Lead with Agility

After investing time to start enhancing her team’s psychological safety, Blair wants to set the stage for the next step. The meeting a few weeks ago, where the team started to get a handle on the challenges at work—at least the ones they knew about—is helping her make the case that they need to understand these influences so they can figure out what to do with them. So Blair carves out a thirty-minute slot in the next team meeting to introduce the concept that might offer them solutions: organizational agility.

At the meeting, Blair quickly reviews the routine updates that she sent the team ahead of time. When it is time for substantive discussion, Blair asks, “What if we could find a new way of approaching our work? We’ve started talking about our environment and know that we are getting hit by all kinds of things. And we even have some opportunities we’re not taking advantage of. We know all too well that our budget is not going to increase. If anything, it will continue to get cut. How do we manage to do even more work?” Blair glances at their faces on her screen—Barry looks intrigued, smiling; most of the others look like they are listening, except for Barb, who seems to be staring at her notebook. Blair hadn’t expected that every single one of them would be on board. She has recognized, however, that some of her team are up for trying almost anything, while others consistently hang back, so she reminds herself not to push too hard at first.

She continues, “I’ve been reading about this concept called organizational agility. It’s not a magic bullet or cure-all, but it might give us some ideas for how we can think about tackling our work differently. I am still learning, and maybe we could all learn about it together?” A few heads nod.

After a long silence, Barb speaks up. “Your predecessor made us learn a lot about employee engagement. We had to take training on how to be an engaging leader, set engagement goals on our performance reviews, and do a lot of things that took up lots of time. And now we’re just switching gears? Forgetting all about that engagement stuff and doing agility now?”

Blair takes a second to gather her thoughts, musing, “I need to resist the urge to snap back with a quip about how I’m the boss and they should do what I say.” She thinks back to her first mentor, Carmen, who talked about how leaders, especially women leaders, need to show toughness when someone challenges them. But then Blair considers how frustrating and confusing it feels to have a new leader who wants to go in a completely different direction. Remembering the progress that she’s starting to make with psychological safety, Blair replies, “I think I hear what you’re saying. You invested a lot in learning about how to engage your direct reports. From what I’ve read, finding ways to be more agile can result in employees being more engaged. What you’ve started with engagement can be really helpful as we find ways to become more agile.”

Barry, always up for a new challenge, says, “I’ve heard a little bit about agility but am not sure what it really is. Just tell us what you want us to do. We can get that out of the way and then maybe have time to focus on our work, like we used to be able to when I started working here fifteen years ago.” Blair pauses, then responds, “I’m glad you’re on board with the concept. I know that it’s not going to be as simple as a checklist of things to do or something that we tackle in a few months. I am just starting to learn about it myself. I don’t have it all figured out. But I do know that, if we can learn about it together, then we will be better prepared to address whatever the future throws at us. All I’m asking right now is whether each of you are willing to learn about agility and to share what we learn with each other along the way. Maybe a good place to start is that we all agree, as a team, to share information with each other and work together. Leila, remember last week when you let Barry know that the format for the financial report had changed before he sent it to the deputy director? That’s a great example of sharing information at the right time.” Heads nod, and the meeting comes to an end.

“I guess some apprehension is to be expected,” Blair thinks later as she works on a report. “But they seem willing to try. Hey, I did some things right this morning!”

Blair knows that in order to effectively lead her team toward agility, she will have to focus on her leadership style. She reminds herself that it’s okay to not have all of the answers and that the leaders that she had early in her career had a different leadership style than she needs now. When Carmen was managing her unit, for example, it was easy for Carmen to stay on top of new regulations. The programs’ needs were fairly consistent, so it was easy for Carmen to support them with a singular contracting process, adjusting the process only when needed and updating their templates and job aids. But, with Blair’s department, things are changing rapidly and in complex ways.

Blair realizes that she doesn’t know enough yet to stay on top of the multitude of events and issues by herself, let alone figure out how they might impact their processes. She also knows that updating their processes is not going to be as straightforward as making a couple of minor tweaks. To succeed, she must rely on her team to work together in ways they haven’t before.

In addition to creating a climate of psychological safety, as a leader in an agile organization, your role is to help set norms for agility and to participate in the routines that enable it. Your role also requires that you embrace a different leadership style than you probably have in the past. Being willing to examine and adjust your behavior, while not easy, is necessary to lead in an agile organization.


As a leader in an agile organization, you must set agility norms. Norms are expected behaviors. In other words, you must set clear expectations by explicitly asking for the behaviors that you want team members to practice to maintain an agile environment.

If you think back to when you started a new job, you might remember doing something that was not in line with your new organization’s norms. For example, maybe you didn’t know that you were supposed to agree with everything a senior expert said or that you had to have presentation slides even for an informal lunch and learn. You probably figured it out from your coworkers’ shocked expressions after you voiced a view that was different from the senior expert’s. Or maybe you were tipped off when you showed up to lead your first lunchtime session, only to get barraged with, “Where are your slides?” But if you were lucky, someone actually took you aside to tell you what was expected.

Without having clear expectations about how to behave, individuals are more likely to act based on their own views of what someone in their role should do, or even based on the expectations of their previous employers. Most times, people are not aware of how their previous experiences shape their current actions. As a leader, know that it can be helpful to surface these implicit norms by holding discussions with your team and making them aware of these past influences or assumptions; doing so will make it easier for them to understand why they might feel uncomfortable when you ask them to act a certain way.

Holding formal, planned discussions isn’t the only way to set agility norms, however. Plenty of opportunities will likely present themselves throughout the normal course of work. For instance, others may seek your advice, either because of your formal authority or leadership actions, to help them make sense of what’s happening around them at work and trends that might be emerging. This is a prime opportunity to facilitate discussion about agile behavior and how your work culture reflects it. It is also a chance to role-model what collaboration in an agile environment looks like; you can share your views because you have expertise and access to information that they don’t. Conversely, they probably know things that you don’t, so you can show that you respect their insights by asking them what they think. You can also ask them who else they might talk to, either to get more information or to help resolve an issue. And maybe best of all, you can let them know that the reason you are intentionally being collaborative is because incorporating multiple perspectives is more likely to lead to better decisions.

Another opportunity to set agility norms is when someone comes to you when a problem occurs, asking for the solution. Of course, if quick action will avoid harm to person or property, then make the best decision you can at the time. Most problems do not require immediate action, however, in which case you have the chance to ask what possible solutions the inquirer has thought of and how those ideas could be quickly tested. This also gives you a chance to reinforce psychological safety. If the team member takes you up on your encouragement, be sure to ask them to share with you and others what they learned. Even if the tests did not turn out as planned, they likely learned something that will guide them, and maybe others, to a solution.

In any instance, fight the urge to have all the answers. Keep your eyes always open for opportunities to let people know that they are expected to work collaboratively, including sharing information and the results of experiments. Point out examples where you see learning happening, especially when someone tries out a new approach that isn’t immediately successful. Ask people how they can share what they learned, whether it is through an experiment, from talking with an expert, or reading an article.

Know that actively managing norms is an impactful way to help promote agility: if you don’t actively manage norms, the norms will likely drift off course.


Although employees are usually made aware of their organization’s mission statement soon after they are hired, they don’t always understand what the mission statement means for their day-to-day work. New situations—new legislation that could significantly add to the organization’s already long list of responsibilities, customers asking for completely new services, advances in technology that other organizations seem to be adapting, or new employees who come on board with different levels of understanding about the organization’s work—can make employees even more unsure about what to do to meet the mission, especially when the new situation is complex, not well understood, and stressful. It’s one thing to read a mission statement; it’s another to translate it into actions for a department, team, or individual role or to know when someone is charging ahead without realizing that their understanding of the mission differs from everyone else’s.

Part of your role as a leader is to help your team members to understand the mission and the ways in which the change happening around them is likely to test its boundaries; then, you can work on helping them see how their roles actively contribute to the mission. What do those changes mean for how they are doing their jobs? Although you may not know how a change might affect someone’s job precisely, you can have a conversation about it, asking helpful questions that surface their sense of the answer. You can also ask them what possible solutions might look like, which, in turn, may inspire them to test ideas to see what a sensible response might be.

By helping others clarify the mission and what it means for their jobs, you give them the ability to make decisions faster and more collaboratively when needed, both which help the organization as a whole respond quickly and more effectively.


As someone in a leadership position, you can empower others to make decisions by pushing decision-making authority to the right level. The “right” level is the level at which the person with the most knowledge about the potential effects of the decision resides. Delegating to the person at the right level helps provide the quickest possible response.

Pushing decisions up to a higher level than necessary means someone must take time to gather information (often by consulting with the person who has the most information), understand that information, develop options, make a decision, communicate that decision, and then hope it is implemented. This is usually a more time-consuming approach than simply asking the person with the most knowledge to make the decision.

At the same time, realize that you don’t need to delegate every decision. For some decisions, you are still the person best poised to make them. You might be the person authorized to view last year’s financials to give input for your department’s budget. Or maybe you need to decide how to handle an employee whose performance has suddenly dropped off.

However, many decisions can be delegated to someone more knowledgeable. This does not mean that the delegate should make the decision in isolation. Any decision-maker must figure out what information she already has and what information she still needs to inform her judgment. She may need to reach out to those higher up to ask for input. She may need to reach out to people in other functions who also have relevant knowledge of the situation. And, once the decision is made, she needs to make sure to communicate the decision to the right people, including those higher up. We talk more about making decisions at the right level in chapter 4.


As a leader, you play a key role in supporting sensing, interpreting, and responding routines by reminding and encouraging others to engage in them. Everyone in the organization, including you, must embrace these routines. As a leader, you bring technical or functional expertise, experience, and insight into what is happening both across the organization and at higher levels.

There may be instances where it makes sense for you to take the lead when a small team is forming to make sense of the environment or test solutions to a problem—such as when you have the relevant expertise. You don’t have to take the lead every time people get together to compare notes about the changes they see, however. Allowing others to step in and take a leadership role not only frees up time for you to focus on other activities but provides growth opportunities for others.

Sometimes, you may take on the role of team member while one of your direct reports serves as the leader of a temporary team. Other times, you may play an advisory role to a temporary team that one of your direct reports is leading: you support the team by helping them align their work with the mission statement, providing necessary resources, and assisting them in communicating what they’ve learned to other areas of the organization.

Agile organizations often free up staff by improving decision-making efficiency, allowing employees with the right expertise to improve processes and eliminate work that adds little value. However, agile organizations may require more staff, or even more financial and technological resources in other areas, such as planning and preparing for unanticipated events that would significantly affect the organization. Higher-level leaders in agile organizations place less emphasis on oversight and more emphasis on supporting those at lower levels as they introduce efficiencies and prepare for potentially impactful events.


Leaders often feel pressure to know everything and have all the answers. While there might be some reality to this kind of pressure in a traditional organization, leaders in agile organizations recognize that they don’t know and shouldn’t be expected to know everything. Because the environment is changing so quickly, there is no way a single person could know everything!

As a leader in an agile organization, you can do one of two things when faced with a decision: gather the information that you need to make the decision or push the decision down to the right person. If you feel that you are the right person to make the decision, gather as much information about your options as you can in the timeframe you have. This might mean reaching out to technical or functional experts for information. It might also mean reaching out to those above you or even to your peers.

If things are changing rapidly, however, you might want to delegate the decision to the person or people best suited to make the decision. They may be able to make the decision in less time than it would take for them to bring you up to speed so that you can make it. Share any important information you have with them that could impact the decision. You might know how much money is (or isn’t) in the budget to support the decision, for example, or how much one option will significantly impact another group.

When leaders first try to delegate decisions, they can find employees are reluctant to make decisions. One leader we consulted with said his email inbox was overflowing every day with messages from direct reports seeking leader approval for minor routine decisions. It took longer to open and read through the emails and make the decisions than if the direct reports had just decided themselves. As a result, the leader had little time to focus on more strategic activities. He felt that he had told his direct reports that they had the necessary authority to decide, yet they still checked with him before making a decision.

The way forward was for the leader to stick with it and not give up trying to delegate while ensuring that direct reports felt safe taking responsibility for their decisions. He started by diagnosing why direct reports were not making decisions. Although he believed that he had delegated the authority to make certain decisions, his direct reports still seemed unclear about which decisions they had the authority to make and which ones they did not.

What were his options? The leader could meet with direct reports, individually or as a team, to reemphasize his confidence in and respect for their making the decisions that they should be. After that, rather than continuing to make decisions for them, the next time someone asked him to make a decision, he could take a moment to ask why the direct report could not make the decision, turning the responsibility around.

If direct reports are too fearful to make even routine decisions, the leader could ask one or two of them to discuss a recent decision at the next team meeting, during which he could demonstrate appreciation for their making the decision, regardless of the outcome. The leader could also ask a direct report to share a decision that did not go well and then guide the discussion around what was learned, while praising the person for making the best call at the time. In other words, this leader must address psychological safety, as discussed in chapter 2.

The leader also could ensure that direct reports had the skills necessary for making good decisions in general as well as sufficient information to make each specific decision. Empowerment is often misinterpreted as employees making quick, uninformed decisions. In reality, if team members do not have the necessary information to make decisions, the leader can help remove that obstacle by simply making sure they are receiving the information they need.


Some leaders we have worked with seem reluctant to change their leadership style. While many say they support a collaborative, coaching-oriented leadership style and are no doubt already engaging in some of these behaviors, holdovers from a traditional leadership style often remain. One reason leaders seem to hold onto certain traditional leadership duties is because of the concern that “If I delegate, there will be no role left for me.” The truth is that agile leaders still have a very important role to play—it’s just different from the more traditional role. Leaders in agile organizations take on a more collaborative role, focusing on fostering a climate of psychological safety.

Changing one’s behavior takes time, effort, and motivation. Trying new behaviors, especially when you are in a leadership position, can be stressful. It is easy to fall back into a top-down style when faced with time pressures, uncertainty, or other challenges. The result is that employees then wait to be told what to do, squandering valuable time. While waiting, employees may begin to develop their own plans or solutions, which are then wasted when the leader’s plan is not relevant. All of this causes employees to become angry and anxious, which may make them reluctant to share information in the future. Therefore, when faced with a stressful situation, you should consciously refrain from reverting back to your old style.

In summary, as an agile leader, you will want to thoroughly examine your own behavior to identify traditional leadership tendencies that you can phase out and replace with more agile ones. Ways to support behavior change include setting specific goals for your own behavior, focusing on changing one behavior at a time, reflecting on your progress at changing behavior, and working with a coach or supportive colleague to discuss your progress.

Later that morning, another of Blair’s direct reports, Ryan, sends a message that pops up on Blair’s screen. It reads, “You know that program, Project Bravo, that is doing all of these services contracts? Well, I’m getting a bit concerned that if we start to see more programs taking that approach, then we might have a hard time supporting them. Is that really what we are supposed to be doing?”

“That’s a great question,” Blair types back. “We’re here to support the programs and their acquisition needs. That’s our mission. Just because we’re seeing a program that has slightly different needs doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be supporting them.”

Ryan replies, “OK. Barb is the one taking the lead with this program. Should I let her know that you said she should drop everything else to get this done? What about the other programs she supports that have been waiting for their contracts?”

Thinking quickly, Blair replies, “You raise several great questions. I am glad you’re paying close attention to how program needs could be changing. That’s good ‘sensing.’ Would you be willing to talk with a few contracting officers in your group and maybe a few other groups to see if they’re seeing the same thing?”

“Sure, I can do that. But what do I tell Barb?” Ryan asks.

“Talk with Barb to see if she can find a way meet to Project Bravo’s needs. I know you’ll help her if she needs it. Just let me know what the both of you decide. Oh, and if we will really be seeing all of these new service contracts, don’t worry, we will figure out together how to adjust so that we do things the right way but don’t kill the staff with overtime.”

Later in the day, Blair reflects on the conversation with Ryan. It was important to make sure he understands how the team fits in to the agency’s mission. Unfortunately, she’s seen other agencies where teams do only what’s best for themselves, with little regard for a common purpose, and she’s intent on avoiding that with her team. Blair feels she’s on the right track by not stepping in to solve the problem that Ryan is starting to see. Although there’s no immediate solution, she feels that getting Ryan and Barb communicating with each other will pay off.

Blair wants to make sure she’s leading the team in a way that gets them to incorporate agility. She recognizes that, just as she is asking her team to engage in different actions than they have in the past, she will also need to examine her own actions, even if doing so doesn’t feel comfortable at first.

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