A Culture of Agility Starts with Courage

user Andrew Blum
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I was with a very large, successful company recently whose primary product was being beaten to death in the market by a company one tenth its size, and with many fewer assets. In frustration with the circumstances, the CEO grumbled to his team, “This is unacceptable. We have got to be able to do what they can do. We have got to become more agile.” His demeanor in the delivery of this message was both aggressive and somewhat scary. I had to sit him down afterward and say that you can’t order people to be agile. You have to support them in becoming more courageous, and fear doesn’t breed courage.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a culture of agility is not important—in a rapidly-evolving world with technologies changing the landscape daily, being flexible, nimble, and adaptive are essential. But creating a culture of agility for agility’s sake is missing a fundamental first step. Before an organization can become agile, it needs to be a place where people feel safe, secure, and connected.

At Trium, we work with both very large, established companies and also scrappy start-ups. Not surprisingly, no start-up company asks how they can be more agile. But nearly every big company lives in that question. There seems to be a necessary truth that the larger you get, the slower you become. With size comes more people, more processes, and more capital in play. And yet that natural evolution is what makes disruption such a significant vulnerability for big companies. How do we manage this in a world where the smallest companies lose their agility over time and the largest companies find themselves needing to re-discover it in order to thrive?

The answer lies not in searching for agility, but under what circumstances humans are most creative, most oriented to taking risk, most receptive to new ideas, and most confident in their ability to manifest change. Those things—which are classic frontal cortex orientations—only occur when the limbic system is at rest. So, the key to agility lies not in pursuing agility as an outcome, but in first lowering fear and increasing courage, thereby creating an environment in which agility can live.

Courage is not the absence of fear…it is, instead, bold productive action in the face of fear. When I feel supported, when I feel seen, when I feel valued, when I feel connected to my partners, when I feel that everyone will share accountability for the outcome, I myself become courageous. But the precursor is a feeling of connection and safety.

The reason that large organizations tend to become less agile is not simply because they become bigger, more complex and more bureaucratic. It is because in larger systems, people tend to feel less connected to each other. They feel less clear on what they are going to be rewarded for. They feel more subject to irrational dynamics and therefore they feel less safe.

So, if you want agility, start by creating connections and let those connections breed courage. Out of that—whether you are a big company wanting to create an agile environment or a small, agile one seeking to stay that way—you will see new things emerge.

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