Is it agility or adaptability?

I tend to think of “agility” as adaptability with a time dimension, that is, the ability to adapt more rapidly to new situations than can competitors or opponents.  That may not, however, be the only or even a very good way to think about these concepts.

Here’s an alternative view:

AQ is hot right now – but is it the Adaptability Quotient or the Agility Quotient?

Kristopher Floyd
Founder and CEO, TeamMate AIDao-TheWay

November 13, 2018
Originally published on LinkedIn. Reprinted with his kind permission

Throughout military history, there have been winners and losers. Some of the winners have found disproportionate success due to strategic brilliance; when examining their successes, we find a golden braid that links them all together. This braid is the foundation of an underlying philosophy that dictates how military forces can survive and thrive in hyper-competitive, chaotic, uncertain situations.

Warriors have been calling it The Way for millennia. I have been studying the Way for many years now, following it down unexpected paths into thermodynamics and hypothetical mathematics, military history, and more recently, business. The Way is teeming with the most valuable isomorphs in existence, lessons that can and should be applied to other domains beyond warfare. Once you understand the Way, it changes how you view life. As Musashi said,

“If you know the Way broadly, you will see it everywhere.”

As soon as I heard about AQ, I knew that this was something related to the Way. Loose definitions of AQ touched on the surface of something familiar to me, so I approached the subject via the path that was most familiar to me. I found that AQ comes in handy as a useful way to articulate the underlying philosophy of the Way to businesspeople in such a way as to give it something approaching a tangible quality. AQ is immediately recognizable as something valuable when paired with the other Qs: IQ | EQ | AQ. Suddenly we have a branded concept that a consultant can present to a client. Put it on a slide deck, package it, sell it.

But what is it?

I’ve heard people talk about AQ in terms of it being the solution to the equation IQ + EQ, but I disagree. The equals sign is a mathematical tool that designates both sides of the equation as being equal, or the same. The intelligence quotient primarily covers cognitive analysis, with a bit of synthesis, and the emotional quotient is a relative type of intelligence that orients on peoples’ attitudes towards each other. The sum of the two does not equal AQ.

It would be pretty convenient and compelling if IQ + EQ = AQ, but no, not happening. AQ is its own thing – and to those who have gotten this far in the article and are now asking “well what the hell is the thing that it is, anyway?”, know this: we don’t even all agree on what AQ stands for. Some people are using Adaptability Quotient, and some are using Agility Quotient. Most people who care about this (and there aren’t many!) agree that there isn’t much difference between the two terms, and that they mean almost the exact same thing. It would seem that trying to distinguish between the two would be a needlessly tedious task, if not just a masturbatory exercise in semantic analysis.

Well, let’s get tedious.

If I’m going to pick a marketable Q to start talking about the Way to businesspeople, I insist on at least figuring out precisely which A should precede it!

And after much deliberation, my mind is made up: as sure as the offense is superior to the defense, the agility quotient is superior to the adaptability quotient. Here’s why:

The agility quotient measures one’s ability to position oneself in the optimal situation. Notice how there is no consideration to time in that definition, except for the requirement that the agile practitioner is in the optimal situation [implied: all of the time].

The adaptability quotient, however, is loosely described as the ability to adapt in a fast-changing environment. The adaptability quotient is excellent, but it does have one fatal flaw: to adapt is to be reactionary. Time is too heavily involved and dictates when the adapter is in optimal situations, which is by definition: not always.

Adaptability survives; agility thrives.

Agility is the will and ability to change, the execution of change, and the Quality exhibited during the act of change. Changing states in a poor manner can result in survival, but it cannot be said to be a sublime maneuver. Agility is not simply a response to changing conditions; it is concerned with the initiation of state-change, whether it is in response to external stimuli or in response to an internal drive to cause adaptation in some other system(s).

The difference between the external and internal initiators of change, as described, may be a head-scratcher for many – but it is not a head scratcher for the advanced jiu jitsu player, who executes agility in his hypnotic flow, causing his opponent to react, adapt, react, adapt, again and again – until a mistake is made – the trap is set, and a submission takes hold.

When adaptability becomes perfect and responses become preemptive and intuitive, agility is occurring.

Think of the “flow state” that you sometimes experience during an excellent maneuver or during hyper-productive moments of your workday, how elegant it is, how nimble, how it feels almost sublime. You would never describe those moments as adapting. They are agile, though. They imply Grace and Quality, both of which are related to the optimal state.


Not only does she adapt to changes in the chords, but she is agile and nimble, and seems to guide the melody.

3 thoughts on “Is it agility or adaptability?

  1. This is a great article. I have been working with organisations using Boyd’s model as a framework for many years now, and I now find myself bringing in notions of Taleb’s “Anti Fragility” ideas (it aligns, in my view very well with this article) as well as work from Depth Psychology. (This has not been a planned path, it’s one that has emerged from where clients need to go. When I understand it enough, I’ll post on it here). Thanks Chet

    • Richard, thanks. I’m not that familiar with Taleb’s work, altho I do follow him on Twitter. Several people have commented on the similarity of “anti-fragility” and Boyd’s ideas. Would be great to get a post on that subject. Chet

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