Characteristics of an Agile Organization

Based on our decades of experience in creating organizational agility in real life, we’ve found that there are six characteristics that agile organizations possess.

First, and foremost, agile organizations start with, “Why?” Agile organizations understand the purpose of their work—the noble purpose of their work. Achieving an ROI or EBITDA or EPS does not mobilize the noblest forces in our souls. Agile organizations define their aims in terms of benefits to customers and in a manner that can inspire and motivate employees. The good news is that most organizations do serve a worthy purpose; individuals seek to identify with it. Unfortunately, the ability to communicate a valued purpose appears to be a rare art today; but it is the essence of agility in leadership. People will endure almost any “what” as long as they understand and agree with the “why”—it’s the “why” that mobilizes discretionary effort. Agile organizations make the connection between our souls and our work, and the organization benefits from the energies that are released by doing so.

Second, in an agile organization, people and teams do work that is valuable. Everyone understands that every job involves some amount of “scutt work,” but in agile organizations, scutt work is kept to a modicum. Also, agile organizations don’t give people a job, as much as they give them a purpose—a purpose with a clear and direct line of sight to the organization’s mission.

Third, in an agile organization, people are valued for doing their work well. Performance is measured in terms of quality product/service delivery. Rewards are based on team performance and the value of individuals’ contributions to the team’s performance. Individual rewards are not based on seniority or rank, nor are they based on the mere possession of a skill; they are based on the application of skill, they are based on contribution.

Fourth, in an agile organization, people are friendly. Team members don’t need to be drinking buddies, or even socialize outside of work. However, they treat each other with strength, honor, courage, and kindness.

Fifth, in an agile organization, people trust each other and have confidence in each other’s competency. And both are required—a competent, but untrustworthy co-worker is no good; an unconditionally trustworthy co-worker who doesn’t know what they’re doing is no good. And this combination of competence and trustworthiness is especially important in the relationship between people in leadership positions and those whom they lead.

Finally, in an agile organization, people are allowed to practice their craft in a way that gives them pride. People are not asked to produce crap; nor are they put in a position where they will be rewarded for producing crap, or where they will be punished if they refuse to produce crap. We’re not talking about chasing the last grain of elegance; otherwise nothing would ever be finished. But we take our lead from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in the 1964 case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, which hinged on the definition of pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hardcore pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” The same is true with crappy product or crappy service, reasonable professionals will know it when they see it.


We’re agilityIRL. We help motivated leaders at all levels design agility into the leadership, management, and operation of their organization.