How to be a great leader during an agile transformation

Claus Vagner Pedersen

Konsulent

cvp@syndicate.dk

5

min. læsetid

November 14, 2019

“I have a leadership position in my company. My company is currently trying to become more agile and we are trying to implement Scrum/Kanban or another agile framework/practice. But the Scrum Guide or other framework descriptions do not really mention me… What is my role in all of this? What should I do, and what should I not do?”

Is that you?

Through the years I have been part of both small and large transformations of companies — from some kind of traditional management style into a more agile setup. How leaders in organizations behave has a tremendous impact on the transformation, both negative and positive.

In this blog post, I will give my perspective on which behaviors you should focus on in your leadership position to support the transformation, and which behaviors you should leave behind.

I often see leaders who are unsure of their role in an agile transformation. A general thing that I always recommend is that you need to remember that this is a journey. Your organization will not suddenly become full-blown agile overnight. It is a process, which you as a leader need to support. Your behavior as a leader will differ depending on how far your organization is on its agile journey.

Your focus will change as the organization changes, and remember that you are a HUGE part of this change as well. As your team(s) and organization “level up”(yes, I play video games :-) ) you need to adapt your narrative accordingly. A team that just started using Scrum, or any other agile methodology for that matter, needs a different kind of attention than a team that is already good at Scrum.

Focus on this:

Truly understand agile

Agile is not just something that your teams are going to do. It is a change in organizational culture. If you do not understand and encourage this change, your organization will struggle. You need to go all-in and enlighten yourself on what Agile is. Read books, attend a conference, talk to leaders in other organizations who are in the same position as you, or someone who has been in your situation previously. If you do not already have one, create a group with other leaders in your organization with the purpose of understanding agile. Focus on your role as a leader in your organization during your transformation.

Playing field

You should constantly consider what “level” your organization and teams are on. It is very important that you as a leader is part of setting the current boundaries. It is totally fine to set boundaries, that is part of being a leader. Remember though, that teams should always be encouraged to challenge the status quo if the current boundaries are impeding them from doing their best.

Do not throw away things that are working well for you, as long as they do not conflict with the agile mindset. If anything starts to become an impediment for your teams, challenge it! Find out what will work instead.

Own your mistakes

You are in a massive cultural change in your company, if you change stuff you are bound to make mistakes and bad decisions. That is perfectly OK. The important thing is that you own up to your mistakes. Share them with your teams, and share what you have learned from them. Create a culture where it is OK to fail and learn from mistakes. We cannot improve unless we change, and when we change we are more likely to make mistakes. You cannot have one without the other.

Servant leadership

To be a great leader in an agile organization you must understand and practice servant leadership. Servant leadership is a whole topic in itself that you should explore. Start off by reading (or listening to) “The Servant”, by James C. Hunter.

Servant Leadership is about serving others. Serving others does not mean bringing coffee etc. You are not their slave :-)

Serving others means that you will do your utmost to meet their needs. To enable them to grow. In all simplicity: “Be the boss you wish your boss would be”.

How you behave in this transformation is crucial to its success. You might be talking about agile, but it is your behavior and your actions that will influence your teams.

Your number one question to yourself should always be: “how can I enable my team(s) to succeed?”. You must trust the team to solve the problem and support them the best you can.

Support

The teams are going through a change. New roles, new setup etc. It can be hard on them. Be sure to show them your unconditional support. Let them know that you have their back, and that they have your trust. Constantly consider what support they will need on the “level” they are on and what will happen when they move to the next “level”, and what that will mean for your involvement.

Continuous improvement

A key element of becoming more agile is to create a culture of continuous improvement. It is through continuous improvement that we evolve towards being a more agile organization. Show your interest in the teams’ current improvement actions. How is it going? Are they learning from their mistakes? You must reward the right behavior, and not only good results.

Leave this behind:

Micro management

Trust your teams to solve the job. Spend your time on the above-mentioned topics instead. Encourage that incoming work go to a team and not to an individual. Stop moving people around from team to team to try and solve dependencies or to sub-optimize the teams.

Control

You need to acknowledge that some things will be out of your control. You need to give the teams the responsibility. But support them. I have seen leaders who just say: “There you go team, take it away!”. Make sure that the team accepts the control before you let it go, and do your best to get them to take control.

Decision making

You should do your best to minimize the number of decisions that have to be made by you. You should encourage decentralized decision making by the people who have the best knowledge about the topic whenever possible.

So to reemphasize. This is a journey. Make sure that you do your best to support the teams and organization on the “level” it is currently at. Learn not to let go too early, and not too late. Try to find the sweet spot, and beware that it will be a constantly moving target.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? What is your experience? Please join the conversation so we can all improve.

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