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Establishing Agile Leadership In Your Organization

Agile Leadership

Bringing agile processes and leadership into your organization is like when you take steps to establish elements of agile development, but the first, most important thing to consider is the need for leadership.

Agile approaches help keep the excitement up during implementations, projects, service provisions, growth thinking, all the while focusing on the promise of quality delivery, serving others, and established protocols for quantifiable returns on investment. However, without strong leadership, even outside of agile, all too often, excitement for projects, innovation, implementations, and so forth can fade quickly, often replaced by anxiety and empty promises.

Why “agile” might be a bridge too far in some instances, agile leadership principles can be one key to a stronger, responsive, and decision-driven organization. Implementing agile leadership is no small task, but if followed through, the rewards can be monumental and organizationally lifting. 

Agile-in-everything leadership

Agile-in-everything is a principle that’s essential for many organizations to continue innovating while remaining vital to the teams within them and those they serve. The key to achieving this is the realization that to be successful, you need agile leadership in place.

Agility is all about communication and alignment. Organizations with less formal information delivery styles or systems increase their likelihood of missing people within their practices and processes and how they fit into the goal’s big picture. Filtering information through teams from the top down throughout the organization can help you achieve buy-in through personal connections. Doing so helps all people interact during implementations or other times of significant organizational change, establishing a high-trust environment.

When all parties are involved in the process, decisions about the path forward are made or communicated more quickly. A solid understanding from the team on the context of the change, goals, and solutions needed helps the business scale or innovate better without additional efforts. For example, when you’re leading with an agile mindset and a team built around these factors, you’re able to charge rapidly through implementation iterations regarding core product functionality and the use of mainline development combined with automated testing, continuous integration, and feature flagging.

Likewise, leading by example through agility means your team can make changes and have the confidence that their work does not interfere with other parts of the business. Your leadership and the trust you build through your ability to lead in an agile way can help you instill in others the change you want to see throughout the organization and those you are leading.

Much like agile software development, agile-based leadership might mean that your teams can anchor your solution accordingly, per the plan, through the decisions you and your team have made. Like code changes being integrated consistently, there are no surprises throughout or at the end – no functionality designed in an incompatible way.

Within and through agile leadership and agile-based teams, you’ll likely lead into cross-functional teams built with strategy, product, sales, business development, engineering, and operations while taking advantage of communication and alignment as an organization.

Attributes of agile leadership

Agile leadership requires a shift from the traditional embodiment of the agile manifesto principles within your leadership team. While the original Agile Manifesto focuses on software development, not on leadership, the guideposts of the Agile Manifesto are taking on new, broad applications, which is great for leadership and leading organizations.

According to Harvard Business Review, there are several ways to template out a leadership charge, but some of the primary factors to include are:

  • Individuals over processes and tools
  • Customers over contracts
  • Solutions, not problems 
  • Freedom from the prison of plans 

These factors bring about challenges of contemporary thinking for leadership, as traditional planning, managing, and reporting do not align with these principles. Building an agile organization requires finding the right balance between standardizing operations and pursuing innovation. In a nutshell, your business runs on serving your customers. With whatever you’re selling, you must provide customers with the best product and service possible while also innovating to keep up with customer demand and expectations. If you only focus on your product or service, you miss opportunities while conversely, focusing only on customer experience can be detrimental to your offerings. 

The bigger the organization, the harder this might be. Not only do you have the implementations to fuss over, but numerous other components can make the process cumbersome. Data management, human talent management, technology, products services delivery – the list quickly grows, and without your ability to respond efficiently, you remain flat-footed and unable to innovate. When developing an agile approach to leadership, your agile leaders must identify the optimal balance point for each component.

To start, the leadership team usually begins by creating metrics to determine how agile the company is, how nimble it should be, whether it is moving in the right direction at the right speed, and what impedes progress.

The team then develops a priority list to help it achieve an optimal balance for each component. Agile requires leaders to work together, breaking through barriers and recalibrating as necessary. Doing so allows for entrance into an agile enterprise.

Agile leadership teams

Typically, the agile leadership team includes the organization’s executive members, including the CEO/president and finance, human resources, technology, operations, and marketing – or the individuals most critical to the business’ operating system.

Executives must simultaneously play multiple roles; that’s the point of agile methodology. They must build the enterprise’s new operating system, determine which components need improvement, and sponsor their teams and each team’s moving parts and priorities. At the same time, they must continue to oversee business units and functions and ensure that operations run efficiently while serving as mentors, coaches, and decision-makers. While performing such operating roles, leaders should keep agile values and principles in mind. However, they do not organize into formal agile teams.

Alternatively, agile leadership concepts allow your executive teams to delegate most of their team’s activities to others on the team or throughout the organization. With delegation, your leadership teams can focus on only what they can accomplish.

Additionally, agile leadership challenges leaders to lead and work to get more out of their teams. Perhaps just as important as ensuring continuing innovation in your organization, agility requires humility from leaders that can accelerate learning and create confidence in every team member.

These same leaders and teams then develop and listen to rapid feedback loops to ensure projects stay on track and the organization is moving forward as it should. Agile leaders understand that good ideas can come from all directions, not just “leaders.” With the agile mindset, you and your leadership colleagues can work to determine how agile affects everything in your path, including previously task-oriented operations management, coaching, and even administrative day-to-day.

Examples of how this might look in your environment might include asking for candid, direct feedback. How are you leading? Do you actually know? Have you asked those you lead?

Likewise, you may need to re-evaluate how you speak. For example, “How can we …” or “where does the team …” rather than “why not,” or “it can’t be done.” Doing so might open you to establish two-way communication channels instead of one-way direction.

Outsiders see the outcomes of your leadership

When you set out to be nimble in solving an implementation, and that turns into a change environment and culture, you are changing the way everyone sees you – your competitors, your partners, even your future employees. Through leadership that moves, your actions become more than your words, and others can see what you’re building and doing to solve problems and change lives.

This attracts the brightest minds and the best talent, which helps create better, more robust, and service-oriented solutions, bringing you more and better clients, which allows you to take on and tackle new and innovative problems. 

Some have changed everything they’ve known to create agile leadership and agile environments. Some in your path might tell you the current culture is too much to overcome. Some might suggest that agile is not a scalable corporate culture. That “feedback” is not what you’re attempting to overcome; it’s more or less their lack of understanding of how agile applies to your and their roles as leaders and individuals in this future organization.

Agile leadership requires heavy lift in the beginning

Agile leadership requires time, attention, dedication, and belief in the potential outcomes. These components are the mighty muscles of any sincere leadership initiative and take more when launching a program. Still, over time the results begin to snowball, and things move faster with less effort.

However, predictability for the sake of security disappears through agile, and the focus changes to one of action and decisions. In other words, agile is continuous improvement and requires flexibility and change, something that’s very difficult for most to adopt quickly.

Final Thoughts

When agile leadership principles come together, you’re helping drive an organization that is more than defined by its results but by its service to its employees, customers, and the market as a whole.

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