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What Makes an Agile Leader?

13 October 2017


“What makes an Agile leader?” is the most frequently asked question in my leadership workshops. Although there is lots of research and data available on leadership, there is no clear information on what makes an Agile leader.

Based on my experience with leadership coaching, I would like to explain what is expected from an Agile leader. Before getting into the specifics, let’s go through what being a leader is all about.

Jack Welch of GE defined a leader as an individual who “ … is considered to be someone with vision and [the] ability to articulate that vision to the team so vividly and powerfully that it becomes their vision.”
 

Why leaders are so important in any organization?

I don’t want to belabor the importance of leaders; instead, I’ll use the quotes below to summarize it nicely.
 
 
As the land so the [ground] water, as the seed so the sprout.
As the region [country] so the language, as the king so the people. — Sanskrit proverb
 
“People are often led to causes and often become committed to great ideas through persons who personify those ideas. They have to find the embodiment of the idea in flesh and blood in order to commit themselves to it.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
 

The leadership role creates the organizational culture

I watched Ahmed Sidky’s YouTube videos, in one of which he explains the organizational ecosystem and organizational culture, which are formed from five elements:
  1. Leadership (style, values, and habits)
  2. Strategy (goals, measures of success, and rewards)
  3. Structure (roles and responsibilities, decision, and organization)
  4. Process (value chain, policies, operations, and business processes)
  5. People (values, beliefs, attitudes, norms, and habits)
Leadership makes most of their decisions related to strategy, structure, process, and people. Thus, leaders play a key role in impacting the organizational culture.
 

The leader’s role in the Agile transformation

Leaders play a key role in the success of the organizational Agile transformation. Here’s an outline of what is expected from Agile leaders during an Agile transformation, broken down into the three main phases of that transformation.
 

Before the Agile transformation

  • Leaders must be clear about answering the question, “Why is my organization moving to the Agile way of working?” They must ensure that they convey the objectives/purpose of the Agile transformation all the way through to the last employee, while maintaining its meaning.
  • Change the organizational structure, if it is not going to support your Agile transformation strategy. For example, form feature teams from component teams. Identify infrastructure requirements and set them up.
  • Do a skill mapping within your teams and check whether you have the end-to-end skills required to fulfill the work requests (e.g., it could be new product development whereby your journey is from product backlog item to product increment, or it could be a service request that adds value to the customer). Hire team members if any specific roles are required for the Agile transformation.
  • Do a readiness assessment for the teams to know whether they are ready for the change or whether there are any changes necessary to get them ready. Leaders can seek the help of Agile coaches here. One simple but important question to ask: “Are we ready for change?”
  • Communication is key. Communicate the details of the Agile transformation with all the team members. Have conversations with teams, understand their hopes and fears, and create a psychologically safe environment. Communicate for success.


During the Agile transformation

  • Collaborate with the Agile coach and transformation team, and share your expectations and observations. Provide all the support required to the teams, individuals, and Agile coaches to make them self-organized and empowered.
  • Believe in the Agile Manifesto (Agile values and principles). Start practicing it. Be a role model for teams by practicing what you preach. Exhibit behaviors that are expected from your teams or from individuals who report to you.
  • Encourage teams to fail fast. Reward or celebrate failures.
  • Train teams and leaders on Agile (based on your organization’s strategy) and in other skills required in teams. Trainings or workshops help teams gain more knowledge and start working in an Agile way.
  • As a leader, always have the bigger picture in mind. Before making any decision, think about whether your decision is aligned with the organizational vision or product vision. Be a system thinker.
  • Work with leaders of neighboring teams to identify dependencies, which in turn help you to plan better and break those dependencies, or minimize their impact. Have conversations with team members to understand the reality on the ground.
  • Plan to create Agile champions or internal coaches who can help with sustaining the changes brought through the Agile transformation.
  • Don’t provide solutions; instead, act as a coach to enable teams. Move the decision making to the lowest level possible and empower teams.
  • Use the right metrics to determine the team’s progress, as it impacts the team members’ behavior. This behavior leads to actions, and actions lead to results.
  • Focus on analyzing the metrics, which can provide key insights for retrospection discussions.


After the Agile transformation

“Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice.” ‐ B.K.S. Iyengar
 
  • Transformation is a journey — there is no end to it. Always focus on sustaining the changes you have made in the organization. Otherwise, the organization reverts to its original state.
  • As leaders, have a strategy to sustain the changes. For example, have Agile champions or change agents from each team trained and make them effective through mentoring by Agile coaches and other Agile leaders.
  • To track the progress with sustained change, design metrics for teams and Agile champions separately.
  • Assess team Agile maturity at defined periods, which help us improve continuously by considering inputs from different stakeholders (e.g., team members, leaders, customers, and clients).


Survey your leaders

To better determine the current state of my organization’s leaders, I sent them a survey. The survey questions looked something like this:
  1. Do you feel aligned with your team, leaders, or colleagues?
  2. How would you rate yourself as an Agile leader, on a scale of 5 = Great to 1 = Not so great?
  3. Do you feel you require a coach’s help to achieve your goals?
  4. What would you need to improve if you don’t have access to Agile coaches?
  5. How would you rate yourself as an Agile practitioner, on a scale of 5 = Great to 1 = Not so great?
  6. What are the top two challenges you are working on?
  7. What are the top two improvements you have in your teams?
  8. What should our team focus be for the next quarter?
  9. What are strengths that you can help teach to others?
  10. What do you consider to be your areas to be worked on or needing improvement?
  11. If given a chance, what are the immediate actions you will take for team improvement?
  12. What suggestions do you have for management to improve what they are doing?
  13. Do you feel empowered to make decisions? If not, what is stopping you from being empowered?
By having our leaders answer these questions, we will extract valuable insights into how to reach our target state. I would like to hear from you on this topic; please share your thoughts or any ideas.
 

 

 


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



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