5 Surprising Facts about Agile Leadership

I just facilitated my 20th Scrum.org Professional Agile Leadership – Essentials training, making me the 9th most experienced Agile Leadership trainer worldwide – go figure for a guy who is not big on repetitive work.

One of the reasons why I am still passionate about Agile Leadership training is the almost 200 leaders I have met and the stories and challenges they share. They make every class unique, but some common themes keep popping up. In this post, however, I will share five you might not have expected.

1) 75% of Leaders Don´t Know Why They Lead

As part of the training, I have surveyed the participants to determine if they have a personal leadership mission expressed as a mission statement or a set of core values. Only 25% of the 200 leaders I surveyed answered this question positively.

That leaves 75% without one. One of these leaders was a middle manager at a large international bank. After going through the exercises and reflecting on his core values and how they matched how he was expected to lead, he concluded that the organization would never accommodate his desired leadership style. The unfortunate part of the story is that he had spent ten years at the organization before coming to this realization. Better late than never, right?

You are most like experiencing a fast-paced and rapidly changing business environment. Deep work like meditation, mindfulness, and how your core values show up at work can be great coping mechanisms when you are overwhelmed by complexity or the speed of change. Reflecting on why you lead can ground you when times are challenging or even help you change careers to a more fulfilling line of work.

2) Most Leaders are Pro Agile

Middle managers are sometimes, more or less jokingly, referred to as the frozen middle. When introducing Agile, in my experience, this is more a product of how Agile is introduced than a generic quality of most middle managers.

Most leaders I talk to understand Agile principles and buy into Agile to solve some of their organizations’ challenges. The challenge is that these pro-Agile leaders are often the last to be introduced to Agile and coached on how their leadership roles change. The typical Agile initiative has senior leadership sponsorship and focuses on team-level coaching. This approach leaves middle managers in a vacuum, turning even the best intentions into frustrations.

When you are in a vacuum and lack information on a topic, google (or ChatGPT) is your friend. “Managers are not needed in Agile”, “Teams should be self-led without management interference”, or “There will be fewer managers in the future” is just a tiny subset of what you can find on google when searching for Agile leadership. No wonder these middle managers become defensive and skeptical about Agile over time. Training and defining “what’s in it for them” early is, in my experience, key to keeping them positive about Agile.

3) Leaders Should Get Close and Personal During an Agile Transformation

In many organizations, Agile is about how to make IT work faster and deliver more output, and many leaders misunderstand their role as someone who should just get out of the way. Agile is about much more than making people work faster. I would argue that this has nothing to do with Agile. It is, however, often a nice side effect if Agile is done right.

Introducing Agile requires change on many levels, and leaders should support this change on individual, team, and organizational levels. To do this, they must interact closely with the team, especially in the beginning.

On a personal level, Agile leaders should prioritize supporting personal development, self-leadership, and personal growth and developing the skills required to be Agile. To ”get close,” Agile leaders should invest in building solid relations by fostering open communication, showing empathy, and providing support.

Getting close and personal, without overstepping the Agile boundaries of the team, will help establish a collaborative trust-based work environment where people feel valued and can freely contribute their ideas and perspectives. An authentic Agile culture is rarely achieved by remote management or just letting the team figure out how to become Agile on their own.

4) Scaling Agile Doesn’t Work

This might not be the biggest surprise to people who have been part of a scaled Agile initiative, but I talk to many leaders in my training that think they are the only ones who can’t make scaled Agile work. Realizing that the other leaders in the training are also struggling with scaling Agile can be comforting, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.

Agile is difficult to scale for many reasons: resistance to change, lack of knowledge, inflexible approaches, inadequate support, lack of transparency, rigid organizational structures, etc. Going into details on these and how to overcome them is a topic for another day. I will, however, highlight the importance of building Agile teams from the ground up and not from the top down. As Mike Cottmeyer, CEO at LeadingAgile puts it:

”The first thing to remember when designing an Agile Transformation strategy is that if you aren’t forming teams, building backlogs, and producing working, tested products at regular intervals, you aren’t doing Agile.”

5) Consultants are Misleading Leaders

Maybe this is not a big surprise either, but leaders unknowingly ask the wrong questions, and people like me (Agile consultants) give the wrong answers, knowingly or unknowingly. The challenge is that “It depends” is often the best answer in a complex environment, but it cannot stand alone. Best practices don’t exist in a complex environment, meaning there are no quick fixes to make Agile work.

Does that mean that we shouldn´t hire Agile consultants at all? Not at all (at the risk of being biased), but make sure you hire the right consultants. You should be skeptical if they pitch you an X-step (pick any number) solution. If they, on the other hand, can give you no examples of what has worked at different organizations and demonstrate what environmental, market, cultural, and/or human factors were crucial for making it work, you should be skeptical too.

Your specific context will most likely require adaptation of Agile “best” practices, as what works well in one context may not be effective in yours. Look for coaches that understand complexity thinking and have the experience to translate “field-tested” practices to your specific context and work with them to understand your context when they say, “It depends.”

Be Part of Class 21

If you want to join Agile Leadership Essentials jubilee class 21, you can find more information via the training menu item. All courses are also offered as private (in-company) training.

I look forward to discussing the topics above and sharing other insights and challenges with class 21 and beyond.

I would also love to hear your take on what has surprised you about Agile leadership. Please use the comments below and feel free to share this post with anyone interested in Agile leadership.

Image credit: Unsplash.com

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