Leaders recognize the value of agility in turbulent markets, but are often less clear on how they can enhance their own organization’s ability to identify and seize opportunities more effectively than rivals. Over the past decade, I have analyzed more and less successful firms in some of the world’s most turbulent markets, including China, Brazil, European fast fashion, and financial services. My research revealed three distinct forms of agility-operational, portfolio, and strategic agility.
Operational agility is a company’s capacity, within a focused business model, to consistently identify and exploit opportunities more quickly than rivals. Toyota, Soutwest, and Zara exemplify this form of agility at the corporate level. In diversified groups, operational agility occurs (or doesn’t) within discrete business units. Opportunities create economic value either by raising a customer’s willingness to pay (which translates into higher price or volume) or by reducing costs. The best firms exploit both types of opportunity with equal fervor. Toyota, for example, has consistently anticipated consumers’ shifting preferences-for quality, fuel-efficiency, and environmental impact-and introduced vehicles to meet emerging needs. At the same time, Toyota’s production system weeds out activities that do not add value for customers.