Successful Agile Requires a New Kind of Leadership

In an agile world, team members are empowered to make important decisions within the context of the behavioral architecture, without having to ask permission from supervisors or managers. But these supervisors and managers are coming from a lifetime of learning how to succeed in a hierarchical world, so they will need to leave behind those ingrained lessons. In order for agile to be successful at scale, leaders will need to change.

For centuries, businesses have been led using a hierarchical, low-trust, command-and-control model. This model has its roots in the Roman military machine but is still taught today in MBA programs everywhere—it’s in professional DNA.

But in recent years, many businesses have been attempting to transition from traditional hierarchies to self-organizing models based on the “rules of nature,” a system that more closely resembles the controlled chaos of the natural world. They start with the premise that humans naturally demonstrate certain behavior patterns, and it makes sense to leverage these patterns rather than reprogram them to fit into more traditional hierarchical models.

Agile frameworks like Scrum, as well as self-organizing performance models like the Agile Performance Holarchy, are good examples of this. These models invert the hierarchy, transforming leaders into stewards of a self-organizing behavioral architecture, with team roles and accountabilities dispersed throughout the organization in a way that allows people to go about the messy process of self-organization and improved performance.

In an agile world, team members are empowered to make important decisions within the context of the behavioral architecture, without having to ask permission from supervisors or managers.

But don’t expect all managers—or the schools where MBA students who are eager to lead are graduating—to come along willingly. To ask them to change is to ask them to transform themselves after a lifetime of learning how to succeed in a hierarchical world. This might have been best articulated by Benjamin Disraeli, who, upon becoming the prime minister of the UK, said, “I have climbed to the top of a greasy pole!”

Why Agile Matters

In 2015 the CMMI Institute, a dominant force in the federal government systems sector, estimated that over 70 percent of organizations that achieved a CMMI rating described at least some of their projects as agile. This perceived clash of cultures demonstrates that organizations are striving to be agile first, and to “comply” with the institute’s Capability Maturity Model Integration program second, not the other way around!

The same appears true with other process models, including the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) and ISO 9001, which are widely used in the government sector, yet federal agencies’ march to agility seems to continue unabated. This is a dramatic increase over previous years, and it has deep-rooted cultural and operational implications.

There are good business reasons for leaders to transition to self-organizing models:

Agile frameworks reduce the cost of failure. It is conventional wisdom in the technology industry that failure is inevitable. Research conducted by organizations such as the Project Management Institute and the Software Engineering Institute has consistently confirmed high failure rates, so it makes sense to seek solutions that assume failure, not success, and to simply reduce their cost. All agile frameworks, with their incremental and iterative development model, support the idea of “failing fast.”

Failure is not just an option; it’s a requirement. A foundational premise of agile is to acknowledge that failure is normal, and we should plan to fail fast and learn as much as we can. This reduces a project’s cost while allowing teams to redirect efforts toward a more successful approach through the use of experimentation, retrospectives, and short, time-boxed iterations. Quality professionals will recognize this as an application of W. Edwards Deming’s “plan-do-check-act” framework of continuous improvement applied in short iterations. This isn’t just lip service; it produces real results. According to the Standish Group’s 2015 chaos study, agile projects in the report had almost four times the success rate as waterfall projects, and waterfall projects had three times the failure rate as agile projects.

Agile methods deliver business value to end-users more quickly. Value is delivered more quickly with an iterative and incremental delivery approach due to low-value features being deprioritized or discarded, which frees up valuable resources so teams can focus on the high-priority needs of the customer.

Self-organization pushes decision-making downward, freeing leaders to focus on strategy. For decades, the technology industry has explored ways to push decisions downward. Agile frameworks finally provide a model that can make that a reality—if leaders are willing to accept their role as enablers rather than task managers. A successful agile team requires minimal oversight, makes day-to-day operational decisions, collaborates with business customers, and delivers business value without the need for continuous management intervention.

Agile complements important IT industry models. If CMMI, ISO 9001, and the PMBOK are models we use, agile is something we are. For example, CMMI has a perspective of defining what needs to occur for a product or service to be successful and consistently deliver, and to improve the process, while agile values describe why we take those actions. If adopted for this purpose, rather than as only a marketing tool to receive a rating, CMMI makes agile stronger. If not, CMMI (and the PMBOK or ISO) has the potential to counter the positive effects of adopting agile.

Big Agile Is Coming

Since at least 2012, General Motors, the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, Fiat Chrysler, and other large organizations have begun to adopt agile. But along with their huge IT budgets, they are also bringing their biases, bureaucracies, documentation, and leadership infrastructure with them. What will be the effect on the agile community?

“Big agile” requires strong leadership, just not the kind we’re used to. Leadership is required at all levels. In fact, if you strip away the hype, “agile” is a leadership mode—one that is rooted in values, integrity, and transparency. Simply working with an agile coach to implement well-known ceremonies is not enough. Metaphorically, the leadership “operating system” needs an upgrade, and it needs to trace vertically through the organization, from top to bottom.

In today’s corporate hierarchies where command-and-control structures, low trust, long-term planning, and risk management reign supreme, the skills required to thrive and survive are anything but agile. This leaves agile teams to push the culture uphill, leading to unpredictable results once business operations expand beyond the boundaries of the core agile team. This creates a cultural mismatch due to IT, operations, marketing, infrastructure, business development, sales, and end-users not being on the same cultural page.

Performing agile ceremonies and techniques without self-organization isn’t agile at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with adopting ceremonies and techniques that are identified as being agile, and many companies have found some success with that. But the power of agile values and their associated frameworks grows exponentially once self-organization is perfected.

Changing the Culture

Tomorrow’s leaders, and the schools and corporate mentoring programs that train them, need to transition their end goal from command-and-control task managers to architects and operators of a self-organizing infrastructure. This includes changes in culture, training, and performance monitoring with a bias toward high trust, peer accountability, and self-governance. 

There are industry models that can help leaders upgrade their skills. Brian Robertson, in his book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, describes a self-governance model that leans heavily on uber-defined roles and accountabilities that integrate seamlessly across an organization. In his book The Sensei Leader, Jim Bouchard declares that “command and control is dead” and implores leaders to build a high-trust, transparent, self-organizing culture. Bouchard’s book is particularly interesting because he comes at the problem from the business side, with no background in agile or IT. The Agile Performance Holarchy, described in my book Great Big Agile: An OS for Agile Leaders, also contains guidance for leaders in the form of interactive “performance circles” to help leaders grow in six categories.

Any agile transformation where the scope is limited to hiring agile coaches and adopting basic ceremonies or techniques is doomed to failure. Agile isn’t just a process or a framework like Scrum, Extreme Programming, or SAFe. It’s a set of values and principles that encourage a collaborative, transparent, and self-organizing culture where the operational model is high-trust, empirical, and calibrated for relentless improvement in the pursuit of quality and increased speed to value.

In order for agile to be successful at scale, leaders will need to change.

Bouchard sums it up: “Don’t even attempt to transform your organization until you can transform yourself.”

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