Agility and other ‘…ities’

Agility – a term that we use mostly to describe the power that we feel and the impact that we have when we move quickly and with ease.  Those of us who work in universities may aspire to agility, however it is not a word that we typically use to describe the ways that universities operate.

All of this changed in the spring of 2020 though.  In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down, the sector surprised itself as it moved swiftly to remote working.   Suddenly activities that could only be undertaken on campus (such as payroll) could just as efficiently be managed at someone’s dining room table – all we needed to add to a secure IT infrastructure was a laptop.  Those who had been reluctant, no even resistant, to move to online learning environments, suddenly found themselves hosting lectures, seminars and tutorials on any one of a number of different virtual platforms, from a standing start in less than ten days.

Lengthy committee meetings, usually reserved for round-table face-to-face discussions on the top floor of a campus building found themselves operating more efficiently as they also moved to virtual platforms, with shorter meetings, quicker decision making and less paperwork.  Attendance at development sessions increased as they moved online.  One institution marvelled at how 100% of invited academics attended a development session on hosting online learning environments – and that meant 90 people; they would have struggled to engage them before – relevance, timeliness and ease of access of course contributed to this.  Very quickly, instead of cancelling conferences and events, decisions were made to host them online, even for large numbers and traditionally tricky audiences.  Where did that quiet confidence emerge from?

A couple of months on and the examples above do not seem as incredible to us as they did a few weeks ago when we first shared these examples – already many are becoming more comfortable with the idea of remote working; relishing the lack of a long commute to work and celebrating the benefits to the environment as we travel only from the breakfast table to the back bedroom to commence our working day.

During April 2020, a small group of Organisational Development practitioners, working in HE, paused to reflect on this new-found agility to consider what we could learn from it. We were amazed at the number of examples of agility that that we shared; how we and our organisations have implemented with speed the actions above that we have struggled to implement in the past, despite strategies, objectives, committees etc conscientiously attending to their likelihood.   This led us to consider not just our agility, but the possibility that it brings us – and a whole range of other ‘…ities’ too.

Sustainability.  Our new-found agility is welcome, long over-due and our natural inclination has been to think about how we can sustain it.

Fragility.  We appreciate that our response up to this point has been ‘fight or flight’, a rush of adrenaline triggered by a crisis.  We acknowledge that whilst for some this has been a highly motivating time; this has been an incredibly stressful time for many.  The fragility of our agility is noted and needs to be recognised – we look at well-being in another blog in this series.

Flexibility.  Just because many (not all) are finding that working remotely suits them and we have, in many cases, been able to mobilise the technology to support it, it does not mean that we have found the answer to agile working.   We have just found more flexibility for the ways that we work.

Quality.  Just because we have moved our development programmes and teaching programmes online quickly, does not mean that the content is quality; that the learning experience is quality; or that the output will be quality.  A more sophisticated approach to pedagogy and andragogy is required.

Stability.  Aghina, De Smet and Weerda (2015) wrote a great article: ‘Agility: It rhymes with stability’.  They challenge us to recognise that agility and stability are necessary partners, as anything agile needs to be underpinned by strong foundations to be sustainable.

We came to notice then, as Pearl Zhu says, that in this context “Agile is more a ‘direction’, than an ‘end’, a philosophy and mindset”.  So, let us consider then our final set of ‘…ities’.

Positivity.  Responsibility. Transfer-ability.  We considered how we can harness the positivity and momentum gained during this period.  To consider our responsibility to ourselves and to others to create an environment where we can pause, notice, acknowledge what we have achieved, what we have started, what we have stopped, where we have increased momentum and to identify evidence of the features and enablers.  And thus, to harness some transfer-ability from this new-found agility, we pose some questions for us to ponder.

  • What have we learned that really matters? What have we stripped away?  Do we really need it?
  • What have we done that is innovative for staff and/or students? Where are we creating space to reflect on this learning and the enablers so that we can build value for the future?
  • How can we harness the positivity and momentum from the early part of the lock-down and use it to take other work forward?
  • How do we use this as an opportunity to work with blind spots…? Remember when we said that X could not be done, and yet how we moved to it with flexibility and agility and speed at this tricky time rather than trying to accommodate all the wrinkles…how do we recreate the momentum that we have had in this crisis when things start to return to ‘normal’?
  • How can we re-create the ‘burning platform’ that COVID-19 has given us in quieter times to ensure that we keep the momentum and agility that we have demonstrated here?
  • What are we unlearning?
  • What stories will we tell about this time?  What we learned, kept, shared, prioritised, how ready we were (or not)…?

Dr Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University, together with colleagues from the Learning from Disruption sessions that took place in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down:

Caroline Bryant, Regent’s University London; Lisa Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University; Bethany Hyman, Brunel University; David Wallace, Queen Mary University of London; Rosemary Benson, London Metropolitan University; Laura Brown, University of London; Simon Inger, University of Bath; Sophie Lovejoy, Organisational Development in Higher Education Network (ODHE); Daniela Bultoc, University College, London; Sam McVaigh, Manchester Metropolitan University; Lisa Anderson, University of Dundee; Sophie Sowerby, Durham University; Sara Corcoran, University of Sufffolk; Annette Robinson, Lancaster University; Susan Kane, University of York; Saire Jones, University of Westminster; Trudie Donnelly, University of Warwick; Ailbhe Lynch, City, University of London; Sarah Akhtar, Sheffield Hallam University; Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University

Previous blog: What is Ours to Do?  1 June 2020

Look out for the next Blog in the series…


Aghina, W., De Smet, A. & Weerda, K. (2015) Agility: It rhymes with stability, McKinsey Quarterly, [Accessed 31/05/20]

Pearl Zhu is the author of ‘Digitizing Boardroom’ and many other books

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