You've probably heard of Agile. If not: It's a set of principles originally created in the software development industry to enable teams to rapidly iterate, continuously improve, and effectively flex in response to changing circumstances.

In the two decades since Agile's emergence, the business environment has become more and more "VUCA" (that's the evil-sounding acronym, originated by the military, meaning volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Consequently, the powerful principles of Agile -- and the need for leaders to embody the attributes of agility -- has now spread to all corners of the business world.

When leaders ask me for help in achieving performance breakthroughs, "leading with agility" is often at the top of their list of needs. They want to thrive in uncertainty, adversity, and chaos, and to build resilient, flexible, and high-functioning teams.

Like everything I do, this work is rooted in the mindset and practices of the performer and improviser. Here are two of my top fundamentals to help you on your way to leading with agility:

1. You can't know it all.

One of the biggest impediments to leadership agility is the belief that you have to know how to do something before you can do it. Obviously, knowing specific things can be critically important when you want to, say, perform brain surgery, dock a space station, or cross the street without being run over.

But if you want to lead in times of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change (i.e. all the time), relying on what you already know won't get you very far, and in fact can prevent you from learning, growing, and being flexible.

And this is where the most basic premise of improvisation comes in: you don't know what happens next. You literally cannot know, because you and your scene partners are working without a script, making up one moment after another by saying "yes" to whatever just happened. This freedom from the constraints of needing to know allows improvisers to invent, imagine, and create entire worlds together in the space of an hour.  

Here are a couple of exercises to build your skill at being agile instead of knowing:

  • Just say I don't know. Instead of only being a person who "knows the answer" (or wants to know the answer), start performing "not knowing." Make the choice to be tolerant of ambiguity, open, even uncertain. Say lines like, "I have no idea!" or "What do you think?" or "There might not be a clear answer here." Notice the kind of space this allows for different kinds of thinking, feeling and action.

  • Be bad at something. Your "not-knowing" muscles are probably pretty undeveloped, so find an opportunity to give them a workout: find something to do that you don't know how to do or you're not good at. You might volunteer for a project you wouldn't normally take on; ask a friend to help you cook an unusual dish; or talk to a stranger about something important to you.

2. It's French for "together."

Agile methodology places great emphasis on teams and how they function. Teams are also at the heart of the performing arts, and performers even have a special word for "team" -- they call it an "ensemble." No performance happens in a vacuum -- even the most diva-like star turn depends on dozens of others working together to create the magic.

In my roles as both a performer and an executive coach, I've found that the most creative and innovative work environments are composed of ensembles of people with different skills, experiences, temperaments, and points of view.

Scientists call this "hybrid vigor," and I call it "creative chaos" -- together you hear, see, do, and think things that wouldn't be possible without the designed and emergent mess of a diverse ensemble in action. It's hard work, but together, you're able to accomplish much more, with greater flexibility, collective wisdom, and creativity.

To lead with agility, you have to make building ensembles a top priority. These exercises can get you started:

  • You are not alone. Spend a day saying "we" whenever you would usually say "I." Notice how this changes what you say, how you say it, and what happens next. It may feel awkward at first, but go with it. It will help you and others see and think as an ensemble.

  • Mix it up. Bring people together to work on a project who have varied skills, are at different levels, and are different from one another in other ways. Talk about these differences, your strengths and weaknesses, and use all of it in your work together. Not sure what I mean? Good! Figuring out how to do that (i.e., deciding together what that means) is part of the ensemble-building process of leading with agility.

Published on: Oct 19, 2017
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of