Agility for a Sustainable World: Why We Need to Redefine The Meaning of Agility

Johannes Geske
May 21 · 5 min read
Picture of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon, NASA

This year was the 20th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto for Software Development, and in many sectors, agile ways of working have long since become the standard. There are also many explanations of what agility really means, but there is agreement on the core meaning: focus on customers and their needs. Our own explanation of agility so far has been “the skill to turn customer needs into value flexibly, creatively and quickly while managing risk in complex environments.”

Why We Need to Redefine Agility

That said, if we broaden our view and look not only at individual companies and their customers but take a global perspective, the question arises as to whether two essential aspects are missing: The societies in which companies and their customers find themselves and our planet on which we live and do business.

We must also accept the global climate crisis as a real threat and as a symptom of many worldwide social, economic and ecological problems. This is also because for a long time we have been meeting customer needs largely at the expense of other people and our planet.[1] This shows how urgently we need to become more sustainable. For us, this means that we need a broader, systemic understanding of agility that includes not only the economic dimension but also the social and environmental dimensions.

That is why we are expanding our definition of agility. As a starting point, we are using our previous explanation and the definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [2]. Within these guardrails, which are becoming tighter on a planet with nearly 8 billion people [3] and an ever-growing population, we urgently need to make our lives and our economy sustainable.

A Broader Definition of Agility

Given these complex and urgent [4] human challenges, we have created this broader definition:

“Agility is the skill to turn the needs of people into value flexibly, creatively and quickly while controlling complex risks and preserving the ability of current and future generations to meet their own needs.”

Agility for a sustainable world

Agility is not an innate talent but a skill that anyone can learn and develop. Given the global climate crisis and the complexity of sustainable solutions, agility is one of the most important organizational skills of today. Either because companies need to make their products and services more sustainable or even have to change their business model to adapt to future legal regulations.

While there is no universal definition of agility, it is a common understanding that customers and their needs are at its core. This is what agile teams and companies focus their efforts on. Our broader definition of agility extends from “customers” to “people” to make clear that companies can no longer create value for their customers at the expense of other people and their ability to meet their own needs.

The meaning of value is known to vary greatly. For some, value means, money, prestige, influence or success; for others, it means, health, freedom, education or environmental value. In the context of sustainability, value means that companies must take into account their social impact. Sustainable companies ensure that they have a positive impact on society through their value creation, e.g. by promoting fair working conditions, paying taxes in the local economic area or working with local and fair suppliers.

We are confronted with many complex issues as a result of our work on sustainable solutions. For example, needs, technologies, market and legal conditions may change — or our understanding of these issues may change. Agile companies react to this flexibly and try to harness change to optimize the value of their solutions. Especially at the beginning of development initiatives, both the solutions and the needs are often not fully understood. On the one hand, this can be due to new technologies. On the other hand, it can also be because people often only learn what they really need by actually using a solution. That’s why flexibility and creativity is needed during development. The sooner we put a usable solution into the hands of our customers, the sooner we can learn more about its real value together with our customers.

Agile companies develop solutions in short intervals and deliver them to their customers early and often. This way, they manage and reduce their risk of investing valuable resources in something that ultimately turns out not to be valuable.

The climate crisis is not in some distant future. It is real today. The consequences of global warming and the measures we urgently need to take against it mean burdens and restrictions for present as well as future generations. It is essential then to align the value creation of companies in such a way that they don’t further restrict these generations from meeting their own needs. Climate protection and successful economies must not be seen as a contradiction, because if the global climate system tips over, we will experience much more extreme effects on life and economies than we can already observe in some parts of the world today.[4, 5]

Our new, broader definition of agility in the context of sustainability and the global climate crisis is an invitation to everyone who is committed to creating sustainable businesses, economies and societies. We look forward to a lively discussion; what we really hope for is that agility will help create amazing outcomes for a sustainable world.

Join us on LinkedIn to discuss this blog post: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6801406022478004224/

References:

1: Since the 1970s, our ecological footprint has constantly exceeded what the Earth can regenerate. In 2020, we will have consumed 1.5 times the ecological resources that the Earth can regenerate in one year. Cf. Maja Göpel, “Unsere Welt neu denken”, Ullstein, 2020, p. 28, p. 118 ff.

2: cf. Brundtland-Commission, “Our Common Future”, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf, 1987 (accessed: 11-May-2021)

3: United Nations, “World Population Prospects 2019”, https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/ (accessed: 11-May-2021)

4: Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, “That’s how fast the carbon clock is ticking”, 2019, https://www.mcc-berlin.net/en/research/co2-budget.html (accessed: 11-May-2021); Cf. Maja Göpel, “Unsere Welt neu denken”, Ullstein, 2020, p. 159.

5: https://www.pik-potsdam.de/en/output/infodesk/tipping-elements/kippelemente (accessed: 11-May-2021); “Dieses Jahrzehnt bietet die letze Gelegenheit, das Ruder herumzureißen”, Spiegel-Gespräch mit Johan Rockström, wissenschaftlicher Leiter des Potsdam-Instituts für Klimaforschungen, DER SPIEGEL, Nr. 20 / 15.5.2021, p. 102.

Picture of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon, NASA, https://unsplash.com/photos/vhSz50AaFAs (accessed: 18-May-2021)

Amazing Outcomes

We help you create amazing outcomes for a sustainable world.

Amazing Outcomes

We help companies turn complex challenges into sustainable solutions through agile training, coaching and workshops — for their business, for people and for our planet.

Johannes Geske

Written by

I help companies create amazing outcomes ‐ for their business, for people and for our planet.

Amazing Outcomes

We help companies turn complex challenges into sustainable solutions through agile training, coaching and workshops — for their business, for people and for our planet.

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