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Agile Leadership

Recently I attended the Cutter Consortium’s annual Summit in Boston as a panelist for Jim Highsmith’s talk on Agile Leadership.  Jim’s talk was great and got the attendees thinking and talking.  On the plane flight there I jotted down my thoughts on this topic, which is an important one because of how management / leadership has been dealt with by some people in the agile community, and thought I’d share what I wrote down.

The opening of Jim’s talk was perfect because he framed the agile leadership dilemma perfectly.  Some people in the agile community would have you believe that the role of the manager is to “buy pizza and get out of the way” (Jim’s words).  And why not?  When you have a self-organizing team who manage their own plans and choose their own work and clearly outlined roles like product owners isn’t that all you need?

The biggest thing I’ve seen team leaders struggle with is finding ways to add value, and that’s in general not just with agile development.

Many leaders try to add value by being better than everyone else on the team at tracking risks and dependencies.  They spend all their time trying to understand projects and connect the dots and people together to ensure people are talking and working together.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t scale and I’ve seen many teams where the people on the team get lazy and lack accountability; if details are missed it’s not their fault because you didn’t notice.  You definitely want your team making as many decisions as possible, thinking about risks, etc.  And owning them.

Many team leaders turn themselves into administrators in an attempt to add value.  They take on all the project scheduling, paperwork, status reports, meeting scheduling, etc. so that the team doesn’t do it.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either because it removes you from the project.  You really are just buying pizza and getting out of the way.  You need to do some of these things but it’s best to keep your team in tune with what the rest of the organization needs (like status reports), since that’s the best way to ensure your team continues to survive.  They need to be aware of how they are presented and have a voice in those presentations whenever possible.

Obviously, I believe that leadership is really important.  As I state in my book, I believe it’s critical and has to come from all levels: executives, team leads, developers, QA, usability, etc.  So how do team leads and executives add value in an agile culture?  Here’s my list.

1. Focus on Quality and Priorities

Successful projects start with a focus on quality.  You need to be the leading advocate and live and breathe quality.  Never let your team take shortcuts, make sure they do prototypes when needed, and above all be uncompromising because it’s not a trade-off.  Why?  In my experience, quality gives your team freedom: freedom to be flexible and responsive (agile), freedom to innovate, and freedom derived from the trust of your company and customers to go in whatever direction required.

Setting clear priorities goes hand-in-hand with a focus on quality.  Don’t let your team take on too much work, and make sure that everyone knows what the highest priorities are.  Your job is to help the team balance capacity with demand, because too many teams try to take on too much and wind up being less efficient than they should be and producing a lower quality product than they could.

2. Challenge the Status Quo

One of the key lessons I’ve learned in my career is that every situation and team is unique.  Think kaizen every day: learn, adapt, evolve, and embrace the fact that there is always something that could be better.  It’s your job to help find it and make it better and to create a culture where continual and gradual improvement is an accepted and routine practice.  And never ever go “by the book”; think of everything you know as a toolbox and look for ways to learn new techniques and ideas to expand and change your toolbox so you can employ your tools more effectively.

3. Set Clear Expectations and Follow up in Regular 1:1’s

I’ve found that it’s very helpful to have clear, written, expectations and to hold weekly or bi-weekly 1:1’s with the people on my team.  As a leader this is one of the most important things you can do.  Not only are you making it clear how they are being judged, but this is a unique opportunity to talk about what is important to the team, give feedback, and to listen to and get to know the people in your team.

Even in highly capable agile teams you can play an important role in helping people grow and develop.  You need to help people develop the right level of autonomy, accountability, and responsibility for their role on the team and personality.  And I’ve found that most people need help with time management, understanding the benefits of their work, and getting the work done so those benefits are realized.

4. Be Patient & Persistent

One way to think of your job is as a gardener.  Part of your job is to plant seeds of ideas and cultivate them; it might take a while for some seeds to bear fruit but it’s usually worth the wait.  And it’s critical to know when you can wait and when you can’t.

5. Keep Your Brain On

Credit for this phrase goes to a former boss; you need to stay alert to what is going on around you.  Remember that you’re in a unique position to observe and listen.  Ask lots of questions and listen carefully to what people are saying, their body language, everything.  It’s amazing what you’ll uncover.

And finally, I’ll end with this thought:

More them, less you = Success. — Marshal Goldsmith

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