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Mental Agility vs. Physical Agility

The team had a plan. They even had it printed out, bound and a copy given to every player and coach.

They had spent days pouring over replays of their opponent. They watched, diagramed, white boarded, created the perfect blueprint for a huge win and then practiced that blueprint tirelessly until it felt just right. They went into the game with supreme confidence, highly touted talent and a legion of fans behind them.

They were also down 21-0 before halftime...

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” 
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

Was it wrong for the team to spend all that time trying to understand their opponent? Not at all! Oftentimes we find ourselves in situations that require immediate course correction due to unexpected circumstances. The world we live in today requires us to be more adaptable to changes in plan than ever before in history.

I have worked with many organizations who are recognizing the increasing need for what we call “mental agility”. We’ve worked hard to adopt Agile principles and the frameworks that help support their success, but still find ourselves fully reliant on long-term planning and are dumbfounded when we are forced to course-correct; sometimes to the point of holding accountable the folks who created the plan in an effort to determine why they couldn’t stick to the crystal ball of ideas they came up with well in advance.

This, amazingly, still happens even in what we now call “Agile Environments”.

Often, what we are lacking is the mental side of agility that is so frequently overlooked in application of the underlying principles.

When working with an organization to create better agility, a distinct focus I like to take is one of creating a mental agility in all aspects of life and allowing the frameworks to support the mindset. That’s the difference between mental and physical agility. We can work to set ourselves up to be successful with Agile in many physical ways (ceremonies, boards, tools, etc.) but eventually we will be required to course-correct and think outside the cube. Shucks, we may even be asked to be innovative!

The football analogy in the beginning was not a far-fetched scenario, and it blows my mind every time I see a football team struggle with the concept of mental agility. The most successful teams are (in)famous for being innovative and great at changing the plan mid-game as needed once they see the need arise. Conversely, you see other teams come out at halftime determined to stick to what they planned out days or weeks ago; regardless of what they see unfolding in front of them!

They take this mentality straight into their front office and go so far as to acquire players, coaches and bathroom attendants the exact same way. Not surprisingly, they have a selection in the top 5 of the draft every year it seems. One current famous coach once said, “You really only have to worry about a handful of teams every year; the rest will find a way to beat themselves.”

It’s no different when it comes to mental agility within an organization. When an organization begins to fully realize the benefits of mental agility and begin to apply it throughout the organization, they go so far as to change their hiring practices and requirements; mentally being able to embrace change, adapt to obvious inefficiencies and create a culture of mental agility which is supported via the appropriate frameworks and tools.

Planning is great. It makes changing to circumstances that much easier. If we had no plan to begin with, we would lack understanding on cost and impact of needed change.

You may have heard about certain football teams who adapt their plans week to week, and game to game. They then enter the game fully prepared to abandon said plan as needed and apply a large degree of mental agility on the fly.

No amount of physical agility helps in this case. It doesn’t matter how much someone can bench-press. It doesn’t matter how fast their 40 time is. No one cares how far you can throw the ball or where you graduated school. All that matters is if you can mentally adjust when the circumstances demand it and perform upon those adjustments.

The teams who apply mental agility well win championships. The organizations who apply it well shape the future.

Are you ready?

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