Few things in nature, sports and business are more impressive – or effective — than agility.

We cite no less an authority than “The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali – who whipped bigger, stronger opponents because he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

The ongoing pandemic has proven a stress test for lumbering, inflexible organizations. But agile businesses large and small are up on their toes, nimbly overcoming challenges and seizing opportunities. There’s much to admire, and absorb, from businesses that pivot and perform, pandemic be damned. A sampling:

  • The rapid response of multinational auto companies to produce life-saving respirators, masks and ventilators for frontline health care workers.
  • A custom-printed tent company that retooled when the market for live events dried up. The company tweaked its business model to meet demand for drive-through testing tents and other mobile structures for the healthcare industry.
  • A Florida whiskey-maker, among other distilleries, that now cranks out hand-sanitizing gel.
  • A Detroit logistics company – a client of ours – that was quick to interpret a changing world. With speed and skill, the company’s team of professionals shifted resources to deliver millions of much-needed medical supplies and protective equipment every day from around the world.

A shared attribute of each company is organizational agility, described in the Harvard Business Review as “a company’s ability to identify and capture business opportunities more quickly than its rivals.” Such companies prepare for “shocks and knocks,” according to PA Management Consultants of London.

Like a boxer training for a championship bout, business leaders can prepare their organization by following what might be called an Agility Inventory. In companies where agility flourishes, these practices form a checklist for success:

  • Don’t be afraid to fail. Commit to timely decision-making that can flex with changing conditions. The oft-quoted Ali said: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
  • Nurture a knowledge culture. From the warehouse to the C-suite, share usable information. Make sure roles and goals are well-defined so people know how to add value in a changing climate. Communicate objectives clearly. Insight stirs action.
  • Don’t waste time and resources. Clear away silos, fiefdoms and bureaucracies that frustrate change and innovation. Encourage fresh thinking and cultivate creativity by pruning low-priority, low-payoff activity.
  • Encourage and reward versatility. Build capacity and 360-degree management awareness by strategically rotating high-achievers through jobs and units. Along the way, practice scenario planning and what-if discussions. Drills build skills.

The day is coming when the pandemic crisis will pass. Mastering agility in current tough times will position companies to make the most of a recovery and better days. Again, we turn to Ali on what it takes to win:

It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”