In The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams, and Organizations, Pamela Meyer—the director of the Center to Advance Education for Adults, School of New Learning (SNL)—delivers specific, actionable strategies and tactics that organizations can use to innovate and thrive in today’s dynamic world. Reviewers call the book “a tour de force for leaders at every level” and “a must-read for all professionals.”

What exactly does agility mean in an organization?

Today, people work in complex, volatile environments: Everything can change quickly, and assumptions about the future can’t necessarily be counted on. So, agility means the ability to respond effectively to unexpected events and quickly turn challenges into opportunities. That’s a simple statement, but the reality is quite complicated.

How would an agile workplace differ from a conventional one?

Let’s look at planning, for example. Strange as it sounds, planning—as we traditionally understand the term—can be the worst thing a company can do. Traditional business leaders assume that today’s plans will make sense tomorrow, even though that’s proving false, again and again. In fact, the very act of planning gives people the illusion of control. But just consider all the mission-critical things that could change quickly because of forces not under the control of a company’s leaders.

Extreme weather can disrupt reliable supply chains, markets, and delivery schedules. Shifting geo-political tensions, including upheaval within the United States, can derail investments and new ventures. Competitors can suddenly change their products or release dates. Technology failures can make a business very vulnerable, while disrupting productivity. Yet, most business schools continue to prepare managers to work in stable, predictable environments by emphasizing the things they can control, rather than improving their ability to respond effectively to those they can’t.   

Agile companies focus on getting everyone better at dealing with the unanticipated, which includes being able to make sense of a situation even when some information is lacking. The real purpose of planning should be to strengthen employees’ preparedness, quick thinking, teamwork, entrepreneurialism, and creativity—all those qualities that can turn surprises into opportunities. These qualities can be taught and nurtured. “How do we spot something on the horizon and take advantage?”  That’s the question that’s asked in an agile organization.

Where would a company start?

The first step is a shift in leadership style, from the conventional “command and control” model to a “communicate, collaborate, and coordinate” model. 

At the employee level, this means that people are allowed and encouraged to think originally, to act without fear, to make decisions, and to go the extra mile. A company doesn’t have to throw hierarchy out the window; but it does have to empower its people. At the team level, agility means moving away from a sports metaphor toward a theater metaphor. When I work with corporate teams, I do a lot of improvisation exercises to encourage on-your-feet thinking. The way software is developed can be a pretty good template: People work together to make a prototype product, test it, change it, and produce it—all very quickly, with the least possible expenditure. At the organization level, leadership shifts from information to interaction: This means taking advantage of what other people do well.

To transition to a “communicate, collaborate, and coordinate” model, a company needs to develop three Cs in its employees: competence or agility skills—yes, these can be taught; capacity or the ability to step out of their comfort zones; and confidence that, when the unexpected happens, they can think quickly, while having access to a web of people, information, and resources.

When I’m coaching a team, I begin by asking people to reflect on their own experiences. “How did you act in uncertain situation? Which responses worked and which didn’t? What’s one thing you could have done that would have made you happier?” Then, we start building from there, by enhancing personal “lessons learned” with best practices gleaned from businesses that have a track record of agility.

Ultimately, of course, every business has to balance creativity and constraints. We’re all, always, working within boundaries.  

How do you bring your expertise in agility to your students?

In addition to teaching a graduate course in agility in SNL, I serve as director of the Center to Advance Education for Adults, which is a think tank where we explore innovative ideas for learning and development. At the Center, students, faculty, alumni, and professionals can test out new concepts, join forums for sharing ideas, and attend conferences for a deep dive into a topic. We push people beyond their comfort zones, so my students become comfortable with being uncomfortable.