With the growing international popularity of Agile ways of working beyond just the software industry, ANNA PUCAR RIMHAGEN reflects on the unique leadership challenges this model requires and how Care and Growth can be applied in this space.

THE AGILE WAY of working was originally developed for software product development, and that is where it is still typically applied. It has, however, internationally increasingly gained traction in other fields such as marketing and advertising, the construction industry, event-planning companies, in some finance-related environments and for product development and project management.

Agile was essentially developed to speed up software development and delivery because technology in this field can change so rapidly and fundamentally, making the traditional, so-called waterfall approach unsustainable in many instances. Waterfall describes traditional ways of development where each phase sequentially follows the previous one, from concept to design, development and lastly testing and roll-out of the final product in its entirety. With this approach, each department works on their part of the project and passes the baton to the next, until roll out is achieved while sticking to the original specifications.

Agile, on the other hand, employs a more incremental process of delivery in sprints, working with teams that contain members who specialise in each of these different fields and using an iterative process to produce smaller portions of the final product, often with changing specifications. Because testing is done concurrently with development, it also allows for more adaptability and client involvement during the process than traditional models.

In my experience, the Agile way of working has many benefits, but also a number of challenges, foremost of which is the challenge for leadership to adapt to this way of working in order to support their teams in the best way. With this article I hope to provide some insight and guidance in this regard, so that leadership doesn’t impede the process and scupper the project’s success.

Let’s start with a brief description of the main aspects of Agile and the ways in which it impacts the types of leadership that is required for teams to flourish and perform optimally, as well as how I see the potential benefits of implementing the Care and Growth leadership model in these environments.

The team is the core entity in the Agile way of working. Teams are generally cross-functional, self-organising, autonomous and accountable. Let’s look at what that means:

 

  • The cross-functional team (XFT)

For a team to be cross-functional, it needs to consist of people with diverse competencies. In the case of software product development, as mentioned above, the typical setup is to have team members with competencies from system analysis, programming and testing.

Prior to Agile, there would have been a separate team of systems analysts, who performed all the analysis work and then handed over to the programmers’ team. The programmers would then programme the software according to the specifications from the systems analysts and then hand over to the test team, who would test the software. With all those handovers, no wonder that the product ended up with quality problems and also often missed the market window, as the process was very slow.

With the introduction of Agile, system analysts, programmers and testers were instead put together in an XFT, who would handle the whole thing, from analysis, to programming and testing of the product in question, without handovers.

The same type of thinking can be applied to other types of teams, where participants from different parts of the organisation can be brought together in teams, e.g. people from sales, marketing and customer care, etc.

 

  • Teams are self-organising

In order to become strong and to maximise productivity, XFTs should be encouraged and allowed to be self-organising. This means they should decide for themselves how to divide the work between the team members, rather than having a manager telling them who will do what. While it may take a while for a team to reach this stage – and they would definitely need more support from their coaches and managers in the beginning – they need to, over time, be enabled to work more and more independently.

These teams preferably have short stand-up meetings every morning to share information, do trouble-shooting and see how they can help each other, as well as dividing the day’s work. Their managers (or other interested parties) are welcome to huddle with the team and listen to their meeting, but should not interfere, unless asked by the team.

 

  • Autonomy

Teams that are truly cross-functional and self-organising know best what their own needs are and, therefore, have to be given as much autonomy as possible. While they need more guidance in the beginning, they have to be given incrementally more and more control as the team matures, allowing them to become more and more autonomous, e.g. regarding which competence development activities they need and which tools they want to use.

They should ideally also be allowed to decide for themselves how much work to take on in the team and, if possible, in which direction the team’s competence should evolve – this is especially suitable for large organisations with different products/parts of products to work on.

 

  • Accountability

When the team has thus been given the means and ability to work, and they themselves decide how to do the work and how much to take on, they can also ultimately be held accountable.

There can, of course, from time to time be some reasons why a team might not be able to fulfill their commitments, but in such instances, these have to be resolved in discussion with their manager and not just merely be accepted and overlooked. Needless to say, the team is not there solely for their own fulfillment and development. They must work to understand the customers’ needs and strive to fulfill them.

Agile leadership

While we have thus far mostly talked about ways of working in relation to Agile, it is important to keep in mind that Agile is based upon a set of principles and values that underpins and gives rise to the methodologies employed. Foremost of these is that Agile values people – their interactions and relationships – above processes. This includes not only the people who work on the projects, but also the clients, whose needs ultimately need to be fulfilled in the best possible manner.

Because of the strong focus on teamwork and the characteristics of teams as described above, it is clear to see that the traditional top-down style of leadership is unsuitable  for this way of working. A conventional command-and-control style of leadership, where the manager decides things for the team, divides the work between subordinates, interferes in how the XFT performs their work and requires reports totally ruins the beauty of the Agile way of working. I have seen this happen.

From my extensive experience with large organisations in Sweden, I would say that it is more difficult to change the leadership style to an Agile style than it is for the teams themselves to transform into cross-functional, self-organising, autonomous and accountable teams. Managers may feel that there is no need or no room for them in an environment with Agile XFTs, and as if the teams and subordinates don’t need them anymore. This is not true. They just need a different type of leadership.

The leaders needed in an Agile workplace are leaders that act as coaches and that are there to serve and challenge their teams and subordinates, to help them grow as well as to set and reach goals. They have to be able to suspend their own agendas in order to help solve the teams’ challenges. This also requires serving ”downwards” instead of ”upwards”, which is a mind shift that is easier said than done, but nevertheless, absolutely necessary to succeed and not becoming a hindrance as a leader instead of a help in solving challenges.

 

Care and Growth and Agile – a perfect match

Care and Growth perfectly aligns with the Agile values and principles because it proposes that the leaders are there to care for their subordinates and to grow them, i.e. coach them. They incrementally hand over control to empower people and make them strong and independent – they primarily serve their subordinates, not their own managers. To achieve this, they put their own agendas aside, in favour of their subordinates’ agendas – bringing them into perfect alignment with the kind of leadership that is required to serve Agile teams.

To succeed with the Agile way of working, leadership also (perhaps even especially) has to evolve. The Care and Growth leadership model is very suitable to this, and fits with the Agile way of working like a hand in a glove. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you wish to discuss these matters further.

 

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