The One Thing Leading Businesses All Have in Common

Agility is more than simple, reactive adaptability. It’s even more than what’s usually covered by the discipline known as “change management.” (An aside: to succeed with change management, it is often necessary to… change management.)

So, what exactly is agility?

In August 2014, The Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) at the University of Southern California (USC) published its first book, The Agility Factor: Building Adaptable Organizations for Superior Performance. The Center has conducted its Organization Agility Research Program for more than a decade and studied more than 230 companies as part of the research that led to the book.

The authors found that “consistently high performers possess a capability to change their resources and processes repeatedly.” Such enterprises also “have the strategies, structures, resources, processes, and routines that allow them to both sense and adapt to environmental threats and opportunities as well as intentionally execute on strategic initiatives.”

This comparatively broad and proactive view of agility requires an equally agile IT infrastructure—and to be truly, reliably agile, that infrastructure must be secure.

Agility’s bottom-line benefits

Security obviously matters to those focused on agility, but why should those who focus on security care about agility?

In 2006, organizational effectiveness experts Edward Lawler and Christopher Worley wrote the book Built to Change: How to Achieve Sustained Organizational Effectiveness. According to Lawler and Worley, between 1973 and 1983, 35 percent of the top 20 Fortune 1000 companies were new to that list. That percentage of new top-20 companies grew to 45 percent between 1983 and 1993, and to 60 percent between 1993 and 2003.

Many, if not most, of the companies displaced by newcomers to the Fortune 1000 top-20 list not only fell to lower positions but ceased to exist entirely. Why? Because they were not sufficiently agile. So agility can be seen as a type of job security for security teams and their colleagues across the enterprise.

Agility also has more direct and positive effects on an enterprise’s bottom line, as a separate USC CEO study revealed. For that research, the Center evaluated the financial performance of more than 240 large firms across 17 industries and 30 years. “In every industry we studied, there were two or three ‘outperformers’: companies that achieved above average industry…performance more than 80 percent of the time.

When we compared our survey and interview data with the performance data, we observed a strong relationship between a company’s basic approach to management and its long-term profitability patterns. When markets and technologies changed rapidly and unpredictably—as they did in every industry over these 30 years—the outperformers had the capability to anticipate and respond to events, solve problems, and implement change better than thrashers. They successfully adapted. They were agile.”