Although working in an agile way is frequently regarded as being something for autonomous teams, it also has leadership consequences. Performing the task of leadership properly in this new context, is often a true journey of discovery. At a recent breakfast session, Quint partner and principal consultant Niels Loader spoke about the not-insignificant challenges of agile leadership. It’s all about what he calls ‘accelerative leadership’: getting rid of things that slow down your organization.
This type of leadership is not an unnecessary luxury, as the figures Loader presents clearly show: “Employee satisfaction is important. But you need more than that – you must have employee engagement.” Loader describes how, worldwide, only 13 percent of employees actually engage with their work. Three-quarters of employees who depart, do so because they are dissatisfied with their manager. Loader: “The reason for this is a mismatch between what we expect from teams – a lean-agile way of working – and the leadership style of managers.”
Niels Loader is aware of three arguments against change that leaders use: a rational argument, a behavior argument and the ‘other argument’ (more about that one later).
The rational argument basically says that we have to deliver as much IT as possible, as efficiently as possible while keeping costs as low as possible. Mass production, in other words. Loader uses the automotive industry to clearly illustrate that this attitude no longer applies to the markets of today. Developments moved the industry from craftsmanship to mass production and then, via the Toyota production system, to lean production (mass customization: teams deliver customer value quickly, in flow).
There are many managers in IT who grew up with ITIL® and CMM, models that belong to the mass production era. They are all about specialization and coordination, looking outward from the inside. Since 2010, the demand for IT services has grown exponentially thanks to the rise of smartphones. Today, the IT industry is forced to look from the outside in and deliver customer value quickly. To this end, Agile, DevOps and Lean IT are essential. These methodologies provide more speed, effectiveness, efficiency and quality. Loader: “In the 20th century it was this or that, today it’s this and that.”
Logically, when the production method changes so quickly and we expect more from our teams, the leadership style will also change. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The development should be a move away from planning, organizing and controlling to more forward-thinking. And this brings us to the behavior argument. The tasks of leaders today include purpose, cascading and monitoring. So, not controlling but rather staying informed. The tasks are set out in Figure 1. Niels Loader summarizes leadership tasks in a lean organization as follows: “Every organization delivers customer value as quickly as possible. Leadership tasks are built around this principle, with the goal of enhancing flow. That is accelerative leadership.”
Figure: The Lean Agile Management System.
“It all starts with the purpose of the organization,” according to Loader. “What is its higher goal? This involves a change story. As a leader, stick firmly to this story and repeat it.”
Planning comes next: first a long-term plan, then backlog management and capacity planning. “Often, leaders don’t know what the relationship is between ambition and capacity. But in a lean-agile organization, you can actually expand capacity without increasing your staff.”
Cascading is important. Visual management can help in this by allowing information to flow throughout the organization. In this way, management knows what is happening on a daily basis.
Monitoring is about performance management and impediment management. You collect information (not reports) daily and, as quickly as possible, provide feedback on the work the organization is doing. Gemba walks on the work floor are a good fit, allowing you to ‘nudge’ people into improving by encouraging and motivating them.
“Leaders themselves need to receive feedback more quickly,” says Niels Loader. “After all, you have to have the same cadence as the teams. Be present! Slippage happens one day at a time.” Use problem-solving for team building. Be aware of how far people are in their personal development. And develop your own leadership team, too. Finally, among other things, organizing means transforming support teams into knowledge teams that can assist production teams with their tasks. “Tackle this as a whole as a plan-do-check-act cycle.”
And now, the ‘other argument’: company politics. Niels Loader: “If you fail to recognize this element, nothing mentioned above will work. In your organization, how are you going to settle the political argument?” Loader adds: “Managers have to be brave to take the path that leads to a lean-agile organization. They get goosebumps if their superiors ask ‘are you in control?’”
Clarity is the enemy of politics. After all, playing games gives you breathing space and some small advantages. In lean organizations – where everything revolves solely around customer value – playing games is not really an option. Resistance is therefore inevitable. “How can we solve this problem?” Loader wonders. “There are many ways, ranging from consensus to all-out war. In practice, we have chosen to go with civil disobedience: the first agile, autonomous teams. Organizations have encouraged it and leaders have accepted it thanks to the success it has achieved. But now agile is rising up and middle management is joining in. Get ready for the political games to begin!”
Loader ends with words of encouragement: “In lean organizations, employee engagement is growing rapidly. Production can increase sharply without higher IT costs. That’s what I call making savings.”