Value-based management, Positive Leadership, Situational Leadership or Total Quality Management. There is an overload of concepts that provide input on how leadership should be approached. The new fad is Agile Leadership. But why is Agile Leadership the new black?
Unpredictability, high speed, complexity and customers demanding more value, require that some of the heavy processes in the organization are challenged. A traditional approach is too slow. Your competitors will be faster than you.
This is not only when working with software development. Other parts of the company can also gain benefits from agile principles and agile leadership.
It started in Snowbird, Utah in February 2001. 17 people met. They were the leading exponents of Extreme Programming, Scrum, and Adaptive Software Development. And they were seeking a set of compatible values based on trust, respect and collaboration. They wanted to make software development easier. The traditional way to do IT-projects did no longer work. They agreed on this Agile Manifesto:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
Scrum, Sprint, Kanban etc. calls for a specific type of leadership. Leadership that makes room for progress and close contact with the customer. Leadership that focuses on displaying trust in order to create a space where it is safe to fail, learn and increase the employees’ personal responsibility and decision-making power. Managers who dare to challenge steering groups and top management, and not least the bureaucracy that undermines the opportunity to deliver value to the customer.
It also requires senior managers and staff functions who understand their visiting hours and know how to organize structure, incentives, performance systems, contracts and bureaucracy so the agile becomes possible. For example, top executives must decide that developers cannot return to the base organization in the middle of a sprint. Developers cannot be called into meetings and such that has nothing to do with their sprint. Furthermore, HR must also support the development of Scrum masters and agile leaders.
It is also important that other managers are aware that the agile team is self-organizing. It means that the team decides how they wish to work and who takes on the different roles and who is responsible for the different tasks.
In order to reach sprints and deadlines, it is also important that everyone is a developer; nobody is above others. Formal titles and roles in the base organization are set aside. Everyone is part of the decision-making process. Hierarchy, position, roles and relationships are replaced with equality and dialogue.
Agility, as defined by McKinsey Senior Partner Aaron De Smet, is the “ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment. Agility is not incompatible with stability – quite the contrary. Agility requires stability for most companies.” In short, agility is an organizational model designed for the age of the iPhone.
Agile Leadership – so what is new?
Agile Leadership draws upon the latest theories and research in management psychology. Topics such as emotional intelligence, positive psychology, flow, empowerment, self-determination and systemic thinking are included in the agile leader’s approach to leadership.
Developing yourself first
Agile leadership is not only about making changes but also about changing oneself. The agile leader inspires others while also focusing on developing oneself. The agile leader strives to be humble, empathetic, caring, kind and attentive to his or her colleagues. This is important for the agile leader, as change is a fundamental condition of the agile universe. Among other things, there is talk of Servant Leadership.
Challenging mental models and thinking
Meaningful decisions are about viewing problems from different perspectives. The agile leaders listen to input from those who are closest to the problem. Rather than viewing organizations as mechanical, they understand that organizations are organic. They listen to what is happening in the real world instead of interpreting data by itself. They make room for psychological security in the team, so everyone feels that they are heard.
Feedback and learning are the most important. The agile leader seeks to create a culture with a Growth Mindset where feedback is seen as a learning activity. A culture where errors and progress are investigated with curiosity. Agile leaders seek feedback and listen to ideas and input from others and practice their feedback skills. Agile leaders are concerned with learning on an individual level and on an organizational level as well. Good questions are a key competence of an agile leader.
People need purpose and meaning
People need to be part of a meaningful community. The agile leader ensures that each colleague feels that the tasks are important and valuable. The focus is on building a community where the individual’s values and attitudes contribute creatively. Agile leaders focus on being inspiring and motivating, especially when unpredictability and change establish a need for renegotiation of meaning.
Emotions are the foundation of creativity and innovation
Agile leaders inspire others to bring the best version of themselves to work, to achieve a flow state, to make use of his or her top strengths, to be committed and passionate colleagues, to bring personal feelings to work and to create a positive community. Creativity and innovation require respect, openness, honesty and transparency. The agile leader ensures that these values are present in the culture.
Leadership is everywhere in the organization
Leadership is done by everyone in the organization. People need to be helpful and take responsibility. Agile leaders support the leadership of others. The agile leader sees it as his or her task to help and support, rather than steer and decide. Agile leaders want to facilitate so that others can succeed.
Influence, self-determination and decision-making power
Agile leaders are not controlling and governing details. Instead, they are concerned with creating space for talented and committed colleagues. Flow is about balancing challenge and competence. People thrive when they can plan and organize their own workday. The agile leader seeks to create appropriate empowerment so that every colleague thrives.
A collaborative community creates more than individuals
The agile leader continuously develops teamwork. Teamwork must build on high trust, respect and meaningful relationships. The agile leader supports the development of the teamwork but leaves the team autonomous. The agile leader understands that forgiveness, positivity, gratitude and helpfulness are important elements of good teamwork. The team’s output will create value and results for the organization when the agile leader supports learning and development of collaborative relationships.
Great ideas can come from all over the organization
The people who are closest to a problem often have the best ideas on how to solve the problem. Agile leaders are open to ideas from others, regardless of their position in the organization. Agile leaders listen and are curious. Agile leaders create space and time for creativity and innovation. Ideas may not be used immediately but may become important later. Agile leaders create networks and exciting relationships.
To summarize – an Agile organization
According to Aaron De Smet from McKinsey, an agile organization has several characteristics:
1. A clear vision and mission that interconnects the entire organization’s efforts.
2. Transversal teams that can quickly focus on a task that is going to create business results.
3. The ability to work in fast iterations where learning is the focus.
4. Leaders who make fewer “top-down” decisions but are more likely to be the service leader who removes obstacles, coaches and provides feedback.
5. Uses the power and speed of technology to respond to business needs.
BUT an agile organization requires HR, finance and other staff functions to follow. As the team improves “time to market”, creates continuous learning, collaborates and responds to the external customer, they need the organization’s support processes to be agile as well.
HR needs to “go and see”. HR needs to visit the agile teams and understand how they work and what they need.
Top management must also understand which barriers to remove and to promote agility. Top management must create agile decision-making bodies and ensure that middle managers have the right mindset.
By Pia Torreck, Partner at Ingvardsen ll Partners; Katrine Rømert, Research Assistant at Ingvardsen II Partners and Philip Santilhano, Research Associate at Ingvardsen II Partners. Exclusive Danish IESF Partner