Agility is the prerequisite for sustained innovation

Key points

  • Agility is more important now than it’s ever been.
  • Failing to mould your business in an agile way would leave the business susceptible to falling behind.
  • 52% of large public companies in EU and NA announced they were undertaking agile transformation in 2016 – a 42% increase over 2006.
By Sam Freedman
Jan 2019

Agility goes a long way to incorporating the utilities of all the aforementioned aspects of an innovative company.


As such, there are three important questions that must be asked when approaching company agility:


  • What do we mean by agility?
  • How do we implement this agility?
  • How does an agile approach aid sustained innovation?


To operate in an agile way means to promote a culture where risk-taking is rewarded, the courage to not be afraid of failure and to subsequently learn from your mistakes is encouraged and decision-making is decentralised. On top of this, agility entails an environment where people are empowered and where an organisation’s purpose is so clearly articulated and understood that it serves as the ultimate motivator.


Because agility has a lot to do with a balancing act between stability and dynamism (this sounds odd at first, but we’ll elaborate on this later), there can be a conception, often a misconception, that agility can be equated to instability. Realistically, with the rate of change in the world and workplace seemingly continuously picking up pace, this equation couldn’t be further from the truth.


In a world that changes so quickly, only the truly agile and innovative survive. If you’re not embracing new ideas, new technologies, new products and new business models, then you can guarantee some competitor will. Agile businesses are set up to harness the power of everyday genius by building the systems and culture that allow good ideas to come from anywhere.



An important first step in deciding whether to start an agile transformation is clearly articulating what benefits are to be expected and how to measure the transformation’s impact. The organisation must be clear on the vision and this must be collectively held and supported throughout the company’s structure.


One of the most successful frameworks that cultivates agility and innovation is a flat structure. Layers can become barriers when you have to consistently go through them. By flattening structures, agile organisations are able to facilitate the transmission of ideas from bottom to top and vice versa. This flatness also makes it easier for everyone to be aligned around the company’s purpose, strategy and core objectives.


Another method for implementing agility is to empower the employees that are closest to the action. A key element in making this work is assembling small, cross-functional teams. This should have the effect of breaking down the barriers that impede collaboration and, as such, is a useful method to implement in conjunction with flatter structures.



For example, to accommodate for new technologies and the implementation of them, business and technology employees can form cross-functional teams, accountable for developing, testing, deploying and maintaining new products and processes. It is already fairly common for different disciplines of IT to work with one another, so integrating business and technology employees would not be totally unfamiliar ground as members of these teams should be used to collaboration.


Treating agility as a continuous and frequent development is also essential. Agility involves testing ideas quickly, determining whether they are viable and then rapidly incorporating real-world feedback to improve them. It’s about seeking to make continuous learning an ongoing, constant part of the company’s DNA.


Innovation most often arises from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience or points of view. Everyone should feel comfortable in freely learning from their own and others’ successes and failures and to build on the new knowledge and capabilities they develop in their roles. This interplay of ideas ought to involve passionate discussion and disagreement.


Collaboration is a hallmark of their approach.

The company understands that, without the contribution of large numbers of people, whether they be artists developing a story, engineers rendering images or business minded people, then there simply could not be a computer-generated (CG) movie. The company succeeds due to the collaboration of all their parts as a whole.


Pixar’s co-founder and president, Ed Catmull, stated,


“we’re not just making up how to do CG movies; we’re making up how to run a company of diverse people who can make something together that no one could make alone”



Agile organisations often emphasise quick, efficient and continuous decision-making. They have insight into the types of decisions they are making and who should be involved in those decisions.  Such an organisation does not always seek consensus on difficult decisions, however, the input of all team members is incredibly useful to gain the broadest perspective possible on a topic.


Nevertheless, it must be remembered that quick decision making should not come at the cost of innovation. When faced with multiple options, the human impulse is often to choose one and discard the others as soon as possible. However, innovative teams ought to understand that integrative decision-making involves more than simply combining ideas. Rather, it requires a willingness to play with ideas and experiment until they ‘click’.


So, what exactly does agility do for innovation? Agile organisations tend to design distributed and flexible approaches to creating value, frequently integrating external partners directly into the value creation. Couple this with a strong shared purpose and vision for the employees to get behind and the firm will be set to sense and seize opportunities that arise in the market.


An agile organisation comprises a dense network of empowered teams that operate with high standards of alignment, accountability, expertise, transparency and collaboration. In such organisations, people work hands-on and day-to-day with external networks to access the best talent and ideas, generate insights and co-develop new products, services and/or solutions to bring to the market.


Part of what makes agile companies special is their ability to balance fast action and rapid change on the one hand, with organisational clarity, stability and structure on the other. Both clarity and operational discipline are highly ranked practices amongst agile organisations. 




Agility is more important now than it’s ever been. Technology has accelerated the speed at which a great idea can have an impact – across all sectors. If you don’t have those ideas or you can’t get them ready in time, you will surely be overtaken by those that can.


Companies must decide both where and how to start an agile transformation. While the right plan will vary by company, depending on its vision, companies should first identify the part(s) of the organisation that they want to transform and how. They should also determine what aspects of agile practices they ought to implement, as well as the resources and time frame that is available in comparison to what is required.


Failing to mould your business in an agile way would leave the business susceptible to falling behind. The old adage ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is an apt one to keep in mind when approaching and implementing agile practices. Companies must embrace the magnitude of change.

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