The Difference between Agility and Resiliency, and Why These Concepts Are Important in Mastering Turbulence

17 Dec. 2012 | Comments (0)

Join Joseph McCann on June 7, 2013 at 2 p.m. for a book discussion webcast, featuring his new book, Mastering Turbulence: The Essential Capabilities of Agile & Resilient Individuals, Team and Organizations (2012).  

In my previous blog, Embracing Uncertainty: Sustaining Performance in an Uncertain Age, I raised the prospect that high levels of uncertainty due to rapid and disruptive change is an endemic feature of organizational environments today. I stated that organizations with greater agility and resiliency perform better in such turbulence. Authors like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan, continue to show interest in the concept of resiliency.

I’ve spent over a decade exploring resiliency as an integral counterpoint for another concept – agility – which easily received a decade’s attention in the management literature. For me, agility and resiliency are two sides of a single coin called adaptive capacity. They are highly correlated concepts and both essential for adapting to turbulence. Very importantly, they are not the same, yet they are often confused in management literature. Amazingly, they have rarely been considered together.

Why is that a big deal? This is an extremely critical question. First, let me provide their definitions using my 2012 co-authored book, Mastering Turbulence: The Essential Capabilities of Agile & Resilient Individuals, Team and Organizations (2012). Here are the definitions for both concepts taken from this book:

  • Agility: The capacity for moving quickly, flexibly, and decisively in anticipating, initiating, and taking advantage of opportunities and avoiding any negative consequences of change.

  • Resiliency: The capacity for resisting, absorbing, and responding, even reinventing if required, in response to fast and/or disruptive change that cannot be avoided.

The problem with these concepts is that there was a head-long race by organizations for agility, manifested in opening the organization to its environment through global alliances, joint-ventures, and other forms of collaboration. Global supply chains, innovation networks, outsourcing, and off-shoring operations are ready examples of this phenomenon. At the same time, organizations were delayering, down-sizing, and knocking down internal, not just external boundaries, as quickly as possible. Speed was king!

What embracing agility did, of course, was wonderful in so many ways. But….the bad news is that all those new external interdependencies were often under-managed, and this new “leaning” of the organization reduced buffers that provided a safety net for more disruptive change. We did a great job increasing the fragility of organizations and their business ecosystems, along with the individuals and teams that ran them. The severity of turbulence has been accentuated to a point where adaptive capacity can be overwhelmed.

No wonder, then, that there is fresh interest in the adaptive coin’s other side – resiliency. Resiliency relies upon several essential capabilities, as I call them, which enables this capacity as defined. High resiliency requires, as agility, being purposeful, aware, action-oriented, resourceful, and networked.  When your world is being rocked, nothing substitutes for a clear sense of purpose and core identity, a strong learning orientation, predilection toward action, entrepreneurial thinking, and having solid, active relationship networks to call upon when needed.

The important lesson is that resiliency, like agility, has to be and can be developed. It isn’t a capability someone either has or doesn’t have innately within them. Both can be developed and many organizations have done so, judging from their superior performance in very dynamic operating environments. The key is to develop both capacities at the same time. Over-attention to one or the other capability can be disastrous.

 

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  • About the Author: Joseph E. McCann, Ph.D.

    Joseph E. McCann, Ph.D. Joseph McCann is a Distinguished Principal Research Fellow at The Conference Board and an internationally acknowledged scholar, consultant, and author of many books and articles on leadership developm…

    Full Bio | More from Joseph E. McCann, Ph.D.

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