Agile Leadership is a philosophy and set of principles that enables organizational transformation by helping leaders improve their decision making, risk-taking and communication skills so they can better engage with the people they lead. The Agile Leader aims to coach and develop employees in such a way as to empower them to do their jobs more effectively while still meeting business objectives.
What does Agile Leadership look like?
Agile Leadership has 3 key elements:
The Agile Leader must possess a clear vision and communicate it clearly and frequently to the people who work for them. This is often referred to as “point of view or POV”. The idea with this is that if you cannot explain your decisions in a way that is easy to understand, how can you expect your team members to follow those decisions?
The Agile Leader must be able to function as a coach. They have to serve as a source of inspiration, motivation and encouragement for their team by recognizing individual contributions and celebrating successes. This element is focused on helping employees perform at their absolute best to achieve business objectives.
The Agile Leader must be willing to take the initiative and make decisions when necessary. This is sometimes referred to as “decisiveness” or “risk-taking”. The primary purpose of this element is to help employees avoid ambiguity, which may lead to confusion, mistakes, stress and burnout.
What does an Agile Leader not do?
An Agile Leader does not seek control or try to dominate their employees. They avoid micromanaging, which means that they trust their team members to make the right decisions in real-time. Micromanagement is a trait that can quickly create resentment among employees and cause damage to morale.
What else do I need to know?
Agile leadership is a team sport. Because their leaders are more willing to collaborate with workers in order to achieve shared goals, organizations that use Agile Leadership do better than those that don’t. No one person can win every debate, and the Agile Leader knows this. They make choices based on input from everyone who has something valuable to say, and then they coach and train their employees to support those choices.
When everyone understands what’s expected of them and how their contributions impact the organization as a whole, employees are more likely to work harder and smarter than they would if decisions were unilaterally made by management or if collaboration was discouraged.
As I mentioned above, Agile leaders are servant-leaders. They focus on building a high performing, Agile team and enabling them to be successful. As such, they play a critical role in ensuring that the four organizational practices above are working successfully.
In addition to moving from traditional command-and-control management to coaching self-managing teams , there are several other skills that Agile leaders need to build:
Leaders need to be able to foster collaboration between teams, and also work with the larger community of practice (employees on permanent teams, on temporary cross-functional project teams, on product area or function rotational assignments). There are even situations where employees working on multiple projects simultaneously are part of the same team, so communication needs to be improved across teams.
People management skills:
The biggest change in responsibilities for Agile leaders is that they need to spend less time managing people and more time enabling them . Of course, this still means employees will have managers who are responsible for their performance reviews, setting goals etc., but Agile leaders are always looking for opportunities to enable their employees to be successful.
Product management skills:
In the early stages of a transformation, the Product Owner role may not yet have been identified or implemented – that’s okay! Agile leaders should take on this role in addition to coaching self-managing teams and building a high performing culture. This requires a level of business acumen that comes from being part of product area rotations, but also involves being able to translate the vision of the product into something that is actionable by individual teams.
Building trust :
A key aspect of empowerment is empowering yourself! Transforming an organization will require some risks on everyone’s part. Teams are taking on more responsibility, and leaders are sharing their power with employees. There’s an element of trust in both directions: employees need to trust that leaders aren’t trying to undermine them and leaders need to trust that they have empowered the right people to do the right things based on context.
It takes time:
The impediment at most companies isn’t lack of understanding of the theories, but rather a willingness to do something differently. The time it takes to transform an organization varies based on the size and complexity of the company, how well culture is defined at each location and other factors specific to context. It can be a three year journey or a 30-60 day sprint!
How Agile Leaders help employees be successful:
Agile leaders focus on empowering employees to do what is necessary for their teams and the organization to be successful. Agile leaders should not attempt to micromanage their team members- this would go against building self-managing teams, but they should still set clear goals for all employees. If you want people to act autonomously , you have to give them a goal, so if they are not doing what is necessary to achieve that goal, provide coaching and feedback.
Setting clear goals:
Employees need to know what success looks like for their teams in order to be able to achieve it. Setting goals effectively requires understanding the business case behind the work being done , which in turn requires business acumen.
Advocating for employees:
Employees should always feel comfortable approaching their leaders if they have questions, suggestions or concerns about their work and the direction of the organization. Never assume that your team members aren’t either interested in, or confused by, how to achieve what you want them to do!
As an example of the value of simply asking for input, Brad Appleton shared a story about an “Agile adoption” that he participated in which failed miserably. When asked why the employees felt this way, they said because there was no one who was “actively listening to their concerns”. They didn’t feel like anyone cared about what they had to say. With this information, the organization was able to make significant improvement.
For employees to be most successful they need support – this is where coaching comes in. A big part of empowering employees is letting them know that you are there for them if they have questions or want help with an assignment.
One of the most important ways an Agile leader can help employees be successful is by exposing them to new ways of thinking. Incorporating concepts such as the Theory of Constraints and Lean Startup . One way of doing this is by rotating team members between teams and across functions. This broadens their perspectives on the business, while giving them exposure to different problem solving techniques.
There is a risk to employees in their leaders sharing power and responsibility with them- they could screw up! Leaders can help employees be successful by helping them understand that mistakes are an opportunity for learning and improvement. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold people accountable for their actions, it just means you should do so in a way that emphasizes how important it is for them to learn and grow from the experience.
Leaders have to trust their team members if they want employees to trust themselves, each other and their leaders. When you hope people will do a good job but distrust them , your lack of faith in their abilities will cause them not to achieve as much as they can. In fact, they will likely underperform. One way to demonstrate your trust is by giving them problems without a predefined solution. This confers more power on team members and demonstrates that you think they are up for the challenge which encourages them to take action!
In summary: If you want employees to be successful, you have to consider what goal they are being held accountable for, provide them with coaching and feedback when necessary, ask them for input on key decisions, rotate team members between teams and across functions in order to broaden their perspectives, incorporate diverse problem solving techniques into your decision-making process and trust your employees enough to give them problems without a predefined solution.
Why leadership support of agile teams is essential to achieving organizational agility, and what leaders can do to support their teams to help them achieve higher performance. While attending a class is not a prerequisite, attending a Professional Agile Leadership Essentials (PAL-E) class is highly recommended.
The role of leadership as a cultural change agent in an organization that is transitioning from a traditional hierarchical culture to one that adopts Agile methods. The role of the leader as a coach and facilitator for collective accountability between management and teams, embracing failed experiments as learning opportunities, etc.
Everyone should know what their leaders expect of them, and the leaders should understand what their people are capable of achieving. This enables them to make better decisions on a day-to-day basis, which in turn helps everyone achieve greater things.
The Agile Leader is not somebody who can solve all problems on their own, but rather somebody who cultivates an environment where teams are empowered to solve their own problems.
A leader who works with the teams to set out a vision of what is possible, challenging them to be innovative and adaptive in pursuit of that vision (which may change over time). When confronted with challenges or issues, this type of leader doesn’t go it alone – they actively seek input from team members and other subject matter experts.
The role of an effective leader as a change agent within a culture that rewards command and control strategies. An emphasis on Agile values and principles, organizational behaviors, and the role of leadership in creating a shared vision for success.
What the Agile Organization is and what it looks like, with a focus on culture and structure.
Where do we start?
Start with people. Effective organizations understand that their primary asset is their employees, so they invest in recruiting the right people and providing them with ongoing learning opportunities.
This philosophy begins at the top: leaders know that they need to be role models and they set the tone early on by living Agile values and principles, hiring for cultural fit, and promoting from within whenever possible.
What do we build?
Once teams are staffed with the right people (those who embrace collaboration, personal ownership, and experimentation), then they can begin building their team’s capabilities through training and coaching. Training focuses on skills development, of course, but it also includes knowledge sharing so that new team members can help themselves.
Teams are encouraged to experiment with Agile techniques and tools so they have the opportunity to figure out what works best for their situation.
For example, an organization may have multiple product owners but no common process or standard for grooming the backlog, so each team is left to establish their own process. If some teams are doing well with daily standups while others are struggling because they have too many attendees, then it’s time to experiment with different formats.
Agile leaders recognize that every new hire represents an investment in the future of the organization (not just financially, but also in terms of increased organizational capability) so they take their responsibility seriously.
The Agile organization is decentralized and team-oriented. Leaders do not manage teams – they coach them. Teams have a high level of autonomy to make decisions about how they want to develop their capabilities and achieve goals, as long as they are in alignment with the larger organizational goals (ie. “The best customer experience”).
Agile leaders want to ensure that they have the right people in place who fit into an Agile culture. An effective hiring process is one that balances traditional pedigree with cultural fit, agility of thought, and capability (eg. the ability to learn new things quickly).
Flat, cross-functional. Team members are organized by capability (ie. analysis, testing, design) rather than product area or functional role.
Self-managing teams should be able to determine what structure works best for them depending on context and constraints e.g. for distributed teams, decisions around who attends which meetings might be driven by time zone differences.
Changes in roles and responsibilities:
The concept of self-managing teams implies that there should not just be organizational changes, but also changes to job descriptions. An Agile leader empowers employees to take on whatever roles are necessary to get the job done, whether or not that fits into their official job title.
The Agile organization is one that is constantly evolving. Like any other change initiative, the first step is culture change. A new organizational model can only be successful if employees are on board with embracing shared responsibility and decision making authority.
Agile leadership is a style of management that works. By following the basic principles outlined here, leaders can inspire high levels of performance, innovation and agility in their people without having to resort to top-down direction or control.
The real essence of Agile is about letting teams be self-organizing, autonomous entities who are empowered to achieve outstanding results. It is not about forcing people to work in a particular way or having some sort of magical management style that allows leaders to achieve greater results while expending less effort.
Leaders who understand this, and who endeavor to create an environment where teams can succeed through their own efforts, find that individuals are eager to do great things for the organization.
That is the essence of Agile Leadership – it’s not about you, but about your team. It’s about empowerment and enabling people to achieve their best for the benefit of all stakeholders.