The Agile Leadership Ecosystem

What’s so Different About Agile Leadership?

Effective leadership is a primary key to organizational agility. As reflected each year in the “State of Agile Report”, organizations that commit to all aspects of Agile principles tend to realize the greatest benefit. These organizations start with a focus on leadership. Each Agile framework in its implementation makes great investments to clearly define leadership roles and responsibilities. Some go farther and define the required leader competencies. This emphasis on leadership makes it clear that organizational agility does not come from isolated tactics. It requires an all-in commitment to strategy.

The leading obstructor to pursuing organizational agility continues to be organization itself. And that’s a shame because the factors leading to these obstructions are completely within the control of the organization — if the people are truly ready, willing, and able to do what it takes to succeed. All too often, the collective will of the people within the organization lacks the readiness, willingness, and/or ability to do the work needed to realize success. And resolving that problem starts with leadership.

For fourteen years digital.ai™ (formerly CollabNet/VersionOne) has published an annual “State of Agile Report”. This is an annual analysis of organizations using Agile frameworks. The analysis consistently shows, year over year, that inadequate management support and sponsorship, along with resistance to change, remain among the top obstructors to adopting Agile. Let’s consider how to address that.

Change Agents

A change agent is someone committed to leading organizational change. A change agent will drive and sustain the ecosystem through leadership by example. More importantly, they model Agile mindset, principles, practices, and values. They understand and embrace the importance of servant-leadership. They recognize that practicing openness, trust, and transparency will encourage others to do the same. They are aware that these practices have proven over decades to create greater value to stakeholders, adapt well to change, create superior products, and foster continuous improvement and innovation. Why? Because given the room to thrive, people inherently adopt an interest in doing better at whatever they do. These practices form a more effective management ecosystem.

Sociologist, Ron Westrum famously created an organizational culture model which defined three categories of organizational leadership behavior:

Pathological: Power-orientedBureaucratic: Rule-orientedGenerative: Performance-oriented

These behaviors define the organization’s ecosystem, and thus its ability to adapt to change. Pathological and Bureaucratic styles are all-too prevalent, but there are significant and encouraging indicators of Generative leadership growth.

The good news in the State of Agile Report is that the leadership situation is improving. Leaders in a growing number of organizations have accepted that they are better off operating in an Agile-friendly ecosystem than in traditional pathological or bureaucratic models. This is a great improvement with, or without Agile. But Agile frameworks challenge the status-quo in different ways. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe®) requires Lean-Agile leadership as part of its implementation. Scrum is also a strong advocate of the Agile mindset as demonstrated in Scrum Master and Product Owner certification.

The DNA of Agile frameworks includes a specific form of leadership. It strives to produce leaders as change agents capable of inspiring the best of people. It requires a non-traditional approach to leadership. When forced, the approach can become a source of resistance. But ultimately, as results prove the value of Agile leadership, more traditional organizations will be well-served by evolving their ecosystems toward agility.

You will recognize generative leadership by the organization’s ability to foster effective flow of information, high cooperation, trust, authenticity, common respect, emotional intelligence, continuous learning, and decentralized decision making. There are other characteristics consistent with generative leadership, but they ultimately come culminate in human growth and higher quality products and performance.

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!Peter Senge

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But Why Agile?

Agility is the ability to quickly respond to change and organizations frequently struggle with change. Traditional management clung to pathological and/or bureaucratic leadership styles which naturally led companies to produce solutions as if nothing would never change. The flawed thinking in both of those styles is the belief that we know everything we need to know. The unfortunate truth however, is that we do not know everything we need to know, and we never have.

By misleading ourselves in this way, we create unnecessary stress, struggle, and scrambling. When something unexpected happens, we scramble and go to great expense as we react. Our approach was not designed to handle change. Agile confronts that faulty approach head-on. Agile assumes change. It accepts the fact that change is inevitable. By building change into the process, Agile teams respond to change. They are not impeded by change.

The Agile Ecosystem

In software engineering we broadly envision Agile as the ability to quickly respond to change. An organization shows agility when it stops reacting to changing needs, demands, expectations and requirements. Agile organizations respond. Agility lives in the real world, where changes are expected, we are aware that we don’t know everything, but we are confident that we can handle anything. Agility perceives the world differently, and thus requires a different ecosystem.

The traditional American organizational ecosystem is one of command-and-control; where leaders issue directives to be followed by everyone. Agility cannot exist in this environment. Agility requires trust, openness, and transparency; none of which thrive under command-and-control. Attempts to use Agile methodologies within command-and-control organizations have met varying degrees of success; however, consistent success requires consistency of practice throughout the organization.

When the ecosystem hosting the project supports Agile principles, then the project has a natural home and can function optimally. When the project team uses Agile frameworks in an incompatible ecosystem, then factors, large and small will interfere with the project’s life system. The project is very much like a fish out of water. Many project leaders have attempted to use an Agile framework with great intentions in non-Agile organizations, but few have succeeded. Agile frameworks require management support and sponsorship. Without the appropriate level of support, especially when things don’t go as planned, the uphill climb becomes even steeper. So Agile functions well in an ecosystem where its frameworks can thrive in a drive toward organizational agility.

Editor’s Note: This article reproduced with permission from Medium.