Agile is about self-organizing teams, isn’t it? As a Manager, what does that mean for me? Should I fear for my job? As a Manager or Director, Agile transformation can be disconcerting because you want to trust your teams and let them be self-organizing, but at the end of the day, it’s still your organization and your responsibility.
Let’s start with a proper view of the term “self-organizing”. Many leaders and teams incorrectly think that self-organizing teams don’t need leadership. Agile is about flexibility, not anarchy. Esther Derby explains it well: “Self-organizing is a characteristic of a team, not something that is done once and for all. Self-organizing teams experiment, create new approaches and adapt to meet new challenges within the boundaries of the organization.” Mike Cohn says: “Self-organizing encourages teams to fully own the problems they encounter.” Empowerment is the key to self-organizing. Management must empower Agile teams to experiment, fail and learn, which in turn gives team members higher personal investment in outcomes. Agile pays people to think, rather than to blindly follow instructions.
As a leader, you create and care for the organizational environment. Agile is not a “tech thing”, it’s a culture thing. Transforming your organization to Agile is a big deal, and often requires changing your culture into an environment that not only allows, but encourages collaboration, transparency, and trust between business and technical people. Practices will change, mindsets change, behaviors change, and roles change. All of this change can be unnerving, irrespective of your level in the organization. But pushing through the pain of change to realize the benefits of Agile is well worth it in the long run, both for you and your organization. Managers can either help or hinder these changes.
So, What Does This Look Like in Practice?
First, begin to learn about Agile – not just about the practices of Scrum or Kanban, but about the Agile mindset – the principles that make Agile so powerful and sustainable in the long run. True leaders are continually growing and honing their skills. Don’t be afraid to show your teams and organization that you’re still learning about Agile. Learn along with them. Don’t pretend to know all the answers if you don’t – and trust me, nobody has all the answers. Agile is a journey that never ends. Just as our children need (and eventually appreciate) parents guiding them back on track when they stray, your teams need a leader to keep them moving forward, especially when the pressures of project delivery mount.
Next, be fully committed to the goal of becoming Agile, not just “doing” Agile. Your teams need to see that you are excited about and are actively participating in the Agile transformation. Teams need leadership to provide Agile opportunities and training, but also need leadership to hold teams accountable for not only successful delivery of software but also for demonstrating progress on their Agile journey. If an Agile culture is truly an enterprise goal, then give teams “guided freedom” to experiment within the Agile framework. But don't stop there; don't just give them permission, don't just acknowledge your buy-in - instead actually help lead the transformation. Be intolerant of behaviors that don't match your values, or are contrary to an Agile environment. Agile does not mean doing whatever you want to, and leaving out whatever you want to; it’s about implementing proven principles and practices in a way that produces value for that team and its customers. Give the Agile transformation more “weight” by communicating to teams both the vision and necessity to become Agile. Most people will not make Agile transformation a priority unless they understand the value and priority that leadership places on it.
Your organization needs your support and “protection”. Leaders help remove distractions and impediments – impediments to the team, and impediments to Agile adoption. An Agile transformation that doesn't include all facets of the organization will be a much more difficult journey. Include the business, finance, compliance, operations and other units to help ensure collaboration and partnership is strong during the transformation. Remove agility obstacles like outdated policies, unneeded documentation or status reporting, and organizational silos or barriers – especially between business and technical people. Work on finding a balance of protection and “tough love” that forces them to become more self-reliant.
It’s likely that you’re in a leadership position because you communicate well, you’ve learned some people skills, and you’re not afraid to take some risks. Better communication, collaboration, and accountability are even more important now as your people move through the Agile transition. Your organization and teams still need the benefit of your skills and experience. Teach them persistence and effective follow-through so they get better at removing impediments themselves. Guide them through healthy conflict resolution so they become better communicators and teammates. Take advantage of every opportunity to teach better collaboration skills. Show them the benefits of communicating with each other face-to-face instead of emailing or texting.
Allow them to make mistakes, then help them learn from their mistakes. Lessons are often better learned from failures than from being protected. Show them that taking calculated risks is a good thing. Risk-taking played a part in getting you where you are, and Agile embraces risk-taking and experimentation to obtain useful feedback and become more self-sufficient. Commit yourself and your organization to using feedback for continual improvement.
Continue to motivate and encourage your people. An Agile transformation often takes people out of their comfort zones. One of the Agile Principles states: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”. Help team members to have courage (a key Agile value) – the courage to speak up, courage to ask for more information, courage to challenge assumptions. Courage builds strong individuals and teams.
What’s the Alternative?
Leader, if you are not actively involved in helping your teams and organization through the Agile transformation, they will grow to a point and then stagnate, or they may fail at Agile altogether – and you don’t want that to happen with you at the helm.
Agility needs strong leaders to succeed. Your teams and your organization need you – they need you to be a role model, to be a catalyst for change. But, they also need you to provide the environment that will allow them to succeed and flourish. This may require you to take a step back, and let them take more control so they can fail and learn from that failure. Changing from a directive approach to a catalyst approach can be a hard thing to do, but leaders take risks and do hard things every day. Become the leader that develops hyper-performing Agile teams, and you’ll never again question where you fit in.