Forget strategy, embrace agility in changing business world

The business world is changing fast, organisations have to adapt

Mo Farah is an extraordinary athlete. During the course of his career, he has won double gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the European Championships, the World Championships and the Olympic Games. When asked about his formula for success, he has a simple answer: "Training, you just have to put in the training".

In reality, of course, the success of an athlete like Farah is due to a wide variety of factors, including natural ability, race strategy, preparation and execution.

Organisations, too, must balance different priorities to compete; yet they face much more uncertainty than an athlete like Farah. A race is a well-defined event. The location, starting time, distance, competitors and design of the track are all known in advance. The "playing field" of business, however, is becoming less clear.


This lack of clarity is having a profound impact on the effectiveness of traditional strategies. Most strategy professors (myself included) describe strategy as a cascade of choices around where to play and how to win. Good strategy is based on using solid data and analysis to build an understanding of your current position, figure out a desired future position, and then design a plan to get from here to there. I firmly believe that this model works. Or, at least, it worked.

Today, I am no longer so sure, for a very simple reason: The business world is changing so quickly that predicting what the marketplace will look like in the future is becoming increasingly difficult.

The writer says organisations, as with runner Mo Farah, who is seen here winning the 5,000m race at the IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting in July, must balance different priorities to compete. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

How many taxi companies incorporated the rise of Uber into their strategic planning processes? And why is it taking Volkswagen so long to react to its emissions crisis? In a constantly changing world, a long-term strategy can easily become an anchor that locks a company onto a path that is no longer relevant.

The key elements for success today are not plans and aspirations, but agility and capabilities. Capabilities (or access to capabilities) are required to compete effectively in a given position, and agility is required to make shifts in that position in response to a changing environment.

Coming back to our athlete: Farah succeeds not only because he is fast, but also because he adapts to the cadence of a race.

He is a master of positioning, and he sets himself up for a winning finish. Sometimes he wins from the front, but, more often than not, he comes from behind to take the lead in the final lap.

Farah has phenomenal capabilities but limited agility. He may be able to adapt to the changing dynamics of a race, but he would be completely lost if he had to compete in the high jump, on a bicycle, or on a tennis court.

A more extreme form of agility is required by organisations as they move to the centre of the digital vortex, an environment characterised by high market turbulence and shifting industry boundaries.

At the Global Centre for Digital Business Transformation, an International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and Cisco initiative, we define this extreme form of agility as digital business agility (DBA).

DBA is composed of parts: hyperawareness, informed decision-making, and fast execution.

Hyperawareness is a company's ability to detect and monitor changes in its business environment. Organisations need to be able to see opportunities and threats as they emerge. Most companies are only hyperaware about themselves! Often, they struggle to understand the changing dynamics within their industries. Much has been written about the dangers of organisational complacency, and this begins with a lack of hyperawareness. However, hyperawareness is only valuable if the resulting data and information is used productively.

Informed decision-making is a company's ability to make the best decision possible in a given situation. To do this, data and information must be analysed, scaled, packaged and distributed throughout the organisation. Data transparency, stable IT systems, advanced analytics and a knowledge-sharing culture play important roles in this capability.

Finally, informed decisions create value only to the extent that they can be implemented. Fast execution is a company's ability to carry out its plans quickly and effectively. This is where the majority of organisations struggle the most. The capability to execute quickly requires a willingness to experiment and a tolerance for failure.

The traditional role of strategy is dead, but that does not mean that planning is also obsolete. A set of rolling short-term operational plans can be even worse than locking into a long-term objective. Plans are needed, but they must be constantly assessed and adapted along with changes in the environment. In some cases, they need to be discarded.

Apple's decision to enter the payments business, GE's decision to divest GE Capital, and Tesla's movement into battery production all represent significant shifts in direction based on a keen understanding of shifting marketplaces.

In the words of Manulife Financial chief information officer Joe Cooper, "Knowledge is a 20th century differentiator".

In the 21st century, knowledge about the past is ubiquitous (Google knows it all), and the future is largely unknowable. Thus the ability to be agile - to sense, decide, and act quickly - will replace strategy as the key driver of organisational success in the future.

•The writer is the Cisco Chair in Digital Business Transformation, and Professor of Innovation and Strategic Information Management at the Swiss-based business school, the International Institute for Management Development, or IMD.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Forget strategy, embrace agility'. Print Edition | Subscribe