Agile Top-Down: Striking a Balance

Agile is being evangelized in executive boardrooms and introduced top-down with increasing frequency. Considering that Agile advocates self-management by the individual and within a team, what is the role of senior leadership? My experience from this top-down perspective has given me insight into attitudes and techniques that are successful and others that fail. I assert that there is an effective and appropriate stance for senior leadership that will improve the effectiveness of an Agile transformation. Key to my list of recommendations for making Agile work is the balanced involvement of both senior-level leaders and practitioners in the planning and executing the introduction of Agile practices.

What They Didn’t Know: Agile Stealth Mode

Early application of Agile within organizations has generally been characterized as a subtle, grass-roots introduction that was put forward by a low-level manager. For example, consider the newly-hired technical lead with some previous Agile experience. First, she proposed to her team that they work in regular iterative cycles. Later, she suggested that the team meet daily for a brief status meeting. With time, she began to talk with the team openly about Agile and they worked together to adopt other Agile practices. It wasn't long until members of other teams began to ask about what her team was doing.

In a similar fashion to this technical lead, many early proponents of Agile methods introduced these practices within their organization by using a similar bottom-up approach. {sidebar id=1} Agile was new and relatively unknown and, therefore, had few champions. Much of what these individuals were able to accomplish within their areas of influence required them to operate in stealth mode, so as to not be checked by the leadership of an otherwise traditional organization.

Agile Is Ascending the Corporate Ladder
While this may still occur today, much has changed in recent years. In the six years since the
Agile Manifesto was authored, Agile practices have gained a footing with many organizations. Its success has spawned enthusiasts across all organizational levels.  It is increasingly common to hear Agile being evangelized in the executive boardroom, rather than just in online tech forums. During the past few years, Agile has been introduced into organizations from the top-down with increasing frequency. When the impetus for embracing Agile originates at the executive level, is the resulting top-down approach inconsistent with Agile principles? When it is the senior executive who champions the transformation to Agile, is this a departure from the Agile concept of self-organization?


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