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Strategic Agility in Uncertain Times

Jedrzej George Frynas is Professor of Strategic Management in the OU Business School. This text is based on the Strategic agility and leadership in uncertain times webinar, held on Wednesday 25 November 2020.

In a fast-changing, turbulent environment that we are currently experiencing, the challenge is how an organisation can remain flexible and can quickly adapt to new ideas, technologies and socio-economic changes.

The Strategic agility and leadership in uncertain times webinar – organised by the Business School's Strategic Management and Leadership cluster –  brought together three senior expert panellists to discuss ideas around ‘strategic agility in uncertain times’.

Can academic ideas around ‘strategic agility’ and ‘ambidexterity’ help to make sense of what some agile organisations do, and help provide some guidance for managers?

Professor Peter Rodgers from Southampton University pointed to a crucial dilemma that agile organisations face: how to balance contradicting efforts and trade-offs between the use of resources for both routine processes and new business models. Agile companies and organisations must invest in both Exploration – discovery of new knowledge (e.g., R&D) to take advantage of new opportunities leading mainly to radical innovation – and Exploitation - using existing knowledge to develop incremental innovation.

Organisations that focus too much on one or the other may perish, as the example of Blackberry and Nokia showed. Both companies focused on exploitation – the development of better mobile phones – at the expense of exploration – developing new uses and functionalities for their devices (which their competitor Apple did).

Phil Atherton, Sales Director of Enesco Ltd., provided practical advice for managers. He listed the “Super 7” recommendations for organisations that aspire to be agile:

1. Empower your teams

2. Find a commercial and emotional reason to change and be agile

3. Less is more (such as around levels of reporting, number of meetings and so on)

4. Once you arrive at your destination, resource up (to prevent slippage back to old ways of working)

5. Find and support real change agents in the business

6. Reward Agility (build it into your incentive schemes and measures)

7. Cease and resist old habits that slow things down

Dame Stella Manzie, Chair of University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust and well-known for effective change management and performance improvement in the public sector, provided a public sector perspective. She suggested that public sector organisations are also more likely to survive, if staff (as well as customers, patients or users) are engaged in that survival process in terms of what needs to change, what will work and what won’t work. Stella formulated three simple key principles of agility:

  1. Learning as you go and continuous adaptation
  2. Developing partnerships with stakeholders
  3. Continuous communications for employees to engage with leaders

Drawing on these strategic agility principles, Stella’s NHS Trust focused on trying to make sure that staff are empowered ‘as far down the organisation as we can’. Re-deploying staff across the organisation has also been used to remain agile. For example, in the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, one senior manager from the strategy team changed his role to negotiate new partnerships with local and regional businesses such as Jaguar LandRover and AstonMartin – companies that suddenly became NHS suppliers.

Our three experts emphasised that organisations do not necessarily need a lot of resources to become agile. ‘This is about empowering people, changing the culture, changing the way you do things’, said Phil Atherton.

Companies and public sector organisations need to figure out how to best implement these changes in their organisation and adapt organisational strategy.

You can watch the recording from this webinar here.