7 Keys To Being A Leader In Agile Environment

Over the past few years, there have been a number of studies conducted by various organizations that explore the concept of leadership and management support within the context of Agile adoption. One common theme seemed to remain constant – strong executive sponsorship is critical in the successful application of Agile methods.

Although this probably feels like common sense to most of you, I challenge you to think about this…

If we all know that leadership is important in any change initiative, why is it that so many change initiatives (such as Agile adoption) still fail miserably, or do not achieve the desired benefits?

Is this because our leaders don’t know how to be effective sponsors? Or is it because they unintentionally impeded progress by engaging in counter-productive behaviors? I argue that there are many reasons for failed change initiatives, and the majority of them are related to lack of a strong leadership. Let’s explore some of the things that we would like to see from our leaders; as we go through this list, think about how your current leadership behaves and make a mental note on your “score”. We will revisit this towards the end of the article and see where you stand.

  1. Manages change at the individual level – Many leaders within organizations see change as something that their individual contributors need to “figure out” or “manage”. If you are in this situation, try to focus on the needs of the individual workers. This will likely feel very daunting especially if you have a large organization; managing individual fears and needs will be very time-consuming and tiring, but I encourage you to see this as an investment in your people and helping to guide them through the change process. Every person reacts to change in his/her unique ways due to the unique experiences and perspectives that each of us possess. This means that to mobilize a team/group of people, we need to establish a connection somehow.
  2. Respects psychological safety – Security and safety are at the core of our existence as human beings. If we are threatened by a new situation, we are inherently likely to retreat to our comfort zone, which in most cases is probably status quo. To encourage people to change, we are essentially trying to convince people that there’s a benefit to doing something differently, and that the potential rewards outweigh the risks and uncertainty.
  3. Sees failure as an opportunity – When you adopt Agile methods, or any kind of process change, you and your team will very likely not achieve excellence immediately; this is completely normal since we all need time to learn and adjust. While failing is difficult for many people because we feel less valuable and less secure, reframing struggles as opportunities to learn is not always easy, but is an important way to get past the challenges and sustain focus.
  4. Shares learnings consistently – As we stumble and struggle with learning a new work of working, sharing these experiences broadly and openly is an important step towards building trust and confidence. While it takes courage to admit that you didn’t succeed, being willing to be a little vulnerable and admit undesirable results may be one of the most difficult things to do as a leader. However, this may also be one of the most powerful ways to send a message to your team that it is okay to fail, as long as you learn from it.
  5. Maintains humility at all times – Humility is an interesting thing because it is nearly impossible to teach, yet it is something that is obvious when it is missing. When I work with new teams, I often run into people who think they know everything that they need to know; this may be one of the most challenging situations for a coach to address because this person may not be open to feedback. To me, being “humble” means that we should behave as if we do NOT know everything, which opens up the possibility of learning. As someone once told me, being “curious” is a great attitude to have when you are trying to operate within a new mindset.
  6. Encourages transparency – Although it sounds simple, being candid is not easy for everyone. Building a culture where openness is the norm is not an easy task. As a leader, encouraging candor and feedback by being open yourself to critiques can go a long way.
  7. Models the desired behavior – Modeling the desired behavior sounds like common sense, and it’s one of those things that we have heard so many times before. The interesting thing that I have observed is that many leaders unintentionally do the opposite of what they ask their teams to do, which undermines that change initiative severely. As a leader, you may need to proactively remind yourself to be open, to admit struggles, to share “bad news” in order to show your team that it is okay for them to do so as well. This will likely take practice and time.

To close this article, how did you score? If you were able to say “yes” to at least 4 out of the 7 items above as things that you do on a consistent basis, I think you are in a great position to build on that momentum. Remember, change is hard so try to avoid doing too much too soon. Take just one of the items and focus your energy on it for a few weeks, then see how things go. Allow your team to help drive the change so that they can commit to it and help you make this a success.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai