Agility: a survival or ‘dance floor’ skill?

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On that evening back in the day, we were blessed to have very good seats right in the middle of the main hall at the Cairo Opera House. It was a ballet performance, and I was seated with family members. The show was outstanding, and the dancers almost flew with the music. They were very quick and versatile, one minute they formed a flower with their body movement and the next they formed a swan or another shape.

Many years later when I was explaining ‘agility’ during workshops for leaders, I would recall this image on the stage and try to paint a picture of what agility is all about. The speed, malleability and graciousness were first class.

Truth be told however, if you have not been to one of these performances, you’d be missing a lot of the real experience of witnessing ‘agility in action’ by the ballet dancers!

Nowadays, agility is not only discussed at the Opera House, but agility as a concept is very fashionable among CEOs, business leaders and global strategic analysts.
If you have to conduct business on various continents or are engaged in global travel, cultural agility, for example, would be a very helpful skill to master. Leading a workshop by the seaside in Seychelles a few years ago, unlike the formal attire at the Opera House, I sported a half-sleeve shirt and that was totally in harmony with the environment, weather and the customs of the islands. In Japan, well before the COVID days, in line with the local culture, I refrained from shaking hands and simply bowed.
My approach and style varied with the location, situation and circumstances.

Charles Darwin- the evolution biologist- many years ago remarked intelligently: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.

Being able to reinvent and reimagine your way of doing business overnight and moving fast to put this in action (business agility) can be a survival skill to keep a company going.

“Old ways don’t open new doors”– Kristen Butler

Example One: tele-medicine or ‘video visits’
A psychiatrist in a city where there is a total lockdown for several weeks, decided to offer sessions for his patients through the internet. He quickly used the technology to ensure he continues to have an income during this period, while also supporting his patients who were unable to leave their homes. A socially distant service which is win-win for both parties, with no risk of being in contact personally. He had to quickly re-configure his service model and learn how to use the technology to book appointments, conduct the video calls, and collect the money on-line. A lot of adapting and flexing like the ballet dancers. Other colleagues in the same profession were stuck and paralyzed by the change which happened and just froze!

Example Two: Restaurant supporting front-line workers
When the authorities announced that restaurants can no longer serve food to customers seated in the establishment, the owners decided to think out-of-box and creatively. They quickly created take-out boxes and served meals to their customers to take home with them. When the customer base at that stage was not enough to sustain the business, they announced that they would serve free meals to the hospital workers and other essential front-line workers and got donors to pay them to cook the meals and deliver them free of charge to the front-liners. They even gained a lot of good publicity as their logo on the boxes were in hospitals and care homes for the elderly. They were able to keep their staff employed and paid, continue to serve their customers via re-imagining their business model and offering take out for the first time, and at the same time, serving the community and enhancing their brand value.

Example Three: Hotel rooms for medical staff.
The airport was closed and there were no incoming visitors to the city, so a hotel stood empty for a few days during COVID-19 lockdown, then the owner became concerned about his ability to pay the staff and utility bills. He then decided to offer medical staff in the city rooms at very reduced rates. They did not wish to go home to their families at the end of the day and risk the possibility of passing on the virus, particularly as they are working in a hospital, a high-risk environment. He was able to get some occupancy for his hotel and generate revenue, while other hotels had to shut down. He was saved by his “out of the box”, quick thinking and execution as well as risk-taking skills.

“Strength without agility is a mere mass” – Fernando Pessoa

The Harvard Business Review article ‘Develop Agility that Outlasts the Pandemic’ underlines that “there’s nothing like a crisis to ignite innovation.”

The article concludes with this sobering point: “The current pandemic is surely the worst calamity most business leaders have seen, but it is hardly unique. The past two decades have witnessed a startling series of crises and black-swan events, including terrorist attacks, murderous local conflicts, fatal-disease outbreaks, and unprecedented weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires. And all that is on top of ‘ordinary’ business disasters: data breaches, trade wars, digital disruptions, and so on. The future, in our view, won’t be all that different: It is likely to present companies with a series of unexpected challenges and opportunities, and business as usual will no longer be sufficient. An agile business system can help companies create the innovations they will need to survive in these uncertain times.”

A leader I worked with during the earlier chapter of my career, a professional who has worked around the world put it succinctly: change is inevitable, if you do not go along with change, you will become a victim of the change.

Businesses, organizations and individuals who act like the ballet dancer, highlighted at the beginning of this piece, stand the chance of survival in today’s rapidly changing environment.

As British writer Vivian Greene put it masterfully: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.”


Ayman Madkour is a Cairo-based professional with a global exposure to 37 countries on five continents. He is a certified talent, human resources and leadership development consultant and senior facilitator, coach, assessor, storyteller and author. Ayman delivers support to individuals as well as private, public, governmental and non-profit organizations in person and virtually.

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