Have you ever faced one of the following challenges with your agile adoption?

  • Executive teams who want you to be agile, but still require all the traditional metrics and reporting
  • Middle managers who feel threatened by agile and seem to be working against you
  • An organizational culture that seems to run counter to an agile way of working

If you are experiencing any of the issues above you are not alone. After working with hundreds of organizations and thousands of people these are the most common themes that have emerged. Rather than giving up on your agile adoption, it’s time to bring agility to your organization’s leadership team. You need agile leadership. Let’s examine why…

In any business there are two main roles; people working “in” the business and people working “on” the business. Agile methods, like Scrum, do a great job of addressing the roles and responsibilities of people “working in the business”. For example, Scrum says that we need a product owner; someone responsible for guiding the team to build the right product to meet the needs of the stakeholders. Most agile methods however, do not address the roles and responsibilities of those “working on the business” – AKA “management”.

Some agile experts have taken a stand and said that we don’t need “management”, that we should fire anyone with a leadership title. That is one view, albeit an unfortunate one. Another view is that we need people who are fully dedicated to; planning and setting a vision, building an agile culture, and supporting those doing the work.

My colleague Pete Behrens says that “agile leadership” is the glass ceiling that prevents our organizations from becoming agile. We need to break through this ceiling if we are to build truly agile organizations.

Now that we have examined why we need agile leadership, let’s define what it is…

To come up with a definition, I first looked at the values of the Agile Manifesto (http://www.agilemanifesto.org). In order to be an agile leader we need to:

  • Remember that it’s all about the people (individuals and interactions)
  • Focus our efforts on delivering business value (working product)
  • Form and respect the partnership with our clients (customer collaboration)
  • Plan and be willing to react in the moment (responding to change)

I also examined some of the fundamental principles of agility:

  • Transparency – When I graduated from college I worked for a small startup. One day they called us into the conference room to let us know the company was in dire financial trouble. At this point we were so far into the red that people had to be impacted. The owners of the company felt like they were protecting us from this knowledge. Because we didn’t know the company’s financial situation, we couldn’t do anything to help them. Agile leaders work hard to be open and honest with their communication. They make sure that all needed information is out in the open and easily accessible.
  • Continual feedback – Agile leaders abhor practices like the annual performance review. Instead of bottling up feedback and delivering it all in one fell swoop. Agile leaders provide feedback in the moment where it can add the most value.
  • Inspect and adapt – Agile leaders use retrospectives to frequently pause and examine the output of the team and the way that the team works together. These retrospectives allow for everyone to get better at a more expedient pace.
  • Embrace failure – By running short low risk experiments and “failing” we learn rapidly. An agile leader sees failure as an opportunity for their teams to grow, not something that should be prevented at all costs.

Finally, there are few practices I have learned:

  • Be a servant leader – Key tenants of servant leadership include; taking care of needs not wants, building and using influence rather than abusing power, and leading by example.
  • Focus on strengths – Agile leaders get to know their team members on a deeply personal level, which allows them to know a team members strengths and weaknesses. Rather than focus on the losing battle of shoring up weaknesses, agile leaders focus on building strengths instead.
  • Be vulnerable – I used to think that emotional intelligence meant stopping our bodies natural reactions to stimuli and choosing to react in an “appropriate” way. Now, I know that stopping and bottling up emotions only leads to health problems. Agile leaders are comfortable with expressing their emotions in front of their team. They realize that “being real” leads to strong relationships and greater team intimacy.

Combining what the Agile Manifesto, Agile Principles, and my own experience; I came up with the following definition of an agile leader…

“Agile leaders are inclusive, democratic, and exhibit a greater openness to ideas and innovations. With a passion for learning, a focus on developing people, and a strong ability to define and communicate a desired vision, they possess all of the tools necessary to successfully inspire others and become an agent for change within any organization.” – Center For Agile Leadership

Would you like to meet a real life agile leader? I would like to introduce you to Joe Kirk (https://www.linkedin.com/in/mrjoekirk), CIO at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Joe has built a truly agile organization. A few of his major accomplishments include:

  • Shifted his departments culture from one where everyone couldn’t wait to retire, to one where everyone can’t wait to complete their next sprint
  • Built out co-working spaces so that his teams can collaborate
  • Recently hosted an innovation day that produced several promising product ideas

Wondering how you can become an agile leader yourself? Or perhaps you know a leader who wishes they could be more agile?

There are a number of new offerings coming onto the market today, such as our Certified Agile Leader® program. Also, in April 2016 the Scrum Alliance announced their new Certified Agile Leadership program, which follows a similar pattern to our program. We hope that there will soon be a convergence of the two programs, since they have the same goal in mind. To learn more about becoming an agile leader please visit http://www.centerforagileleadership

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