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  • Writer's picturejohn pryor

Agility is Not a Solution to a Problem, It is a Dilemma to Manage

I had breakfast this weekend with my friend Ann. The talk turned to work as it often does, and she opened up about the changes happening at her company. She was clearly not happy with what was going on.

Ann gave me the history. Our conversation went something like this.

Ann: Our company execs are concerned that the company is not flexible enough. They say we need agility. We are too slow and the competition in the industry is crazy. Disruption this, disruption that. The sky is falling, UBER, Amazon, start-ups, on and on. Our execs said that we need to change, and they are marching department by department and expecting us to be more “agile.”

Me: So, you mean, AGILE, like with AGILE coaches, SCRUMs and all of that?

Ann: No, not really, they call it agility. You know, be flexible. And when I pressed our manager about it, he said it was being flexible and stable. I told him I don’t get it; how can you do both? Then he shrugged his shoulders and told me to try to experiment more. I rolled my eyes and walked away. Be flexible and stable — what kind of corporate BS is that?

Me: Oh (experienced consultant language, you can tell)

Ann: So, beyond the fact that I have no idea how to be stable and flexible at the same time, I got the idea I need to experiment. And … this has been going on for months and everyone is getting the same word — Experiment. So, guess what is happening?

Me: Everyone is experimenting?

Ann: Yes! Everyone is experimenting every-freakin-where. Its chaos. It’s going to fail. What a disaster!

Now, I am sure that if I asked the execs who made the decision to move in this direction, I would have heard the opposite side of this story — the organization is too slow, the decision making is painful and moves at the pace of a two-toed sloth, the organization is stuck, people are either afraid to experiment or unwilling to, or both. And it’s going to fail and what a disaster!

This is where I took a detour with my friend Ann and told her about this guy Barry Johnson who talked about and wrote a book about polarity management and dilemmas to manage rather than problems to solve. Ever impatient, Ann said, “Get to the point” and I did.

Me: Ann, I think that you, and I suspect your execs and organization are treating your current state as a problem, and agility as a solution to that problem.

Ann: Yea, no kidding Sherlock.

Me: But really, you are looking at it wrong. It is not something where you get a one-time solution and “poof” your problems go away. All companies must deal with this dilemma all the time, and it won’t go away, you know? In ten years, your execs will be thinking about this and may be considering going the other way, away from agility and towards being more stable.

Ann: I know! So, you get it right? They are wasting our time, next year we’ll be going back to being stable. I’m just gonna wait “till this too shall pass”.

Me: Nope, that is not what I am saying. It is not a problem to solve, it’s a dilemma, an unsolvable situation, that your company needs to manage. There is a huge difference. Here let me show you.

As sometimes happens in cafes, somebody will grab an extra napkin, ask for a pen and start drawing four boxes on the napkin. You, dear reader, have probably been victim to this and thought to yourself “no, not the napkin four box discussion”. But yes, that is where I went.

Me: You see Ann, there are lines of tension in every organization; for example, centralization versus decentralization…

Ann: You are not going to draw a four box, are you?…

Me: Yes, I am. Don’t be embarrassed, no one is paying attention.

Ann: Dude, I don’t believe you.

She was turning red and looking around nervously.

Me: Just give me a minute. If you don’t like it, you can wipe up the table with it, no harm, no foul. Okay, from what you told me, there is not a problem to solve at your work, just a dilemma to manage. There are two poles to this dilemma, stability and agility. At each pole there are positive characteristics, and negative characteristics. Based on what you have said, and a little of what I know about your company and current trends, this is what your dilemma looks like…in four boxes. It’s not perfect, but its close enough for our discussion.

I quickly went through the boxes with stability being the pole on the left, agility being the pole on the right. The top row contained positives about each pole and the bottom row contained negatives that could occur if the company focused only on that pole and completely excluded the opposite pole.

Ann: That looks about right actually.

Me: And your company is currently in the Stability (-) box and your execs want you in the Agility (+) box.

Ann: But they forgot about the trust and certainty and quality and planning that we do so well! And it is already chaos with people doing all kinds of s%$& on their own with no plans and no consequences for wasting everyone’s time.

Me: Ann, you know what you are?

Ann: Watch yourself Dude.

Me: You are a tradition-bearer.

Ann: Oh no, please stop.

Me: No, I am serious. The language may seem outdated, no one says tradition-bearer. How about this — you are a resistor.

Ann: Yes, I am!

Me: Why? (as I was writing on the back of the napkin)

Ann: Because they are ignoring all the good things that we have done for the last 15 frigging years!

Me: I know. (turning over the napkin that where I wrote “they don’t acknowledge the Stability (+) box). But really, they are not ignoring you. They are just not letting you know that they get the full picture. And that, my dear friend Ann, is the problem.

Ann: I hate you (she hates it when I guess things right)

Me: No, you don’t. But I am right, aren’t I?

Ann: Yes, I think so. Drink your coffee. And give me that napkin (she puts it in her pocket).

We talked some more on possible approaches and then we settled the bill. We left the café with a clear difference on the real value of napkins, but an agreement on what was happening at her company. And some ideas on how she and her company could manage the change better.

Using the 4-box, you can see a pattern showing how organizations and people deal with this kind of change. In Ann’s case the organization is experiencing the negatives of the stability pole (bottom left corner) and management is pushing the organization toward the positives of the agility pole (top right corner). People in the organization who embrace the change are called Crusaders (Johnson language) and they want to move the organization toward the new pole. They typically become your change agents and change ambassadors.

Then there are the Tradition-bearers, like Ann, who are the ones resisting the change. They are concerned with preserving what is best about the past and present (top left corner — Stability (+)). They are very concerned that the change will result in all the bad possibilities associated with Agility (bottom right corner — (Agility (-)).

The key to successfully manage a dilemma is operating in the top left and right boxes (the positives) for both poles. And to manage that, organizations need to understand and be open to the larger picture represented by all four boxes, positives and negatives.

Managing Change in a Dilemma

There is a different change management approach to successfully manage a dilemma as well. Instead of creating a burning platform based on negatives of the current state (bottom left corner), start by learning about and acknowledging the positive things with the current state (top left corner) that the tradition bearers, like Ann, are concerned with losing. Acknowledge the positives so that the tradition bearers feel heard. Let them know that these are positives that must be protected (e.g. trust, high quality, planned actions, etc.).

And then call out the negatives or watch outs with the change (chaos, different directions, rushed, etc.). Ensure the tradition-bearers understand that these are your concerns as well. Beyond demonstrating that you are owning the big picture, it encourages tradition-bearers to open their eyes and see a bigger picture.

Only then should you move on to discussing the positives of agility (top right corner). The discussion won’t be perfect, but it starts by letting the tradition-bearers know you have their concerns in mind and allows them the space to open-up and consider the change.


In Ann’s company, no one is listening to her. They are marching along like the current state is a problem to be solved and agility is the solution.

Ann is a tradition bearer (or resister) and she is not alone. She sees the company’s current state as embracing the best of its history and she sees that as a positive. Understandably, she wants to hold on to that. She sees the future state of agility as the problem, not a solution.

The executives in Ann’s company think differently. They think the company has stalled and agility is the solution to their current problems. They are making a focused change toward agility.

But in both groups, the thinking is limited; Agility is not a solution to a problem. It is a part of an organizational dilemma to manage. And the approach to managing a dilemma is different than a typical change management approach. It begins not by creating a burning platform, but with acknowledging the benefits of the current state, supporting the need to circumvent the negatives of the proposed future state, and then advocating the benefits of the future state.

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