The key to agility

Guest contribution by | 24.09.2018

The catchword VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguine) sums up the incalculable, fast-moving business environment of recent years. Most companies today have to deal with a VUCA environment and would have to pass the test on fluctuating ground. Rapid change, disruptive ideas, thorough and constantly changing customer requirements require faster internal processes. The demand is for “more agility” and people who realise agile work. Agile transformation and discussions today therefore suffer from the fact that everyone understands agility differently and that there are wrong assumptions about how to lead people to agility.

Wrong assumption no 1:

When two people talk about agility, they both think about the same thing

A common understanding of what is meant by agility does not actually exist in science or practice. Thus, conversations occur again and again in which agility is unconsciously looked at from different levels.

In science, the term agility first appeared in the 1950s in the social sciences. With its AGILE scheme, Parcons identified four tasks that each system must fulfil in order to maintain its existence: the ability to react to changing external conditions (adaptation), the ability to set and achieve goals (goal attainment), the ability to create and secure cohesion (integration), and the ability to ensure agreement between individual and system-related values and norms (latency).

The basic idea of the AGILE scheme has been taken up in countless concepts. The driving force behind the agile discussion was the pressure of globalisation and ever faster changing customer requirements. Roughly speaking, four development waves can be distinguished from agility:

Agile Manufacturing since the 1990s, approaches such as Lean Management, Lean Production and, currently, digital underpinnings Industry 4.0.

Agile Software Development (focus on software development): from the 1990s, based on the Agile Manifesto, use of agile methods such as Scrum or Kanban.

Agile Organisation (focus on the agile organisation as a whole): on the wave of success of agile software development since the mid-1990s with numerous concepts. In historical order here are the three most important concepts of agile organisational research:

– classic (agile) management methods such as process or quality management
– new agile self-organisation methods like Scrum, Sociocracy or Holocracy
– the concept of the agile mindset at the personal level

Agile Workforce a relatively new agile discussion that integrates the concepts of stress, health, leadership and competency research and highlights the workforce and the human resources department as a change agent for the agile workforce.

As you can see, people are increasingly becoming a key factor in the agility debate. And, of course, we all know from our experience that people are the ones who create an agile company. One more reason why we should take a closer look at the conditions under which people become open to working agilely.

Wrong assumption no. 2:

Man is rational and agile, because I tell him to

In business, our minds often tell us what is good and right for wise analysis and planning. But not for the motivation of the “emotional animal” human being. For centuries, our understanding of man as Homo Oekonomicus, who always acts rationally, executing commands like a machine, has been internalised. The more turbulent the environment, the less we achieve with attitude. Neurobiology has taken a big step over the last 20 years and can now give us valuable information on how we really “work”, when we block and when we cooperate positively. It is the so-called basic genetic needs of human beings that we as managers have to know and address today. Even if it seems unusual, but to understand the basic needs, I have to take you back to primeval times:

So what are the basic psychological needs?

Due to millions of years of genetic imprint the human being, who comes around the corner in a modern suit, jeans or t-shirt, has quite archaic needs, which he wants to and must satisfy every day, every hour and every minute. We are opened for agility, if we can satisfy these needs, which is controlled completely emotionally and not intellectually. If they are not satisfied, we buck, become more unproductive, slower, less creative, less courageous and much more.

A manager must know the following basic needs today:

Need for solid social contacts.
It’s called the need for commitment. Why? Because in the past we had better chances of survival under the protection of the clan. Because genes change more slowly than life circumstances, the need to have a good, understanding and trusting relationship with one’s boss, colleague, employees and others is extremely important.

Need for orientation and control.
If we didn’t know exactly what was happening around us in the Stone Age, it could cost us our heads the next minute. Today we still don’t like the feeling of someone standing behind our backs or not knowing what’s going to happen to the department next at work, rumours or conflicting messages. Being orientated and feeling in control is of incomprehensible importance.

Need to be of value.
In primeval times, performance was the prerequisite for survival. Also in the clan one was more useful, if one contributed with a benefit. For this reason we still need the feeling today that we can do something and the resonance that others value us as a person and above all for what we do.

If we are talking about an agile mindset of our employees, then we only have to remember that we have to respect the Stone Age genes in our employees. They ensure that they react with resistance and rigidity if these basic needs are not satisfied. We avoid or fight circumstances and people who violate the basic needs (flight and battle reflexes provide everything, but not agility) and those who help satisfy, seek or support them.

Wrong assumption no. 3:

There’s nothing you can do – they’re not supposed to do that

There’s nothing we can do about the VUCA situation. But we can learn to deal with them anew. The much talked about agile mindset is also possible in VUCA times. Here are some hints:

#1 Formulate a project vision
The human brain needs orientation. The classic corporate or project planning (waterfall planning) provided this. You knew what to deliver in the end and that gave you security. But today the requirements change too much in day-to-day business to be able to plan it through right from the start. So how can you give orientation anyway? People actually find a project vision helpful.

#2 Be authentic as a person
Employees want authentic superiors. Why? Because then they know where they stand. They get orientation. It’s bad when you’re seen as someone who has a double agenda, tells everyone something different, doesn’t send clear messages and is jumpy. The best thing, of course, is when others consider you to be likeable and predictable. Then you serve the first two basic needs in one. If you don’t seem authentic, they will avoid you.

#3 Ensuring clear roles
Invest time to cleanly define the project roles of individual team members. This avoids duplication, creates clarity and orientation. If you do your job well and perform well, your self-esteem increases. If you don’t know what you’re responsible for, you swim and that feeling gnaws at your self-esteem. Because we protect our self-esteem, we want to regulate it again – that’s why a project employee might even resign or ask to be removed from the project.

#4 Praise and give feedback
“Nothing heard is praise enough” – this is an old saying that still worked when rigid guidelines for employee behavior were set in companies in the past and bosses spent the day checking and correcting. Today, with more and more personal responsibility, orientation is needed. So if something has worked well, make sure you say so; if something could work better, make sure you say so, if possible, of course, constructively.

#5 Hook up and talk to each other
When you get involved in decisions, you get the feeling that you have control over the circumstances. This serves our need for orientation. It is also a sign of appreciation and solidarity when the leader involves team members. The same applies when information is shared. Go outside; talk to your people about developments, statuses, risks, opportunities. Get their opinions.

Bottom line

Rethinking is necessary for success in the future! VUCA calls for new competences, of which we have examined a small part here. Agile working methods can help to deal with the VUCA world. But these do not come by themselves. Promote the mindset of your employees and set out together on a path that makes our environment and our genes compatible again.



Under the protected term Vucability® you will find further scientifically founded support and information about the building blocks of company, personnel and self-management. The Vucability® concept is designed to help you successfully master the challenges of the future, often referred to as “new times with new rules”.

Top 2018 Blog Post - one of the most read posts in 2018
Prof. Dr. Monika Burg
Prof. Dr. Monika Burg

Dr. Monika Burg is a professor at the International School of Management. Her special field is leadership in the new economy with a research focus on the new and old competencies, which are required by specialists and executives in order to successfully master the challenges of the changing economic world. Monika Burg also draws on the experience of her own time in business. Prior to university, she was Group Human Resources Manager at Douglas Holding AG, Director of HR and a member of the Management Board at C&A Mode KG. As an executive coach, speaker and advisor, she is still closely involved with the practice today.