What Does it Take to Build a Nimble Organization?

by | Mar 24, 2023 | Strategic Planning

The pace of change today only seems to be accelerating. Whether it’s new technology, like AI-powered chatbots, or changes in how we work, like the embrace of working remotely, meeting the moment requires that organizations and leaders learn to be nimble.

But what exactly does it mean to be a nimble organization?


What Makes an Organization Nimble?

Nimble organizations can successfully and readily adapt to changing external circumstances, both navigating challenges and seizing opportunities. Nimble organizations are purpose-driven yet responsive, are willing to experiment and evaluate, and consistently prioritize bridging the gap between ideas and implementation.

Of course, being a nimble organization also requires nimble leadership. According to professors at MIT Sloan, nimble organizations cultivate leaders and teams who are ready to “step forward, propose new ideas, and translate them into action.”


How to Create a More Nimble Organization

Research reveals several ways to cultivate nimbleness and agility in your organization and leadership style.


1) Stay Connected to Purpose

Having a clear purpose is essential for both nonprofits and businesses. According to the Harvard Business Review, research shows that:

Companies with high levels of purpose outperform the market by 5%–7% per year… They also grow faster and have higher profitability.

Within organizations, a sense of purpose may ebb and flow. For example, in nonprofits, having a purpose might seem obvious. But the reality is that purpose can get lost and muddied amidst the daily demands of keeping an organization running. The same is true for businesses. When a company is in the start-up phase, it’s easy to keep purpose front and center. Your small team is aligned and working toward the same singular goal.

As organizations grow, staying connected to purpose becomes more difficult. Leaders of more mature organizations may think of purpose as a “nice-to-have” benefit that is separate from the bottom line. But data suggests a shared sense of purpose should be treated as a must-have.

One way to keep that connection alive—or reinvigorate it—is through a strategic planning process.


2) Invest in Strategic Decision-Making

Being nimble requires using strategic decision-making in your organization’s day-to-day work—rather than only once a year during annual planning. But putting strategy into practice takes, well, practice.

Here at Funding for Good, we help organizations kickstart strategic decision-making through strategic planning. We’ve seen time and again how the strategic planning process builds clarity, alignment, and buy-in across an organization. And a team that successfully co-creates strategy together can yield dividends for years to come.

The research about strategic planning backs up its value:

71% of fast-growing companies have strategic plans, business plans, or similar long-range planning tools in place. (Journal of Small Business Management)

Companies that are poorly aligned with strategy report weaker financial results than their peers. (Economist)

Another side benefit of strategic planning? The process is a perfect opportunity to reconnect your team to your organization’s purpose.

Read more: Your Complete Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning


3) Engage Your Stakeholders

Engaging stakeholders is far more than just checking a box on a best practices list. Indeed, research shows that effective stakeholder engagement actually increases an initiative’s chance of success. Often, stakeholders can see what an organization or project lead cannot.

Take the case of an entrepreneur profiled on CNBC Make It. After burning through $700k in startup funding, the entrepreneur behind the clothing brand Vuori was at a loss. He’d created a product and gotten it placed on shelves, but people weren’t buying.

So the company went to a set of key stakeholders—its customers—and asked for feedback. The resulting input inspired a complete shift in business strategy. As Vuori’s CEO explains, the process of gathering and acting on stakeholder feedback was a challenge:

How do you step outside yourself and really think critically and objectively about where your business is at, and how it’s resonating with customers?

Truly engaging stakeholders isn’t always easy. But the results are clear. Thoughtful stakeholder engagement can make your organization both more nimble and more successful.

Read more: Why is Stakeholder Engagement Important?


4) Prioritize Implementation as Much as Planning

Often, we imagine that all we need is the perfect plan and an effort will go off without a hitch. But the truth is implementation is equally as important as planning. According to research from the Project Management Institute:

Nearly 10% of every dollar spent by businesses is lost through ineffective implementation of business strategy.

Luckily, many of the same tools that help make organizations nimble are valuable when it comes to implementing strategy. That includes clarity of purpose, goals and outcomes, stakeholder engagement, and a willingness to evaluate and adapt, which we’ll get to next.

Read more: What is an Operational Plan vs a Strategic Plan?


5) Evaluate and Iterate

Creating a nimble organization isn’t a one-time activity. It requires ongoing investment and strategy. You need to understand what is working—and what isn’t—and pivot based on results.

The key is evaluation. Even if it may not sound glamorous, evaluation allows leaders and organizations to make smart data-driven decisions. To get started, you need to align on measurable objectives, metrics for success, and evaluation methods. Setting a baseline and benchmarks lets you understand which tactics are most effective and adjust your strategy to do more of what’s working and less of what isn’t.

For our strategic planning clients, we recommend using a similar approach when implementing their plan. Ideally, organizations should review something like a strategic plan or long-term project plan at least quarterly to assess progress, make strategy adjustments, and update the plan.

While evaluation and iteration take time, it’s one of the cornerstones of being a nimble organization.

Read more: How Often Should an Organization Revise its Strategic Plan?


6) Embrace Honesty—Even When It’s Tough

Finally, research shows that nimble organizations embrace honesty. According to Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan Kate Isaacs:

Nimble leadership depends on the willingness to tell the truth. The only way to make progress together is to tell the truth and keep working for the good of the whole enterprise.

For example, what if your evaluation reveals that a long-planned strategy simply isn’t working—and a whole department needs to adjust its strategy? Unless your leadership is willing to embrace honesty, this information could go unshared, never acted upon.

Similarly, stakeholder engagement won’t benefit your effort unless you’re ready to really listen—and be honest with yourself and your team about changes needed.


Bringing It All Together: The Nimble Organization

It’s easy to think of organizations and leaders as either nimble or not. Or to imagine that only certain types of organizations should even bother being nimble. But with the way our world is changing—sometimes it seems by the minute—being nimble is no longer a choice. It’s a necessity.

The good news is that becoming a nimble organization is a process that any organization can start, taking one step at a time. As Vincent van Gogh so aptly put it:

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.

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