Agile: 9 signs your leader gets Scrum

Agile: 9 signs your leader gets Scrum

Your leaders may know about scrum and agile practices, but do they understand them? Here's how to tell

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Employees hanging notes on wall to represent agile methodologies

The agile philosophy and Scrum have been around for decades, but the pandemic has underscored their value: Agile organizations have been most successful at quickly adapting to rapidly changing market circumstances.

Deciding to embrace agility, however, and successfully completing the transformation are two different things. On the journey to becoming agile, organizations struggle with a variety of issues, from setting a vision to securing funding and battling harmful silos.

Leadership style is the most common challenge in an organization's business agility journey.

Earlier this year, the Business Agility Institute and Scrum Alliance released the Business Agility Report, which found leadership style the most common challenge in an organization’s business agility journey. Additionally, the study found that C-level leaders perceive their organization’s business maturity to be higher than the rest of the organization by a full point or more on a 10-point scale.

Why the disconnect? Because knowing about something is not the same thing as understanding it. A leader needs to experience Scrum to truly “get” it.

[ Is your team just going through the motions? Read How to spot an agile faker. ]

Understanding Scrum: 9 signs a leader is on track

So, how can you tell if your leader is on the right track? What are the red flags? Here are nine signs to watch for in your leaders.

1. They walk the walk. A leader who “gets” Scrum demonstrates their understanding not through their words but through behavior that consistently values teamwork over individual contributions, systems of improvement over metrics obsession, and releasing sooner over working faster.

2. They have done their homework. Whether they read books, attend certified training, or tap other channels, leaders who invest the time and energy to learn the what and the how of agile methods send a strong positive sign. Without this foundational step, it would be hard for anyone to truly “get” Scrum.

3. They know which outcomes they want from agility. Another good sign is when leaders demonstrate consistency in stated outcomes over time. It’s one thing to say the intent of using Scrum is to increase visibility. But it’s a red flag when leaders succumb to stakeholder pressure and flip-flop to demand more speed and quality. Agility involves flexibility with the details, but also a firm vision.

4. They invest funding and staff to make it happen. A common danger is when leaders try to achieve agility on the cheap, or “whenever you have free time.” If a leader puts real resources and assets on the table, chances are they get it.

5. They are visible and active in the journey. We know successful initiatives hinge on active and visible sponsorship from senior leaders. If “business agility” is listed as one of several annual goals and you are told, “Call me when it’s done,” that’s a red flag. Much stronger success comes when there is focused attention on the initiative from leaders.

6. They are able to communicate both progress (good news) and opportunity (more work) simultaneously. We often see high-capacity leaders more interested in what is not done – this can cause burnout while a team drives toward a future vision. A good sign is when a leader acknowledges both what’s been done with encouragement and what remains to be done with urgency.

A good sign is when a leader acknowledges both what's been done with encouragement and what remains to be done with urgency.

7. They are balanced in their power styles. In their book, Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results, William Adams and Robert Anderson discuss how the most effective leaders emphasize both the relational and task side of leadership. This means they are willing to listen and willing to make tough choices. Unfortunately, most leaders default to mostly one or the other.

8. They are willing to give power to the team. This means the three Scrum roles – ScrumMaster, Product Owner, and Development Team – are empowered to make decisions on how best to create innovative solutions that satisfy customer needs.

9. They are willing to be vulnerable. Courage is a Scrum value, and leaders who are unafraid to say “I don’t know” recognize that they need to model vulnerability in order to lead their organization on a shared journey of learning and growth.

Of course, these behaviors are not exclusive to agile leaders, and some of this may naturally resonate with people who have not heard of Scrum before. But for Scrum to succeed, we know that leaders must “get” it – and that means creating an organizational climate of transparency where teams and organization systems can inspect and adapt.

The rate of change is only accelerating as the global pandemic brings a sharp focus to organizations’ problems. Leaders who “get” Scrum will empower their teams to thrive in this rapidly changing business landscape.

[ Want agile and DevOps best practices? Watch the on-demand webinar: Lessons from The Phoenix project you can use today. ]

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Dhaval Panchal is experienced Executive, Organization Design consultant, and Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coach. He is founder of Evolve Agility that provides Agile training and coaching services to enable his clients to amplify scale, and speed of Agile transformations.
Aanu Gopald is a transformational Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coach, speaker, trainer and a philanthropist, advocating for expansion of agile methods across the world. She is the founder of Africa Agility, an NGO using Agile methods for social good in West Africa.
Jesse Fewell is a Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Coach (CEC), Certified Team Coach (CTC), author and trainer in the world of modern management, working with senior leaders from Boston to Bangalore to transform organizations world-wide.

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