In May 2019 Cybercom arranged a two day leadership summit for all leaders within the company. During the summit we workshopped about different aspects of leadership, and I had the opportunity to host a session (or actually 5 sessions) about Agile Leadership. In this article I've summarized the highlights from the Agile Leadership workshop.
Agile is mainstream
We live in a world that is connected, fast-paced, customized and on-demand, and disruption seems to be lurking around every corner. Agility is often described as a necessity to survive and thrive in this fast-changing environment. While agile started as a rather esoteric movement within software development, it is now much more widespread, and has made its way into many other areas outside of the software domain. The agile buzz words of 2019 are not Scrum, Kanban or DevOps, but rather business agility, agile transformation and scaling agile.
Agile Leadership – the missing piece
But even though agile is more widespread than ever, one important aspect of agile is still missing.
As Steve Denning, the agile thought-leader, author and Forbes writer, put it:
“Agile may be the best-kept management secret on the planet.”
On the same note, Dean Leffingwell, the founder of Scaled Agile Framework, says:
“Agile transformations usually fail at middle management level. To succeed in your agile transformation, train the leaders first.”
Even though agile is more or less commodity these days agile leadership is lagging behind, and upgrading the leadership is a vital step on your agile transformation journey.
What is an agile leader?
Before we continue, let’s spend a minute on defining what agile leadership actually is. As with many other aspects of agile, there is not a single correct answer. However, my personal definition of an agile leader goes something like this:
“As an agile leader you create a context where great things get done without your direct involvement.”
You are not the hero – your employees and team members are the ones performing and creating value. But as a leader, you still have a really important role to play.
You create the context.
You set the stage.
You consciously craft the prerequisites for performance.
But how do you achieve that? During my own personal leadership journey, I've tried a lot of different approaches, ranging from quite effective to horribly bad. Learning new stuff and testing it in the real world is an important part of being an agile leader, and you will likely fail at least as often as you succeed. And as all agile leaders should do, I consider myself as work in progress. However, I have over time converged towards a leadership style that is based on three main pillars:
- Clarifying Goals
- Creating Structure
- Building Culture
Three main pillars of Agile Leadership
Having a clear and well-communicated goal is fundamental in any organization, agile or not. And as a leader you create alignment by making sure that everyone is working towards the same goal. You communicate the vision, you point out the North star, while still leaving room for the individuals and teams to find their own paths towards the goal. As Henrik Kniberg emphasis in his video about Spotify’s engineering culture, the magic happens when you combine alignment and autonomy.
Image credits to Henrik Kniberg
Structure sounds boring and non-agile, doesn’t it? But surprisingly enough, structure and discipline are important fertilizers for agility. But how do you define structure? Within traditional management you often describe structure with organizational charts, role descriptions, processes, meeting structure, documents etc. But in an agile context structure is also defined by things like rituals, cadence, networks, team structure etc. And another important aspect of creating structure is facilitation, where you create structure as you go, wherever and whenever it is needed.
How much structure do you need then? Aim for barely enough. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns, where the performance starts dropping when adding more structure. So, try to keep the bureaucracy to a minimum and strive towards finding the MVP, in this case the Minimum Viable Process.
Performance vs Amount of structure
Teams – The atoms of an agile organization
The most fundamental building block of an agile organization is the team, and understanding team dynamics and how to create high performing teams are vital skills for an agile leader. But first and foremost, you have to understand what actually makes a team a team. My favorite definition of a team is:
“A group of people that have a common goal, and need each other to reach this goal.”
Once these fundamental requirements are met, a high performing team needs psychological safety, i.e. a warm, open and including culture where failure is as natural as success.
In an agile organization you want to build a culture of empowerment, trust and openness where people can perform and grow. But as Alex Osterwalder, co-founder of Strategyzer, put it:
“You can’t just slap a list of phrases on the wall and expect your employees to enact and embrace them as values.”
You need to actively work with your culture to be able to sustain or change it. Using a tool like Strategyzer’s Culture Map will make the work with your culture more concrete and tangible.
Strategyzer’s Culture Map
The “Agile Onion” suggests that even though mindset and culture are less visible than tools and processes, it is more powerful. But “doing agile” is actually a good starting point on your journey towards “being agile”. Going through the motions of agile will train your muscle memory and engrain automated behaviors over time, in other words:
Doing agile + Time = Being Agile
The Agile Onion
The DNA of an agile leader
Clarifying goals, creating structure and building culture won't happen by itself. One critical ingredient is still missing - you! The agile leader. As an agile leader you need a variety of different skills and have to master many roles, such as being a:
- Servant Leader
- Team builder
- Change agent
That’s quite a resumé, isn’t it? Conclusion: You need to work on yourself. Continuously learn new stuff and put them to practice. Be a student throughout your whole career. Remember, leaders are readers.
Always strive to broaden your toolbox. Because if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. And to cite myself:
“There are no best practices. Practices are good or bad depending on the context.”
Experience will tell the difference. And if you don’t have the experience, experiment and learn.
That’s my take on agile leadership. What’s your definition of an agile leader? Please share your thoughts!