So You’re Contemplating Agile?

As organizational design practitioners, it’s inevitable that our leaders will want to discuss “making our organization more agile,” based on growing popularity of the topic in academic and business literature. When asked our point of view, it’s important we’re prepared to ask the right questions and offer up relevant insights.

When asked about agility, first ask the leader what’s triggering the question. Is there an environmental factor that’s forcing a market change in the way the organization innovates? Are your customers demanding something different? What’s your priority on reliability (exploitation) vs. adaptability (exploration)? Most importantly, what is the organization’s strategy? Understanding the underlying “function,” will inform the organizing mechanism, or “form” (Fjeldstad et al, 2012).

Next, I would ask how comfortable his/her leadership team is with ceding control (Birkinshaw, 2018). In an “actor-oriented” organizing mechanism, power shifts from the top to the bottom (Fjeldstad et al, 2012), with teams acting as the building blocks of the organization (Bernstein et al, 2016). The departure from a traditional hierarchy may result in changes at the management level and I would challenge the leader to think about how the management level may respond.

Bring the leader examples of organizations who have adopted varying degrees of self-management, sharing how the operating mechanism related to their strategy, as well as the self-reported learnings. Organizations like Zappos, Morning Star and Medium have all shared valuable lessons about how self-management has or has not worked for them (Bernstein et al, 2016).

At the end of the day, we can help leaders understand that it’s about balance. While truly “teal” organizations are unlikely to make up more than 20% of organizations in 2030 (Bernstein et al, 2016), others have the opportunity to adopt piecemeal elements of self-management to fit their unique business demands.



  • Birkinshaw, J. (2018). What to expect from agile. MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2018, 39-42.
  • Fjeldstad, Ø D., Snow, C. C., Miles, R. E., & Lettl, C. (2012). The architecture of collaboration. Strategic Management Journal, 33(6), 734-750. doi:10.1002/smj.1968
  • Bernstein, E., Bunch, J., Canner, N., and Lee, M. (2016, July-August). Beyond the holocracy hype: The overwrought claims – and actual promise – of the next generation of self managed teams. Harvard Business Review.


Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash


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