I remember the first time I heard the word “agile” used in a business context. I was intrigued by it and how it was being used by a group of software developers in the IT sector to revolutionize their industry. They wanted to find a better way to manage the process of developing software – which has many unknowns, unrealistic deadlines and constantly changing customer needs. Sound familiar? The fact that we have the same issues in the nonprofit space is what intrigued me. Over the course of a few days, they developed what is now known as the Agile Manifesto. My favorite part is the end: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” What I find fascinating is they discovered what I too discovered – agility in the social sector is less about developing processes and organizational charts and more about creating values and culture that anticipate and support change. While I’m not an expert in technology, I know many people who are – one of my favorites is Terry Bennett, who is a partner with Fortium Partners, a Fellow of the Institute for Digital Transformation, and author of the e-book Busting Through Digital Transformation Roadblocks. Most importantly, he serves on many nonprofit boards and agreed to share his thoughts on agility.

Nonprofits have always had to respond to changes. A new competitor moves in down the block. New government regulations arise.

Isn’t that what agility is all about … changing?

So why do people seem to be making such a big deal about the need for organizations to be more agile?

Compared to today, the world of yesteryear was glacially slow … but then again, you didn’t have to move quickly. You understood who your competitors were. You likely knew their programs, but even if you were surprised, any changes they might make would not be so radically different that you couldn’t catch up in a relatively short amount of time. Your overhead and your competition’s were in the same ballpark. Things were methodical, and the pace of change was linear.

Our World is Becoming Increasingly Unpredictable

But, things have changed. Information is growing at an exponential rate. Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly and Google economist Hal Varian calculated that information has been growing 66% per year for several decades now. Based on the growth in patent applications and published scientific articles, they also surmised that knowledge is increasing exponentially as well. There is a growing culture of collaboration that promotes collective knowledge rather than simply relying on what the smartest person in the organization knows. And, this collaboration is no longer confined by the walls of your office or the organizational chart of your nonprofit. We can confer with someone on the other side of the globe as easily as on the other side of the street. Our world is not only moving at a much faster pace, it is accelerating and, at the same time, becoming more and more unpredictable. VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) is an apt description. In short, it’s crazy out there! This unpredictability is precisely what is driving the need for greater agility.

Agility and Reacting to Change Are Not Equivalent

When the pace of change was linear, time was on your side. It was easy to make a few small tweaks to your plans when the occasion called for it. While you might lose a few grants, it wasn’t a “go big or go home” proposition. You had the time to react and gear up to make any changes necessary. But, with the exponential rate of change today, the problem is not just the speed of change but also the degree of change. Nigel Fenwick puts it this way: “Your company is very likely to face an extinction event in the next 10 years. And while you may see it coming, you may not have enough time to save your company.” Time is no longer your friend.

Being agile does not simply mean that you have made up your mind to react to change when it is thrust upon you. Your extent of agility is determined by the degree to which you can change course and the speed in which you can achieve this change. While both a ballerina and a battleship can change course, one would never think their agility is the same.

But, just as a ballerina cannot unexpectedly change directions in mid-air, your organization cannot pivot without a firm foundation. In fact, McKinsey found that “truly agile organizations, paradoxically, learn to be both stable (resilient, reliable and efficient) and dynamic (fast, nimble and adaptive).” This does not mean that nonprofits must retain their current plethora of rules and structures that keeps everyone in their boxes for fear of hurting the organization’s efficiency. Instead, it requires everyone to understand the direction of the organization and then to do what is best to move in that direction while living within a minimal set of standards.

In addition, organizations must be able to anticipate change whenever possible. Rather than internal, your focus must be external – upon your clients, the ecosystem in which you operate and even upon the nonprofit startup community that may spawn your next partner or competitor. Such anticipation increases agility by helping you to prepare, adjust and adapt. This external focus can also be used to feed your ability to be innovative, helping you grow and evolve.

Nonprofits can no longer achieve success by setting sail on a 5-year strategic plan that is revisited just once a year. Nor can organizations afford the time to run most decisions up and down the chain of command. The unpredictability of our world today demands increasing agility to thrive – and perhaps even to survive.

This article was first published in its original form on Institute for Digital Transformation.

So, set a goal of improving your agility. Conduct a SWOT Analysis and let the conversation unearth key ideas or risks. Revisit your strategic plan and test how you are doing or what you may have missed. Conduct an opportunity assessment to evaluate the best future opportunities to spend your energy on. Attend a conference outside your typical mix and apply the learnings to your work. Encourage staff to circulate interesting articles and apply the learnings to your organization in an intentional way. But, most of all, expect and encourage disruption and innovative ideas, and you will be an agile nonprofit before you know it. If you have practiced these or other ideas, please share them.


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