Defining Personal Agility
When I was first introduced to the idea of Personal Agility, I quickly discovered that there’s little consensus on what the framework actually is or what personal behaviors can be associated with it.
Further, just as some traditional Agile frameworks pay little mind to organizational psychology, some Personal Agility frameworks pay no mind at all to psychology at the individual level, which I find particularly perplexing.
For those reasons, I began my own investigation by reading practitioner literature – to include psychological texts, making observations of the world around me, and attempting to apply Agile concepts into my own personal development work to see what empirical results I may be able to generate.
This article represents my findings to date from this ongoing experiment.
Here’s my working definition:
Personal Agility is the ability of an individual to quickly and efficiently adapt to a dynamic environment by making incremental changes, continually assessing the effectiveness of those changes, and modifying the approach as needed to achieve desired outcomes.
Characteristics of Personal Agility practitioners may include:
- self-awareness gained through personal reflection
- a strong sense of purpose
- a bias for action
- an appreciation – not just a tolerance – for change
- a deep value for growth and improvement, and
- a well-developed ability to prioritize
Practices for Developing Personal Agility
As you can see, the definition and practitioner characteristics of Personal Agility are both practical and aspirational. Having a working definition is important because it gives us a target to shoot at in order to improve our own practice and to continue to improve the conceptual model. Yes, even the model itself is an Agile product.
Now that we have a working definition of Personal Agility, we can ask the question “How can I become an Agile person?” In my experience, here are the top four practices to employ in order to achieve Personal Agility:
- Get in touch with your purpose
- Learn new things
- Rest. Reset. Reengage.
Get in Touch with Your Purpose
You seek to go places, but why? Why are you doing the things that you are doing? At the most fundamental level, where does your “get up and go” come from? What is your vision for your future? A vision is a very important, yet often misunderstood, element of an Agile life.
At first, it may seem easy enough to create a vision, but vision work is often done incorrectly, or at least, done less effectively than it could have been, so it’s important to consider what a vision is and what a vision is not.
A vision is not a set of goals, plans, or action steps. This is a particularly important call-out because we expect that within an Agile framework, plans, goals, and action steps may and probably will change.
A vision should provide the solid foundation that grounds all of the uncertainty and makes an Agile environment possible. Defining a vision is not an opportunity to complain about the present or recall negative things about the past.
The vision is aspirational; it is pure; it is your truth that you carry inside you that you deeply want to project into the world.
A vision should start as a mental depiction of an ideal state, a state that will come to reality as you live the life of your dreams. If this sounds woo-woo or cliché, then smile wide because you may have found an opportunity to get more serious about your purpose.
Learn New Things
Personal Agility demands a commitment to life-long learning; this is to say that an Agile person intentionally and consistently seeks new knowledge and abilities and intentionally and consistently applies those lessons within their life.
The process of learning requires a couple of things that are very beneficial for developing Personal Agility:
First, you’ll have to admit that you don’t know something, which will put you in the proper mental state to stay fluid in your thoughts and feelings.
Second, always learning new things ensures that at least some part of you is continually growing. Maybe this translates to an increase in professional value or maybe your learning is strictly for personal satisfaction. In either case, learning new things with intention moves you toward your best self, the strongest possible position from which to reach out toward your vision.
Rest. Reset. Reengage.
In much the same way that a living space requires routine maintenance to keep it clean and tidy, a mind must also be given regular opportunities to rest, reset, and reengage from a stronger, healthier position.
Do you have any outdated mental processes that you should eliminate or upgrade? Excessive thinking about trivial matters? Harmful ruminations about things that are out of your control?
Give your mind and your emotional state a break. In addition to getting plenty of sleep, regularly invest in yourself by meditating, exercising, dancing to your favorite jam, praying, doing deep breathing exercises, gardening, or whatever it is that you enjoy, that relaxes you, and helps you rid yourself of unnecessary stress and mental activity.
Once you have taken some time to slow down and restore your mental and emotional well-being, the next step is to take a few moments to create an Agile mindset. To do that, you’ll want to:
- Know what’s important
- Focus on what’s important, and
- Free yourself from unhelpful attachments
Know What’s Important
Knowing what’s important has two facets: understanding your vision, like we looked at earlier, and perhaps even more practically, realigning your mental state to those critical next steps, tasks, and goals.
The operative word here is “critical”. There will likely be many important steps, tasks, and goals associated with a given project, but in this moment, you only need to be concerned with which ones need to have your attention right now.
You should be coming back from this quick reflection with a renewed connection to the bigger picture and with your immediate priorities straight.
Focus on What’s Important
The ability to just focus on a particular task can be really difficult in today’s world. We have plenty of high-impulse dings and buzzes from our phones and other technology that there’s always the opportunity for us to become distracted.
In addition to increasing productivity and improving quality of work, focusing on the task at hand also ensures that you are not spending more time on a particular task than is necessary, which is an Agile practice in and of itself. And again, having taken some time to reflect on your vision should improve your ability to focus.
Free Yourself from Unhelpful Attachments
This concept is closely related to a person’s ability to focus and sustain a high-performance Agile mindset over a long period of time; it essentially equates to reducing or eliminating emotional baggage by intentionally allowing emotions to come to the surface within your awareness and dealing with them so they won’t creep up subconsciously and cause problems for your goals.
This has been especially important in my personal development work where I’ve coached myself and my clients on goals with high emotional implications such as weight loss and fitness, strengthening personal relationships, or other lifestyle goals.
Of course, each practitioner will have to decide how deeply into the emotional side of change they wish to go, but I do recommend considering some emotional reflection because many of us are unknowingly limited by these unhelpful attachments.
With regular reflection, we can learn to transform emotional soft spots so we can quickly and easily go from task to task, focused on the important things, and really get more done.
A practitioner of Personal Agility never needs a reason to experiment; they just try stuff and see what works. But that alone isn’t enough to call it an experiment. If it works, they want to know why so they can reproduce the success or improve upon it and if it doesn’t work, they want to know why so they can learn from failure and iterate.
Consistent with the idea of being free from unhelpful attachments, experimentation works so well in Personal Agility because practitioners are grounded enough to not be afraid of or damaged by failure. In fact, they tend to lean in more as unexpected failure triggers their curiosity.
At the heart of this willingness to experiment is a collision of Agile values, like a bias for action, an appreciation for change, and a love of learning.
And all of these values are galvanized by a vision to create something new, something valuable, something better.
David, Susan. (2016). Emotional Agility. New York: Avery
Denning, Stephen. (2018). The Age of Agile. New York: American Management Association.
D’odeigne, Gilles Carlier. Dancing with Life. Agilemaker.
Duckworth, Angela. (2016). Grit. New York: Scribner
Hanson, Rick; Hanson, Forrest. (2018). Resilient. New York: Harmony.
Heifetz, Ronald; Grashow A.; Linsky, M. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Joiner, Bill; Josephs, Stephen. (2007). Leadership Agility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Kotter, John P. (2008). A Sense of Urgency. Boston: Harvard Business School Press
Manifesto for Agile Software Development. (2001). www.agilemanifesto.org
Meyer, Pamela. (2015). The Agility Shift. New York: Bibliomotion.
Ries, Eric. (2011). The Lean Startup. New York: Crown Business.
Stevens, Peter B.; Matarelli, Maria. Personal Agility. The Personal Agility Institute.
St. John, Bonnie; Haines, Allen P. (2017) Micro-Resilience. New York: Center Street
Tilman, Leo M.; Jacoby, Charles. (2019). Agility. Missionday.