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Agile Leadership Basics

Covers the basic reasons for agile leadership, implementing agile at the organizational level, the difference between leader and manager, and why being an agile leader is important for the success of agile at the organizational level.
This chapter is from the book

Many books focus on leadership, but not that many focus on agile leadership. Why does that matter? Because leadership has changed significantly over the past few decades. What used to be an effective leadership style in a traditional organization might be counterproductive in agile environments. The most effective leaders, who had been great working with individuals in traditional structures, might be struggling or completely failing to work with teams and systems. But let’s answer some questions before we deep-dive into the change.

What is Agile?

What does agile mean in the first place? Let’s first clear up some of the most common misconceptions and misunderstandings. Agile is a mindset, a philosophy, a different way of working. It changes the way you think and how you approach tasks, team mates, and work in general. It’s not a process, method, or framework to be implemented, which makes it very flexible. It’s all about culture and changing the way you think about business. It’s based on transparency, team collaboration, a higher level of the autonomy, and creating impact through frequent value delivery.

When I first heard about agile and Scrum, I didn’t like them. It felt like a process overkill. We were putting too much focus on the practices and not much on the mindset and culture, which is actually a very common mistake. I still remember when, as a new ScrumMaster, I introduced agile to the team and my only argument was that we have to use it because our customer required it. I could not have cared less about being agile. Just get the work done and move on, I thought. However, it turned out that even “technical agile”—before we understood the mindset and instead took it as only a set of practices, processes, and rules—helped us in areas where we thought we were already great. It was a big surprise for us.

A few years later, when I had some experience in building agile organizations, I was a managing director of a small web studio, and we used agile not only to deliver our products and services and build relationships with customers but also as an overall way to design strategy and inspect and adapt our business model. Interestingly, though the delivery process improvement was outstanding—we shortened the time to market from a couple of months to just a few days—the business impact was not relevant until we fully embraced agility at all levels and started experimenting with the business model and strategic decision-making process. Agility at a single-team level can create a huge impact on team members’ motivation and efficiency, but the business impact is usually limited. Agility at the organizational level has much bigger potential.

In one word, agile stands for “adaptiveness.” Although agile started in the software development, it’s widely applicable anywhere you can imagine. Over the years, agile has spread from IT toward other parts of the business: agile HR, agile finance, agile marketing, business agility, and agile leadership, where the Modern Agile [Kerievsky19] concept created by Joshua Kerievsky is more relevant than the original Agile Manifesto.1

Modern Agile has four principles: make people awesome, experiment and learn rapidly, deliver value continuously, and make safety a prerequisite. Making people awesome is a starting point for the mindset change. It’s all about relationships. Let’s make people successful, happy, and content and make their lives better—this applies to everyone in the organizational ecosystem, including customers, employees, and shareholders. The next two principles are about helping people to collaborate and to learn about the business and their way of working through small experiments in how to deliver the right value. All three groups are supporting one other and building on top of each other. The fourth principle is a precondition. Safety is a prerequisite for any agility. If you don’t have a high level of trust, agile will not work. People will feel far from awesome, they will be afraid to experiment and to come up with innovative and creative solutions, and the value delivered will suffer. Agile needs a “safe to fail” culture where people take failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, not to blame, judge, or punish.

Why Agile?

Agile is a response to new business realities and challenges. It brings flexible business models and allows organizations to succeed in today’s constantly changing world. Most of the modern management and organizational design traces its roots back to the early 1900s [Kotter12], when the problems organizations were solving were very different. If you look at how business has changed in just the past twenty years and how many originally successful organizations failed to keep up and consequently went out of business, you cannot doubt that organizational change is a requirement for success.

Let’s take a step back and look at how the world has changed over the past centuries. Hundreds of years ago, in the individual era, the world was quite stable and simple. Every family had its own field. Most towns had only one restaurant, one shop, one hotel. People were less dependent on each other. The businesses were local, people worked as individuals. And then the world changed: the Industrial Revolution made impossible things possible, faster, and more complicated. People didn’t like the change at first, but it didn’t matter—the world was not asking their opinions, and the change happened anyway. Sabotaging machines in the factories didn’t prevent it; trying to preserve the old world by using horses instead of cars didn’t stop it either. The old way of doing business became too slow and was not competitive. The pressure was unstoppable, and companies either kept up to speed and survived or disappeared forever.

The Industrial Age gave birth to management as we know it now. Taylorism was born. All the management practices oriented toward task optimization, planning, and control have their roots in this period. But the world was not static and continued changing even faster. The new era ushered in by globalization and followed by the Internet completely changed not only the business world but our lives. It doesn’t matter anymore where your company office is. You don’t even need one. Instant communication and accessibility have redesigned everything. Companies such as Google and Facebook created the new virtual business, which companies such as Uber and Airbnb took to the next level. None of that would be possible without the Internet. Similar to the public resistance seen at the beginning of the industrial era, we may not like this change, we may try to fight with it and block Uber and Airbnb from running their services, but the trend is not stoppable. These exact companies may disappear, but the world is not going back. Day after day it becomes faster and increasingly complex. We not only can’t stop the upcoming new eras, but we can’t predict them either. We don’t know what’s next.

I still remember when my friend asked me during my computer science studies (in the mid-1990s) if I wanted an email address. Why would I need an email? I asked him. You have to have it, he said. And now, can you imagine a life without it? It has become an integral part of our lives. It’s the same with globalization. When our teachers at the MBA program were talking about globalization as a critically important trend, I didn’t believe them. It would affect a few companies, yes. But would it be a major game changer? Not really. And now, we might not like it, but it is our current reality. The real power of globalization is when you combine it with the speed of information over the Internet. It allows anyone, no matter where they are located, even hidden in a small village somewhere in the mountains, to connect and completely change your business, with just one click. It’s as simple as that, as fast as you can imagine. There is no extra cost for traveling and opening an office. The world is global, it’s even more global than we think, and no borders or regulations can stop it.

Day by day, the world is changing faster and faster and becomes more and more complex.

When I ask participants at my leadership classes what’s next, they often say “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” and a return to “individualism.” But here is the point: when we talk about it, it’s already here, and while we might not see it yet, it’s already happening. The truth is, we don’t know what’s next. But whatever it is, it’s going to redesign the game—it will make the impossible possible and will redraw the map of the business world and our lives. No one knows what that is yet. But so far, the trend has always been the same: significantly faster changes and more complexity. The transformation is so fast that products you used five years ago are old now, the lives we lived ten years ago were very different, and everything is changing, which makes planning almost impossible.

It’s time to change. Stop creating plans. Inspect and adapt.

All we can do is accept that we don’t know what’s next. And this time, the change won’t be for the next generation—it will happen within the next year or two. In this rapidly evolving world, we need to change the way we work, right now, when there is still time to do it, and we need to inspect and adapt because the traditional plans are changing so fast that it makes no sense to create them.

The world is so different now, and yet we are still trying to use the same way of working as was practiced in the early 1900s. Interesting, right?

Currently, we speak about living in the VUCA world [Bennett14]—the world with high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The world that is unpredictable. Now is the time for a change. Agility offers the answer to the current complex problems and allows us to be more adaptive and responsive to change. Inspection and adaptation rather than creating fixed plans seem to be a better fit for our dynamic world.

Companies change not because there is a new method or framework. They change because they have to. Agile is not your goal—it’s a necessity to survive and to succeed in today’s complex and constantly changing world.

I do an exercise with executives and senior managers who are interested in implementing agile in their organization. I ask them how complex, unpredictable, and fast-changing their business is. Their answers always vary widely, but there are hardly any organizations where the majority of the group would classify the business as predictable. They have different reasons behind the unpredictability: business model disrupters, customers expecting flexibility that is hard to achieve with classical structures, or significant changes in regulations. And most of them are saying, “If we don’t start changing now, we might not make it at all.”


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Example of the VUCA exercise

What Is Agile Leadership About?

As the world becomes steadily more dynamic and complex, organizations have to change to stay competitive. They must become more flexible, team-oriented, and self-organized. And as a consequence, leaders need to adopt another approach to motivate people and lead the organizations to keep up the speed. We speak about knowledge management, creativity, the need for innovations—and in the past few years about agile leadership—which help leaders to understand the nature of the change that is happening in business right now and prepare them to react effectively to the challenges modern organizations have brought on in all their complexity. The less predictable the business is, the more organizations are failing with traditional leadership approaches, which optimize for repetitive tasks and consistency.

Agile leadership is the leadership of tomorrow.

Agile leadership is not about how to implement agile, Scrum, Kanban, eXtreme Programming, or lean principles. You have people in your organization who can do that. Being an agile leader is a state of mind. We build a world where 1 + 1 = more_than_two, a world that is not divided between winners and losers but where both can win and creativity can make a difference in the equation.

What Is the Difference between Leader and Manager?

First, all managers are leaders; however, leaders don’t necessarily need to be managers. Being a leader is not a position. No one can be promoted to be a leader. It’s only your own choice if you decide to become one.

Everyone can become a leader, it’s only your own decision.

In an agile organization, where hierarchy becomes less important, we put more focus on leadership than on management. There is no positional authority given to a leader. Leaders gain their influence from their actions and behaviors and from their service to the people around them, and their power grows through the respect of others. Traditional managers, on the other hand, are often associated with decision making and certain positional power that must be given to them. Having said that, leadership is a state of mind. Everyone can be a leader. Some of us just might be kind of sleeping, afraid to take over the responsibility and start an initiative. However, there is nothing other than yourself preventing you from becoming a leader.

Leadership is a state of mind, not a position.

You are the leader, so don’t wait for anyone else. Agile is not about practices, rules, or processes. Agile is about a different way of thinking, a different way of approaching things, a different mindset. And it’s all in your hands. You are the leader, and the only obstacle between the leadership state of mind and the traditional hierarchical mindset are your own mindset and your own habits.

Why Is It Important to Be an Agile Leader?

Agile leaders are key to any agile organization. The more agile leadership exists in the organization, the more likely the overall mindset changes and the agile transformation will be successful. Having a critical mass of agile leadership is crucial for any agile environment; without it, we are only creating another process and adding terminology, and all we get is “fake agile,” not business results.

Leaders need to change first. The organization will follow.

Being an agile leader is more important than ever. Nearly every corporation is willing to experiment with at least one agile project. As organizational agility grows, the gap between traditional management and the agile way of working is getting bigger and creates frustration on both sides. The teams are frustrated because management is not supporting them and the organization is not helping them on their agile journey. Management is frustrated because it doesn’t know how to produce agile leaders and grow the collaborative team-oriented environment. “When we speak with leaders about this kind of system, most agree intellectually that power, decision making, and resource allocation should be distributed. But making that happen is another matter. Their great fear is that the organization will fall into chaos” [Kerievsky19]. Though that is a common concern, I would argue that agile brings harmony. The well-functioning teams deliver value to the customers regularly, effortlessly, and with joy, which in turn provides motivation and energy within the organization to create innovative solutions and address the day-to-day business challenges.

Agile leadership helps you to face the challenges of the VUCA world.

It’s not an easy or a short process—agile is a journey. However, even after just a few iterations, you will see the results. Given the dynamics and complexity of the world today, there is no other way.

Agile leadership helps you to face the challenges of the VUCA world. “Nobody has really recommended command-and-control leadership for a long time. But no fully formed alternative has emerged, either. That’s partly because high-level executives are ambivalent about changing their own behavior” [Ancona19].

This book is a great opportunity for change. It brings all the useful agile leadership concepts on a plateau for leaders to sample and decide how they can get closer to becoming agile leaders. Start growing agile leaders today, and the organizational agility will grow along.

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