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What’s the opposite of Agile, and what does that mean for Leaders?

By William McKee, Principal Associate Consultant, Taylor Clarke

Agile… It’s a great little piece of linguistics. Why? Because the antonyms are so unattractive. What’s the opposite of Agile? I have to pause and think about how to put a positive spin on it, steadfast maybe?

The double-edged sword of great linguistics is that as everyone jumps aboard the hype train it can become all things to all people. Of course, leaders need to be agile, 2020 so far has been the ultimate advert for agility. What does being ‘agile’ actually mean? Are we saying people aren’t agile already? Didn’t agility exist before we started talking about it? Yes and no - words have meaning, and if that meaning becomes lost so does the impact.

What am I talking about? If you have a quick Google for ‘Agile Leadership’, you can roughly sort the results into two groups. Things that relate to the Agile Manifesto and things that relate to ‘agile’ the sexy management term de-jour. The latter tend to be lists of features of agile leaders. Agile leaders are ‘open’, ‘creative’, etc…

A great example is a paper on leading agile transformation I read a couple of weeks ago, that advocates for agile leaders to successfully shift from ‘reactive’ to ‘creative’ mindsets. Amongst a prolific use of management buzzwords like authenticity, purpose and passion, the paper goes on to define these different mindsets. The paper also points to some research that indicates most people spend more time being reactive to things happening around them, rather than being free and independently creative.

To curb my own reactivity, I’ve asked my colleagues to bear it in mind that the next time they say hello or offer me a cup of tea, I might not respond. Or that at any point in any meeting I may whip out the jazz flute and break into a solo to be less reactive to outside circumstances and tap into my authentic core passion and purpose. 😊

But setting the jazz flute to one side, I’ve got to admit to a growing sense of frustration. As I read the growing number of new think pieces about ‘agile’ and ‘agility’ the more and more broad and opaque the definition of ‘agile’ seems to be. Without clarity any idea becomes meaningless and impossible and implement, and that would be a real shame in the case of Agile.

So, what is Agile, specifically? In the wake of numerous high-profile software development failures in the 90’s, on February 11-13, 2001 a group of seventeen programmers, representing many different software development methodologies met to discuss a better way of developing software. Ways that were more responsive, less bureaucratic, more customer obsessed, and more able to manage the tensions between software developers and other business functions like sales, management, and marketing. What emerged were four values and twelve principles they called the ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’.

The Manifesto is not a prescriptive set of process and methods. It’s exactly what it claims to be – four values and twelve principles for better software development. It can be implemented in a cargo cult kind of way, where the word agile is repeatedly bounced around but the values and principles of the Manifesto are never mentioned. Or it can be implemented as a way of making decisions. That’s what values and principles are after all, things we look to, to guide decision making.

So back to the linguistics I mentioned at the start of this blog. What’s the antonym of the Agile Manifesto? For my money, bureaucracy! While some of the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto may not transfer that well into other contexts - maybe they do, maybe they don’t, and that’s the really exciting question around Agile at the moment. If as a leader, you are exasperated by bureaucracy, or perhaps Covid19 is shining a light on previously accepted bureaucracy, then Agile is a great place to look to encourage faster and better decision making in yourself and others.

What next? Let’s Talk .....Agile

Why not join other like-minded leaders in our pro-bono, live, facilitated discussion and learning session on Wednesday 8th July from 09.30am – 11.00am with William McKee. We will be exploring:

  • A rundown on the fundamentals of Agile – allowing you to separate the Values and Principles from the marketing buzz

  • An examination of how Agile can work in your context as a leader

  • An opportunity to ask the questions that are important to you in leading towards Agile

This is a live, facilitated discussion and learning session. The session will not be recorded. There are no fees to attend this session.


William started his career as a Civil Engineer responsible for large infrastructure projects. He quickly became fascinated with the people side of business. Now a qualified business psychologist, qualified executive coach, and leadership and management development facilitator William brings a refreshingly practical approach to change, people and performance. Over the last nine years he’s worked with organisations like British Airways, the Met Office, Bombardier Transport, University Hospital Leicester, Stirling Council and Aberdeen City Council helping support change at an individual, team and organisational level. Having also spent time supporting SME’s and start-ups as well as working extensively in the Middle East with one of the world’s largest vertically integrated food producers he can relate to a wide range of people and organisational contexts. Evidence Based Practice is an important aspect of William’s approach, whether coaching, designing and delivering training or working on wider organisational development projects he looks to strike a balance between practical ‘rules of thumb’ and the latest empirical research.


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