12 March 2020
Posted by: John Williams
In October 2019 – just a few short months ago – I gave a public lecture entitled ‘The antidote to Black Swans’. I explored how agility can help organisations cope with, and prepare for, unexpected events. I had no inkling that less than half a year later, the importance of that principle would hit home so hard.
There is nothing good about the Coronavirus pandemic. It is dangerous for many, and inconvenient for others. It dislocates everyday life and is felt everywhere. It generates rabid headlines and, most important of all, is not merely an event – it is a condition. And that’s not just a condition for the unfortunate people who contract the infection – it is a emerging condition for society and economy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb described this type of disorder in his influential 2007 book ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’, highlighting particular characteristics. Black Swans are beyond ordinary expectation; they carry extreme impact; and with hindsight, we should have known they were coming. Market crashes, extreme weather events, pandemics – all are situations where society either responds with speed and flexibility (i.e. agility), or suffers worse outcomes.
We know this. Yet we seem each time to be forced into being agile, to meet challenges that consistently illustrate that most well-know of human dilemmas – ‘I knew it was going to happen, but not yet…’.
Agility – whether we call it business agility, organisational agility, enterprise agility, or whatever – is not an optional proposition. The world is ‘volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous’, and thus continually threatened by Black Swans. Enforced Agility is an unwise, uncomfortable, and in the long term untenable, state. If we want to avoid being left behind the impact curve, then we need to get ahead of it, and that means being agile before the urgent need arises.
"Agility is not an optional proposition"
The Coronavirus is not amere ‘wake-up call’ – or if it is, then it is the latest in a very long line of them. And agility will not make us smarter, or better looking or more able to see into the future. Yet we need to move beyond this jerky, sclerotic Enforced Agility to more habitually swift, adaptive behaviours. That might just enable us to meet some of our individual, corporate and global challenges with more confidence, more focus, and more effect. In matters of life and death, ‘Intentional Agility’ is surely worth attaining.