Organisational Agility 

Organisational agility has become a strategic imperative for many CEOs as organisations struggle to keep up with, and adapt to, the rapidly shifting business context (Timmermans and Schulman 2017). In recent times, technological advances have revolutionised business possibilities, increased competition and customer expectations.  And of course, the Covid-19 global pandemic has acted as the ‘great accelerator’ of many underlying trends, potentially heralding the start of a new era. OD can make a significant contribution to helping organisations become more resilient and agile in turbulent times. 

Part 1 – What do we mean by organisational agility? 


What began in IT in the late ‘90s as Agile ways of working as software engineers adopted new tools and techniques – such as Lean, Scrum and Sprints and developed more iterative approaches to project management – has evolved into a whole system capability that allows  organisations to rapidly adapt, interact effectively with the client environment and thrive in a fast-changing context. Notions of adaptability, flexibility, customer-centricity, continuous improvement, innovation and digitally-driven ways of working have morphed into the concept of organisational agility, described as ‘an organization’s capacity to respond, adapt quickly and thrive in the changing environment’ (Holbeche 2018). An agile organisation is both adaptive and proactive – it can react quickly and effectively to what’s happening in the market, while continuing to drive innovation across the whole organisation (Holbeche 2018). An agile organisation is not only ‘flexible’ to cater for predictable changes but also is able to respond and adapt to unpredictable changes quickly and efficiently (Oosterhout et al. 2006).  

What is different about organisational agility? 

A management breakthrough, organisational agility represents a set of management practices and values that, compared with traditional ways of operating, involves a radically different kind of management with a different goal (delighting the customer), a different role for managers (enabling self-organising teams), a different way of coordinating work (dynamic linking), different values (customer-centricity, experimentation, innovation, continuous improvement) and different communications (radical transparency and lateral conversations). Consequently, agility requires many changes to conventional business and organisational practice – strategy-making, decision-making, new organisational designs, working practices, behaviours, power structures, people processes and values.  The customer-focused management values of the IT sector’s Agile Manifesto of 2001, are about adding value for customers and favouring individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, responding to change over following a plan. Such democratic, employee-and customer-centric values can cut across vested interests and may appear out-of-kilter in a conventional hierarchy.  


It’s perhaps for that reason that, though the rhetoric of agile is everywhere, making the shift to a digitally-driven, customer-centric agile growth model can be difficult and represents a significant challenge for many established businesses. Agile ways of working – digital and nondigital- cut across the organization and achieving organisational agility requires whole system change, including the mindsets and cultures which maintain the status quo. Traditional ways of running businesses and related mindsets take time to shift. 

The scale of the challenge perhaps explains why a major Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU 2009) report found that agility was failing to take hold more generally beyond software development and according to McKinsey (Aghina et al. 2020), only 4% of organisations reach enterprise level agility. My research suggests that while poor change implementation and inappropriate operating models can be major barriers to agility, some of the main factors are cultural, such as rigid bureaucracies, processes and thinking and inflexible legacy systems.  

In particular, the behaviour of line managers and senior leaders has a strong influence on how agile their organisations can become. Leaders need to set the tone and provide sponsorship, moving from command and control to direction-setting and capability-building. If leaders espouse agility and customer-centric strategies, yet their own behaviours send quite a different message, agility will be stopped in its tracks.  

Part 2 – The OD contribution to organisational agility 

Even if success at agility is elusive, OD+Design (OD+D) specialists can make an important contribution to ensuring that organisations and the people who work for them can adapt sustainably and with agility to changing demands. After all, OD specialists have insight into different approaches to culture change, have an understanding of human behaviour, group dynamics, and systemic alignment which are essential in building new behavioural patterns at both the macro and the micro levels of change. 

My model of resiliently agile ways of working (Holbeche, 2018) suggests that adaptive organisations manage complexity by developing new routines (strategising, implementing, linking and providing the context for people to thrive) that require people to think, act and work in new ways. These routines are ongoing processes rather than one-off activities and shift mindsets in the direction of agility. 


By that I mean continuous planning – dynamic planning helps organisations react quickly to changing market conditions and potential threats to the business. It’s also about using the strategy-making process to stimulate new ways of thinking and acting. By involving people in the formulation of the strategy they become stakeholders in implementation and ‘own what they help to create’, so strategic implementation gaps get closed. The task of senior leaders is to establish an aspirational purpose, develop a widely shared strategy and manage the climate and commitment to execution (Worley et al. 2014) for instance by encouraging some ‘quick wins’, bringing together a variety of different people. 

OD can support strategising by:   

  • Ensuring top team sign-up and clarity about purpose and ambition. Working with leaders to develop a meaningful shared purpose and behavioural ‘guardrails’ which can act as a ‘north star’ in periods of change and ambiguity. OD specialists need to be willing to speak truth to power, including by challenging mixed messages. 
  • Supporting top leaders to think differently about external trends, for instance by facilitating scenario planning. In one company a senior OD practitioner facilitates ‘lockdowns of up to a week for top teams in which they are exposed to new thinking and practice which increases leaders’ sense-making skills and ability to deal with complexity and emotional biases.  
  • Involving staff groups in elements of the strategy process using generative OD practices, based on genuinely two-way communications and agile values. Such methods can help teams avoid becoming trapped by outdated mental models 
  • Working towards a shared leadership culture by developing leadership and accountability at all levels. Coaching leaders to practise ‘tight-loose’ leadership (Weick 1976) and to build a cascade of accountability through the middle and front-line management spine and establish the principle of taking decisions as close to the action as possible. 


By that I mean the action required to deliver strategy, including reviewing and improving operating processes and structures, embracing technology and new work methods and managing change. Agile approaches emphasise ‘continuous design, flexible scope, freezing design features as late as possible, developing a minimum viable product that can be refined through feedback, embracing uncertainty and customer interaction, and a modified project team organization’ (Serrador and Pinto 2015: 1041).  

Agile structures and processes are needed- to adapt to changing business plans, including having the systems in place to understand skills gaps in their business. Typically, agile organisations have flatter structures and are structured around teamwork to enable fast experimentation and innovation. Agile practices include iterative and incremental development, in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organising, cross-functional teams and their customers (Denning 2013). It’s about empowering employees to make the best possible decisions for the business with access to the right information at the right time. Data is key to empowering decision-making closer to the customer and everyone needs to be externally aware and savvy – willing to voice and act on such knowledge. Agile organisations also embrace measurement and control- agility and speed are dependent on robust, accurate and timely measurement and control. Businesses need to know quickly whether a new product or service is performing well. 

While there are various well-known design models for agile organisations (squads, tribes, guilds etc), to be truly agile, it’s more about empowering the organisation to evolve its own structures in a timely way rather than working to a fixed, ‘best practice’ design idea. So, if a formal redesign is necessary, for instance when incorporating new technologies and methodologies, agile approaches to change should be adopted that tend to be people-centric, transition-driven, generative and about ‘emergence’, ‘unleashing potential’, reflecting the ‘social mobilisation’ or ‘living system’ metaphor of improvement. Thus, change is not done ‘to’ but ‘with’ people to build ownership of the change.  

OD can help by:  

  • Supporting reviews of primary operating processes, along with changes to operating principles – from growth to simplification/ reducing bureaucracy and ‘siloes’ 
  • Introducing new ways of working, getting close to the customer, producing better, faster outcomes for customers. Using design thinking and large-scale interventions to engage people through dialogue in a way that builds critical mass, creativity, ownership and commitment to what the organisation needs to do. 
  • Helping align organisation structures to the new ways of working and vice versa 
  • Acting as agile coach to teams  
  • Helping managers transition to embrace their responsibilities for capability-building, cultivating empowered, collaborative, cross-functional teams, in which accountability is collective. Creating peer learning networks where managers can share practice. 


By that I mean the ability to collaborate fluidly across internal and external organisational boundaries. In many industries, such as pharmaceuticals, the convergence of computer networking and telecommunications technologies is making it possible for groups of companies to achieve powerful competitive advantages by coordinating geographically and institutionally distributed capabilities through open-source innovation. This requires willingness to collaborate, new attitudes towards the nature of risk, building meaningfully trusting relationships across organisational and other boundaries.  

Customers are increasingly involved in co-creating the services they require. For example, one international engineering company found that many of its clients’ needs were changing due to technical advance and political uncertainty. Its engineers learned to work in partnership with clients to co-create breakthrough technical and scientific solutions to client problems in a way that overcame barriers and created mutual learning, loyalty and trust – and repeat business.  

  • OD can help collaborations succeed by facilitating team building and enabling knowledge sharing across boundaries. For instance, in one company OD facilitates cross-organisational “power” teams working in sprints of 100 days on various product innovations. In another, OD organises large-scale interventions that bring together different stakeholders, break down barriers and create joint learning on key projects. 


By that I mean upskilling the future workforce – applying a fluid approach to growing and deploying their people – and providing them with a context where they can give of their best in a sustainable way. It is through people that culture change is enacted. Culture change involves intellect and emotions, so opportunities should be found for people to try out new things and behave in new ways. Line managers whose role typically becomes that of coach to teams should be helped to make the transition.  

All conscious efforts made to change culture should celebrate what is good about the past and present and also reinforce the new ways of working. This may mean challenging barriers to agility, such as blame culture. It’s about communicating often and sincerely about the organisation’s vision and values, making certain these are understood and truly hold meaning and value and provide line of sight to peoples’ jobs and key result areas. Practising agile values is vital so that change and experimentation become ‘business as usual.’ Real change is rooted in performance and the job to be done. This involves organising work around motivated individuals, valuing interactions over process and tools, balancing trade-offs between quantity, quality and pace in achieving results. ‘Fail fast’, ‘Good enough’ and ‘what works’ supplant the goal of perfection. Change ripples through networks and communities, with big picture story-telling, inspired action and prototypes embodying the new. As a result, different energies emerge in the system. 

And of course, culture change towards agility should be reinforced/sustained through new symbols as well as by employee-centric HR policies. Agility should permeate processes such as feedback, communication, promotion, coaching, learning and development, recruitment and induction/acculturation. Performance management, reward and recognition systems and promotion opportunities should be revised to reinforce learning, engagement, feedback, teamwork, improvement, innovation and collaboration (with real accountability). Contracts and incentive structures must reflect this understanding as well (McCann et al. 2009). Retaining truly agile talent may require new employee value propositions. 

OD can help by: 

  • Working with HR and line management to deliver these and other key elements of a fair deal – such as empowerment, supportive management; shared purpose around which communities can align; policies to enhance work-life balance and staff well-being; ensuring that ‘front-line’ staff have the relevant professional and skills development to prepare them for a digital future; providing career opportunities; advancing the equality, diversity and inclusion agendas and developing engaging leaders and managers. These all go a long way towards creating agile, high engagement cultures. 

Part 3 – Skills and competencies of agile OD practitioners 

Rather than a specific OD specialism or set of competencies, for me Organisational Agility is more of a strategic aim, which involves navigating and influencing a dynamic playing field in which there are many parts in play, so OD contributions can take many forms. As the work requires different competences in different situations, a range of professional skills and knowledge and personal attributes are required, as outlined in this app. Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that all the specialisms and competencies outlined in the app are relevant, according to context. Systems navigation skills are therefore important so that the practitioner can employ the right interventions at the right time.  

Essentially OD’s work on agility concerns aligning the whole system to support agility behaviour which may represent very different practice in traditional organisations. OD practitioners therefore should familiarise themselves with Agility behaviour that derives from Agile methodology, understand what makes Agile distinctive, such as the Agile values, Agile techniques, such as Sprints, iterative teamwork and so on, as well as becoming familiar with variations on Agile organisation designs such as those of ING bank and Spotify.  

At one level, the OD contribution may be focused on facilitating cross-functional teamwork, helping teams to become self-managing. This calls for foundational OD skills such as team building, group facilitation, conflict management etc, as well as knowledge of Agile tools and techniques. Some teams may need the help of specific (technical) coaches for this task who are experts in Agile methodologies.  

More generally though, agility involves culture work to increase an organisation’s adaptability, speed and innovation capability. Assessing what is needed requires contextual acumen, a systemic understanding of how the business, organisational and work landscape is changing, for instance through Digital, is vital. Practitioners also need experience in whole system change and in leading culture change. Culture work involves identifying, diagnosing, navigating and shifting patterns towards better fitness for the future. For this, as discussed elsewhere on the app, OD practitioners will need change management competencies, both ‘Backroom matters’ (macro level of change work, head matters) and ‘Front room matters’ (micro level of change work, the people dimension).  

At macro-level, organisation design and related skills and knowledge such as systems theory, data analysis, programme management, consulting skills, process mapping, design thinking and value stream analysis are required.  Agile approaches to change should be adopted that are more suited to complexity and the exponential pace. Dialogic OD skills are therefore core, in particular strategic process design for generative change. Since agility cuts across the organisation OD practitioners must be willing and able to work in, and probably lead, integrated change and improvement teams. They should be able to deploy leadership development and coaching skills to enhance the agility of groups and individuals. 

OD practitioners need to be effective at influencing and stakeholder management, especially when working with top teams, for instance facilitating strategy and scenario planning sessions to produce a joint commitment to a way forward. To gain the licence to work with senior teams e.g. on culture change, knowledge of the business, credibility and a track record of delivering successful change are essential. To be credible as agile role model to others OD practitioners must embrace a positive, agile mindset, demonstrating anticipation, sensing, responding and adapting. Personal attributes include a strategic orientation, contextual acumen, critical thinking and curiosity, a willingness to actively learn and experiment, confidence, courage and Use of Self. Above all practitioners must be comfortable working with complexity and ambiguity, as well as be able to develop their personal resilience as they experience the ups and downs of agile implementation.  

Part 4 – Learning paths 

At the start of a developmental journey towards organisational agility, early career and experienced OD practitioners should not be daunted because, as stated above, many of the skills and knowledge of OD practice are entirely relevant to agility. By way of illustration the author’s own agility learning journey was as follows: 

My work in agility began through the training route, in the early 1990s when I worked as a management trainer at a US financial services firm running operational training programs on customer service, methods such as Just-in-Time and Lean, project management and continuous process improvement. One year the firm laid off an unusually high number of staff in response to strong and unforeseen headwinds of competition. They also flattened organisational structures and launched a new customer-centric vision which they believed would become their main point of differentiation. However, as I observed the impact of what later became known as ‘survivor syndrome’ on employees who had survived the culls, I began to wonder how organisations could square the circle – bring about change to achieve strategic breakthroughs and innovative products when staff felt unempowered and insecure. This set me on a 30-year path of research, consultancy and development to explore how organisations and their workforces can achieve strategic success in ways that can also work for people.  

As the firm moved back into growth mode, I moved on to facilitating cross-functional teams set up to develop innovative products. Then the work expanded to working with business units on culture change and organisation design initiatives to unpick some of the many barriers to speed and innovation. Then I moved on to work at a management college where amongst other things I developed and ran a strategic leadership programme and researched a variety of aspects of organisational change, such as the human aspects of mergers. This exposed me to understanding the tremendous pressure for urgent change many of the businesses and managers I dealt with were under. My consultancy work involved helping senior teams to anticipate and respond to change by exploring potential future drivers for their businesses and develop relevant business strategies. I also helped clients identify and implement structural and cultural shifts in the direction of agility. Alongside my ‘day job’ I also explored the changing world of work in my PHD thesis. 

Learning paths fall into a number of categories – browse, study and try things out.  


Knowledge of Agile techniques can be gained through videos, books and many articles featuring different aspects of agility, some of which feature in the Resources section below.  

As you browse the field of organisational agility, work out which aspects interest you and why. If you go to any OD and/or Agile coach networking events, ask people how they developed their skills and knowledge. The Agile Alliance run an Agile coach network where people can share ideas and experiences.


OD+D knowledge and skills can be developed through OD programmes such as the NTL Human Interaction Labs and so on. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has an HR Profession Map with one of the specialisms being ‘Organisational Development and Design’:, for which the CIPD offers an accredited programmes available online. Many MBA programmes have specialist modules in strategy, change management and organisation design that can be helpful in developing contextual acumen. 

Try out some short courses before committing yourself to a longer programme and ask around for what has worked for others.  

Try things out. There are other routes into agility work. For instance, L&D practitioners may find themselves running programmes on Agile tools and techniques. Exposure to Agile practices is a good starting point for wider work on agility. So, shadowing and then coaching an Agile Team, working with line managers to understand the changing nature of their roles are good ways to get a sense of what might be needed if agility is to be upscaled more widely. Using consultancy skills to diagnose barriers to agility and working in change teams to address those barriers would offer useful experience. 

Part 5 – Relevant competences and Resources  

A selection of the Foundational OD competency are especially important. Also for more detail, check out the following competency. 

Contextual acumen  

Culture work 

Group Process Consulting 

Human Systems navigation 

Working with group processes 

Working with change 

Consulting processes 

Use of self 


Bushe, G. (2017). Where organizational development thrives, HR Magazine, September 27. http:// 

Cheung-Judge, M-Y. and Holbeche, L.S. (2021). Organization Development: A Practitioner’s Guide 

for OD and HR, 3rd Edition. London: Kogan Page. 

Denning, S. (2013). Why Agile can be a game changer for managing continuous innovation in 

many industries. Strategy & Leadership, 41(2), 5–11. 

De Smet, D., Duncan, E., Scanlan, J. and Singer, M. (2015). Six building blocks for creating a 

high-performing digital enterprise, McKinsey & Co., September 2015. 

Hagel, J., Seely Brown, J. and Davison, L. (2010). The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly 

Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, 1st Edition. New York: Basic Books. 

Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A. and Linsky, M. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and 

Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. 

Holbeche, L. (2018). The Agile Organization, 2nd Edition. London: Kogan Page. 

Mahadevan, D. (2017). ING’s agile transformation. McKinsey Quarterly, January. https://www., accessed 

on 09/12/2017 

McCann, J., Selskey, J. and Lee, J. (2009). Building agility, resilience and performance in turbulent 

environments. People & Strategy, 32(3), 44. 


McKinsey (De Smet, A. et al). (2018). Scaling up Agility, McKinsey & Company, February 23. https:// 


Pisano, G.P. (2019). The hard truth about innovative cultures. Harvard Business Review, January– 

February issue. 

Roehrig, M., Schwendenwein, J. and Bushe, G.R. (2015). Amplifying change: A 3-phase approach 

to model, nurture and embed ideas for change, in G.R. Bushe and R.J. Marshak, (eds.), Dialogic 

Organization Development. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, pp. 325–348. 

Teece, D.J. (2009). Dynamic capabilities and strategic management: Organizing for innovation 

and growth. Organization Science, 20(2), 410–421, January. 

Timmermans, K. and Schulman, D. (2017). Increasing agility to fuel growth and competitiveness, 

Accenture Strategy. 



Worley, C.G., Williams, T.D. and Lawler, E.E. III. (2014). The Agility Factor: Building Adaptable 

Organizations for Superior Performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Worley, C.G. and Lawler, E.E. III. (2010). Agility and organization design a diagnostic framework. 

Organizational Dynamics, 39, 194–204. 

Organisational Agility 

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