Agility is the ability to move quickly, an essential capability when one must respond to change. Organizational agility is difficult, especially for large organizations, but it begins with agile individuals and teams. Put together teams of talented people who can react promptly to change and improvise solutions, and you’ll enable an agile organization that can respond readily to challenges.

People First

While their domains may seem poles apart, the best military teams and artistic ensembles know a lot about agility. They are frequently called on to deliver unique, high-quality performances in challenging conditions and agility plays often plays a key role in their success. The best military and artistic leaders know that organizational agility begins with agile individuals and teams.

Colonel John Boyd was a military legend, known in the late 1950s as the finest fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Boyd understood the importance of military hardware as tools. His Energy-Maneuverability theory was highly influential on aircraft designers and initiated critical improvements in the design of the F-15 Eagle. He is often called the father of the highly successful F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Hornet combat fighters. Boyd also understood the importance of following orders and employing various tactics in the sky. He was one of the first instructors at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where he wrote the curriculum on dogfight tactics. Yet despite his appreciation for tools and processes, Boyd was fond of proclaiming, “People, ideas, hardware—in that order” extolling his belief in people as the most important variable in the equation of execution.

The U.S. military Special Operations Forces (SOF) may be the best-equipped fighting force in the world but even with access to superior hardware, they realize that their most critical success factor is not technology, but people. This basic principle is encoded in four rules, known as the SOF Truths. Gen. David Baratto, the first chief of operations of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), defined the first of these truths as “Humans are more important than hardware.” Linda Robinson, author of Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces, noted that the SOF “view the individual soldier and his brain as the key factor in the fight.” Gen. Wayne Downing described the philosophy in the foreword to Special Operations Forces: Roles and Missions in the Aftermath of the Cold War:

As USSOCOM moves into the 21st century, we have formulated a strategic plan. We must continue to evolve to meet the changing security environment. The most important factor in this evolution is people. Indeed, the most important component of success in all our missions is the people we commit to them. We are continually seeking new and innovative ways to select the right people, to train them thoroughly, and to develop them professionally throughout their career. We know that the best equipment in the world without the right person operating it will not accomplish the mission. On the other hand, the right person will find a way to succeed with almost any equipment available.

Jazz musicians know the importance of talent over practiced routines and expensive instruments and gear. An established group of mediocre musicians is no match for a team of great musicians even if they are working together for the first time. The mediocre musicians performing packaged material, and therefore relying largely on process, might be able to dazzle with a handful of well-rehearsed tunes, but give them something new or unexpected, and their weaknesses will be revealed.

Stay Lean

In software development, most people are familiar with Fred Brooks’s law which says that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” This comes from Brooks’s classic 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month. While adding more people can indeed delay a project’s delivery, the greater cost is the detrimental effect on a team or organization’s agility. Boyd, whose theories were rooted in agility, in aerial combat as well as more generally, studied the tactics of the Blitzkrieg. There is a myth that the use of Blitzkrieg by German forces during World War II was based on a strategy of repeated “shock and awe” tactics through the use of overwhelming force such as the armored divisions of the German Panzerwaffe. Military historian Julian Jackson observed that newsreels portrayed the German army as a mechanized juggernaut, when, in fact, the German army had 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses when it attacked the Russians in 1941. The truth is that Blitzkrieg, which is German for “lightning war,” was all about speed and mobility. It was the German general, Hans von Seeckt, who realized the importance of agility, writing “The mass cannot maneuver, therefore it cannot win.”

When focusing on people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “bulking up” in the pursuit of greater performance. SOF leaders know that this is a mistake and while there may be an advantage gained by greater numbers, it comes at the expense of organizational agility. The second of the SOF Truths is, “Quality is better than Quantity” while the third is “Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.” When teams are staffed with quality over quantity in mind, they can be both skilled and lean. This means they can achieve better results with more unique and creative solutions, and can also respond more readily to unforeseen problems.

The Execution Loop

John Boyd’s greatest contribution to excellence comes in the form of an execution loop. Sometimes known as the Boyd Cycle, the OODA Loop is a decision cycle named for four processes:

  • Observe—Acquire data by means of senses
  • Orient—Analyze and synthesize data to form a perspective of the situation
  • Decide—Determine a course of action based on the perspective of the situation
  • Act—Implement the decision

During the Korean War, Boyd wondered how the pilots of the American Saber F-86 were able to rack up a ten-to-one kill score against their North Korean counterparts in their Soviet-made MiG -15s. The MiG-15 had a higher flight ceiling and a higher sustained turn rate, which meant it could hold a tight turn for a longer period than the Saber. The Saber, Boyd observed, had a higher instantaneous turn rate, enabling it to transition more quickly from one maneuver to another. In other words, whereas the MiG-15 could outperform the Saber, the Saber could respond more quickly. In addition, the Saber had a bubble canopy, which afforded its occupants an unobstructed 360-degree field of view, allowing American pilots to observe more quickly than the MiG-15 pilots. Boyd became convinced that success in dogfights lay in the ability to make superior decisions and execute them more quickly than one’s opponent. This formed the basis for his OODA theory. Boyd understood the need for agility in terms of not just aircraft maneuverability, but also people’s ability to respond to constantly changing, life-threatening situations.

Boyd’s work on the OODA Loop has prompted some to proclaim him the greatest military strategist since Sun Tzu. The OODA Loop has been applied to many other domains, including business, politics, sociology, and sports. Many of the tactics used in Desert Storm were patterned after Boyd’s theories. Management guru Tom Peters frequently quotes Boyd’s OODA theory. In later years, Boyd himself studied the applicability of his theory to business, specifically the just-in-time Toyota Production System. Whether by design or by accident, many other cycles of decision and action bear similarity to the OODA Loop. Plan–Do–Check–Act (PDCA), also known as the Deming Cycle, Shewhart Cycle, or Deming Wheel, is one such example.