What Does It Mean to Have Agility at Work?

Hiring leaders are hungry for talent that can demonstrate agility. But what is agility, and how do you demonstrate your chops? Modern Mentor breaks it down for you in 4 simple steps.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #669
The Quick And Dirty

Agility is really about keeping up, taking quick action, and being comfortable shifting direction on a moment’s notice. And here are four steps you can take to bring your own agility to life:

  1. Scan—what's happening around you
  2. Ask—"stupid" questions
  3. Run—with a scrapp idea
  4. Pivot—as you learn what works and what doesn't
Hiring leaders love buzzwords. Years ago when I worked in HR, “strategic thinking” was all the rage. Suddenly it caught on, and it became a key qualification in every job description. 
But what actually defines strategic thinking? And how do you know when someone’s doing it? Turns out these were the million-dollar questions. 
Years later strategic thinking is passé, but agility is hot stuff. If you can demonstrate agility, then leaders are looking to hire or promote you.
But what actually is agility, and how do you know if you’re doing it?
Luckily for many of us, it has nothing to do with physical agility—no one is expecting you to be able to run a mile in under eight minutes.
In a work context, agility is described in various ways.  Personally, I like Gallup’s framing, which describes agility as an “employees' capacity to gather and disseminate information about changes in the environment and respond to that information quickly and expediently.”
It’s about keeping up, taking quick action, and being comfortable shifting direction on a moment’s notice. And given that normalcy and stability are on short supply, this feels pretty important right now.
So let’s walk through a simple agility framework I like to use—it’ll keep you moving, changing direction, and achieving in increments.
I’ve even got an example for you: Years ago when I worked in corporate HR, I was asked to refresh our employee onboarding program. It was a big undertaking with major stakes. I wanted to get it right. So, I decided to take a fresh approach. Rather than diving deeply into research and planning months and years ahead, I leaned into agility and it served me well.
Here are the steps I took.

1. Scan

To deliver impact, you don’t need mounds of data, research, and leading practices as defined by external experts. You just need a sense of whose voice matters and what they’re chatting about in the moment.
For me, I was serving new employees and needed to know how they were thinking—and speaking—about their experience of onboarding.
I popped into a few new-hire training sessions, checked out a few forums on our intranet, and grabbed a few coffees with some new hires. And I just paid attention to what they were paying attention to.
I was hearing things like…
  • “Crazy that I hadn’t received my laptop in time for Day One!”
  • “I wish I had a better understanding of what information I need today and what can wait for a month or two.”
  • “How do I find communities of new hires in other parts of the company?”
I didn’t need an expert to tell me these were the things that felt important to my stakeholders, who in this case were precisely the experts whose opinions mattered.
So what’s a thing that needs your attention? And what’s the conversation taking place that you need to pay attention to?

2. Ask

There are no "stupid" questions. Often the greatest insights emerge from asking the stupid questions; questions that begin with “why do we…” or “why don’t we…” or “what if we…”
Agility demands a willingness to question anything and everything. This allows us to find our gaps, opportunities, and inefficiencies while imagining new ways of tackling old problems and challenges.
So I started questioning some of the basics like…
  • Why do we wait until one week prior to someone’s start date to order their laptop?
  • Why don’t we create some virtual communities on our intranet that allow new hires to connect with each other and begin to build their own connections?
  • What if we developed a simple activity (like a virtual scavenger hunt) that supports new hires in asking the right questions of the right people in the right order to support their learning?
Zero degrees in rocket science were required for the asking or answering of these questions. They were exploratory and simply allowed me to start imagining new possibilities.
What are the “stupidest” questions you can imagine (i.e., the questions that get at the fundamentals of your challenge) asking? Write them down and get asking.

3. Run

With an idea. Grab a hypothesis and action it. Do not get yourself twisted up in analysis paralysis (you know—the trap you fall into when you want to research until the end of time and never quite feel ready to execute).
There’s an old aphorism that says “perfect is the enemy of good.” And agility is grounded in being comfortable quickly with good.
New hire onboarding was a big program with a million elements. There was technology, compliance information, learning different parts of the business, building an internal network—the list went on forever.
My instinct was to research deeply, figure everything out at once, and then build a revised approach that would solve all our problems. All I needed was 5-7 years and a million bucks. Adorable, right?
But the agile approach was to choose one micro-opportunity, imagine making one small change, execute that change, and see how it went. I didn’t need reams of data or dollars—just an idea and a bit of courage.
I knew from my scan that there was a real appetite for community-building amongst new hires. So, I had someone from our Technology team add a simple Wiki (yes, I’m dating myself) to our intranet and I invited a handful of new hires to use it and share feedback with me.
Out of the gate it wasn’t perfect. But it was something in the place of nothing. And that felt like progress.
What’s a small step you can test quickly?

4. Pivot

This is about putting learning into action—making small, incremental changes as you learn along the way.
My Wiki 1.0 was kind of a mess. But it was a start. A handful of new hires generously delivered feedback about its formatting, its accessibility, and its overall utility. As the feedback came in, I worked with Technology to make small, weekly updates.
Within a month we had a big win and were onto the next challenge.
This is where the beauty of agility shines. You only need to take one step at a time. Isn’t that more appealing than figuring out the whole darn thing at once?

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.