What is the Leader's Role in an Agile Transformation?

Anthony Mersino
October 30, 2015

Many organizations today are running Agile pilots or are attempting an Agile Transformation. They want the flexibility and business agility that Agile methods promise. Leaders play a key role in the Agile Transformation. It is only with a solid understanding of this critical role that the transformation will succeed and deliver the promised benefits.

What is Agile Transformation?

Let's start by understanding what we mean by Agile Transformation. In contrast to an Agile pilot or implementing Scrum, an Agile Transformation is the process of transforming the organization structure and culture to one that fosters true business agility. 

Agile transformation stands in contrast to those who view agile as a process change in the IT department. These people want to simply "do agile" and don't have an appreciation for the mindset and culture change necesssary to achieve agility. Leaders need to articulate this culture and mindset change and communicate it to the entire organization.

The Leaders Role in an Agile Transformation

Over the last 6 years I have worked with many clients who are running Agile Pilots or attempting an Agile Transformation. There is a wide variance in the approaches that these leaders have taken and a wide variance in the results. Which got me to wondering whether leaders really understand their role in an Agile Transformation,  or the importance of their leadership during this organizational change.

I don't know if there is one perfect way to approach this. I do know that there are a handful of things leaders did that were common to all the successful Agile transformation.

Leaders Cast Vision

The leaders I know that have succeeded with Agile Transformations have been great at casting a vision. They have an end goal for the organization and they help to paint the picture for everyone else in the organization. They also appreciate the magnitude of the challenge and allocate appropriate resources to make sure that the change can occur.

The vision needs to be a compelling reason for the change to Agile and it needs to be communicated broadly, repeatedly, and in a way that engages the team members and solicits their feedback. One leader that comes to mind that was good at this, provided training, encouraged widespread experimentation, and conducted monthly town hall meetings to recast the vision and get feedback on how things were working.

I have also seen examples where leaders were ineffective in casting vision. A CIO at one client stated at the beginning of 2015 that by the end of the year, 30% of all projects would be run using Agile. Unfortunately, he did not champion the vision. He also failed to allocate any resources to that "vision" so the people in the organization struggled to make any steps toward the goal. That is not the vision I am talking about.

Leaders Go First During the Agile Transformation

In order to effectively cast vision for the change to Agile, Leaders need to truly understand Agile. Many Agile Transformations run into a brick wall shortly after getting underway. That brick wall is the leadership team. While most leaders will say they want all the benefits of Agile they may unknowingly act in ways that undercut the agile teams. The attitude of some leaders seems to be one of impatience or intolerance of agile approaches.

Going first means learning about Agile and Scrum. Leaders should take the Agile training that the team members will take. They need to understand Lean and Agile Principles, and organizational change. Read more about Leaders going first during Transformation here.

Leaders Protect the Agile Teams

One of my favorite examples of good leadership comes from a large financial services client. The leaders in this organization created an Agile Champions team whose mission was to nurture the new Agile teams and to protect them from the broader organization. Rather than call themselves the Agile Champions, they called themselves the "Ozone Layer" because of the way they protected the teams.

They recognized that introducing Agile and Scrum was a change that the organization might fight or reject. They described the forces in the organization that were opposed to the change to Agile as "agile-antibodies" and recognized the need to shield the teams from those forces. These agile-antibodies - things like bureaucracy or political infighting - could attack and bring the Agile teams to their knees if left unchecked. So the leaders formed this protective layer called the Ozone Layer around the teams that kept the agile-antibodies out.

Leaders Set High Expectations 

Great leaders will expect great things from their people. This in itself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They do their best to get the best people on the Agile teams and then they turn them loose. Generally, leaders with high expectations are Theory Y managers. They think the best of people and believe that if they provide the right conditions, people will grow, accept a challenge and outperform their expectations. These leaders use coaching and mentoring skills and ask powerful questions to help people and teams succeed.

Leaders Focus on Fixing Organizational Impediments so Teams can do their Best Work

Every organization has impediments, though many organizations have grown so accustomed to living with them and don’t even see them anymore. Impediments slow things down, reduce morale and productivity and can become a huge waste of people’s life energy. I wrote this related post about how leaders can leverage Agile to fix these problems. Some examples of organizational impediments include:

  • Taking on Too Many Projects; Assigning People to Multiple Teams
  • Functional Silos and Fiefdoms
  • Onerous and Error-prone Manual Processes
  • Performance Review and Compensation Practices that Reinforce Hero Behavior and Undermine Teamwork
  • Over-allocation of People to Projects / Lack of Slack
  • Unrealistic Project Budgets and Deadlines
  • Access to proper Test Environments
  • Lack of Technical Practices and Automation Tools like test automation, continuous integration

Great leaders help the teams by allocating resources and attacking these types of impediments and thereby freeing up the teams to do their best work. Many will create a backlog of these impediments and begin to systematically address them.

Leaders Take (Extreme) Ownership for Setbacks or Failures

Extreme ownership is the title of a recent book by former Navy Seal Jocko Willink. Willink writes about leadership and winning as a Navy Seal team. He coined the term extreme ownership based on the principle of taking personal responsibility for every outcome for the teams he led. He rejected the idea that outside forces or people were to blame for what happened to his team.
When leaders take this type of ownership, they show that it is OK to make mistakes and fail occasionally. Teams that fail and recover are stronger than those that do not. It is only by making it safe to experiment will leaders unleash the innovation and creativity of their teams. 

Leader Push Collaboration during the Agile Transformation

The great leaders that I saw succeed with Agile Transformations were also excellent collaborators. They built bridges across the organization, they sought input and ideas from everyone, and they allowed others to participate in decision-making. They modelled the behavior that they wanted their agile teams to follow. Rather than letting silos impede the productivity and responsiveness of the organization, they reached across the silos and encouraged communication and cooperation. This level of collaboration is absolutely necessary to get change to stick.

Leaders Ask Great Questions

One of the most underutilized tools in the Agile Leaders toolkit is the question. Asking great questions is a powerful way to lead and Agile Transformation and nurture high performing teams. Done well, this style of leadership moves from directing, telling and commanding to one of curiosity, learning, and adaptation. And it is a style that anyone can learn to use effectively. Read more about asking great questions in this related post.

Next Steps for Agile Leaders

If you are currently leading or planning an Agile Transformation, we want to help. Please see below for resources that we provide:

  1. If you have questions or need support, we are ready to help now! Put down this article and call us immediately at 312-767-7691. Or you can email us at: acmersino@VitalityChicago.com
  2. If you are looking for blueprints and detailed guides to plan your transformation, please read success with your Agile Transformation.
  3. If you want to learn how others have succeeded with Agile and Scrum, read how Bank of America succeeded with their Agile Transformation, or Highland Solutions succeeded with their Agile Transformation. 
  4. If you want to stay on top of trends in Agile-related topics, you can join our mailing list to receive our monthly newsletter with practical information on Agile and Scrum and various techniques to help you succeed with Agile.  Join Our Monthly Newsletter

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.

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