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Natalia Rossingol

The Power of Agile Leadership

As industries undergo rapid transformations, the need for leadership that can effectively steer through uncertainty becomes paramount. Agile leadership has emerged as a beacon of adaptability, emphasizing flexibility, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

The Agile Manifesto, created in 2001, started a totally new approach to software development, based on the principles of continuous delivery, responsiveness to change, and collaboration in a self-organized environment.

The agile transformation triggered by the need to change (and the Manifesto) required leaders to adopt alternative practices in software development. These practices formed the concept of agile leadership – an unconventional and adaptive model that enables teams to work productively in a dynamic climate.

What is Agile leadership?

The term “agile leadership” refers to a set of behaviors and techniques, the goal of which is to make software development teams more efficient. It was inspired by the agile principles and values that were advanced by the Agile Manifesto, which suggested treating people, and not processes or tools, as the primary drivers of progress, responding to change as it comes, and valuing good quality of the final product.

This way, the purpose of agile leadership is to create conditions for teams to adapt fast, constantly learn, make experiments, and refine ideas, so that they can satisfy the customer’s requirements. And as the statistics show, the application of agile practices can lead to undeniable results.

With this in mind, we can outline several agile leadership principles:

Embracing the change

Instead of planning the project in detail from the very beginning and sticking to a fixed schedule, the agile approach encourages seeing a project as a flexible process and being open to change.

The first agile principle tells us that the highest priority is to satisfy the customers and provide them with a competitive advantage. Thus, most probably, you may need to implement a change because an environment will require you to do so, or because the customers will decide to add or remove a feature – and even if this happens at the later phases of development, you're expected to respond to the change.

The responsibility of an agile leader consists in building the right mindset, where change is seen as an opportunity, and where uncertainty is accepted. Such leaders promote experimentation and encourage team members to learn from failures. This way, they develop a culture of learning, letting people constantly improve.

Take a moment to assess your first response when you face change and disruption. Do you get upset? Do you feel calm?.. Being agile means you are adapting to changes, but not letting them make you feel limited. – Monica Kang, Innovators Box 

Reinforcing the importance of result over process

One of the pillars of agile organizations is “working software over comprehensive documentation,” which means the primary focus of attention should be directed to the final result, not the work process itself. While documentation is still necessary, it is the actual software that matters. An agile leader has to make sure that the team works on what is essential, removing any obstacles like paperwork bureaucracy.

The importance of results also involves thorough work on technical excellence and good design, conducted and enhanced in iterations. The more effort is put into the process, the higher the quality of the product that will be delivered at the end of it.

Valuing self-organization and autonomy

The agile culture celebrates autonomy and self-management. Agile leaders believe that people will do their best if you trust them, so they empower their teams, gathering motivated and skillful individuals who take responsibility for their decisions. Without being controlled (or, what’s worse, micromanaged,) people get enough space to think creatively and generate ideas.

In the agile team, the leader’s role is not to assign tasks but rather to direct and motivate team members, sharing a common purpose that would inspire them, and providing all the necessary support. It also means they should be empathetic and compassionate, to be able to understand their people, - in other words, have a high level of emotional intelligence.

The principles of agile leadership are rooted in a desire to do more than just optimize efficiency; its focus is on empowering teams and individuals to work together toward a shared goal. - Dough Holt, Dough Holt Online

Maintaining an uninterrupted flow of communication

To create working software that would meet the client’s requirements, all parties involved must closely communicate throughout the whole project. Developers must talk to clients to get feedback and make sure things go smoothly, and vice versa. Within an organization, especially one with several cross-functional teams, everybody should communicate openly, to break down organizational silos and collaborate as one big team.

This is provided by an agile leader, who outlines a vision, sets priorities and expectations, and develops accountability, forming an agile mindset.

It's important to mention that open communication is only possible in an environment of psychological safety, where everybody can feel equal and safe enough to share concerns without any fear – and a leader makes this possible by actively listening and responding with empathy, as well as by setting an example for the rest of the team.      

Traditional vs agile leadership

The traditional leadership model, which refers to the waterfall methodology in the context of software development, comes from an old-school organizational structure, static and hierarchical. In such a structure, plans are linear and get created at the beginning of the project. Decisions are made by leadership and distributed top-down.

Even though this system is well-known and understandable, it hides some risks. First of all, the traditional organizational model is very rigid – with all the bureaucracy, an organization cannot evolve quickly enough. And without input from frontline workers, who often know the situation best, leaders lack valuable information – and, as a consequence, may fail to respond to change quickly.

At the same time, a restrained work environment where you do not have the right to leave feedback can be demoralizing.

In contrast to this model, agile leadership is focused on developing employees’ skills and maximizing their potential. For this reason, agile leaders empower their teams by decentralizing authority, allowing team members to self-organize and take responsibility, honing their talents, and learning from mistakes.

Unlike traditional leaders, who give tasks and expect good performance, agile leaders help their teams create value. They see their role not as providing reward and punishment, but as developing passion and leading to a goal. They’re always open for discussion and willing to listen to feedback, and place the needs of a team over their own needs, demonstrating servant leadership.

We practice mastering ourselves in the moment so that we can better open ourselves to being a servant leader and to harness our emotions and choose what to do with our reactions. - Lyssa Adkins, Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition

Agile leaders provide learning opportunities, like trainings and workshops. They emphasize the need to constantly communicate with customers and colleagues and be ready to adapt.

In other words, such leaders are present and responsive. They are here for their team to assist, but they trust their people enough to work autonomously. They are flexible, not static, reacting to the things going on.                

The benefits of Agile leadership

By revolutionizing the ways teams operate through continuous adaptation and empowerment, agile leadership can provide many benefits for a company, like the following:

Improved decision-making

By giving teams autonomy and the ability to take ownership over their work, agile leaders ensure a better quality of the decisions they make, because frontline workers typically understand all the processes and can quickly find the right answers.

Besides, there is also a factor of “collective intelligence.” A decision based on the input from several professionals, who analyze an issue from different perspectives, will make more sense.

This also positively impacts innovation, as team members feel free to come up with creative solutions.

More flexibility

The very term “agile” is a synonym to “flexible.” Unlike traditional leadership where all processes are approved “from above”, which is time-consuming, the agile approach lets the teams quickly respond to challenges and move forward, refining work on their way. This eliminates the possibility of accumulateing mistakes and gives a privilege to a customer, who is welcome to request changes at any time, creating a great customer experience.

Continuous adaptation and the ability to deal with uncertainty also present a great opportunity for team members to grow professionally.

Higher levels of competitiveness

Thanks to the flexibility it provides, agile leadership increases your chances of success among competitors. In an agile team, you do not follow a prescribed plan – you work according to the demands of the environment. Your plan is not set in stone, and you work in real-time.

This way, you do not fall behind – your decisions remain relevant. It gives you great advantages, especially as compared to companies with a traditional organizational structure and leadership.

Agility means that you are faster than your competition. Agile time frames are measured in weeks and months, not years. – Michael Hugos, Agile systems architect

Employee engagement

Freedom to take responsibility and make decisions, as well as an opportunity of continuous learning and skill development, is very motivating. Agile leaders encourage their team members to figure out issues by using their own judgment, this way demonstrating trust in their competence. Seeing that they are actually contributing makes people feel accomplished and see themselves as a part of something bigger, building a strong organizational culture. 

The leadership role in "self-managed" teams

According to one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto, “the best architectures, requirements, and designs come from self-organizing teams.” The Scrum Guide, which is one of the agile frameworks, also underlines that self-organized development teams tend to accomplish their work without being directed by anyone outside of the team.

As it’s clear from the very term, “a self-managed team” stands for a team that organizes itself to reach a certain goal, working on its assignments and performing management functions at the same time. Applied to software development, self-management acquires a specific meaning:

In the context of software development it means, among others things, bottom up estimation and planning at least at the sprint/team level, Development Team peer pressure to balance workload (the Development Team knows who is not pulling their weight), overall proactiveness from the Development Team to go after what needs to be done to achieve the sprint objective instead of waiting for task assignments. - Clementino de Mendonca, a Professional Scrum Trainer.    

As we can see, self-management in an agile team does not mean the absence of leadership, which is a common misconception. Management doesn’t not simply let people do what they want to do – instead, it guides their behavior, without telling from the very beginning what that behavior should be like.

As Michael Kohn, one of the founders of Scrum Alliance, points out, self-organizing teams are not free of management control – after all, it’s management who chooses what product they will build and initially pick the people to work on the team, planning their capacity and resources. They’re expected to remove the obstacles for the team to work properly, and inspire the team to overcome challenges, which by default implies the leader will take part in the work process.

Yet, it’s important to not exceed the boundaries, imposing too many constraints on the team. The trick here is to achieve a balance between command and influence, acting subtly.

Kohn provides a good example of a successful leadership tactics. Imagine that you’ve got a domineering personality on your team, which doesn’t comply with the concept of self-management. You could have a private conversation with that person, but it would probably not change anything. A better option would be to assign a new team member who would leverage the authority distribution.         

However, a vast majority of people are still used to the authoritative leadership style, where they're expected to do things as ordered. This means that even when they start working in a self-organized team, these people struggle to make their own decisions.

In his book “Agile Project Management with Scrum,” Ken Schwaber, one of the agile software development movement leaders, mentions that for many people, self-management is just a phrase but not something real. For this reason, an agile team leader (in this case, Scrum master) must not only help the team learn to manage their responsibilities but also overcome personal tendencies to manage the team.       

All in all, agile leadership is about continuous adaptation, unlocking talents, taking risks, and accepting a variety of opinions. It requires a mindset that fosters creativity and resilience, so necessary to stay competitive in a rapidly changing business world. There are no prewritten rules and answers that would make the job of an agile leader easier – sometimes, you would have to act intuitively. But don’t worry: feedback, transparency, and a strong sense of shared vision will lead your way.    

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