Leading in an agile world

Over the last few years you can’t have failed to notice a number of factors coming together in a potent mix, creating the opportunity for “digital transformation”

  • availability of data,
  • the power and availability of technology,
  • mobile and cloud computing,
  • peoples’ raised service expectations,
  • a shift to more agile ways of working.

I’ve observed that this disruption is also driving an absolute requirement for a change in the way leaders lead. Some approaches are simply no longer an option.

At a conference I spoke at recently I pulled together my thoughts and observations and created a list of questions for leaders to reflect on to assess how well aligned their leadership skills and behaviours are in enabling them to continue to provide great leadership as this digital, agile, brave and exciting new world develops. Following a number of requests I promised to write my session up as a blog, so here it is.

(This is a longer blog for me, 12 min read, so if you’re short of time, the questions are at the end!)

“Agile” has been around for some 20yrs now, beginning with software development teams which often demonstrate “hyper-productivity” Some achieving over 800% productivity gains vs traditional methods and replicating that success over and over again. Alongside those productivity gains the quality metrics are also seen to significantly increase. So it’s no surprise then that companies looked to “apply agile” to the wider workplace, but to quote the economist Robert Solow;

‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics’.

So why is this, why do we have this productivity paradox? Well more and more evidence now suggests that the greatest single thing holding back the adoption of agile values and principles, and therefore the greatest thing holding back the productivity revolution, is leadership. And what I mean is the behaviour of people in those leadership roles and the strangle hold governance processes that are a manifestation of hierarchical cultures.

What I and many others conclude, and my first observation, is that leadership can no longer be focused on control, it needs to be focused on people as nowadays things are just too complex, too unpredictable, and too fast and dynamic to all be controlled.

It gets worse; our education system is no longer pre-programming students to accept a command and control way of working. Teachers no longer just stand at the front of the class and tell kids stuff anymore. They engage and enable their students, encourage them, challenge and empower them with the single aim of helping them to be the very best version of themselves they can be. Students also feedback on their teachers in net promoter score type surveys! This means that more and more of our people just expect this way of working to continue when they enter the workplace.

But it gets even worse… and I’m stereotyping of course, but the next generation, Generation Alpha, are unlikely to even tolerate people thinking they’re in charge! This is not chaos and mutiny though. Leaders just need to understand and get comfortable with the fact that they are now just another part of the team and like everyone else in the team they have a role to play. An important role albeit, but just another role. Once this is realised, life becomes easier.

My next observation is that today’s leaders need to understand the basics of both agile and service design, because if you don’t understand these things and how they are applied, you can’t add value to the team.

I went through the basics at the conference, but I’ll just sign post you to some info you may find of use:

Here is a link to some info from GDS on Agile and Service Design

Whilst obsessively focussing on user needs, as opposed to reporting and governance, leaders need to get comfortable with exploring and living with uncertainty, making decisions by experimenting and learning, empowering people who are closest to the work to decide how best to achieve the desired outcomes.

It’s about being adaptive, not predictive.

So, bye bye to endless Gantt charts, milestones, gateways, programme boards, and the trees crying with the weight of paper being used. Agile projects move fast. Daily standups, fortnightly show and tells and retrospectives, road-maps, sprint plans, epics and backlogs. It’s a new language that leaders need to learn. But more than this, it’s a new way of working that can scare the living daylights out of default command and control managers. It also challenges traditional hierarchy-based governance processes. The power bases.

Constantly updating structure charts, lots of rules, trying to keep all your ducks in a row are a few give away signs of command and control cultures. But, as businesses become more agile, the leader’s role is more about making sure all ducks know what they’re trying to achieve, that they have a broad set of operating principles to work with and are empowered to collaborate and use the resources at their disposal.

If those ducks need to line up they will, but it will be their choice!

People will be a part of many teams and will be constantly moving around. Get used to it! And because of this, maintaining structure charts really will be a waste of time, but having a big board up with peoples’ photos on detailing what they do and showing product teams will be much more useful!

So agile is clearly very much about people and people work in ‘places’ so agile is also about the working environment we create for our teams.

My next observation, therefore, is that your office layout says a lot about your leadership style and working culture.

Is it the “aircraft layout” that I have seen in a number of workplaces. Where the desks are closely packed in lines at one end of the floor where the ‘lower grades sit’ (cattle class), then a bit more space in the middle where the more senior grades sit (business class) and finally the offices at the other end where the directors, like pilots, sit barricaded away from danger!

Or, is your workspace laid out to create spaces that are designed to enable different activities rather than reinforcing a hierarchy? Some desks with monitors, benching for quick touch down checking of email, quiet areas for high concentration work and cubicles for 1:1s and skype calls. Spaces for stand-ups with writable walls that can also be covered in those dreaded post it notes.

Now, let’s get back to the role of the leader. Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase “Servant Leader” way back in 1970. It was very much an option back then and pooh-poohed by many. But it is clearly servant leaders who create agile businesses.

“If you want to lead at the highest level, you need to learn to serve at the lowest”

So what defines an agile business?

Agile businesses have lots of principles and values which “enable and empower.” Rules “constrain” and lots of rules create lots of “can I?” questions and people checking to make sure they don’t get something wrong. Pace is reduced and productivity stifled.

In a more agile environment, shared values and principles are understood and they allow people to exercise judgement, which makes people feel trusted. They get on with things and they’re motivated. Pace and productivity increase. People celebrate success, offer ideas, share lessons learnt and ask for opinions to help make decisions.

Agile teams have and feel ownership

But this isn’t a new concept is it? Many of these things are cited as the difference between a manager and a leader. Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying ‘it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do, we hire smart people and let them tell us what to do’.

Other things haven’t changed either; Leaders, in the agile workplace, must still clearly set out the vision, but the difference is that they are then expected to get out of the way and let the teams get on and deliver, with the leader serving the team.

“Be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the detail” Jeff Bezos

Creating highly productive teams when resources are scarce and attracting and retaining the best people is now becoming more and more dependent on leaders creating an environment in which people can perform at their best. Rather than being “in charge,” servant leaders do this by leading with others in mind. They invest significant time in role modeling culture and creating clarity in understanding of the outcomes required and then empowering and supporting their people to deliver.

As I touched on earlier, people who think and approach delivery in an agile way don’t respond well to being told what to do. They respond much more positively (as actually most people do) to being ‘part’ of something. Understanding not only what they are doing, but also WHY they are doing it. (See Simon Sinek’s TED talk ‘start with why’), because the agile workforce of today has a much greater awareness of their “Why” and want to align what they do to it.

So my next observation is: The greater the understanding of purpose and the more your teams can align to that purpose, the more productivity you will see and the happier your people will be.

It’s clear that agile ways of working are turning the pyramid models of hierarchical structures on their heads. Big chains of command are becoming a thing of the past. Hierarchy is one of the biggest risks to pace and delivery, especially when that hierarchy is reinforced, protected and manifest as layer upon layer of bureaucratic governance.

It’s the leader’s job to challenge and remove bureaucracy where ever they can and at every opportunity. Look for those transformation opportunities. Support those who are doing the same; form a coalition of the willing.

Given all of this, it will come as no surprise that if you spend your days trying to control things, to understand and control what’s going on, you will find the workplace getting more and more frustrating and you’ll find yourself getting more and more stressed, with less and less time to “do what you’re meant to be doing” and your teams will spend more and more of their time trying to keep you out of the way so you don’t slow things up. It can be a vicious circle and it will destroy productivity.

Try to focus more on finding out what is happening, rather than what is going on. It’s a subtle but important difference. The really good thing about agile working is that it’s built on transparency. If you want to know what’s happening, just go to a few stand-ups, read the Slack channel (or whatever they’re using) go along to the show and tells and the retros.

You’ll usually be able to walk around a project space which will be littered with info about users and their needs. The teams will have sprint plans showing the things that are being done over the next few weeks along with a backlog of stuff that they plan to do over the longer term. Go and immerse yourself in it if you want to gain more understanding, ask the team to talk you through. As leader, you will also have “needs” so make sure your teams know this and build them into the way you work. The teams will love it!

Importance and status used to come from your place in the hierarchy, now importance and status are defined by the value you add. Unfortunately generation Z and Alpha have no real interest or regard for status. Maybe swap the word status for “Value” and you’ll be moving in the right direction.

My final observation therefore is that agile leaders add value.

Netflix have a thing each year where they ask “if I said I was leaving how hard would you fight to get me to stay”

How hard would your team fight to keep you?

Would your team recommend you to others and would they rehire you as their boss if they had the choice?

These are powerful, uncomfortable questions, but being aware of all of this is the first step in making the move to becoming the kind of leader who adds value as part of a successful team.

So here are those questions to reflect on:

  • Are your team clear on the vision? Do they know ‘why’?
  • Do you understand the principles and values of agile and service design?
  • Are you looking out for transformation opportunities
  • what does your workspace say about your team culture? Do you have an activity based workspace or the aircraft layout?
  • Are you a servant leader? Do you constantly ask what your team needs to perform at their best and what are you doing to create that environment?
  • Are you part of the governance or part of the team?
  • What value are you adding? How hard would your team fight to keep you? would they recommend you to others?

When you’ve reflected on these questions you may wish to have a go at the “productivity challenge” I set out at the conference:

Use the questionnaire to review and redesign your leadership service.

Approach this as you would any agile service redesign; go and ‘discover’ your user needs (talk to your team) and reflect on how your current leadership service fits with those needs.

Try some stuff out, beta test it, redesign end to end and when you have your MVP, relaunch yourself as an agile leader…

remember to get feedback, constantly and iterate…

We often talk about needing technology fit for the future, but what we also desperately need are leaders who are fit for the future as well.

With thanks to @GaryWatts for his inspiration and input into this article. Also thanks for those at the recent Productivity Challenge conference who spurred me into writing this up, it’s been a great catalyst for my own reflection too!

Harvey Neve

I'm an experienced senior leader working with great people delivering great things. ✔ I've had great teachers and great role models along my journey and I've learned from experience: ✔ I've worked in both the private and public sectors ✔ I've managed major customer accounts, led national sales / service and large multi-disciplined teams . ✔ I'm adaptable, outcome driven and have a passion for customer service. ✔ My key transferable skills are : strategic leadership, operational delivery and digital transformation. ✔ But most of all, I'm passionate about people! ✔ I'm a Chartered Manager and a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute .

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