Leadership in an Agile Environment — not one man’s job

Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

Written by admin

January 31, 2019

As Agile has become the norm in software development industry, the idea of cross-functional and self-managed teams became very popular. In these conditions, one hasty conclusion immediately emerges: if we want our organizations to be Agile, we need to get rid of the leadership positions.

Is this a sure thing? Let’s see.

While the concept of self-organization is very powerful and generates great results, I wouldn’t say it is enough, especially for big companies. Self-organized teams are not automatically gained through the start of an Agile Transformation. The mindset switch requires an extended period of time for return of investment, but once initial investment is made, it can lead to great benefits. Basically, it is not about starting to do Agile, it’s about becoming Agile, with small and evolutionary steps.

Putting “the team” and “evolutionary change” together, the first concept that comes to my mind is the Tuckman model. This describes the stages that most teams go through on their way to high performance: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

If we try to analyze the stages in an Agile Transformation context, we can say for sure that each stage has its own benefits, challenges and risks. Moreover, each stage requires different types of leadership to be in place.

Imagine a company has just started the Agile Transformation: broke down the silos and created small, cross-functional teams, expected to deliver working software after each iteration. What does it mean for its employees? New people to work with, new policies and new expectations to be met. This is the Forming stage. During this first stage, teams are highly dependent on leadership, while roles and responsibilities are not very clear. Leaders have to inspire the people by providing answers regarding the reasons and benefits behind the change initiative. Each individual should understand the company’s vision and how his team is linked to it. Moreover, if the company strives for a sustainable transformation, leaders need to make sure they build the right environment for people by eliminating demotivating policies and procedures, minimizing constraints and removing organizational impediments. Also, at this moment in time people don’t know each other, are not aware of each other skills, feel insecure and are not willing to express their opinions. Agile leaders should facilitate team building activities and enable a safe environment that encourages collaboration.

Additionally, the teams should self-organize around a common Product Vision which describes what kind of needs the product is designed to fulfill. The better is the product vision understood by the team, the higher the efficacy. Considering this scenario, we can say that the Product Owner plays a crucial leadership role. He needs to provide a clear, elevating product vision to the team and make sure they have a common understanding regarding it. After all, as R.T. Hesburgh said, “you can’t blow an uncertain trumpet”. As a leader, if you can only provide one thing in the beginning of your transformation, provide purpose.

The team sets the stage: they start working together and try to integrate the new way of working. Let’s also assume that the change initiative was well communicated and its implementation is facilitated by having an appropriate environment in place. Are we self-organized now?

Once the product’s vision and objectives become clear for the team, different types of approaches to reach it emerge. Team members come up with a variety of experiences which immediately lead to differences of opinions. The team starts experiencing the Storming stage. Due to their low appetite to compromise, the chances to self-organize around a common goal are not that high, especially because team members are still focused on individual results rather than the overall value delivered by the team.

A powerful leadership figure in this particular scenario is the Scrum Master. His conflict management abilities are crucial when it comes to replace Storming with a more stable, productive stage. Known as a servant leader, he will not enforce any kind of behavior inside the team. For all that, the Scrum Master uses coaching techniques that inspire the team members to find solutions, rather than imposing any rules. Scrum Master guides the team to establish working agreements, to create and make the policies clear and visible so that all the team members should have the same understanding regarding the team’s way of working and the expected results. Having these agreements in place, the team will minimize the assumptions made and the wasted time on resolving conflicts. Team consent will no longer be hard or impossible to reach.

So here we are now: team members have established a way of working together that is focused on reaching the product’s vision and objectives. Roles and responsibilities are understood and integrated, communication is open and issues are solved in an objective manner. Individual results are replaced by team’s achievements and a strong desire to deliver everything the team has committed on. Since team’s mastery regarding the new way of working is reached, productivity significantly increases.

Until now, our Agile team has a clear sense of purpose and they have learnt how to act in order to reach the goal. Thinking about the 3 factors that motivate us to perform — purposemastery and autonomy — as presented in Daniel Pink’s book, there is only one left.

Once the team has reached the Norming stage, it is clear they need a high level of autonomy. As an Agile Leader, you have to understand that this is the perfect time to decentralize decision making . If you want the team members to adopt a culture of continuous improvement, let them be self-directed. Once they know very well what is expected from their side and how to meet these expectations, autonomy will increase the engagement and the desire to try different approaches, to accept various challenges and to learn from their own experiences. Since autonomy will enable leadership at all levels, the highest level of performance will emerge. In this Performing stage, Scrum Master’s role, as a figure of leadership, is to sustain leadership at all levels, not followers.

From the moment team members barley know the leadership roles exist, we know that we are headed in the right direction. And there we go: we have self-organized teams, with leaders always ready to help in case something changes and teams have to go back to the Forming stage.

That being said, let’s ask ourselves again: do we still need leadership once we go Agile?

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