Three attributes of agile management

April 29, 2019

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By Michael Boyette

In the old days, performance management was mostly about ensuring that everyone did the job that was assigned to them. Goodbye to all that. In the modern workplace, roles and tasks change on a dime. And a McKinsey study found that the ability to shift gears – agility – is perhaps the most critical factor in high performance.

Managing agility is a challenge, however. On the one hand, there’s the risk of plodding on even when circumstances have changed (“We’ve always done it this way”). Less obvious, but equally risky, is reacting to every new thing that comes along (chasing “bright shiny objects”), which leads to lack of momentum and leaves people feeling whipsawed.

So how do you strike the right balance? McKinsey researchers found three qualities in particular that can help managers create and sustain agility on their teams:

1. Role clarity and “operational discipline”

In other words, agile managers make sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and what they’re accountable for. Seems counterintuitive? Inflexible? Not so. When faced with new challenges and situations, less-agile teams often end up running in circles. Nobody knows who’s responsible for what, so the responses are ineffective.

Action step for managers:

When facing a new challenge, the first thing to do is to assign and communicate each person’s role and what you expect from him or her. For example: “Will, I need you to talk to six vendors and find out what kind of experience they have with this problem. Lauren, you’ll be in charge of communicating this change to customers. Give me a list by end of week of the emails that you will send, the topic of each and when you’ll send them out.”

2. Innovation and learning

The research found that agile organizations are above average in bringing in outside ideas and sharing knowledge. Makes sense, of course. If your organization is going in a new direction, don’t reinvent the wheel. Find out who’s done something similar and learn from them. But that can feel threatening to team members. People don’t like to admit that someone else may know more than they do.

Action step for managers:

Help team members own the new ideas. Ask people to share their experiences, for example, at other places they’ve worked. Assign research projects. Send them out to talk to people outside of the team and report back on what they’ve learned.

3. Motivation

Agile employees are motivated and engaged. Mostly that has to do with promoting “meaningful values,” according to McKinsey. While tasks may change, employees need to see that the ultimate goals and the values remain rock solid.

Action step for managers:

You must be the one to articulate a meaningful why. Show how the changes you’re asking for support the values of the organization and the people on your team. For example: “We have always believed that as an organization, we want to be on the cutting edge of innovation in our industry. That’s how we grow and create opportunities for all of us. It’s how we deliver the best to our customers. We’ve always worked to be leaders, not followers, and that’s why we’re undertaking this effort today.”


Source: Bazigos, M., De Smet, A., & Gagnon, C. (2015). Why agility pays. McKinsey Quarterly, 4, 28-35.

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