Organisational Agility

Amidst the ongoing uncertainty of a global pandemic, the run up to Armed Forces Day 2020 is an opportunity to reflect. David Stabler, projects director at Ryder and a former British Army Officer, discusses why crises of the past continue to offer important lessons for today.

76 years ago, Allied Forces conducted Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D Day, into northern France.  A joint air and amphibious invasion, it remains one of the most complex military operations ever undertaken in monumental scale, planning, execution, and risk.  But it is also remarkable for the stories of individual groups, who, through deep rooted culture, were empowered to take the initiative and act decisively in pursuit of the overall mission.  The success of Overlord marked the beginning of a strategic shift in the second world war which, in the space of weeks, led to the liberation of Paris and the German retreat across the Seine.

Nearly a century and a half earlier in 1805, the victory of the British Navy over the superior Franco Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar was founded on similar organisational behaviours.  Admiral Nelson’s entrepreneurial enterprise supported by a culture of trust, individual initiative, and a collective understanding of the mission proved critical.  In sailing into the opposition’s line of ships rather than alongside as was common practice at the time, Nelson exploited the enemy’s weakness of centralised command and control.  In the chaos that ensued British commanders who had the authority to act independently and decisively, capitalised.  Just as on D Day, when most of what could go wrong did go wrong – bad weather, strong currents, and paratroopers scattered widely and far from the landing force, organisational agility saved the day.

While these battles belong to history, more recent events continue to have global impact.  The financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, the climate emergency, and the COVID-19 pandemic are clear examples.  The latter is notable for its sudden transformative change on everyday life.  COVID-19 is a wicked problem, in that without a vaccine, our collective response has been reactionary, often confused and uncoordinated, lacking as we are in information and reliable data.  Leaders of all organisations are making decisions in hugely challenging circumstances with a direct and significant impact on the wellbeing of others.  The, “fog of war” is an apt metaphor.  In response we need collective effort and a sense of common purpose – to be prepared is to plan.  As US Army General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander for Operation Overlord, put it, “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

In his book, Team of Teams, former US Army General Stanley McCrystal argues that adaptability, rather than efficiency, should be the priority for organisations seeking to overcome the challenges of the modern world.  In an increasingly globalised and connected world it is hard to argue otherwise.  Organisations must both build resilience to absorb shock and create the agility to seize opportunity.  Visionary and inclusive leadership will foster trust and a collaborative culture.  Just as those paratroopers who found themselves isolated on 6 June 1944 demonstrated, when they formed small ad-hoc teams, assigned leaders, and conducted determined action, agility is a mindset.

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