Flexibility and agility in management and marketing are two characteristics of successful associations. It is practically intuitive in the dynamic environment that has prevailed over the past decade, and promises to continue into the future, that good management requires the ability to change – often quite quickly — as situations change. Management experts cite a variety of buzzwords: flexible, agile, nimble, responsive, and even such descriptors as limber, malleable, and energetic. What does this concept really mean and what does it take to execute it? Is it a universal need or a tool to be used on an as-needed basis? Does it really produce better results for our organizations or is it primarily a basis for bragging rights? Are there downsides as well as upsides to being flexible and agile? As much as we hear it and reference it, how much real thought have we given to what it is and how it should be applied in our day-to-day work?

Of course, like all management concepts, flexibility and nimbleness are subject to different approaches and applications depending on the organization and circumstances. Even so, there are some common themes when talking about agile management. In some contexts, the term “agile management” refers to specific processes originated and used in the IT sector and like other concepts, has translated into other industries. While there are conceptual similarities to the broader concepts of flexible, nimble, and agile marketing and management as discussed here, this piece does not address the more targeted “agile management” techniques specific to IT.

Why Be Flexible?

Like all marketing and management concepts, flexibility and nimbleness is not an end in itself. Step one: determine where the organization is headed and why; develop a plan to outline goals and assumptions. While excruciatingly detailed plans are not necessary, a solid vision of where the organization wants to go, how it will proceed and understanding what success looks like, is important. Without a good plan, being nimbly responsive to the environment means the environment – and not the organization — is in control. Responsiveness to a very broad range of dynamic internal or external environmental trends can lead to activity without purpose.

Too often, important internal dimensions are forgotten as environmental scans focus on markets, social trends and technological developments, while internal factors such as talent management, team effectiveness, and the ability to access capital are just as important. Combined, external and internal issues affect an organization’s ability to be nimble.

How To Be Agile

Once you have a plan, how do you distinguish trends from one-time events – and prioritize activity accordingly? In a column last year (Assessing Change, SOLUTiONS, Fall 2013) I addressed how to identify meaningful and not-so-meaningful trends. In many cases, it’s intuitive, but careful analysis should accompany good instincts, especially if a response requires significant resource investment.

Once the need for substantial response is identified, what drives decision making about the proper response? In a recent article by Adam Bryant in The New York Times (Management Be Nimble, January 4, 2014) which also is the title of his book, Bryant describes what some leading CEOs say about creating a culture of innovation and describes key drivers of corporate culture. While this work is based mostly on the corporate environment and product innovation drivers, many of the observations have relevance in the non-profit environment. Bottom line: at the implementation level (i.e. after a response need is identified) flexibility and nimbleness flow from a strong organizational culture that supports change and includes:

  • Good Communication – Sending a strong management message about a shift in direction and a response is critical. Most often, this requires senior management involvement that underscores the importance of the task at hand.
  • Team Strategy – We all know about the importance of teamwork, developing over time based on a strong commitment from management and a climate of respect throughout the organization. When a strong team effort is required to accelerate an organization’s response, a culture of teamwork must exist so that the appropriate team can be assembled and hit the ground running.
  • Response Specificity – The team charged with fashioning and implementing a quick response must specify the particular impact the organization seeks and the target timeframe, identify roles and responsibilities and define success. All of this requires a combination of top management direction and the flexibility of the team to suggest changes in the specifications of the desired result based on the team’s work. This can be a delicate balance of top-down and bottom-up approaches, and will vary from situation to situation.
  • Exit Strategy – Identify an exit strategy in advance, for managing the response if success becomes unattainable. It can be tricky to identify this early in the process: balancing the need for appropriate awareness without dampening enthusiasm or commitment to achieving the desired goal.

Today, marketing nimbleness is especially important. While marketing involves many components, at the implementation stage, good communications – good conversations – between membership and leadership is critical. The primary environmental factor driving change is the variety and pace of communications, mostly via the Internet. Social networking and up-to-the-minute information sharing has generated a quantum change in the speed of planned and unplanned news, so agility is important. To be successful, the response process needs to be both quick and thoughtful, a combination that can be difficult to achieve. But having a team strategy that can be activated very quickly and tailored to specific needs is the best way to ensure good balance between thoughtfulness and promptness in your response.

Just as agility is important in communications, it’s important in the overall approach to management. The vast information flow generated by the communications revolution provides both a problem (information overload) and an opportunity (timely clues regarding success/failure potential) that enable and require management to respond to phenomena that affect the organization’s prospects. The same concepts required for effective agile marketing apply equally to agile management. The primary difference: the typical response can be more urgent in marketing.

Some organizations are apt to change while some are change averse. Today’s fast and competitive environment requires that you understand your organization’s agility quotient.