Organizational Agility: Winning in Today’s Complex Environment

What does it take for militaries to win in today’s interconnected, interdependent, and complex environment? I would argue that in contrast with the battlefield of the past,  today’s environment demands much more organizational agility.  I define organizational agility as the degree to which a team or company is resourceful and adept at flexing in response to both internal and external factors.  An agile organization has the ability to be radically innovative, adapt, and institute process improvement with grace in a rapidly changing, complex environment.  The following three factors are crucial to instituting a high degree of organizational agility:

  • Empowerment: Empowering  leaders with shared purpose at all levels of the organization

  • Resilience: Building learning and adapting into the team’s identity and fabric

  • Innovation: Implementing innovation architecture to support constant and creative disruption

On today’s battlefield, the higher the degree of agility, the higher chance of success.  Pose the question, “What does it take to win?” One hundred years ago, the answer would have been efficiency.  This makes intuitive sense when you think about the simple, linear processes that characterized the industrial revolution and the concept of mass production.  Robert Kanigel’s One Best Way does a phenomenal job characterizing the role of efficiency in the success of large industries.  Likewise, efficiency can equal success when the problem is linear and predictable. Today, simply being efficient is no longer enough.  Today organizations face wicked problems that by their nature  are vast, nonlinear, and unpredictable.  Success, whether it is defined by a small business, large corporation, military, or other government organization has not necessarily changed in the past century, but the environment in which those organizations operate is exceedingly complex, interconnected, and uncertain.  


Inspirational leadership is the first requirement for a high degree of organizational agility.  The speed and interdependence of the current environment make the puppet master leader irrelevant and ineffective. General Stanley McChrystal, in Team of Teams, claims the puppet master must be replaced by an "empathetic crafter of culture," a leader-gardener who “creates an environment in which the plants can flourish…watering, weeding, and protecting plants.” McChrystal identifies transparency (shared consciousness) and delegated decision-making (empowered execution) as two of the most critical aspects of this leadership style.  Applied to Simon Sinek’s Start With Why methodology, this form of inspirational leadership through shared consciousness and empowered execution would be the means with which the senior leaders keep the why as the soul of the organization.  Shared consciousness refers to a coherent organizational mindfulness.  This concept can be ensured through mechanisms such as leaders talking through their decision-making process in front of as many subordinates as possible and explaining the purpose behind key decisions in order to influence an individual contributor’s decision-making process in moments requiring decisive actions at the lowest levels.  Another mechanism would be providing various opportunities for members to communicate their role or work as it relates to the organizational purpose and priorities.  

These mechanisms facilitate empowered execution.  Once provided with the overall intent, team members should be given the authority and the responsibility to develop their own path to success and not simply ‘run the play’ that was called by the unit commander.  Furthermore, inspirational leadership is required at every level, in the form of the 360 degree leader: every member of the team taking ownership of the team’s purpose, understanding their role within the team, and constantly pushing their own sphere of control toward that shared purpose.  

One example of this can be seen during General McChrystal’s command of Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq beginning in 2003.  McChrystal re-shaped the Task Force’s Operations and Intelligence (O&I) briefing from a dog and pony show to a robust, timely opportunity for senior leaders to communicate their intent and thought process.  Decision-making for the most impactful operations, including airstrikes and direct-action missions, were pushed down to the lowest leaders.  The results were staggering:

Under the old structure, there were 10 to 18 raids per month. By 2006, under the new system, this figure skyrocketed to 300. With minimal increases in personnel and funding, we were running 17 times faster. And these raids were more successful. We were finding a higher percentage of our targets, due in large part to the fact that we were finally moving as fast as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but also because of the increased quality of decision making.

A culture of resilience and innovation should form the process by which the team will monitor, flex, improvise, and act in attainment of the shared purpose embedded within the organization.


In the 2002 Harvard Business Review, Dean Becker, CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems, a company specializing in resilience consulting, states, “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”  To achieve agility, resilience is just as critical to teams and organizations facing an unpredictable future.  Resilience should not be thought of in a calloused and numb perspective.  Instead, it should be thought of in a learning perspective.  The concept of resilience as a contributing factor to success in an uncertain environment is not new to military operations.  In 1957, then President Dwight Eisenhower remarked that one of his lessons learned from his time in the U.S. Army was that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”  This adage is still repeated hundreds of times during basic and advanced mission planning courses as instructors attempt to build adaptability and elasticity into the planners and operators.  These operators quickly discover no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and failure to scrap the plan and dynamically maneuver forces or the aircraft in response to the enemy or the environment will lead to mission failure.  If leaders take this concept one step further and purposefully build resilience and maneuverability into the fabric of the organization, then the organization will be agile enough to not only survive, but also thrive in today’s complex and interconnected world.

One timeless example of how resilient military teams are required for success is John Nagl’s comparison of the British strategy during the Malayan Emergency to the American strategy during the Vietnam War.  In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Nagl describes how the British Army’s culture was resilient and a could be described as a learning organization while the American’s simply was not.  Furthermore, the American counterinsurgency strategy never adapted from the conventional mindset of destruction of the opponent.  Nagl’s primary theme in the comparative study focuses on organizational culture leading to success or failure on the battlefield.  Culture can be distilled down to the behaviors that are encouraged or punished within an organization.  Resilience often involves recognizing and reacting to a failure.  Military culture is not normally associated with encouraging failure at the individual level.  And yet, Nagl’s point is that those learning behaviors must be encouraged in order to be reflected in the organization itself.

Storytelling is a great tool for implementing resilience into an organization’s culture. I was recently speaking with a friend who works in a Silicon Valley Technology company who described an exercise that is accomplished at the end of every week in his company.   The company offers up the first thirty minutes of the weekly, all-hands call for storytelling of when individuals or teams have failed throughout the week.  The team leader or individual shares what the failure was and what they learned from it, and an award is provided to the biggest lessons learned from failure.  My friend’s company awarded bonuses to the biggest learners and most resilient teams in the company.  While the bonus is out of the question, military units could easily begin to reward learning behavior in order to instill a culture of growth, adaptation, and ultimately resilience.


Innovation seems to be the buzzword being pushed from the top-down onto companies, militaries, and government organizations.  According to a RAND Study, true grassroots innovation that our senior leaders are envisioning requires a strategy that enables three types of innovation: long-cycle, immediate adaptation, and short-cycle.  The innovation strategy must start with the leaders in the organization providing an innovation architecture that supports identification of strategic, operational, and tactical problems.  Second, the innovation architecture must support long term technological and organizational development (long-cycle), operational adaptation in the field (immediate adaptation), and an opportunity for engineers, operators, and vendors to test and experiment with tools, techniques, and tradecraft (short-cycle).  Once problems are identified and shared via the transparent, shared consciousness environment that the organization has created, the individuals and teams within the organization need to be empowered to innovate in response to changes in their own capabilities, the enemy, or the environment.  

This architecture began to materialize with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s Defense Innovation Initiative in November, 2014 that highlighted a focus on innovation in key areas: leadership development, technological research and development, wargaming, operational concepts, and business practices.  Furthermore, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter further laid the foundation with initiatives such as Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) that puts military problems and personnel at the heart of Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin in order to close the gap between the leading edge of commercial and defense technology.  Finally, the services should emphasize and mass-produce kind of business practices that turn ideas at the lowest level into rapid strategic value.  An example of this would be leathernecks in 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines turning their barracks into a warfighting lab, developing an integrated mission rehearsal software suite, and the Marine Corps’s rapid capabilities office purchasing and mass producing the suite for 6 million dollars.  Success in today’s geopolitical environment, military conflicts, and individual team problem sets demand an innovator’s ethos of challenging the status quo and rapid experimentation.  Innovation should not be treated as a buzzword, it should be an intentional process with strategy, architecture, and resourcing.  


Agile organizations will be characterized by leader-gardeners that create a resilient network of team members that utilize an innovation architecture to  maneuver in the complex, interdependent, and interconnected world.  These are the principles that will be the cornerstones of organizational agility.  If units rely too heavily on crafting strategies and workflow that provide predictive models or authoritative checklists for success, then they will be doomed to fail in today’s complex environment.  As General McChrystal notes in the narrative of his Task Force, “our transformation is reflective of the new generation of mental models we must adopt…If we do manage to embrace this change, we can unlock tremendous potential for human progress.”  If organizations focus on empowering inspirational leaders with shared purpose at all levels of the organization, building resilience into the team’s fabric, and implementing an innovation architecture to support constant, positive disruption, then the organization can become agile enough to thrive in today’s environment.

Zayn Knaub is an Air Force Weapons Officer with multiple deployments to South America and the Middle East. He has a Bachelor’s of Science in Geospatial Sciences and Minor in Philosophy from the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Master of Arts in Diplomacy from Norwich University. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: General Stanley McChrystal (McChrystal/FoxNews)


Dwight D. Eisenhower, Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference.

Grissom, Adam R., Caitlin Lee and Karl P. Mueller. Innovation in the United States Air Force: Evidence from Six Cases. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016.

Kanigel, R. (1997). The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. New York: Viking.

Maxwell, J. C. (2005). The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization. Nashville, Tenn: Nelson Business.

McChrystal, S. A., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York: Portfolio. 

Sinek, S. (2009). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio.