• Huub Rutten

Agility: Tanker, Speedboat, or School of Fish?

This blog is about agility. The word “agility” is used a lot in the world of management, especially the world of innovation management. There is a real Quest for Agility: Agility seems the new Holy Grail and you can hardly find an article or blog post without a reference to “the fast changing circumstances” of the business. More than ever before in history, companies are at risk of missing the boat when it comes to “the continuous evolution of the internet, digitization, the climate change, new competition from startups, the rise of Chinese competition, new technologies and other new megatrends.” Consequently, companies must get agile, and this is used to justify the implementation of so called Agile methodologies, information systems, consultancy and tools. Company transformations are promoted and sold with the promise to make the company more agile, whatever that may be.


A big company is like a tanker: to stop a tanker in the Rotterdam seaport, the captain has to start bringing his speed down like 200 miles in advance, so he has to act pro-actively, he has to have a strategy. For a speedboat, say a startup, that process is very different. The speedboat can accelerate, stop, or change its route very quickly. The speedboat can work in a trial and error mode. No problem to change the course if required. Compared to the tanker…


Another metaphor that comes to my mind is the school of fish. I am always amazed when I see a school of fish in the beautiful Deep Blue Sea documentaries of the BBC with the unique voice-over from Attenborough. Look it up on YouTube, it is stunning. The point is that each individual fish seems to know what to do, to make the group successful and to survive. It knows how to adapt to circumstances as a group. And adaptivity is a key term to keep in mind. In our evolution the most adaptive species is the winner, the survivor. And you know, there are many techniques in nature to be adaptive, not only speed, agility or pure muscle strength. There are so many ways to adapt to changing circumstances.


So how can you transfer a tanker into a speedboat or a group of speedboats, which is the promise of Agility. How can you transfer a big organization into a school of fish swimming in the same direction and quickly changing the routes in case of danger. Every individual fish follows without any command - ideal!


I believe that CEO’s should not have the illusion that they can consider their big organization to be a collection of startups. I don’t believe that transformation investments, departmental restructuring on a large scale, new project management methods, will really bring more agility, and better business. Why not?


  1. The outside world does not transform like in a transformation project – you still have competition, markets, technologies, IP protection, regulations, legal constraints. As usual.

  2. You are still part of an economic ecosystem, your suppliers have their own ways of working, they also have a market, you are not the only customer, so they are who they are and don’t transform because of you. As usual.

  3. Technologies don’t change at high speed,: in the chemical industry for example they research fuel cells since decades. If you analyze the patent databases and scientific journals of the world, you cannot be amazed. Also digitization or AI is not new, Manufacturing applies Digital Twins and IoT some 20 years at least. Again as usual.

  4. What is perhaps new for many people is the rise of the Tech Giants in America and the market of millions of apps. But Apple and Google opened their app shops quite a while ago.

  5. What is perhaps new for some is the rise of the Cloud services, however I was involved in Cloud research more than 10 years ago.


So what is the reason to transform heavily? Joe the CEO wasn’t even interested in methodologies as long as his people felt happy. His concern is to avoid cash gaps. So, what to do if you are like a tanker?


If you are not “adaptive” enough to the circumstances, you perhaps better analyze why not. Do you have a long term business vision and a long term technology vision? Are you organized to materialize this vision? Do you have roadmaps for your product lines, and forward looking KPIs to drive them ? Also, do you discuss on a regular basis whether your long term strategy is aligned with the strategies of your customers? And do you have collaborative projects in place to get there? Did you agree your strategy and vision with the financial markets and your shareholders?


What do we really mean with Agility? Can we define it without thinking about Agile as a methodology?


I think that Agility is a synonym of what we always have called flexibility. Companies have to be flexible in order to react to changing markets, customer requests, and specific sales opportunities, and this is only possible - esp. for a big company - if it has longer term strategies, a vision. Flexibility has to fit within the frame of your longer term strategies, to avoid chaos. If you don’t have a longer term plan, like where do we want to be in 2050!, then you don’t know how to improvise in case of quickly changing circumstances – a new competitor with a breakthrough innovation, a pandemic situation, etc. Improvisation demands skills to adapt, however always within a scheme, a longer term strategy, using your DNA.


More about how to combine adaptivity with long term strategies in one of my next Blog posts.


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