Reflections on strategic agility masterclass by the Agile Research Network

20 Dec 2023

This blog is based on the Agile Masterclass led by the Agile Research Network for professionals of the Agile Business Consortium. Titled ‘Achieving strategic agility in the short-term and long-term‘, this masterclass drew on the case method pioneered at the Harvard Business School.  

The session was based on an earlier piece of research conducted by the ARN for three organisations seeking to achieve agile transformation. Its aim was to enable participants to practise being agile as part of a real-world scenario involving complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. This masterclass was the first of its kind, intended to share the insights gained from research with practitioners. Here, we summarise the format of the masterclass, and the key insights identified by the participants as they got involved in ‘solving’ the case. The blog concludes by discussing the prospect of conducting similar sessions in the future.    

The masterclass was based on the case workshop format and aimed at facilitating a discussion between participants. The essence of this format is to enable those taking part to deliberate on a specific real-world scenario, analyse it, and identify possible resolutions in a collaborative, participative way. In particular, when the participants have significant work experience, the format also enables deliberate practice at problem-solving when varied regional and national perspectives, industry sectors and industrial roles are brought into the equation. 

Participants were presented with the scenario of a fictionalised traditional charity which had decided to adopt an agile strategy when faced with an existential threat to its business and operating model. After an initial attempt to initiate the change programme failed, the charity pivoted to a ‘skunk works’ approach — one used to describe any team that works outside the regular, organisational structure to develop something new, to achieve strategic agility in the short-term and long-term.  

The participants became part of the ‘skunk works’ team and were tasked with identifying: An overall strategy to drive the change; the processes to consider for a change of mindset and culture in the organisation; and which stakeholders to involve as the change programme expanded beyond the ‘skunk works’ team. Although the participants were provided with an initial outline, some aspects of the scenario were left open to interpretation to reflect the potential messiness and uncertainty a ‘skunk works’ group would face in similar real-world scenarios. The participants were split into two equal-sized groups. The ensuing discussion included two breakout sessions and a plenary to enable cross-pollination of ideas.  

The participants in both groups engaged in a free-wheeling discussion debating not only the challenges and opportunities presented by the scenario but also how they would respond if they were to face such a scenario for real. Vis-à-vis the scenario itself, the participants stressed the need to collect more detail, quantifiable evidence, and obtain a clear buy-in from the management and the board of the fictional charity if they were to truly innovate and provide a roadmap for strategic agility as the ‘skunk works’ team.  

  • As part of the overall strategy for change, the participants discussed the need for more information on why the charity was facing an existential threat. They also discussed what would constitute a minimum viable product as part of the strategy for the proposed transformation, potential smallest wins, and the milestones essential to realise the vision of strategic agility transformation.     

  • Regarding the processes to consider for a change of mindset and culture, the participants identified the need for change to a ‘pull strategy’ (as opposed to a ‘push’ from the management) to enable a bottom-up transformation, considering mass-intervention techniques, the role of leadership across various levels of the organisations, and the need to combine psychological safety within the organisation while transitioning to a culture of continuous improvement. 

  • In order to effectively deliver the transformation, the participants discussed the need to involve a range of stakeholders, including client organisations served by the charity, staff, customers (i.e. those that the charity serves in a direct, individual capacity), and marketing to promote the strategic change. Some of the participants spoke about the need for detailed stakeholder mapping, understanding the regulatory environment, and also assessing competitor charities as part of deciding which stakeholders to consider. Further considerations to stakeholder engagement included the level of support, trust, and market responsiveness the charity was aiming for as part of the transformation.     

As an initial attempt in engaging the professionals of the Agile Business Consortium in a deliberate practice of real-world messy scenarios grounded in academic research and empirical insights, this masterclass provided a useful teaser for future collaboration between the ARN and Consortium professionals. The essence of the case workshop format is focused on the discussion, the debate, the cross-questioning, and the occasional soul-searching it facilitates in participants.  

As devised in this masterclass, the ARN team also wanted the participants to practise their agile skills in ‘solving’ a messy, unclear situation. Based on feedback after the session, the ARN is working to evolve the format. With a backlog of extensive research on business agility topics and planned revisions to the format, future masterclass sessions from the ARN to engage professionals of the Agile Business Consortium are firmly on the horizon.

Please note blogs reflect the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the recommendations or guidance of the Agile Business Consortium.


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