Agile way of working, agile organization, Scrum, squads, Holacracy, whatever it’s called in your organization and whatever the shape it takes: working in a new way requires a new leadership style. In a series of articles, I will take you on a journey through the subject of leadership in agile organizations.
Micro management is finished… that is, if you choose to work in an agile way. Agile ways of working focus on delivering the most value for the customer. Employees are in close contact with the customer and are given the mandate to do what is required. Clear boundaries are still provided, and — depending on the chosen framework — clearly defined roles and agreements are in place. In other words, employees are given the freedom to deliver value to the customer in the way they feel is best.
What to do if you’re are a leader that preaches agile, but still checks reports for punctuation and proper spelling? Who intervenes in all aspects of what your team, department or managers do? You will need to practice a new style of leadership, starting with such alien concepts as ‘sitting on your hands’ and ‘asking questions instead of providing solutions’.
In an agile organization it is crucial for people in leadership positions to learn to provide clear boundaries, to allow freedom to operate and share responsibilities within those boundaries. And when we say share resposibility, we do really mean share. Compare how a product owner and a scrum team share responsibility. The product owner is responsible for WHAT, the team for HOW and jointly they are responsible for the product.
The subtle art of sitting on your hands
At Organize Agile we are currently assisting a medium sized public organization transition towards an agile organization. One of my colleagues was discussing the transition roadmap with the senior management. During the conversation the focus turned towards the new e-learning platform and what shape it should take. The management team discussed the new platform in detail, until my colleague reminded them that the HOW was up to the development team.
I am struggeling with sitting on my hands
Elsewhere a manager sighed: ”It’s not easy sitting on your hands. I am learning, but I’m struggeling. Especially when I feel the team should do things differently or when my own manager is breathing down my neck”. Sounds familiar?
Coaching instead of ready-made solutions
Agile is all about trust. While plans and micro management create a false sense of security, trust focuses on letting go, daring to trust anothers capabilities and offering support rather than spelling everything out.
I have seen many examples of what trust can do to an agile team. One of the most poignant was seeing an employee passionately argue a case in front of the management team. Something that nobody, including herself, had expected her to be able to do. Excellent!
The team of directors of one of our clients, who is currently in the middle of an agile transformation, is currently focused on the question how they can reshape their departments into self-organizing teams. To my mind, one of the most important parts of this assignment is developing the right mindset in empolyees, leaders and supporting services. Managers need to become aware of their new role: if an employee comes to you with a problem, help them by coaching them. Offer trust, not a solution. Ask questions.
Stop looking at your manager!
Employees need to take ownership
To employees this means that they should not bother leaders with every little issue or focus on the manager in meetings. Consider team behavior in meetings: even when a team is highly self-organized, they will behave quite differently when a manager is present. Often you will see that at least a part of the team will direct their points primarly at the manager and look for non-verbal signs of confirmation. The key to changing such behavior is making the team aware of their behavior and coach them to do things differently.
Trust includes acces to as much information as possible. Make it easy to access and share information . This includes insight into financial margins, information from management meetings, budgets and maybe ultimately even remuneration. Make sure that there is a way that information and trends teams see at their customers, is shared with other teams and managers. Agile tools and frameworks are a great help. Scrum and Agile Portfolio boards are highly visible and offer easy insight into team activities and ambitions. Similarly, tools like Slack can help make information available broadly. Regardless of the used means, the decision to really start sharing information should be your first stop.
In an agile organization leadership focus needs to be on giving and receiving trust. Agile leaders do not intervene, they coach. Instead of offering ready-made solutions, they offer clear boundaries, direction and ask in-depth questions. Only in such an environment, teams will do their best work and deliver real customer value.