Slow Agile: Cracking the Business Agility Nut

How to choose the right tools for a successful Agile transformation

Helio Borges
5 min readOct 20, 2021

This is the second article of a series of four exploring how to achieve successful Business Agility transformations. Read the first one here: Slow Agile: Business Agility for Complex Times.

Image: Groupe SBC

Business Agility in a Nutshell

In a complex, disruptive environment like the one we currently experience globally, organizations either adopt Business Agility as a way of operating their businesses or are condemned to languish or, worse still, to perish. There is no middle ground to that. However, the road to transforming an existing business to reach Business Agility can be long, winding, and full of challenges; therefore, I have written these articles as a map that will help you save time and money, and avoid costly blockages, while you journey through the territory of a BA transformation.

First of all, here are some basic facts:

  • Agility: A property of an organization to sense and respond to market changes and continuously deliver value to customers. Agile Alliance.
  • Agile: Relating to or denoting a project management method used primarily for software development, characterized by dividing tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans. Oxford Dictionary.
  • Agility is not Agile, and Agile does not guarantee Agility.
  • From a systems thinking point of view, I have made the distinction that if we trace all the factors composing an existing organization, they end up in one or more of the following essential subsystems: Business Processes, Corporate Culture, and Leadership practices, which interact with each other in a myriad of ways.
  • Those subsystems operate under the boundaries and limits set by the organization’s Vision, Mission, Structures, and Mental Models.
  • Nevertheless, they interact with each other and other systems outside the organization. As a result, the internal and external interactions, inputs, outputs, and feedback loops from those relations turn every organization into a Complex Adaptive System (CAS).
  • Complex Adaptive Systems interact with each other under a broader complex environment.
  • We live in the age of Complexity. Consequently, individuals, businesses, and communities face two types of challenges: Complicated and Complex.

Fixing a car is complicated; disrupting the automotive industry is complex. Building a fence is complicated; building a strong relationship with a neighbor is complex. David Benjamin

When you lead a Business Agility transformation in times of complexity, you need to know the following:

  • First: whether the challenges that you are up against are Complicated or Complex,
  • Second: what is the proper methodology to use in each case,
  • Third: how to direct your intervention, given the tools you are using.

In brief, if you select the wrong course of action and use the wrong methodology to start a Business Agility transformation, you will be creating more problems than the ones you were trying to solve in the first place.

Leaders must choose the methodology that works best for their specific challenges. If they cannot identify the nature of those challenges before beginning the transformation process, they should wait until they have done so. Using the right tools will allow them to successfully steer their intervention in the right direction to crack the Business Agility nut.

Cracking the Business Agility Nut

Image source: McKinsey & Company

If you are in a leadership position, you must know what the leading industries are doing regarding Agility transformations. Also, please know beforehand that a significant percentage of those projects have a great possibility of failing. For those reasons, you must learn Why some projects are successful and some are not.

  • According to McKinsey, 12% of organizations that use Business Agility to operate their businesses were born Agile. For instance, Tesla, Amazon, Spotify, and many others. Their ADN is Agile, embedded companywide in their Leadership, Corporate Culture, and Business Processes. They are the paradigm of Business Agility, and every other business wants to be like them.
  • Consequently, many existing organizations try to adopt Business Agility as a way of operating their businesses. 44% of companies are doing some agile transformation, 19% are starting one, and 25% have no plans to transform.
  • Yet, to successfully transform, today’s organizations need to embrace agility from strategy to execution, and enterprise-wide.”(1).
  • Specifically, to reach that goal, existing organizations need to transform their Business Processes, Corporate Culture, and Leadership practices.
  • While it may be true, Agile approaches have transformed most organizations’ business processes, becoming the tool of choice.
  • Interestingly, Agile approaches have been unable to remove the stumbling blocks that often prevent embracing agility from strategy to execution and enterprise-wide in existing businesses.
  • In particular, the actual and perceived boundaries and limits imposed by the current Organizational Structures, Corporate Culture, and Leadership practices cause more than 50% of change projects to fail to add long-term value.
  • So, you may ask: Why do Agile approaches that have been so successful in developing software for 20 years fail more than 50% of the time when they are used to transform a business from strategy to execution and enterprise-wide?
  • Because, Agile approaches were designed to solve technical, complicated challenges, the kind of problems that in simpler times were considered the “Hard” side of the business.
  • On the contrary, Corporate Culture and Leadership practices are complex challenges because they result from the quality of the relations, conversations, and agreements that the organization’s people make to produce practical results.
  • Consequently, when existing businesses try to use Agile approaches to transform them, which traditionally, in more straightforward command and control times, were considered the “Soft” side of the business, they hit a wall.
  • The job to be done that allows the organization “to embrace agility from strategy to execution, and enterprise-wide” is to transform those Complex challenges.
  • Therefore, using Agile approaches alone as a change tool to transform them is the wrong tool for the job to be done.
Image: Sterling Rock LTD

The Right Tool for the Job

Then, what is the right tool? The key here is the phrase “using agile approaches alone.” Consequently, to do the job of “embracing agility from strategy to execution, and enterprise-wide” right, and with minimal inconveniences, agile approaches must be complemented with Awareness Based Systems Change.

We´ll describe ABBA in detail in the last article of this series. Meanwhile, in the next issue, we will dig deeper into the three stumbling blocks in your company-wide change process, so you can transform them into the engines you need to drive a successful BA transformation in your organization.

Next article: Slow Agile: The Business Agility Stumbling Blocks

(1) Forbes Insight

Food for thought: Why do Agile transformations have such a high failure rate? Please post your comments below.

If you have any doubts about your company’s change process, please get in touch with me to have a generative conversation about Awareness-Based Business Agility via DM or at

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Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges