My journey as an Agile leader


By John Casey

18 Dec 2013

Why am I telling you about my journey? Because if you are a leader in an organisation where efficient and effective delivery of value counts then an Agile approach may well be the most startling addition to the way you work in your career.

It owes its existence to thinkers in software development but it has a much broader business application.

I was first introduced to Agile in 2005 when I took over the program responsibility for an Agile project that was building a document rendering system. Unfamiliar terms like pair programming, sprints, stand ups, project walls and burn up or burn-down charts were being used; they had little relevance to me at the time.

What did resonate with me, however, was that the people involved were both passionate about what they were doing and convinced it was a better way of working!

For the past 8 years I’ve been harnessing the Agile-way for a multitude of business challenges, so over a series of blogs I would like to share some of the lessons I learned on the journey. And beyond that, I am seeking to put my experience out there to encourage a dialogue and to learn from your perspectives — please comment and add to the conversation.

It is important we explore the right leadership culture for success before moving on to the specific practices and tools that I have found invaluable as a leader.

So what is the right leadership culture for agile to thrive?

From my years of observing leadership practices that worked, didn’t work or were absent I have identified the following six principles as being critical for the successful implementation of Agile.

Leaders are there to enable not direct

Agile is really about getting everyone in the team to understand they are leaders in their own right. By directing outcomes rather than encouraging teams to step up defeats that purpose. Your role as a leader becomes an enabling one, providing insights, support and guidance whilst letting the team develop their leadership capability. Your job is to help set vision, observe, actively listen, question and help the team remove blockages that are stopping them being successful.

Learning is valued

If you want your people to use their initiative and own the delivery of their work, then they must be allowed to learn, which means that from time to time they will make mistakes. If you criticise or punish people who make mistakes, then don’t be surprised if there is less ownership of decisions and more passing the buck to you.

Encourage reflective learning and a continuous improvement attitude and the team will develop the skills and knowledge they need to make the right decisions at the right time and they will thrive in an Agile environment.

Collaboration is paramount

If you can do all the work yourself or have perfect knowledge of the solution, then I guess you don’t need to collaborate. But, if the challenge you are working on demands multiple skills and experience, to successfully deliver an outcome, then it just makes sense to me that engaging everyone in a professional, collaborative manner is better than a siloed or adversarial approach where everyone is protecting their patch.

Agile enables you to create a collaborative approach but doesn’t guarantee it. As a leader you need to promote and reward collaborative behaviour and discourage turf wars. Another benefit of collaboration is that it dramatically improves peoples sense of connectedness and happiness. Not surprisingly, people actually enjoy working in a collaborative environment.

Open Communications

It almost goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. Encouraging a culture of open and truthful communications is one of the greatest risk management tools you can create. Why? Encouraging a climate of open communications will allow project issues to be identified early when they are just ‘smells’ that can be more easily corrected, rather than the stinking carcass of a failed project where the chance of success had died long ago but everyone was too afraid to say anything.

It also creates an environment where ideas flourish. People, irrespective of their experience or organisational standing, feel more open to contributing ideas and questioning the norm. Innovation becomes commonplace and solutions richer.

Empower your people — the vexing issue of trust

Why is trust critical? For Agile to be successful, you also must build an environment of trust. Trust that the team has the knowledge and experience to do its job, and that they will seek help if they need it. Trust in your senior leaders that they are supporting you in removing the blockers.

This cannot be a blind trust, but, one built on knowledge of your team, common practices, values and expectations that go beyond a project management methodology. But if you as a leader don’t trust your staff to achieve successful outcome without close direction from you, and your staff don’t trust you to support them, then you are going to struggle with Agile.

80/20 Rule — the art of timely decision making

In the Agile framework, the 80/20 Rule means you don’t need or want 100% certainty before making a decision. Why? Because, it takes too long, cost too much, and by the time you get there, the business problem has changed. It is better to ‘time-box’ your analysis so you make a timely decision with the facts that you know, trusting the knowledge and judgement of the team. If it’s not 100% right, course correct.

Agile provides a plethora of tools to support the delivery of successful projects, however the leadership culture is critical to its success.

Set the foundations by enabling your team to be leaders, fostering trust in relationships, and encouraging staff to collaborate. Create a safe environment to raise concerns, suggesting better ways and questioning the status quo — that’s where you’ll find the real ‘secret sauce’.

In my next blog I will talk about the value of using Agile retrospectives and explore what they could do for you as part of your work practices.


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