Monday, 24 April 2017

Agility needs a strategy

Agility is another idea frequently posited as being superior to strategy.

The argument goes that the world is changing too quickly for long-term plans and strategy to add value, and that firms should instead just focus on being agile and quick to respond to change.

Once again, I think that this presents a false dichotomy. (See also False dichotomies and the noise before defeat.)

Agility is not an alternative to strategy. In fact, as a goal, agility itself requires a strategy:
  1. What should firms do in order to become (more) agile?
  2. How should firms avoid the pitfalls of agility?
  3. How do firms decide where to pivot and where to stick? etc.
Agility is a fairly well-developed concept in the field of software engineering and development. A cursory review of the literature will reveal how many different approaches and methodologies for agility there are. Each has pros and cons and is likely to be relatively more or less suitable under different circumstances. That same literature is also full of cautionary tales of firms who have failed to implement these approaches well.

Strategy itself is not only about the long term. Strategy should also be about the here and now. In fact, one of the advantages of a solid strategy process is that it ensure that the myriad decisions that firms face on a daily basis can more easily be made in a way which aligns towards a common goal.

Strategy facilitates agility. When faced with an unforeseen event, stakeholders can more quickly agree which responses most closely align with the strategy and respond more quickly and with greater confidence and alignment. Contrast this with a firm which makes each and every decision independently - decisions will likely take longer, and may involve frequent changes of direction and even reversals.

However, agility often conceals strategy. Commentators easily observe apparently agile changes without appreciating the underlying strategy which guides them. As Sun Tzu said:

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.