The Pursuit of True Agility

Adrian Cho looks at agile practices, invention, and change through the allegory of musical experiences.

Agility in the Twenty-first Century

If there is one constant in today’s world, it is change. Wars, the global financial crisis, and emerging economies are products of a volatile environment characterized by aberrational events, sudden shifts, and rapid emergence. Agility is necessary to survive and thrive in such chaos.

Times of turmoil give rise to innovation. The invention assisting agility today is the network powered by the Internet and mobile connectivity. It facilitates collaboration with virtual presence and social networks while hosting social media that is changing how organizations and individuals communicate.

Agility in the Twentieth Century

While the network is a powerful tool, true agility demands a unique mindset. For inspiration, we can look to the early twentieth century, which was also a time of immense conflict and change. While the Great War and the Great Depression bookended the era, cultural and social change occurred on many fronts. Immigration, urbanization, racial violence, women’s rights, prohibition of alcohol, and morality were all grounds for conflict. The innovations that eased collaboration were the automobile and commercial air travel, which made it easier for geographically dispersed teams to work alongside one another while radio and movies with sound enabled business and performers to communicate more broadly and more effectively.

Classical versus Jazz

Born amidst the conflict of the twentieth century, jazz thrived in the speakeasies of the Prohibition era and exploited the forbidden fusion of black and white culture. Jazz was a stark contrast to classical music of previous eras:

  • Classical music followed a precomposed script while jazz was almost entirely improvised.
  • Classical music had strict rules of form, harmony, melody, and meter while jazz was free and fluid.
  • In contrast to the conformance of classical music, jazz exploited and rewarded individualism.
  • Classical ensembles relied on centralized command structures while jazz leadership was decentralized and dynamic. Musicians alternately lead and follow between performances and while on the bandstand.
  • Classical music relied more on a script and less on team interaction. Interaction with audiences was frowned upon with etiquette declaring acceptable times for applause. Jazz musicians relied on team interaction to help navigate unexpected musical events while audiences were encouraged to provide feedback whenever they felt inclined.

Many organizations operate with classical structures and processes. They could benefit from working like jazz musicians.

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