Many senior leaders are keen to open a dialogue with us about how they can introduce their teams to more agile ways of working. The question tends to come in many different forms, with a variety of motivations, however is often seeking a similar outcome: how can we help our teams to sustainably reduce the lead-time to deliver working value to our customers?
Quite often, the focus is on how the teams need to change: What roles do we need in the team? How will they plan and prioritise? What tools are we going to need and what sort of delivery techniques do we need to teach our teams?
These are all very valid questions indeed, but the truth of the matter is that all of these endeavours very quickly fall away if there is not a supportive leadership team in place who are ensuring that an environment exists whereby agile values and principles can flourish. It’s tempting to focus on tools and processes and the ways in which the teams themselves do the work, because these can often be the easiest things to change most quickly; it’s much more difficult for those who are leading these teams, and those who are leading those who are leading these teams, to fundamentally question their own thought processes and beliefs about how to achieve agility.
Far too often, agile is seen only as a delivery method that can be used to manage delivery. We might try dipping a toe into agile waters by setting up one or two small teams with Scrum methodology and expect to see some sort of result, then gradually scale this up to a larger number of teams. You can find out more about this misinformed approach to implementing agile in our earlier blog post ‘Why do organisations get Agile adoption wrong?’.
Agile is not a noun, it is an adjective. Agile is not something that can be used or applied to a team, one does not “do” or “use” agile. Rather, one can “be” agile, it is a state of mind. It is one of the core fundamental values of agility that can be the most jarring for any person, particularly a leader to accept: the spirit of discovery. When we are being agile, we acknowledge that we may not know what the solution will ultimately look like, and we are ok with that prognosis and accept that it is perfectly natural. However, this can feel rather contradictory to the traditional role of a leader: one who has a solution to every problem, who is rarely proven wrong and who has a ruling authority.
A fundamental step to effectively leading agility is through introspection and challenging one’s own behaviours, we’ve condensed this into five key areas:
Purpose-driven ‘big picture’ leadership
Leaders need to keep teams focused on the big-picture ‘why?’ and relinquish control over the ‘how?’. Leaders enable agility when they align and inspire their teams around a shared purpose and remind teams regularly ‘why we are doing this’, whilst affording teams the freedom and flexibility to determine the details of exactly what and how it will be done.
Innovation works best in collaborative, diverse teams that use their varying experiences, backgrounds and working styles to bring new thinking to the team and challenge the status quo. Leaders can catalyse innovation by resisting the temptation to recruit people similar to themselves, and not always building project teams from the same trusted people. To get the most from a diverse team, the leader’s role is to encourage everyone to have a voice, to role model and encourage sharing and respecting different experiences and perspectives, in order that the team can build on each other’s ideas and generate radical solutions.
Just as leaders themselves must be curious about new ideas and innovation, the best leaders find ways to spark curiosity within their teams. Practically speaking, leaders should create an environment where team members feel safe to make time to develop themselves and share ideas they are excited about, even if it isn’t immediately obvious how it relates to the task at hand.
“Command and control” style leadership simply will not cut it and is a sure way to stifle innovation and agility. Teams need space to learn and grow; as a leader you can support this by creating coaching and feedback opportunities in your everyday interactions with team members, both collectively and individually. Leaders shouldn’t make learning all about how to improve processes and products, nor should they insist upon explicitly defined outcomes. The adaptable leader understands their team members on a personal level, and nurtures and encourages their ambitions to help them grow in the direction they want to grow.
The most effective adaptable leaders are self-aware and team-aware. A typical reason ‘agile’ doesn’t succeed is when teams are afraid to make mistakes, and therefore shy away from risk-taking and innovation. Leaders can help with this by creating a safe environment for experimentation. Ask yourself: how do you (and your organisation) treat those who try something new and don’t succeed at first? Are they more likely to be held up as a good example of innovative behaviour, or is it likely that they might fear blame, or the consequences of perceived failure? The adaptable leader is an empathetic leader; how well do you know your people? How are they going to respond to a perceived failure? What can we do to better manage that?
The adaptable leader not only starts with ‘why’, but they also end with ‘why’. Their sole focus is on the problem that needs to be solved, and creating the environment that teams need in order to be able to flourish when solving that problem.
Leaders are the custodians of change; they help their agile teams interface into less flexible, more rigid functions within the organisation. They obsess over removing any impediments that slow their teams down, and empower their teams to deliver.
They lead the change. They guide the way. They inspire others to follow.