Leadership in Agile (and why it fails)

Agile has become something of a buzzword as teams, projects, and large enterprises rush to unlock the value that a well-executed Agile approach can deliver.

I recently experienced a self-organised transformation from Waterfall to Agile for a leading financial services organisation. Having seen a large-scale transformation up close, I noticed there was a lot of confusion about how change, and in particular leadership; needs to look.

While the concept may have merit, experience shows implementation can be ill-considered.

Most of us have read the brochure – Agile is about people over process, just enough just in time, releasing value early, and self-organising teams (among other things). The one that individuals and entire organisations often interpret to meet their circumstance is self-organising teams.

In some organisations, the concept of self-organising teams is used to validate cost reduction initiatives that result in a loss of leadership, using the frequently uttered phrase – “the squad will define it” – to qualify the decision.

While the concept may have merit, experience shows implementation can be ill-considered.

When self-organised teams fail

During a recent restructure, one such organisation decided to reduce delivery team numbers and in doing so, removed the leadership roles and cut a project from five development squads to part of one (who were given accountability for all of the consolidated backlogs). This squad was then expected to “self organise” the leadership function.

The squad members who adopted the leadership function found themselves too busy managing stakeholders to be able to produce any meaningful contribution to team output, let alone have time to develop the team culture.

Backlog development and outputs subsequently stalled – seeding an environment of frustration that negatively impacted the team’s morale, which in turn, lowered output to near zero. The lack of dedicated and experienced leadership to manage the impact on morale and culture made things worse.

Self-organising or not, the team should not have been expected to resolve this themselves. They lacked individuals with the experience needed to build an Agile self-organised environment, and the leadership skills to nurture the needed culture and manage stakeholder expectations.

Self-organised team leadership

Rather than reducing leadership when cutting costs and assuming “the squad will define it”, organisations should be identifying and developing the critical leadership skills needed to ensure their teams can deliver the initiatives as expected.

You end up with a team culture of working together, positive and proactive review, and incremental improvement.

Agile leaders are needed to maintain alignment to the objective while nurturing a culture of empowered decision making. By empowering teams to make their own decisions, they create a culture of ownership where teams and individuals become accountable for the outcome. Individuals then turn to their squads and delivery partners to create the same sense of ownership in decision making.

Experienced leaders support the development of capabilities in a small group of individuals while holding the larger group accountable. This can transition the frustration and low output culture to create an open environment where issues can be viewed positively, where team members collaborate on outcomes, and each member takes ownership for delivery. Everyone effectively becomes a leader – they recognise the desired behaviours and outcomes, and coach others to the desired objectives. The entire team becomes a self-correcting ecosystem capable of collaboration, conflict resolution, positive engagement and open communication.

You end up with a team culture of working together, positive and proactive review, and incremental improvement. This drives overall performance improvement within the squads, portfolios, programs and across the organisation.

This is the foundation of self-organised teams, but it is only achievable with a proactive approach to leadership sponsored throughout the organisation.


Leadership in Agile


The needed leadership capability

When executed well, Agile leadership builds and nurtures a culture that empowers self-organised teams to succeed. It is a specialist capability that transitions decision making from a traditional top-down model to an autonomous environment, that balances individual and team requirements with the organisational objectives. Done successfully, the organisation can improve market relevance through timely iterative outputs closely aligned to the business and market needs.

Self-organised teams need the leadership function to:

  • Articulate the business objectives clearly, explain the ‘why’ to empower and ensuring understanding, and support the development of teams and individuals to reach those goals;
  • Create and maintain a culture that balances guidance and individual development with the delivery of business value to ensure the organisation achieves the investment objectives.
  • Transition traditional leader models to become more coach and teacher orientated (and supporting others in their teams to do the same); and
  • Continue to develop a self-sustaining culture.

Organisations that proactively invest in leadership functions can expect self-organised teams to become sustainable, scalable and capable of delivering the value sought over time.

Those who see it as a mechanism to cut costs and reduce leadership overheads will likely realise a very different outcome.


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