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Agile Leadership: Methodology Ain't Enough

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Agile Leadership: Methodology Ain't Enough

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A lot of people say you can’t be a good software manager without really understanding software development. What behaviors do we want in our agile leaders?But, let’s face it, people who understand software development are a dime a dozen in our industry. What we really need are people who understand leadership & management. I mean… you know the drill – when was the last time a software project failed for technical reasons?

And so, it was very cool to hear David Spann share his research on Finding and Developing Agile Leader’s at last week’s ScrumClub.

It’s simply not enough to know the latest agile practices. In order for agile projects to succeed, they need leaders who exhibit agile behaviors and, here’s a hint – being a technical guru ain’t one of them.

Now, I don’t want to mislead – David isn’t saying agile leaders don’t have to know anything about software development. What he is saying is that the success criteria for leading agile teams is dependent on the leader’s beliefs and behaviors. That is, how they think and act is  just as – if not more – important than what they know.


CheckDavid identified 5 underlying beliefs that a successful agile leader should hold.
How many of these do you hold? How many does your manager?

1. A group of well intentioned, skilled people will make a better decision through consensus then I can on my own.

2. Five or more people with a single, clear purpose can (and often do!) change the world.

3. Asking the right questions will always create better outcomes then making a series of well-crafted statements.

4. The leadership role is about creating a great environment in which others can succeed.

5. Trust is the foundational component of any relationship and it must be tended to with care, integrity and humility.


David identified the behaviors that make agile leaders successful and from that came two very interesting observations:

The behaviors that make agile leaders successful are, largely, the same behaviors that make Facilitators successful.

The behaviors that cause agile leaders to fail are, largely, the same behaviors we seek when hiring Project Managers.


In the Fight Between Good and Evil...

Behaviors We Want in our Agile Leaders

Strategic. Agile is very pragmatic, with a strong emphasis on the here & now. YAGNI, defer decisions, no Big Up Front anything. And so, it’s interesting to see strategic, "taking a long range approach," as a key success criteria for agile leaders. I think this underscores the importance of having a clear vision for the team to rally around, and the need for our leaders to be thinking ahead to make sure that we’re not just moving forward – but moving in the right direction.

Tactical. At the same time, agile is very pragmatic, delivery focused. So our leaders need to emphasize the importance of continuously delivering value by focusing on "short-range, hands-on, practical strategies."

Innovative. We are out there, every day, responding to change, creating things no one has before. Our leaders should be open to new ideas, willing to take risks, and comfortable with agile’s level of change.

Excitement. We want our leaders to be passionate! To have excitement and energy and enthusiasm, and to pass that passion on to the team and make it felt by all who come in contact with it.

Communication. Agile is about bringing people together to produce more than they could individually. Those 5 people with a clear purpose out there changing the world. This requires communication, "stating clearly what you want and expect… clearly expressing your thoughts and ideas; maintaining a precise and constant flow of information."

Consensual. Agile teams are about respect. Leaders value their team’s ideas and opinions and demonstrate this by using their position to help the team gain consensus on how to proceed rather than just telling them what to do.

Delegation. Agile teams are about trust. Leaders encourage this by enlisting team member’s strengths to achieve results and giving the team autonomy to make their own judgments about the best way to meet objectives.

Empathy. Agile leaders empathize with and support their team members.

Behaviors that Hurt Agile Teams

Authority. Leaders who are – and believe others should be – deferential to authority, tend to be liabilities on agile teams. Agile teams need to be continuously on the look out for new and better ways to do things and a great way to kill that that is by saying "nope, we don’t allow new ideas unless they come from/are approved by the guy at the top."

Structuring. The Plan-Driven Manager who spends weeks devising the "perfect plan" and the rest of the project aligning everything back to that is in direct opposition to the team’s agility. Per the manifesto, agile teams value responding to change over following a plan.

Conservative. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, says the conservative leader, while agile says, "what can we do better?"

Technical. While some technical understanding is good, being an expert is not only unnecessary but, as we’ve all seen, can be detrimental. We need our leaders helping us with communication and vision and supporti
ng us to get the work done, not busy
doing it all – or coming up with all the answers – themselves.

When we look for managers in our organizations, what kinds of traits do we look for? Managers should have Authority, right? And, just look at the PMP – you know, the thing that tells us how to manage projects – about 90% of it’s Body of Knowledge is around planning, so Structuring must be important too. Conservative? Sure, old white guys in suits, right? ;-)  And technical… well, we all know what role the techies get promoted to when they do a good job.

What about YOU: Which beliefs and behaviors do you see in your own agile leaders? What about in yourself?

[Latest Guide] Ship faster because you know more, not because you are rushing. Get actionable insights from 7 million commits and 85,000+ software engineers, to increase your team's velocity. Brought to you in partnership with GitPrime.


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