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Leadership in Agile organizations: sometimes, sit on your hands

Working in an agile way is hot. I see that in many organizations, the number of autonomous, agile teams is increasing. A great development for enterprises that want to be more flexible and faster on today’s dynamic market. But a big challenge lies in the word ‘autonomous’. For whom? For leaders and managers in an organization.

I once heard that at a large financial institution, the senior management asked members of teams, how they experienced the agile way of working. “Really good, thank you,” came the answer, “but we all see that senior management isn’t agile.” The management responded immediately and adopted agile methods like standups, et cetera. But that’s not the key. Of course, you have to get used to the increased transparency, but the real challenge lies in managing autonomous teams.

At a seminar, I heard an IT manager comparing his agile teams to a fleet: “I’m not going to interfere with the steering of each individual ship, but I do want them all to sail in the same – and the right – direction!” It’s a good metaphor. The manager as admiral. A lot has been published about leadership in agile teams and how the Product Owner, the Scrum Master and the team split responsibilities. There are also publications on leadership from the portfolio perspective. And for those who dare, there is holacracy: a self-management method for organizations.

Goodbye autonomy?

The authors of a very recent study list several risks that can threaten autonomy and productivity. It turns out that management sometimes sets goals without involving the teams, and often formulates these goals in terms of deliverables and deadlines. Goodbye autonomy! Frequently, it’s even worse and the teams don’t even know what the goals are. Another risk factor is creating dependencies so that teams have to wait for responses from outside and cannot move forward. Unsurprisingly, all this is at the expense of value creation.

Try doing nothing

The biggest challenge facing leaders in lean-agile organizations is finding the right balance. Yes, we must have clarity regarding the purpose and goals of the organization. And it must be clear how each team contributes to them. But no, there should be no micromanagement. As a manager, occasionally try doing nothing. Let the team learn from mistakes that you knew were coming.

Transparency is a major feature of lean-agile organizations. Especially customers – but management too – must be able to see how teams are performing. What is the trend in that regard? If it’s downwards, what would be the reason? Are there impediments that management can remove constraints to be managed? Is the product owner insufficiently involved? Is the team hindered by centralized, hierarchical management? Are customers satisfied? In such cases, leadership is necessary to eliminate factors that impede autonomy and value delivery. That’s how you facilitate your teams.

The shift from directive leader to coaching facilitator takes a bit of getting used to. A challenge in the first instance but one that will release a lot of energy!

Author: Dave van Herpen, Principal Consultant DevOps & High-Performance Transformations at Quint

Tags
Agile Enterprise, Leadership, Lean IT