This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Business Agility, sponsored by IBM. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Business Agility site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

The Essence of Agility

Joi Ito delivers nine guidelines for staying agile in an era of disruption.

How do you remain nimble in a time of rapid and unpredictable technological change? The MIT Media Lab's Joi Ito offers some guidelines.

Joi Ito is an entrepreneur, investor, author, and currently head of the Media Lab. He travels constantly, both speaking about and learning about technology and innovation. In an interview in Technology Review, Ito reflects the disruptions brought about at first by Moore's Law and the Internet on industries such as newspapers, music, and movies; "It all comes from diminishing the cost of access, and diminishing the cost of innovation," he says.

These same kinds of disruption are now spreading to other areas -- for example, hardware. Increasingly, you don't need vast centralized resources in order to develop hardware, Ito points out: "Prototyping, building, and distributing hardware has gotten so cheap that it is now being affected by that same democratization of innovation that we had with software and with media."

Ito predicts that the same kind of disruption enabled by innovation at the edges is poised to move next into the biotech arena, with unpredictable consequences. "It's not necessarily going to be all good," Ito warns. "[N]ot all the stuff that happens when you overthrow dictators and push innovation to the edges is good. The fact is, it is [happening]."

The massive shifts Ito describes in industries and economies are happening on a smaller scale inside companies as well. The general attitudes and techniques for surviving and thriving in times of rapid and barely predictable change are the same at any level in the stack. The world has moved a bit closer to the edge of the chaotic realm than is entirely comfortable, and Ito outlines nine attitudes and tendencies that will help us get through the chaos and back closer to the region of stability.

Cultivate resilience instead of strength. This advice is embodied in the open-source (and Silicon Valley) mantra of failing early and often and learning fluidly from the failures, instead of rigidly trying to resist failure.

Pull instead of push. Don't expect that you can stockpile and control all needed resources within the company. Instead, pull resources from the network as you need them.

Take risk instead of focusing on safety. Safety orientation works best when you are operating farther back from the chaotic borderland.

Focus on the system instead of objects. Emulate the best basketball players, as described in John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are.

Rely on a good compasses, not maps. The landscape is changing fast enough that any depiction of it, in whatever medium, stands a good chance of misleading you.

Work on practice instead of theory. Theories take longer to build and longer to arrive at consensus about, and in periods of rapid change you might have to rely instead on the empirical.

Foster disobedience instead of compliance. Ito says, "You don't get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told." School is about obedience, especially at early levels, when we should be "celebrating disobedience," according to Ito.

Lean on the crowd instead of experts. Experts win in more settled or slower-moving times.

Focus on learning instead of education. The best educators try to instill learning about learning, but the education system as a whole does not encourage it.

Many of Ito's precepts will be uncomfortable for corporations, and IT departments, to contemplate, let alone embrace. Yet these are the core competencies of agility.