7 Lessons Agile Can Teach Us about Leadership

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Summary:
The Agile Manifesto contains values to guide teams toward developing better software. But its directives are also about leadership—influencing culture and creating an organization where people can collaborate to meet the needs of their customers. Here are seven lessons the Agile Manifesto can teach us about leadership.

“But the Agile Manifesto is just for developers! Why are we covering it during a leadership workshop?”

This stance can be common, especially when working with executives on agile projects. And they aren’t completely wrong; the manifesto was written by seventeen people with backgrounds in software development and methodologies.

However, upon closer inspection, the Agile Manifesto is also about leadership—influencing culture and creating an organization where people can collaborate to meet the needs of their customers. Here are seven lessons the Agile Manifesto can teach us about leadership. 

Lesson #1: Agile is more than a mindset.

Let’s start at the beginning: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” The preamble of the Agile Manifesto is often overlooked, but it contains a clear directive: Agile is driven by action. We are learning by doing and helping others do it.

Agile is also about delivering something. As a leader, you can help your teams by expecting working software (or any deliverable) at the end of every sprint and by removing organizational impediments that put delivering tasks in jeopardy.

The phrase “uncovering better ways” is also interesting. I take it to mean that we are experimenting and exploring ways to do work more satisfactorily and that the experimentation and exploration is continual. We have not found the “best” ways, but we are seeking better ways. 

Lesson #2: Agile organizations are learning organizations.

Empiricism is at the heart of agile. We conduct experiments, inspect the results, and adapt our teams’ practices, methods, and processes based on what we’ve learned. As leaders, we accept that failure is part of the learning process, and sometimes losing a sprint or release can reap far greater rewards as our projects move forward. Don’t celebrate failure, but make it safe for teams to fail when it happens. 

But how do we guide the work we lead? Fortunately, the manifesto gives leaders insights and assists with making decisions:

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Let’s take these one at a time.

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

People create software. Processes and tools can get in the way of delivery. Phase gates, handoffs, and endless approvals put barriers between the many people doing the work. This can be harmful, considering agile practices are driven by collaboration.

For example, when practicing Scrum—the most popular agile framework—the product owner gets feedback from stakeholders and provides it to the team. The Scrum team members talk with the ScrumMaster to work through impediments. ScrumMasters and product owners also work together closely to make sure the backlog is well refined and understood, the product vision is clear, and the team is positioned for success.

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