Agile companies are on everyone’s mouth. But what exactly is agile? And: What does “agile” mean in the context of companies? I would like to try to give an initial definition of this. I would like to stress that I am limited to the definition of agility for companies. Many companies see agility as a kind of holy grail that can solve all problems and mix the term with a variety of things. We often hear the phrase: “We’re doing this agile now!”

Companies like to see agility as a holy grail that can solve all problems.

What is agile? Agile companies

In this article I give a brief introduction and a quick definition. Then I’ll look at the measurability and dimensions of agility.

In order to define agility precisely, I first looked at numerous books and assigned various properties to agility. Then I provide a 2nd definition from the typical practice books around Laloux, Gloger and Co.

Tip: I have already published this definition in an academic publication, so it can be easily quoted for further use. (Lindner et al. 2017)

A quick definition

If you only want a rough definition in a sentence, then I recommend my personally favored definition. agility is (Lindner and Leyh 2018 and Termer 2016):

… the ability of a company’s information function to prepare to respond to changing capacity requirements and changing functional requirements very quickly, preferably in real time, and to be able to use the possibilities of information technology in such a way that the company’s technical scope can be expanded or even redesigned.

Agility as ability, skill and behavior

Whether in the practice literature or in the academy, agility is always described as a behavior, skill or skill as well as a mindset. But what does that mean? My colleague Mr Termer (2016) already explained the differences:

Ability: Agility is understood as an existing potential of an organism to be able to do something. However, the potential does not have to be exploited.

Skill: Agility refers to the actual skill and actual application of abilities of an organism caused by an activating component.

Behaviour: Agility is an organism’s own achievement in the form of actions aimed at the environment. Agility is visible through actions.

Tip: Take a look at Termer’s book.

Excursion: Can I measure agility?

Managers and students often try to measure agility in the company during thesis. This is only possible to a limited extent and depends on the angle of view.

If we look at agility as an ability, then an evaluation is not possible. Agility is either present or not. It is being used. Examples of skills are understanding and assertiveness. You will notice that you either have it or you don’t. However, it can only be measured with the help of gut feeling and can hardly be influenced.

However, if we see agility as a skill, measurability is possible based on objective comparison criteria, since skills are task-related (Termer 2016). It’s like cycling, swimming or sprinting. You can rate the elegance or measure the time for a distance. The agility can be trained and is also used on the basis of one’s own motivation. Agility can also be learned in this contemplation.

Agility as behavior is possible in terms of achieving goals. Examples are to be recited, listening, being kind and aggression. Agility is eliminated by stimuli. It is supposed to steer a situation in one direction (goal) through certain emotions. For example, you want to intimidate the other by shouting at the other and convince you of your opinion. This means that you can measure agility based on your goal achievement.

Definition from the Academy

Agility is not clearly defined in the context of companies. In almost every paper you will find a new definition. For this reason, I searched the most cited publications and examined aspects that combine them with agility. A total of 7 aspects were found, which were unanimously mentioned in all 10 publications.

  • Speed
  • Adaptation
  • Flexibility
  • Dynamics
  • Networking
  • Trust
  • Self

The Speed property is mentioned in all 10 publications in conjunction with agility. For example, Lu and Ramanurthy (2011) assign agility to a rapid response to change, as well as a quick implementation of products or services with a fast changeability.

Another feature of agility is flexibility. This is how Nissen and Race Fighting (2013) describe agility with a so-called personnel flexibility in the sense of well-trained and versatile IT staff, which favor the response of unforeseen changes. Sambamurthy et al. (2003) also see the implementation of changeable and flexible solutions as a characteristic of agility.

According to Termer (2016), agility is the adaptability to changing conditions and new market situations. According to Nissen and Race Fighting (2013), the continuous improvement and flexibility that agility offers is the basis for this pronounced adaptability.

Furthermore, dynamics in the course of agility are mentioned. “Agility represents the benefit of a certain form of agility” (Termer and Nissen 2015). According to Termer and Nissen (2015), movement in the context of agility means that a person’s position in relation to his environment changes over time. Agility means creating this agility from its own drive, usually even before a situation or event makes this agility necessary or necessary, according to Termer and Nissen (2015).

Agility requires strong communication in a network of individuals (Appelo 2010). For this reason, Appelo (2010) also attributes agility to a high degree of connectivity, as characteristics such as flexibility and trust build on the relationship and communication between individuals.

Conversely, networking is also based on trust. Termer (2016) explains this by the fact that flat hierarchies and autonomous working groups with short decision-making paths must be established through creativity promotion and a culture based on trust.

Self-organization also plays a role in the context of agility. According to Gloger and Rößner (2015), self-organization is a guided and intensive learning process. Self-organization in the context of agility is also complex, human-oriented and an autonomously managed and intensive learning process.

Definition from practice books

What is agile? According to the Duden means agile: agile, responsive and agile. According to Gloger and Margetich (2014, p. 5), agility is an attitude, i.e. a behavior and is based on the agile manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions instead of processes and tools
  • functioning software instead of comprehensive documentation
  • more cooperation with the customer instead of contract negotiations
  • Responding to change rather than just following a plan

In the course of the blog, I refer to agility to the entire organization and orient myself to the principles of agility according to Brandes (2015, p. 6):

  • Delivering what is needed
  • Really understand customers
  • Revitalise organisations together
  • Inspire people honestly
  • New perspectives open up new views

… and the principles of agile management (Appelo 2010, p. 11):

  • Self
  • Simplicity
  • Decisions by the team
  • Transparency

Agility is, in summary, a mixture of principles and therefore a behaviour (Gloger & Rösner, p. 87).

Reading tip: Have a look at the book by Brandes and Appelo.

Further definition

Roberston (2015, p. 4ff) defines an agile organization as “a developing organization” – that is, as a company that changes with current circumstances.

Laloux (2015, p. 43f) defines an agile organization as an evolution of consciousness towards complex, refined behaviors and forms of relationships. These organizations are subject to constant change by building on strengths, dealing with adversity, showing wisdom beyond rationality, and striving for wholeness – that is, having a corresponding foresight and willingness to change (Laloux 2015, p. 51). In summary, Laloux (2015, p. 53) describes these as self-conducting and changing systems.

Reading tip: Take a look at the book of Laloux or the book by Robertson.

And when should I be agile?

The Stacey Matrix below shows when agile methods should be used. Agile methods often do not make sense for simple tasks such as routine tasks or recurring tasks. Complicated things are understandable problems and the requirements at this point are often still quite clear. It becomes chaotic or complex as requirements and methodology become increasingly nebulous and one has to reckon with many unknowns. Then comes the time of agile methods.

agile when
Stacey Matrix for the determination of agile methods (Source: Appelo)

Conclusion: agile companies!

It should be noted that the definition is not yet clear and we cannot therefore provide a clear answer to the question: ‘What is agile?’. It is also unclear which framework for agility really fits the definition of evolutionary and agile companies. One approach could be democratic, holocratic or sociocratic enterprises. But it is still not clear which of the three models is truly evolutionary and agile. In the course of research, I will examine all three forms and publish a first approach to a clear definition. To this end, I will carry out various case studies in companies.

Gender note: I have used the male form for easier reading. If no explicit distinction is made, women, miscellaneous and men as well as people of any origin and nation are always meant. Read more.

If there are still questions, you are welcome to call me. Just look in the booking system for a free appointment. I take a few hours every month to interact with readers.

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In any case, please connect on Xing or LinkedIn with me or contact me directly for an exchange if you want to talk to me. Please also take a look at my book suggestions for digitization, maybe you want to recommend a book to me?

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Verwendete Quellen anzeigen

Lindner, D., & Leyh, C. (2018). Organizations in Transformation: Agility as Consequence or Prerequisite of Digitization? BT  – Business Information Systems. In W. Abramowicz & A. Paschke (Eds.) (pp. 86–101). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Gloger, B., & Margetich, J. (2014). Das Scrum Prinzip. Stuttgart: Poeschel Verlag.

Laloux, F. (2015). Reinventing Organisations. München: Vahlen Verlag.

Robertson, B. (2015). Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World. New York: Macmillan USA.

Appelo, J. (2010). Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional.

Frank, T., & Nissen, V. (2014). Zum Begriff der Agilität – Betrachtungen und Implikationen aus etymologischer Perspektive.

Gloger, B., & Rösner, D. (2014). Selbstorganisation braucht Führung. München: Hanser Verlag.

Lu, Y., & Ramamurthy, K. R. (2011). Understanding the link between information technology capability and organizational agility: an empirical examination. MIS Quarterly, 35(4), 931–954.

Meyer, B. (2014). Agile ! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.

Nissen, V., & Rennenkampff, A. (2013). IT-Agilität als strategische Ressource im Wettbewerb. In CIO Handbuch (pp. 1–34). Kissing: Symposion Publishing.

Rennenkampff, A. von. (2015). Management von IT-Agilität – Entwicklung eines Kennzahlensystems zur Messung der Agilität von Anwendungslandschaften.

Sambamurthy, V., Bhardadway, A., & Grover, V. (2002). Shaping Agility through Digital Options: Reconceptualizing the Role of Information Technology in Contemporary Firms. MIS Quarterly, 26(1), 1–14.

Termer, F. (2016). Determinanten der IT-Agilität. Wiesbaden: Springer.

Zhang, Z., & Sharifi, H. (2000). A methodology for achieving agility in manufacturing organizations. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 20(4), 496–512.


I blog about the impact of digitalization on our working environment. For this purpose, I present content from science in a practical way and show helpful tips from my everyday work. I am a manager in an SME myself and I wrote my doctoral thesis at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg at the chair of IT Management.

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