Agility is the ability to both create and respond to change in order to profit in a turbulent business environment (from Chapter 1). The ability to respond to change is good. The ability to create change for competitors is even better. When you create change you are on the competitive offensive. When you respond to competitors’ changes you are on the defensive. When you can respond to change at any point in the development lifecycle, even late, then you have a distinct advantage.
But change is hard. Although agile values tell us that responding to change is more important than following a plan, and that embracing rather than resisting change leads to better products, working in a high-change environment can be nerve-wracking for team members. Exploration is difficult; it raises anxiety, trepidation, and sometimes even a little fear. Agile project leaders need to encourage and inspire team members to work through the difficulties of a high-change environment. Remaining calm themselves, encouraging experimentation, learning through both successes and mistakes, and helping team members understand the vision are all part of this encouragement. Good leaders create a safe environment in which people can voice outlandish ideas, some of which turn out not to be so outlandish after all. External encouragement and inspiration help teams build internal motivation.
Great explorations flow from inspirational leaders. Cook, Magellan, Shackleton, and Columbus were inspirational leaders with vision. They persevered in the face of monumental obstacles, not the least of which was fear of the unknown. Magellan, after years of dealing with the entrenched Spanish bureaucracy trying to scuttle his plans, launched his five-ship fleet on October 3, 1519. On September 6, 1522, the Victoria, last of the ships, sailed into port without Magellan, who had died in the Philippines after completing the most treacherous part of the journey. The expedition established a route around Cape Horn and sailed across the vast Pacific Ocean for the first time (Joyner 1992).
Great explorers articulate goals that inspire people—goals that get people excited such that they inspire themselves. These goals or visions serve as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanizing people and creating an esprit de corps among the team. Inspirational goals need to be energizing, compelling, clear, and feasible, but just barely. Inspirational goals tap into a team’s passion.
Encouraging leaders also know the difference between good goals and bad ones. We all know of egocentric managers who point to some mountain and say, “Let’s get up there, team,” when everyone else is thinking, “Who is he kidding? There’s not a snowball’s chance in the hot place that we can carry that off.” “Bad BHAGs [Big Hairy Audacious Goals], it turns out, are set with bravado; good BHAGs are set with understanding,” says Jim Collins (2001). Inspirational leaders know that setting a vision for the product is a team effort, one based on analysis, understanding, and realistic risk assessment, combined with a sprinkle of adventure.
Innovative product development teams are led, not managed. They allow their leaders to be inspirational. They internalize the leader’s encouragement. Great new products, outstanding enhancements to existing products, and creative new business initiatives are driven by passion and inspiration. Project managers who focus on network diagrams, cost budgets, and resource histograms are dooming their teams to mediocrity.3, 4
Leaders help articulate the goals; teams internalize them and motivate themselves. This internal motivation enables exploration. We don’t arrive at something new, better, and different without trial and error, launching off in multiple new directions to find the one that seems promising. Magellan and his ships spent 38 days covering the 334 miles of the straits that bear his name. In the vast expanse of islands and peninsulas, they explored many dead ends before finding the correct passages (Kelley 2001).
Magellan’s ship Victoria sailed nearly 1,000 miles, back and forth—up estuaries that dead-ended and back out—time and time again. Magellan (his crew, actually) was the first to circumnavigate the globe. But Magellan would probably have driven a production-style project manager or executive a little crazy, because he surely didn’t follow a plan. But then, any detailed plan would have been foolish—no one even knew whether ships could get around Cape Horn; none had found the way when Magellan launched. No one knew how large the Pacific Ocean was, and even the best guestimates turned out to be thousands of miles short. His vision never changed, but his “execution” changed every day based on new information.
Teams need a shared purpose and goal, but they also need encouragement to adapt—to experiment, explore, make mistakes, regroup, and forge ahead again.