The need for agility in business is not in question. Behind that need lies chaotic change driven by technology. Adaptability becomes the chief characteristic needed to survive and thrive.
The insight that we are in a period of chaotic change is due to the protean mathematician DJ Patil. It is a characteristic of chaotic regions that predicting their future is impossible. (Or as the philosopher Yogi Berra once apocryphally said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.") Things change in random directions on all available timescales.
As Stuart Kaufman pointed out in At Home in the Universe, evolutionary systems -- organisms, ecosystems, companies, markets, technologies -- thrive best when they are able to move to the edge of chaos, but not entirely lose touch with the ordered regime. It seems that, propelled by technology, the world has moved a little farther into the chaotic region than is entirely comfortable -- as it does from time to time.
The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th was one such time. In just a few decades the US went from being a rural and agrarian society to an urban and industrial one. During the transition, people wondered about their livelihoods; old skills and characteristics that had stood them in good stead became less useful; life proceeded at an entirely new and faster pace. Industries withered and new ones were born on timescales that were then unprecedented.
In our era, we have Groupon and Zynga coming from nowhere to become multibillion-dollar companies in a few short years. We have seen a complete reversal of fortune in record time in the global multibillion-dollar cellphone industry: the trilogy of Nokia, Motorola, and Research in Motion has given way to Samsung and Apple in just five years.
The chaos certainly applies inside companies, as traditionally hierarchical structures prove inadequate for coping with conditions that cannot be predicted, let alone controlled. Business processes evolved to deal with mere uncertainty sputter and stall in the face of ambiguity. (Uncertainty is when you've defined the variable but don't know its value; ambiguity is when you're not even sure what the variables are.)
"There are all kinds of reasons to be afraid of this economy," danah boyd said. "Everything in the corporate world is set up for security, so you can get to the next review. People who are willing to be uncertain will be more likely to be able to move ahead."
A willingness to tolerate uncertainty. A certain fearlessness. An eager cultivation of new skills. These characteristics are more typical of the young, but we are all of us, regardless of generation, needing to cultivate this level of agility in order to spot the next right thing and embrace it. In time, the world will move back to the ordered regime at the edge of chaos. Until it does: stay agile.