Every time I talk to leaders and teams in organizations, I get asked the same question:
"Do agile organizations still need leaders?"
My answer is always "Yes!". In this article, I intend to share with you why I believe this is the case, what leadership - from my perspective - in agile organizations looks like, how leadership can make companies more agile to deal with VUCA, and also how the skills for becoming such a leader can be acquired.
I believe there are mainly seven valuable things leaders can do to increase organizational agility, effectiveness, focus, and ultimately also create an agile culture. These things are:
- Enable Self-Management
- Empower Self-Management
- Enhance Self-Management
- Strategize, Prioritize, Align
- Become a Student of the Game
- Teach, Mentor, Coach
- Challenge Ideas not People
The list is not necessarily prioritized, but the items are grouped e.g. the first three items are all related to the topic of self-management. Item 5 and 6 are both related to the topic of continuous learning and improvement. In this article we will walk you through each of these sections and also share a recent talk I gave at the Agile Leader Day - so for those of you who speak German and prefer to listen rather than read, feel free to scroll down and dive right into the video. For everyone else, let's look into each of these sections one by one.
Actually, before we do this, I have a question for you:
"Are today’s managers adequately trained to be great leaders?"
If you can spend a few moments, think about it... maybe even write down your perspective on this question and then continue reading.
1. Enable Self-Management
Too often do I see the following thing happen. A manager or a group of managers go to a training, they learn a few things about agility and the importance of self-management or self-organization to become more agile, and when they come back they declare to their team or even the whole organization: "From now on you are self-managed!". Any organization, any leader that does this will face the following challenges:
A) Neither the leader nor the team know what self-management or self-organization means, hence no one really knows which decisions are within the authority of the team and which are still with the leader.
B) In many cases the team might believe they are now empowered, but they really don't know how to proceed, either because they lack the skills to solve certain problems, or lack the skills to jointly get to a decision and commitment.
Due to both challenges the sudden transformation towards 'self-management' is going to be frustrating for teams and their managers.
I am not saying that self-management is wrong... not at all. I actually believe that moving decision making authority - not for all, but for some decisions - to the teams is essential for an organization's ability to adopt the principles of Agile, to drive learning and innovation, and to create a new culture. But this is not only a change that needs to happen in teams, it also requires managers/leaders to transform e.g. from commanding to serving - more on that later.
So now the question comes up how do we enable self-management? One of the better tools I have come across is Hackman's Authority Model (see visual below). It is very simple which has the benefit that it does not take a lot of time to explain it.
On the horizontal axis, Hackman describes different types of teams from a traditional 'manager-led' team all the way to 'self-governing teams'. This axis helps us create alignment i.e. a shared understanding in terms of the terminology.
On the vertical axis, Hackman describes various accountabilities all the way from 'execute team tasks' to 'set overall direction'. This axis gives us an overview of and again alignment on the different levels of existing tasks.
These two axis combined and with the color coding in the matrix, we can clearly see that any type of team has certain accountabilities hence requires certain capabilities. Therefore, when we talk about enabling self-management, we mean that any leader that wants their teams to be self-managed, first and foremost needs to help the team acquire the capabilities of 'monitor & manage work' in addition to 'execute team tasks' i.e. the bottom two on the vertical axis.
Be it in software development or any other profession, most teams do not know how to effectively monitor and manage their work. Scrum, DevOps and Kanban, both are Agile frameworks or Agile methods frequently used for product development, offer various tools and techniques such as the Scrum Events, the Kanban Board, or a Sprint Burndown Chart just to name a few. In addition to creating alignment and transparency, one of the key outcomes in using these tools is a team of people collectively learning to monitor & manage work i.e. become more of a self-managed team.
To close this lesson, I'd like to share a quote with you from Bill Campbell. Bill was known as the Coach in the Silicon Valley as he coached and mentored almost all famous tech founders and executives including Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt (all from Google), and many others.
Part of creating the environment is to teach individuals and teams new skills so that self-management can emerge which is essential but not sufficient to achieve organizational agility.
2. Empower Self-Management
Once teams are enabled i.e. have built up the skillset to 'monitor & manage work', moving towards more self-management is primarily related to empowerment. Empowerment means the delegation of decision making authority. Not more, not less. How does empowerment connect to achieving organizational agility? It allows for faster and in many cases better decisions which again drives organizational agility.
Many leaders I work with do not really know what type of decisions to delegate and how to actually do that. There are many tools that can help do that, two of them I find helpful i.e. pragmatic and very easy to implement.
A) Radical Delegation Framework from Shreyas Doshi
The framework (see visual below) consists of two dimensions. The first one (on the horizontal axis), is "who could do this work?" The second dimension (on the vertical axis), is about the leverage i.e. importance of this work for the organization.
The upper-right quadrant is easy. Anything that only you as the leader can do and has very high leverage for the organization, that should be your focus. Things like vision, strategy, people development, all of these are essential and important aspects of your role. Do not delegate them unless you plan to leave the organization.
Similar to the upper-right quadrant, the lower-left quadrant is easy. You should not be doing anything that many people can do and has only low to medium leverage i.e. importance for the organization. Anything in this quadrant should be delegated to others. Let them know you are there to help, but you want to spend as little time and energy as necessary on these items.
The two remaining quadrants are a bit more tricky. Let's start with the lower-right quadrant i.e. only you can do it, but it has low to medium leverage for the organization. These are the tasks where you need to quickly set up the essential foundation so that you can delegate it to other people. If no one knows what to do and how to do it, teach it to them and stay there as a coach until the items move into the lower-left quadrant because more people have build up the skillset to do these things.
The most difficult one to deal with in reality is from my experience the upper-left quadrant. Many people can do them, but the items have high leverage for the organization. Most leaders, including probably you, do not have the challenge that there is too little work for them to do. Every leader I have worked with incl. myself, has too much on their plate. So we always need to keep in mind whatever we can delegate, we should delegate!
With regard to tasks in the upper-left corner, we delegate to the most suitable person, but we stay actively engaged e.g. we remain as a key stakeholder, as a sparring partner, and as someone who helps remove impediments.
B) Delegation Poker from Jurgen Appelo
In his book Management 3.0 Jurgen Appelo covers a bunch of tools and techniques that are helpful for anyone practicing Agile Leadership. One of these tools is delegation poker (see image below).
While the Radical Delegation Framework is something a leader does on their own, Delegation Poker is something one can do together with their direct reports or even whole teams. There is no need for me to write up how it works as the inventor himself explains it really well here: https://management30.com/practice/delegation-poker/.
Similar to the previous lesson, I like to close this one with a quote. This time, the quote is from Steve Jobs who probably does not need any introduction. Many people believed Steve was an individual contributor and the sole genius behind Apple's amazing products and business turnaround. He was a genius, but his genius was also in knowing how to get people - as a collective - do the best work of their lives. The quote below about letting people make a lot of decisions sums it up really well.
3. Enhance Self-Management
This final topic related to self-management requires a bit of context. In his book the "Future of Management", Gary Hamel talks about various types of innovation (see image below). He is not the first person to do so, but I like his classification a lot.
Starting from left i.e. lowest impact to right i.e. highest impact, Gary Hamel distinguishes between operational, product, strategic, and management innovation. Let's look at each of them briefly before we connect this back to the topic of enhancing self-management.
These are all the lean initiatives and new 'toys' organizations buy. Be it the implementation of a CRM system like Salesforce, or an ERP like SAP, be it business process reengineering or continuous improvement on how we work within teams. All of these things are considered 'operational innovation' and they do have an impact. But if we think about making a building an invincible company (using a term from my friend Alex Osterwalder) these initiatives have low impact.
Looking at the automotive industry, we can all immediately spot what product innovation looks like. Every few years a company like VW creates a new version of their most-selling car the VW Golf. Sometimes there is more, sometimes there is less new stuff in the product. Right now, they need to reinvent the car to move from ICE (internal combustion engine) to EV (electrical vehicle). Product innovation is great and has already more impact than pure operational innovation. Compared to operational innovation which either makes your products cheaper or increases your margin, product innovation helps you hopefully sell more products and over a longer period of time. But does it make your company invincible? The answer is no!
My friend Alex would refer to this as business model innovation - he actually wrote a whole book about this topic, which I can highly recommend. So what is the difference between product innovation and strategic innovation? Going back to the example of Volkswagen, it is not only about building EVs. It is also about creating a whole business model around them. Tesla does this incredibly well. They changed how cars are bought, how they are built, how they drive (autonomous driving), how they are serviced, and also how one can charge their car (supercharging network). This type of innovation can only be created through customer centricity, systems thinking, and strategic agility.
Now that we have covered the three most common forms of innovation, let's have a look at the final one, which - according to Gary Hamel - has the highest impact. Management innovation is all about changing how we lead, how we budget, and how we manage our people, initiatives, and through that the organization. All of the structures, policies, and metrics that organizations have, ultimately contribute to the company culture. If we want an organization that delivers different results e.g. more innovation at a higher pace, then we need to change how this organization operates and how it approaches initiatives. This is management innovation. Why is it more impactful than the three types of innovation mentioned earlier? Simple... it creates the foundation for all other types of innovation to emerge.
Gary Hamel's quote below, describes really well the state at most organizations.
So, what is the link of all this to enhancing self-management? If we want to move more and more authority to our teams and individuals close to customers - that would be an enhancement of self-management - then we need to make significant changes to the organizational operating system. We need to move from systems that are designed to control everything from the top, to systems that are designed to create alignment while providing as much autonomy as possible. We need to create an agile operating model.
Ultimately, this is the job and responsibility of leaders in organizations. They have to transform the organization to make it more flexible and allow teams to become better at empiricism i.e. inspect and adapt. Maybe the most important task of any leader is to create more leaders and better leadership in their organization. Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier group summarizes all of this in one quote:
4. Strategize, Prioritize, Align
In this section I will cover three things that - for whatever reason - many leaders delegate either to teams or to external consultancies or not do at all. Creating a strategy that can be implemented i.e. is concrete enough to start acting on, prioritizing the product, project, or initiative portfolio, and aligning and focusing the organization around these topics is probably the most important and also the hardest job for all leaders.
Going back to the Radical Delegation Framework, all of these topics are in the upper-right quadrant i.e. only the leader can do it and it has tremendously high leverage. As Patrick Lencioni says:
"If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time."
If you are a leader, don't delegate strategy development to a consultancy... not to McKinsey, not to Bain, not to BCG or any others. If you need help to run some analysis, ok get them involved, but do not hand over the strategy creation to them. There is no way they know more about your industry than you. If they do you are in the wrong job. There is no way they know more about your company and your people than you. Again, if they do... you know what the answer is. And there is no way they know more about your customers than you. So really, you need to own the strategy. Will you get everything right? Of course you won't, but neither will they. So own your destiny and do the work.
The best leaders in the world are not the most creative, they are the best at saying no. Apple has this famous quote
"A thousand no's for every yes". And they not only say this, they back it up. How many companies anywhere close to the size of Apple do you know with so few products? They are tremendously focused. This culture, among many other things, was initiated by Steve Jobs.
If leaders don't prioritize, guess what, nobody else will. One cannot expect to have an agile process (many orgs call it this way) with Product Owners becoming rigorous at prioritizing if the senior leaders in the organization believe everything is equally important. So do the tough calls prioritize and through that focus the organization. For most organizations, this one thing is a huge culture change and also the biggest lever they have. A great side effect, suddenly most of your people end up being only on one or two projects instead of five or six, which in itself significantly increases their productivity.
Last but not least, let's talk about alignment. Alignment happens through constant communication. If you tell people once what is important, most will not listen, let alone remember it. So you have to say things multiple times. In order for people to be able to make decisions aligned with the organization's strategy, they really need to understand the strategy deeply. So constant communication is key. Talking about pitfalls in change management, Kotter mentions "under-communicating the vision by a factor of 10". This is no joke... we need to say things over and over again, to make it stick and give it relevance.
Ultimately, Reed Hastings says it best talking about leaders in organizations where individuals and teams close to customers get to make the big decisions.
5. Become a Student of the Game
So far we have covered how you can enable, empower, and enhance self-management. We have also covered how you provide guidance through strategy, prioritization, and alignment. Next up, is working on yourself. You can't become great at what you do if you do not constantly improve your game i.e. skills.
The best athletes in the world, be it LeBron James, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Cristiano Ronaldo, they all work on their game, their physique, their mental strength, and anything else that can make the difference between winning and losing constantly... day in, day out.
They engage the best coaches despite being the best themselves in their fields of work. They constantly challenge themselves, experiment with new things as they realize that the context - be it competitors, their own age, etc. - is constantly changing.
Any leader aiming to create an agile organization and increasing business agility, needs to start working on their own agile mindset first. They truly need to embrace agile values, agile principles, and agile approaches for themselves before taking those things to their teams. They need to lead by example.
When I talk about this, many leaders tell me that they are constantly working on their leadership skillset, so I ask a few questions:
- What was the last leadership book you read?
- What were your key insights from the last leadership training you took?
- Which skill are you currently working to improve?
- Do you do regular retrospectives to evaluate your progress?
- Do you have a coach?
99 out of a 100 people respond with "I don't remember", "No idea", "Several things" which usually means nothing, "no", and "no". This means they are not working on becoming better at their profession. We all love sports analogies, but if we do not act on them, then what's the point?
Real mastery comes from consistency, not intensity. Or as Pablo Picasso would put it, it takes a lifetime.
6. Teach, Mentor, Coach
Working on yourself and your growth journey is important, but in order to become a truly great company, a great leader also focuses time and energy on the development of others. People development is not something HR or People Operations or whatever department your company might have does. It is the daily job of leaders. This is one crucial piece of the concept of servant leadership. If you do not enjoy serving and helping other people become better at what they do, you probably should not be in a leadership position.
In general, there are three ways a servant leader can support the people they work with: Teaching, Mentoring, and Coaching. Let's go through them one by one.
Teaching is what happens either in training sessions, or also on the job. It is mostly about teaching people new skills - both soft-skills like how to read the room and hard-skills like how to write better code. A few skills most individuals and teams need to learn are:
- Understanding the fundamentals of agility and agile
- Learning about customers and customer needs
- Systematically developing a product goal or vision
- Prioritizing features of an initiative or a product
- Understanding cross-functional teams
As a leader there are particular skills you have which you can also teach to other people. The more skills you acquire - see lesson 5 - the more skills you can teach.
Mentoring goes beyond teaching as it is mostly long-term oriented and it does not have to be related to the the particular skillset of the leader. Mentoring can be about what is a viable next career step or how do I find a good balance between my personal and professional life.
A great mentor cares a lot about the people they work with. Sometimes the mentor/mentee relationship is formalized by the mentee asking the mentor to support them. In many cases that relationship just happens. Sometimes people that used to be one's direct reports still remain mentees even after they leave the organization.
Coaching is a truly important skill, and one that does not come easy to most leaders I have worked with. The challenge with coaching is not giving the one answer you might have in mind but helping the other person to get to an answer that can work for them or from which they can learn.
Becoming a great coach takes a ton of practice. For me, it was mostly about learning to really listen, asking more questions than sharing my thoughts, framing my ideas and experiences as one and not the only option, and ultimately leaving the ownership of a problem or challenge with my coachee. All of this might sound easy, trust me it is not.
Also important to remember is that acting as a coach or having coaching skills, does not mean that a leader in an organization is 100% a coach. There are huge differences, the main one being that in most cases coaches - being from outside of the organization - do not have any skin in the game, but leaders do.
7. Challenge Ideas not People
The German philosopher Karl Popper - a true student of empiricism - wisely said: "Let ideas die in our place!" Through this he emphasized on mainly two things a) that ideas exist to be challenged and it is ok for them to die and b) that when we want to challenge something it should be the idea not the person.
Today, many thought leaders (especially Amy Edmondson) talk about the concept of psychological safety as a key element to drive employee engagement, creativity, and new strategies to achieve a greater goal. Psychological safety does not mean that I can say whatever I want without anyone challenging it. It means that I can say stuff without people challenging me as a human being and member of the team. But my ideas should be challenged, because only by challenging ideas do we as teams built on top of each other and come up with better ideas that serve our customers and our business in a better way.
Challenging ideas and not people is a skill many of us need to learn and probably all of us need to hone. Be it in a leadership team or in a development team, in a traditional organization or in an agile company, in both the nonprofit and for-profit arenas, this skill can really be applied anywhere. Unfortunately, many organizations forget to work on these type of skills when approaching organizational change to increase agility.
Final Thoughts on becoming a better agile leader
Creating an agile organisation is more than just setting up value streams, cross-functional teams, a bunch of post-its on the wall, and talking about digital transformation. A true agile organisation is created through how leaders lead, through how leaders learn, and through how leaders are vulnerable in sharing their mistakes.
The creation of a new culture, of a company-wide agile culture, a culture that is not command-and-control, but based on alignment and autonomy to deal with the challenges of today's business environment, starts with the leaders. So we recommend to all HR leaders to take note as they play a key role in what kind of leadership development program is created and/or selected in their organization.
Do they want to emphasize more of the same i.e. old ways of leading organizations, or do they want to be part of the agile transformation to create not only a few agile teams but a true agile business. If it is the latter, they need to support the journey of their leaders to move away from a mindset of demanding teams to do something, and move to a mindset of serving i.e. enabling and empowering teams to achieve something.
The late Jean Tabaka put it best:
"A servant leader leads by serving, and also serves by leading!"
Additional Reading and Resources
As mentioned above, I recently gave a talk at a conference covering these seven lessons. Due to COVID-19 the talk was given in a virtual format and was recorded (in german) .
There have been many best-selling books written on the topics covered in this post... the list below gives you just my favorite ones and a great place to start.
- Trillion Dollar Coach by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle
- The Future of Management by Gary Hamel
- The Invincible Company by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
- Humanocracy by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini (also see Michele's agile100 recording)
- Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
- No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meier
- The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
In addition to the books which are great for self-learning, we have several training offers that can help you embark on your personal leadership journey:
Also, feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions or want to develop a larger number of leaders within your organization. You can contact us through team (at) scrum-academy.com.