Many companies turn to agile approaches to gain a competitive advantage, only to see leaders inadvertently get in the way. In my work with agile teams in companies of various sizes and industries, I’ve seen leaders create friction when optimizing interactions, systems, processes, and tools to deliver value.
Leaders, here are five things your team wishes you knew about agile that will help improve the way everyone works.
[ Read also: Agile vs. DevOps: What’s the difference? ]
1. Agile is not just another way to manage work
An agile framework like Scrum, and the rules that come along with it, are not the path to success. Some leaders treat backlogs and sprints as just another way to express requirements and execute project plans. This does little to support the innovation and adaptability you need in order to deliver value in a changing market. The rules of scrum, by themselves, are not enough. You need a deeper view of the reasons behind the rules.
Agility is about continuously adapting culture, values, and principles to shift the mindsets and behaviors of everyone involved. Ultimately, this results in better delivery of value for a business and its customers. To effectively make this cultural shift, leadership should be intentional and consistent across the organization. Align with your teams on core values and desired outcomes. Find out what your teams have learned and where they are seeing impediments to success. Get things out of their way so they can deliver amazing results for you.
[ What tools help support scrum, kanban, and other agile methods? Read also: Top 7 open source project management tools for agile teams. ]
2. A compelling product vision is central
Any team needs a reason to pull together, to support each other, to find a way through challenges and navigate to success. Your agile teams are no different; they need strong vision from you and your leaders – specifically, product vision.
I have seen teams in highly challenging circumstances produce amazing results once they aligned on a compelling vision for the product. It’s like watching a sports team that collectively cares so deeply about winning that they rise above any significant obstacles in their way.
Help your teams care deeply about winning the game. And don’t forget to connect the team to the outcomes and impacts of their work. One team I worked with had recent quotes from their customers posted on the wall. Another team observed users interacting with their product on a regular basis. Yet another team reviewed clearly defined outcome measurements during every sprint to see the effect of the last changes they deployed. All of these help the team see the impact of their work and stay motivated to hone their interactions, processes, and tools in the service of users.
3. Awesome teams solve tough problems
Traditionally, leaders have sought out and rewarded individual performance. To bring creativity to bear on the toughest problems, leaders must shift their focus to creating and supporting self-organizing, kick-butt, problem-solving teams. If you enable team formation and then protect them from interference, these teams will overcome significant obstacles for you and your users with resilience.
There are a few things you can do to help individuals realign as team members and foster the development of awesome teams. We’ve already covered the foundational element: Cast a compelling vision that the team shares. Next, identify skills and traits that support teaming, and then seek out people who exemplify them, reinforcing the behaviors that you need to build strong teams.
Also, rebalance your performance management system to reward behaviors that leave teams better and more resilient. For example, reward people who help their teams become better by pairing, further developing their skills and flexing them to fit the type of work needed, and mentoring those who need to grow. Make these goals for team members and reward them in your current review cycles. You also should regularly communicate your expectations of these behaviors and recognize those who demonstrate them to the rest of the team.
One of the best things you can do is to ask people how they have made their team more nimble and resilient during the last month. A simple question like this can shift thinking and expectations, breaking down siloes and enabling team members to help each other, share goals, and learn together.
4. Elevate learning as a team and individual goal
To solve complex problems, leaders must encourage new ideas to emerge as the work takes place. Learning must be highly desired in the ecosystem. In learning organizations, there is an emphasis on “speed to learn” because leaders realize the faster teams can learn, the stronger their competitive advantage.
Creating and learning require a willingness to test assumptions and options, take some risks, and encounter a certain amount of failure. In most cultures, enabling this is easier said than done, and your teams and the leaders around them will need help to shift. Encourage your teams to run experiments, ask about what they have learned recently, and celebrate learning.
As we consult with organizations on their agility, many benefit from the outside perspective of an agile health check. This unbiased assessment identifies areas of strength and areas of challenge across products, technology, people, and processes. While strengths should be preserved, challenge areas are targets for learning experiments that can propel your organization forward on the agile journey. Building clearly defined learning experiments tackles the backlog of challenges limiting the full potential of your team.
5. Appropriate boundaries enable creativity
The existing boundaries around your teams are likely unbalanced, and your team needs your help. The challenge of constraints is to find a balance that enables the team’s innovative self-organization and protects the things most critical to the larger system they operate within.
The questions are many, though often unspoken: Is the constraint real? Who owns it, what does it protect, how does it impact our ability to deliver, and how can we influence it? The reality is that boundaries are necessary and frequently overbearing. How can we empower our skilled workers to own more of the boundaries and trust them to make good decisions in order to optimize for value delivery to your users?
Co-create a vision with your teams for the way they can work, get support from you, and own more of their own destiny. Get clarity from your teams on why their boundaries exist and which ones can be adjusted. Advocate for experiments where all parties work together to find better ways to balance competing needs for your users’ benefit.
The challenges your teams are facing are real, and the benefits of agility are critical to your organization and your users. Your leadership in the complex challenges will enable your teams’ delivery, your users’ delight, and your organization’s success.
[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free Ebook: Managing IT with Automation. ]
I'd probably add one more point, which is is leaders insisting on maintaining a traditional rigid bureaucracy will automatically get in the way of any sort of agility - because there's no point in having an agile team which is going to jump straight into to the heavy brick wall of a slow bureaucracy.
If agile/agility is really going to happen, leadership need to understand that not only can you not implement it, only become it, but it also needs to be adopted by leadership and the culture in the company.
And culture is defined by the actions and inactions of leadership.
Christopher - that's a great point. A leader's job is the culture of their organization, which includes the interactions and processes.
I agree with you - without a shift in these things, the agility of the team and the organization will be significantly impeded.
Those rigid bureaucratic processes are usually deeply entrenched in an organization. I'm curious to hear what patterns of activities and discussions you've seen to help shift this?
a shift towards Agile approach from the traditional way needs to happen in a Big Bang approach. Else if you mix the two together, you will not be able to realize the benefits as the Traditional ways will hamper the progress of the New and Agile ways. Its like changing from an old Sports(pro basketball or pro boxing) that you are good at, but not fit anymore for you because of body aging, to a more appropriate sports that fits your older body (i.e. golf or swimming). if you combine the training for the 2, then it will slow down your shift to the new sports that fits you, as opposed to focus all your efforts on the new sports, and you will adopt it faster and start gaining the value.
Richard - Great analogy! I haven't heard it put that way before.
I'd love to hear some of your successful approaches in quickly shifting organizations away from their plan-driven mindsets. In my experience, big-bang shifts often engender great resistance, which undermines or outright stops the success of the transformation. Finding ways to address this resistance is a topic of great interest to me.
At the team level, I see great value in this "hard shift" away from traditional approaches toward agility. At an organizational level, I think there could be more nuance depending on the type of organization. There is actually value in using traditional (plan-driven / defined / predictive) approaches for certain problem domains, and many organizations are realizing that they need to find a way to effectively use both traditional and agile in order to thrive. A thought-provoking video on this topic from the venerable John Kotter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1XeZEFk_0E
Your post is a great addition to the conversation! I look forward to your thoughts.
Thanks for the article! I think even if we use Agile for a long time, we need to remind ourselves from time to time about some fundamentals. I frequently do this (I use kanban) by having some summarizing the whole idea resources (like https://kanbantool.com/kanban-guide/kanban-fundamentals ). Your point 2 about the vision's also very important and despite the fact it's so obvious, we may not forget about it! It's frequently lost when we do too much things at the same time...
Thanks for your comment, Nika. Kanban is powerful, and the site you mention looks like a great set of resources to help!
I'm glad the point about vision resonated with you - it is easy to forget despite how critical it is.