s dual operating system of traditional hierarchy and dynamic networks— both have their advantages (efficiency and flexibility respectively) and both are necessary.6

The Business-Agile Leadership Team’s Manifesto7 like the Manifesto for Agile Software Development8  focuses on minimalist or lean thinking.

 Agile Software Development Agile Business and Leadership (DRAFT)9
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working solutions/results over bureaucratic rules and control
  • Customer engagement over structure and hierarchy
  • Flexibility over intractable plans
That is, while there is value in the items on the right [in each statement], we value the items on the left more.That is, while there is value in the items on the right [in each statement], we value the items on the left more.



SAFe is the structured agile framework, a methodology, providing an approach to agile from the daily developer scrum to the Business-Agile portfolio of strategic initiatives (a partial poster illustrates the portfolio process in the header graphic for this article).  “The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is an online knowledge base of proven, integrated principles, practices and competencies to implement Lean, Agile and DevOps at scale.”10



In the March-April 2018 edition of the Harvard Business Review, ING, the Dutch financial services company shared their Business-Agile transformation experience with the world.  One of the article’s highlights was the scalable structure, similar to a matrix structure, where ING organizes its workforce by domain (tribe— a collection of squads), customer need (squad— ≤ 9 cross-functional team, self-steering individuals) and function (chapter— functional expertise headed by a chapter lead).11



Executives of Business-Agile organizations require their Business-Agile Leadership Team to balance multiple roles.  In addition to their corporate responsibilities, the executives must build and run the Business-Agile operating system.  However, while the executives need to be aware of the importance of the roles, ceremonies and artifacts, the executives are not accountable for the details.  The Business-Agile Leadership Team is, for example, accountable for setting direction and guardrails in simple language. At a minimum, the Business Agile Leadership Team includes the CEO and a sub-set of the company’s executive committee.12  As with any strategic initiative, leadership commitment defines the success of not only the initiatives, but, in this case, also the effectiveness of the organization’s Business-Agility.



Each industry has its own vocabulary and peculiarities, just as each competitor within the industry has their own culture, technology infrastructure and set of strategically competitive choices.  Taming the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) at increasing speed is going to be a difficult undertaking. Beginning mastery of VUCA is probably best started slowly and grown organically. Absent a big-bang approach to gain individual employee engagement, to embed model behaviors and to ensure key agile skills and abilities, the targeted outcome of Business-Agile is to achieve maximum customer value and increase productivity.


Key Thought: Business Agile is a lot like athletics.  It requires flexibility within a set of rules, applied in a competitive way to produce results, led by an executive, and coached by a manager.


This article is part of our COVID series— “Getting to Your Next-Normal” – a four-part series originally distributed to clients and colleagues in early June, 2020.

Also see the remainder of the series



  1. See Jordan, “Lessons in Agility from a Dancer Turned Professor,” Harvard Business Review, April 6, 2020,
  2. See Darrell Rigby interview transcript, “Staying Agile Beyond a Crisis,” HBR IdeaCast, Episode 742, May 26, 2020, “agile did not begin in technology or software development. It began much earlier. Fuji and Xerox and Honda were developing physical products… …Sutherland who co-created the Scrum method and he came across a paper in 1986 called the ‘New, New Product Development Game’ that said, this is the way innovation teams should work. And so, he adapted the methodology to fit software development and it took off very, very quickly.”
  3. See Aghina, et al, “Enterprise agility: Buzz or business impact,” McKinsey, March 2020
  4. See Denning, “Why organization agility is key to defeating the Coronavirus,” Forbes, April 5, 2020,
  5. See Rigby, et al, “The Agile C-Suite,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2020, pps 64-73
  6. See Kotter, “Accelerate,” Harvard Business Review, November 2012 with particular attention to the sidebar headed “Two Structures, One Organization.”
  7. See Rigby, et al, “The Agile C-Suite,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2020 pps 64-73
  8. From “Manifesto for agile software development,”
  9. Inspired by Rigby, et al, “The Agile C-Suite,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2020
  10. SAFe’s definition from “SAFe 5.0 White Paper,” Scaled Agile, Inc., December 2019,, page 3. Also see “Agile at Scale,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2018
  11. See ING’s story of business agile transformation “One Bank’s Agile Team Experiment,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018, pps 59-61
  12. See Rigby, et al, “The Agile C-Suite,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2020
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3 Responses

  1. tom.reeder says:

    MITSMR QUOTE OF THE WEEK (Week ending 12.18.2020)
    “Agile leadership matters now more than ever — it is about leveraging, not reacting to, the turbulence around you.”

    — Linda A. Hill, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School, in “Being the Agile Boss,” one of our top articles of 2020

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