Sense-and-Respond: A Broad Organizational Capability

In order to avoid the pitfalls of myopic agility, it can be helpful, if not downright prudent, for you as a leader to broaden the lens through which you think about the very notion of agility. You want to move your thinking beyond just teams.

I invite you to think of agility in the following most general, most widely applicable terms:

“Agility is the capacity to effectively sense and respond to—and ultimately shape—events, situations, and conditions in order to enhance a system’s (individual’s, team’s, organization’s) ability to thrive in ever-changing environments and conditions.”

Let’s first examine the key terms sense and respond and then turn to the implications for managers and leaders who wish to bring about a broader, organizational agility.


Agility & Sensing
Sensing means having acute and accurate awareness of what’s going on. Often, however, filters exist which either obscure or distort reality. Common examples include:

  • Positive spin (everything is hunky-dory)
  • Vanity metrics (metrics that tell us things we want to hear)
  • Collective avoidance (undiscussable topics)
  • Defensiveness (individuals with whom it is difficult to bring up critical topics)
  • Structured obscuration (organizational structures and processes that tend to obscure what’s happening)
  • Structured distortion (organizational structures and processes that tend to distort what’s happening),
  • Poor visibility (key information buried somewhere or just plain hard to find, information presented or visualized in such a way that it is hard to see things that are important, etc.)
  • And—perhaps most significantly—our own internal mental and emotional filters, which impede our ability to see things objectively.

Effectively sensing presupposes high degrees of visibility and transparency. And, it requires a high level of awareness of, and ability to adjust, the filters that obscure and distort reality.


agility and response

Assuming we are actually able to sense what’s going on, with minimal distortion and obscuration, effectively responding means that we are able to effect a change or an adjustment in current reality such that it moves closer to what we want, with a minimum of mess-producing side effects.

Often, however, our responses are ill-suited to the situation at hand. Common responses include:

  • Micro-management
  • Over-reacting to risk (and, hence, creating organizational structures that are stultifying)
  • Delay (by the time we respond, the thing to which we’re responding is no longer there)
  • Incongruence (responding in a manner that completely side-steps the thing we think we’re responding to; meanwhile, that response itself generates a new (though, very likely, delayed) challenge
  • Reacting instead of responding (Reacting: an automatic, non-intentioned manner of responding based on unexamined emotions and assumptions)
  • Overcomplicating (trying to respond to too many things at once)
  • Managing in ways that suppress creativity and ownership
  • Managing in ways that over-rely on centralized coordination, top-down command-and-control.

These are just some of the ways in which our responses—and the responses of the structures and systems we create—are likely to generate more problems than they resolve.

“Effectively responding means that both people and systems are able to respond quickly to sensed events, and are able to do so in a way that not only produces the intended outcome, but generates side effects that do not reduce overall organizational agility capability. For managers and leaders, this can also mean having a deep understanding of the nature of the social systems you are dealing with, and having a variety of bows in your quiver in terms of methods and approaches.”

Organizational Capability

Defined along these terms, one can imagine a number of spheres in which the ability to effectively sense and respond can be seen in terms of four aspects of organizational capability:

agility and structures culture management leadership

Agility of Organizational Structures

These are the structures, processes, systems and procedures by which work activity is organized. Demand management (e.g. PMO), governance, compliance, technical infrastructure, software architectures, tools, policies, and procedures are among the things which fall under this category.

“Questions to ask yourself: To what degree do you have the capacity for adaptability and resilience in these areas? Are people constantly stopped and impeded from moving fast—from effectively sensing and responding within their particular domains of activity and work? Is it possible to adjust existing structures, processes, and systems whenever such adjustment could aid in an important activity or initiative”?

Agility of Organizational Culture

These are commonly held (though largely unexamined) beliefs, values, habits, rituals, norms, and folklore.

“Questions to ask yourself: What do people believe is possible? Are people engaged, or are they compliant? Is there a kind of rigid mindset when it comes to things like roles, responsibilities, procedures? What is the nature of the unspoken rules that guide what people do and how they think? Are managers highly invested, personally, in their own little fiefdoms, or are they empowered to align themselves with the greater good? What unexamined beliefs do people hold which can be holding us back as a culture? What collectively practiced habits?  Do common rituals hold us back in subtle ways? Which aspects of our culture could, if amplified, bring about greater agility in mindsets?”

Agility in Terms of Management Style

This relates to how managers manage. Traditional predict-and-plan management approaches endeavor to create detailed plans against a relatively fixed strategy and then execute on that plan by assigning duties, responsibilities and, ultimately, work tasks. In this model of management, strategies and initiatives are created at the top and pushed down through a series of work breakdown filters. People at the bottom who are assigned work often have little or no sense of context and no understanding of the broader organizational outcome.

Greater agility in management happens when managers endeavor to build a deep organizational sense-and-respond capability. More participative forms of management are a big part of this. Another part of this is the focus on designing (and, often, redesigning) organizational structures such that they support greater adaptive, sense-and-respond performances.

“Questions to ask yourself: Are your strategies and plans fixed and hardcoded? Or are they dynamic and emergent? Does strategic planning happen mainly within the top management spheres, with work being broken down and assigned? Are people who do the work of execution involved in envisioning and planning the initiatives they are executing against?  Are most (if not all) strategic decisions made at (or near) the top, or are many of them pushed down to people on the execution end? By what means do you track progress, and by what measures? Are means and measures institutionally hard-coded or are they adaptive to our needs at any given moment? Are people isolated within functional silos? Can people across functional silos effectively collaborate together, or are there institutional structures and procedures which keep them separate?”

Agility in Terms of Leadership

Leadership is the ability to envision powerful futures, and to influence and empower others to work in alignment toward the realization of those futures.

A sense-and-respond leadership capability includes the ability of leaders to let go of fixed, static perspectives and to embrace perspectives that empower their vision, that allow them to work more effectively with others, and that allow them to find critical leverage points of influence. It is the capacity of leaders to not be blinded by limiting beliefs and filters, to be able to see things clearly and to respond effectively to what they are seeing.

Sense-and-respond leadership also includes the ability of a leader to envision futures that genuinely challenge people and organizations to move beyond familiarity and into realms of higher performance. It also points to the capacity of leaders to work with people in ways that leave them utterly clear that they are the ones who own the work of the organization.

“Questions to ask yourself:  What is the nature of the perspectives of your leaders? Are they narrow and static? Or are they broad and dynamic? To what degree can leaders take on the perspectives of others, to shape direction in ways that brings about win/win outcomes? What is the nature of the initiatives that a leader envisions? Is it narrow and tactically focused, or does it point to broader, larger outcomes? In what ways, and by what means, do leaders influence and empower others to work in alignment toward the realization of those futures? To what degree is leadership viewed as an institution capability: as that which can occur at any moment, within any individual, at any level”?

Your Role as Agile Leader

As agile delivery practices become mainstream, the job of the agile leader and the agile manager becomes clearer and clearer: to build in agile, sense-and-respond capabilities across the broader organization. The ultimate impact of such an activity is that the entire organizational apparatus becomes more adaptive and resilient, and hence better able to effectively respond to changing conditions, however they arise. An important beneficial side effect is that such adaptability and resilience provides a highly conducive environment for growing high-performing agile teams.

From this perspective, agile teams are a critical piece of the driving edge of agile performance. But for (a) the teams to prosper, and (b) the organization to reap the benefit team performance, managers and leaders must, unequivocally, change their focus to expanding organizational capability.

There are two methodological pieces to bringing about this redirected focus: strategy and design. I discussed strategy in a previous blog post and will discuss design in an upcoming post. You might also want to download the following white paper: Leading for Organizational Agility.