Agile- everyone's talking about it, but does anyone know what it is? James Shimmen

James Shimmen - August 2018

If you have been to a business conference recently, browsed LinkedIn, scanned twitter, or even just overhead people in the gym class (yes, really!) you have probably heard the term 'Agile' or 'Agile working'. Agile seems to be the big new trend in organisations looking for new ways to operate in order be successful in a rapidly changing world.

If you carried on reading or listening when you came across agile in the above scenarios however, you may not be fully clear on what agile is as there seems to be a number of opinions and every one seems to be different!

What is agile working?

As you can see from the image above, the question of the effectiveness of agile working was recently put to business heavyweight, Apprentice judge, and surprising Love Island commentator Claude Littner on Twitter. His response speaks for itself. Mr Bonner's response however went on to describe what he understood as agile working. Now I am not an expert on Agile working, however what was described by Mr Bonner most definitely is not. What Mr Bonner described is hot desking mixed with a little flexible working. Although flexible working is part of it, but not the whole story.

Another assumption is that Agile is an 'IT thing'. To quote Peter Taylor of HSBC at our recent birthday event which included a presentation from our consultant Miriam Luke of the Leadership, "Agile is not just and IT thing. If your whole company is not doing it, then you are not agile."

So what is Agile?

I found a good description of Agile working on a LinkedIn article from John Eary an Agile Working and Business Continuity Consultant:

"Agile Working introduces a third dimension of flexibility, autonomy i.e. how people choose to work. In an organisation adopting Agile Working employees are empowered to choose how they work in order to meet the goals set for them to the standards required."

But what does that actually mean or look like in an organisation? Let's try thinking about it from a different angle. Let's imagine a large traditional non agile organisation as a ship. It's a big organisation so it's a big ship! On the bridge you have the captain and the bridge crew, in the engine bay you have the engineers, in the kitchens the cooks and so on. Each part of the crew has its own area, its own job and all work together to keep the ship going.

Agile working breaks down the process of success, step by step

Provided the ship is going the right way, everyone is going to the same place and there are no issues then this works great. However lets imagine an Iceberg suddenly appears and the ship has to change direction. The captain needs to be told, he needs to tell the bridge crew to change direction, the message needs to be passed down to the engine crew and let's remember this is a big ship. Big ships need a huge amount of space and time to turn. Fingers crossed the iceberg was spotted early and the danger is avoided but now the ship is pointed in the wrong direction and it takes a long time to get it back on course.

So, what does the above look like with an agile ship? With an Agile organisation there isn't just one ships. Instead of a being one big ship with captain an agile organisation is a fleet of small ships with an admiral. Each has its own captain, its own engineer, its own cook. Each part of the fleet but able to act with more independence and speed. When an iceberg appears on the horizon the fleet can react much quicker to avoid the danger. And once the danger has passed the fleet can get back on course much quicker too.

Agile working give people the flexibility to work towards the end goal, but not necessarily needing to get there the same way

When we used this example at our event to describe agile working one comment was "as long as they all turn the same way!" but that is still 'big ship' thinking. If all your boats are just going to go the same way then you may as well stay on the big ship. The benefit of the fleet is that they can be flexible and adaptable. As long as everyone knows where they are going they don't necessarily have to take the same route to get there. When the iceberg appears some of your ships can take the left, some the right.

Another benefit to agile working is that it helps to minimise risk. If some of the fleet try a different route round the iceberg and end up sinking you don't lose the whole fleet. There will be some that make it and if the fleet is working effectively together those heading the same way can react quickly to avoid the same mistake and pickup the over board crew. If the captain of the big ship gets it wrong? The whole boat can go down taking the crew with it!

So, what does it take to be an agile organisation?

An agile organisation needs an Admiral at its head, not a Captain. Leading a fleet is very different to leading a ship. Being able to trust the captains of your ships to take their crews the right way is crucial. Also, being able to inspire them in the vision of the fleet is going to be crucial to ensure the fleet stay together and get where they are going. An Admiral also needs to be able to adapt, to read the ocean, see what's coming but also read his fleet, to see where ships might be heading into trouble or where they may be finding new and better ways to navigate and follow their lead.

Captains. Potentially lots of captains who are confident to lead their crews and able to act with autonomy. Able to understand when to go a different way and when to follow the fleet.

Communication. In order to be a successful agile organisation communication is key. The fleet is far more complex than the ship. There needs to be constant contact between the ships to ensure that dangers and opportunities are shared effectively and all can learn from each other. A fleet can quickly become a mess if not lead correctly and if communication is lacking.


Has that clarified what an agile organisation is and some of the skills needed to be one for you? or has it 'muddied the water' even more? What about your organisation? Are you a big ship or a fleet? is your leader an admiral or captain? Do you have the captains and the communication skills needed to drive you fleet effectively?

Here at Getfeedback we are experts in people and would be happy to discuss how we can help prepare your crew to be agile and turn your captains into admirals. Comment below or contacts us at or on 01491 845 594.