6 Habits of Successful Agile Leaders

It’s been 25 years since Dr. Stephen Covey first introduced us to the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ and this modern classic has sold over 25 million copies in 38 languages. It’s considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and continues to help people today.

One of the key reasons for this book’s success is its focus on the identification and development of positive habits – actions you can take routinely to get to where you want and need to be as a spouse, a parent, a boss… whatever roles you play.

Using this same basic framework, we’d like to introduce you to 6 habits of successful Agile leaders. If that’s a role you currently play, or would like to in the future, take note of these six actions you can take routinely to improve your chances of success.

1. Prioritize Continuous Education

Successful Agile leaders will be thoroughly familiar with, and embrace, the principles of the Agile Manifesto. They will be knowledgeable and conversant in the particular Agile framework(s) used at the company, and will know how to optimize its use for their unique situation.

What they won’t do, however, is get to the point where they feel they know everything and can continue to function on autopilot. The Agile landscape is constantly evolving, and successful Agile leaders accept this fact and realize that, to stay relevant and effective, they need to do the same. So, they will prioritize taking in a steady diet of Agile and project management-related knowledge.

2. Take a System View

Successful Agile leaders must have the “big picture” view of the entire Agile organization and understand how each individual and team fits into that system. This requires taking a step back from one’s own responsibilities to stay on top of what’s happening in other teams and departments.

The more responsibility an Agile leader has, the more important this system view becomes. If a product owner gets overly focused on their own product and development teams and fails to optimize performance, it’s a problem, but one that can be dealt with.

However, if a portfolio manager runs into the same issue and fails to optimize appropriately for the entire value chain, it can quickly become a disaster where work essentially grinds to a halt and productivity is lost.

3. Own the System

While anyone in the organization can contribute to challenges and roadblocks on the way to real Agile work flow, only Agile leaders can really get to the bottom of them and fix them.

When you get down to it, problems impeding the implementation or efficient use of Agile methodologies are systemic problems, not people problems. With rare exceptions, the people are talented, knowledgeable, and want to succeed. But systemic problems get in the way of that, and they can lead to issues with morale and other less tangible challenges on top of the root cause.

A successful Agile leader won’t be looking to pass the blame or the responsibility of identifying and fixing systemic problems to anyone else. They will own the problem and the solution.

4. Exhibit a Bias for Action

This habit is deceptively simple. Basically, the entire point of going Agile is to optimize production in such a way that projects and products are continually improving and that the end user derives more value more quickly as a result.

To accomplish this, a successful Agile leader must exhibit a bias for action. When a roadblock emerges, they won’t tend to call three meetings, run a batch of studies to analyze the issue, pull together a focus group and outline three potential plans for a solution that needs to be discussed and implemented by committee.

Rather, they will take action as immediately as possible to provide a solution, even if it’s a temporary one, so that work can continue. Then, as Sprints continue and the natural flow of planning, development, and retrospective keeps improving each iteration, a more permanent solution can be implemented.

5. Build Teams That Have Fun

In most organizations, talent and drive are not tough to come by. The overwhelming majority of workers are interested in producing quality work they can be proud of and they take their jobs seriously.

But that doesn’t mean they like their jobs, or their projects. Or each other, for that matter.

Successful Agile leaders realize that stress, personality issues, a lack of communication, and a sense of isolation are all toxic to high-performing Agile teams. They foster an environment in which it’s possible for team members to enjoy themselves and enjoy their work without harming productivity.

6. Create an Environment of Mutual Influence

Hand-in-hand with a fun environment is an environment where team members feel free to make mistakes in the pursuit of continual improvement and innovation. Where it’s alright to disagree when appropriate in order to come to a better solution. Where it’s each team member’s responsibility to stand up for what they need in order to accomplish what’s being asked of them, and to realistically explain if a request is impossible.

In all these cases, it’s the successful Agile leader – not the individual team member – who is in a position to create and encourage that environment. Leading by example, more than anything else, will accomplish this.

When an Agile leader exhibits all six of these key habits in the way they approach their job, you can expect the teams they support to be happier and more productive, and the organization to be producing high-quality products on a constantly improving cycle.

For more information about the habits of successful Agile leaders, we recommend the Dean Leffingwell webinar, “Lean Leadership at the Portfolio Level” where these habits are discussed in detail along with a number of interesting case study anecdotes from Dean’s 40 years in software development and consultation.