Leaders Go First

Anthony Mersino
February 28, 2017

I met with some of the key internal champions for Agile at a client recently and they asked for my help.  They have been trying to encourage the Agile and Scrum teams in the organization and mature their practices and they found that their teams had hit a wall and were not progressing.  It was as if they had run into a brick wall.  

That brick wall was the executive leadership team.  The leadership team said they wanted the benefits of Agile, but frequently acted in ways that undercut the agile teams.  The attitude of the leadership team seems to be:

We'll tolerate Agile as long as everyone meets the deadlines and gets all the work done.

Does that sound Agile or effective to you?  More importantly, does it sound familiar?
This Agile champions team wanted to enroll my help to make a fact and data based argument.  They wanted the leadership team to change the way they were behaving to be more Agile friendly; to stop doing some things and start doing others.  It called to mind a line from a 2002 Dana Carvey movie, Master of Disguise:  "This is what you are doing, this is what I want you to do."

Here is the list of items that they wanted the leadership to stop doing, and the corresponding list of items that they wanted the leadership to start doing.


This Is Happening Everywhere
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is happening everywhere.  Most leaders are under pressure to do more with less and to show short term results.  They don’t have the time to wait for Agile teams to develop or to learn how to best support an Agile team.  They also don't want to spend time in an Agile training course or invest in learning.  Most already know all about agile (sigh) and so don’t believe they need any Agile or Scrum training.  They espouse Agile and give it lip service, but they don’t support it.  

These leaders are governing how much growth the teams will have.  The teams are only going to be able to mature to a certain point and then they will hit the wall.  It’s a recognizable enough pattern that Michael Sahota talked about it in my recent Certified Agile Leader Course (which I highly recommend, BTW).  He said that:

The Consciousness of the Leader is the Limit (for Agile)

— Michael Sahota

Michael was probably inspired by what Frederic Laloux said in his book Re-Inventing Organizations:

The general rule seems to be that the level of consciousness of an organization cannot exceed the level of consciousness of its leader.

— Frederic Laloux

This seems to match the experience reported by respondents to the VersionOne Annual Report on Agile.  When asked what were the barriers to further growth of Agile in the organization, most respondents pointed the finger at the leadership team.

This rule that the leader is the limit to development in organizations has a couple of powerful implications:
1.    If the leadership team is not on board, there is little that individuals on the lower rungs of the organization can do to make agile stick or be effective.
2.    If you want to make change in an organization, for example, introduce Agile, you need the leadership to understand and champion the change.  
Literally, leaders in the organization need to go in front of the change.  They do this through investing in their own Agile learning and growth. Michael Sahota has an excellent diagram for this which he titled "Leaders go First".

There is a bit of a silver lining in all this.  If you are a leader who wants to gain the benefits of business agility, flexibility, and team productivity, it is within your reach. Though not easy or painless (see my recent post "We are Using Agile, Why are Things Getting Worse"), it is within your power to help Agile succeed.  The way out is to lead through the change, by going first.  

Are you ready to lead by example?  If learning more is your next step, please join us for our Leading and Coaching Agile Teams Training Course

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.