Given the panoply of recent disruptions — including COVID-19, inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — it’s no surprise that many leaders are striving to quickly dial up the agility level of their companies. Indeed, the ability to rapidly adapt to changing conditions can be a shield against disruption and a healing prescription for crisis. But organizational agility is not a panacea. There are pitfalls in the pursuit of agility that can and do produce unintended consequences.
Agility is a multidimensional concept that comprises three sequential and interrelated processes: alertness to the need for change, the decision to make the change, and the mobilization of the organizational resources required to execute the change. Our agility research and observations regarding the behavior of companies, especially during the pandemic, revealed that each process contains a pitfall that can subvert its outcomes: Alertness harbors the pitfall of hubris, decision-making harbors the pitfall of impulsiveness, and mobilization harbors the pitfall of resource fatigue.
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The Pitfall of Hubris
Agility depends on the ability of an organization to sense and interpret signals — some obvious and unambiguous, others subtle and opaque — that emanate from and reverberate within the business environment. This alertness enables companies to respond to disruptions, challenges, and opportunities in a timely manner. The mindset of leaders is the pitfall in this process, especially when it is subject to the kinds of cognitive biases that lead to hubris.
A dominating “we’ve got this” mindset among leadership can result in signals being ignored or misinterpreted. In the hubris pitfall, past successes, complacency, or experiences and biases become a sort of prism that distorts the view of leaders as to which signals are important and actionable versus which are not.
When agility becomes hubristic, it can motivate misguided or mistimed action. For instance, a leader may aggressively pursue nonstrategic opportunities to simply demonstrate their competitive acumen to stakeholders and, perhaps, themselves. In the short run, these opportunities may produce pleasing outcomes, but in the long term, a “we’ve got this” alertness can divert attention or resources from opportunities and threats that are more central to the success of the company.