From Command-Control to Agile-Adaptive

Posted November 30, 2023 | Leadership |
From Command-Control to Agile-Adaptive

“How, in the age of rapid change, do you create organizations that are as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient?” asked Gary Hamel in his 2009 Harvard Business Review article “Moon Shots for Management.” Today, this question is more relevant than ever. The ability to adapt to constant change — be it with software development or business activities — may be the single greatest competitive advantage in the 21st century. Resilient, sustainable, and adaptable digital capabilities and operating models will play an integral role in determining the winners and losers in this next economic revolution. 

As this call for a “modern” approach to management unfolds, what should we call it? “Command-control” is the label typically used for “traditional” management characterized by top-down hierarchy, strict rules and procedures, and a focus on efficiency and control. Emerging “modern” management practices emphasize empowerment, flexibility, collaboration, and innovation. While there are a number of labels being used for modern management (e.g., servant, management 3.0, Agile management, and empathetic management), none have garnered enough of a following to become as well-known as command-control.

So, I will throw a possibility into the label ring: agile-adaptive leadership. Two questions need to be considered when thinking about this label: (1) how to define agile-adaptive leadership? and (2) who says?

First, the most obvious change is moving from management to leadership. Traditional management focused on optimization and efficient operations, which continue to be important skills. But in today’s turbulent environment, leaders who can adapt as the future becomes today’s reality have more significance.

Separating the traits of good management and leadership from agile-adaptive leadership can be very tricky. However, I will take a stab at it and propose the traits of an agile-adaptive leader. They:

  • Balance between performance (delivering results) and people (maintaining a healthy working environment)

  • Seek adventure, proposing challenging initiatives that are risky but not foolhardy

  • Articulate an inspiring vision that engages others in implementing that vision

  • Are adaptive, embracing an envision-explore mindset, and are quick to sense, learn, and adjust by looking at reality, whether it conforms to earlier plans or not

While agile speaks to flexibility and resilience, adaptive reflects a (sensing, acting, learning) lifecycle. Both words are needed to embrace the scope of modern management. Certainly, there are other important management and leadership skills, but without these four it would be difficult to call oneself an agile-adaptive leader. There are many, many contributors to the subject of “modern” management, going back to Peter Drucker if you so desire. But this isn’t a scientific paper in which I’m obligated to cite 53 sources, so I’ll just stick with recognizing that there are many.

Which leads to the next question about “Who might claim the agile-adaptive title?” And my answer is, “Wrong question!” The Agile Manifesto brought the word “agile” to prominence, but the origin of the term came from history. I think about calling this an “historical collaborative emergence,” a type of collaboration that happens over time, in which there are multiple contributors that enrich everyone, and a common understanding “emerges.” A true collaboration is when the participants as a whole, rather than any individual, are credited with the result. For example, I was inspired by complex systems authors like John Holland and Stephan Haeckel, former director of Strategic Studies at IBM’s Advanced Business Institute. There are many, many, many books that speak to agile and adaptive leadership — several I’ve written — and others that may not use these two words, but whose content adds richness to the collaboration (for example, Hamel and author Kim Scott).

Therefore, I can’t claim ownership of the term “agile-adaptive leadership” any more than a number of others could — it is an emergent property — so kudos to all who contributed, knowingly or unknowingly, to this historical collaborative effort.

About The Author
Jim Highsmith
Jim Highsmith is a Cutter Fellow Emeritus. He was the founding Director of Cutter’s Agile Product & Project Management practice and received the 2005 Stevens Award in recognition of his work in adaptive software development and Agile processes. Mr. Highsmith has 30-plus years’ experience as an IT manager, product manager, project manager, consultant, and software developer. He has consulted with IT and product development organizations and… Read More