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Three tips for leading in an agile environment

This month, we explore several of the challenges that leaders face when leading in an agile environment. Many organisations are making the shift from traditional to more agile set-ups and in this article you’ll discover a few of the conscious shifts leaders need to be willing to make.

What is Agile leadership?

You may be familiar with Agile principles and practices and may even have adopted these widely within your own organisation. Either way, Agile may need a little referencing if we are to usefully explore the implications for leadership.

Agile is a set of principles and practices for software development and project management that emphasizes flexibility, collaboration, and customer satisfaction. The Agile methodology was introduced as a response to traditional, plan-driven approaches, often referred to as “Waterfall”, which were more rigid and linear. The Agile framework prioritises adaptability to change, customer feedback, and iterative development.

(Sources: What is Agile about?; Agile vs waterfall methodology)

In a nutshell, it calls for new ways of thinking and working, and this extends to leadership mindset and practice too. Agile leaders learn to give power away. While the traditional leader will hold all or most of the power and decision-making, agile leadership is focused on handing over the reins. It is a leadership style that involves distributing ‘power’ to all members of the team, including giving them freedom to self-organise.

For these empowered, self-organising teams to be successful, the leader’s role is to create the appropriate conditions in which team members can bring together their diverse and relevant experience, skills and knowledge to solve a problem for their customer. To enable this, the leader focuses on creating the right environment, developing the right culture, and facilitating ownership.

Some call this servant leadership.

What are the most common challenges for leaders?

Leaders who have developed their skillsets in traditional organisations can find it tough to let go of what has made them effective so far and embrace this new style. Adopting the mindset of a servant leader takes a conscious shift. It asks the leader to reflect on what will make the team successful and changes where they put their attention.

We were recently speaking with one of our valued clients, a senior leader in a large multi-national organisation that has implemented Agile across the enterprise. The learnings she has gained, both personally for her own leadership, and for organisations wishing to shift from traditional to agile leadership values and practices, felt directly useful.

Inspired by that conversation, and with her permission, we explore three of these insights and offer some key takeaways below:

  1. Emphasise culture and mindset as well as rigour and discipline

A common misconception is that Agile is all about maximising freedom in the pursuit of flexibility and collaboration. This perception can sometimes assume an ‘anything goes’ mentality, potentially leading to chaos within an organisation, and leaders can feel unsure as to when and how they should step in.

In the case of our clients’ organisation, they began their Agile journey by putting significant emphasis on mindset and culture. This was not wrong, and in fact most organisations shifting to Agile do far too little of this, but the lesson they learned was that insufficient focus on establishing real understanding of the methodologies and disciplines risks Agile becoming a buzzword with little substance. Leaders need to strike a balance between establishing mindset and culture and rigour and discipline.

Our client learned that appropriate structure acts as the riverbanks for effective and creative collaboration.

The agile leader serves the team by setting the parameters within which the team will work. This includes communicating a clear purpose and direction, defining timelines and budgets, and often with the help of an agile or scrum coach, establishing the rituals and cadences that enable effective team working, such as daily stand-ups and retrospectives. It also involves removing roadblocks.

Poorly-defined guide-rails will prevent the team from being able to productively harness their collective expertise. Structure, rather than being viewed as the ‘enemy’ of innovation, can act as its enabler.

A fascinating piece of research carried out by a team of landscape architects demonstrates how structure expands creativity. The study observed children playing in a large borderless area [see ASLA 2006 Student Awards]. With no boundaries, the children ended up huddled close to their teacher in the centre of the space. Conversely, when they were taken to a comparable area demarcated by a fence, the children felt comfortable to widen their sphere of play, enjoying and utilising the space fully.

I don’t think teams are all that different in what they need to operate at their best.

  1. Strike a balance between freedom and maturity

There is an implicit Agile belief that members of a team will be effective at organising themselves. In my experience, self-organising groups don’t always make the best choices and there are some potential pitfalls the leader should be ready to intercept.

Our client observed that, even though team members understand the same clearly defined end-goal, they might still need support to organise themselves effectively. Groups consisting of individuals with a high level of expertise and, consequently, a high sense of their own competence, may end up competing rather than working together. So they may fail to create value that is only achievable by working across silos.

Working well with others, in a cohesive and aligned manner, involves a lot more than technical expertise and competence. Self-awareness, humility and the ability to listen and actively learn from other people’s perspectives and experience are crucial to good collaborative relationships.

A successful leader will manage the tension between freedom and maturity and assess how well team members can work with opposing agendas and interests. Are there any missing skills or training that could affect the outcome they need? Is any team-building needed to help support them? Investing a relatively small amount of time at the outset to help the team reflect on how they can best work together to achieve their collective goals, empowers the team to agree their ‘working contract’ and hold themselves mutually accountable to living it out.

On this point, Cara and Rose are both experienced team coaches who work with leaders and their teams to support their effectiveness and development. Please contact us here to find out more.

As the team’s maturity, competence and cohesiveness increases, the leader can increase freedom and autonomy appropriately. For those organisations that are experimenting in pockets with Agile, this can also create the ground conditions for success by engendering confidence in other parts of the organisation as they interact with the team and experience how they work.

  1. Know and appropriately flex your power style

The style and focus a leader should bring is always situational. Leadership agility involves deciding what will deliver the best results in any given situation and adapting one’s approach.

One set of choices exists between ‘power styles’.

The ‘Accommodating’ power style is space giving, humble, curious, empathetic and flexible. The ‘Assertive’ power style, in contrast, is directive, clear, focused, confident and vocal.

Both styles have their rightful place in the Agile environment, but a successful leader will understand which mode is needed and when and is flexible enough to move between the two.

To do this, leaders first need to be aware of their natural power style and observe when this serves the team well and when it does not. Remember, leadership agility calls for self-reflection and a readiness to learn. Successful leaders seek opportunities to practice extending their range so that they can fluidly and authentically move between them.

In the case of our client, her natural style was to offer her team expansive permissions and flexibility. But she realised she needed to set far more defined expectations if she wanted to get the best out of them and adjusted her style to provide greater direction.

Self-reflection – the core attribute of an agile leader

These three learnings demonstrate the need for agile leaders to be prepared to pursue their own journey of personal growth. Their ability to honestly reflect upon and explore their own leadership values, mindset and style will pay dividends to their team’s future success, and ultimately to the success of the whole organisation in shifting towards greater agility in practice and culture.

Questions to ask yourself

  • How comfortable are you with giving away power?
  • How do you really feel about the concept of serving your team? What do you stand to lose?
  • What aspects of ‘leadership’ have you derived worth and identity from and how might this need to change?
  • Where would you position your own power style – are you more accommodating or assertive? Is this style always effective and, if not, what steps could you take to expand it?
  • What could you do to increase your ability to perform well as an agile leader?
  • Who can help you (it’s probably a big step to move away from what you’ve been trained to do for many years)?

Try this

Listen to The Agile Mentors’ podcast in which Greg Milner and Brad Swanson explore the concept of servant leadership and share ways to help you lead with compassion and empathy

 Related/further reading

If you are interested in this subject, you might find these articles useful: