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

Anthony Mersino
October 30, 2015

Many organizations today are running experiments with Agile approaches or the Scrum Framework.  A few then decide to Adopt Agile or embark on an Agile Transformation, which I characterize as a process of transforming the organization structure and culture to one that fosters true business agility.  

I am working with several clients who are in the midst of Agile Adoptions or Agile Transformations.  As I look across those organizations, I see a wide variance in the way the leaders of those organizations lead the change.  Which got me to thinking, What is the Leader's Role in an Agile Transformation?
I don't know if there is one answer to that question.  I do know that I have observed leaders exhibiting the following behaviors which seem to help the transformation:

  • Casting 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.  

  • Acting as the Ozone Layer - 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.  

    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.

  • Setting 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 team and then they turn them loose.  Generally, leaders with these 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.
  • Fixing Organizational Impediments - 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:
    • Functional Silos and Fiefdoms 
    • Onerous and error-prone processes 
    • Most Performance Review and Compensation Practices
    • Cubicle farms 
    • Overallocation of People to Projects / Lack of Slack
    • Unrealistic Project Budgets and Deadlines
    • Lack of Technical Practices and Automation Tools

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.

  • Extreme Ownership - 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 leads.  He rejects the idea that outside forces or people are to blame for what happens to his organization.
  • Collaboration - The great leaders I know are also excellent collaborators.  They build bridges across the organization, they get input and ideas from everyone, and they allow others to participate in decision-making.  This is absolutely necessary to get change to stick. 

These are my thoughts about the leader's role in an Agile Transformation.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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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.