Agile Leadership

Three Challenges to the New Agile Leader

When speaker and track coordinator Sheetal Thaker of Agile World pitched the idea of a wholly dedicated track to us, we were excited because it’s certainly a hot agile topic, but we weren’t sure what the speaker response would be. After all hierarchies are the death of agile, right? 

There’s no doubt that the last 20+ years of Agile have seen the role of Leader or Manager changed or even diminished. Add to that how most agile teams are embracing some form of Scrum and a flat organisation shouldn’t even allow for traditional managers. Instead teams opt for the emergence of shared and servant leadership that coaches instead of tells, and works to identify and remove barriers to success. 

But that doesn’t mean this new model is without its challenges…

Agile Leadership Challenge #1: Disconnect with Executives 

One thing hasn’t changed with the popularity of agile — there’s still loads of pressure from top-down. Sure, in an ideal Agile org, C-levels would transform too, but that’s simply not the case at most companies. Sadly, most execs are still focussing on snapping their fingers, becoming magically agile and witnessing a faster time to market. And they aren’t ready to give up their seats at the top to support the need for a flatter, more agile org.

In Sheetal’s talk to kick off the new track, she and Damien O’Connor will take us on a tour of how leadership has evolved over the last six decades, but that there’s a demand for a new type of leader — an Agile Leader — to disrupt and take us to the next stage of agility and positive work. 

What is an Agile Leader? You’re someone who supports autonomy that allows for lower-down, more rapid-fire decision making. You’re someone that’s not just eliminating existing organisational structures, it’s mentoring and cultivating the strengths of innovative individuals. As teams self-organise, an Agile Leader takes a step back from the day-to-day and focuses on strategy. You draw attention to emerging best practices, while still encouraging team and individual experimentation and cross-functional collaboration and knowledge sharing

Agile Leadership Challenge #2: Scaling Management

Yes an agile transformation is supposed to start with agile leadership. But, in reality, Scrum, Kanban and other agile-minded frameworks and practices usually start within smaller IT teams. These innovators then share their success with other teams and agile radiates out from there. It begs a lot of questions without easy answers:

  • If it’s bottom-up, how can agile scale?
  • How do you go from managing a single agile-backed product or project to agile portfolio management that takes across horizontals and verticals, across products and platforms?
  • How do we move the business needle without risking overwork and worse output?
  • How do you measure cross-organisational success?
  • How do you plan at all levels without risking a reversion to Waterfall?
  • How can that sense of agile and servant leadership scale? 

At #ATLDN, Nick Winwright will share how the Totaljobs Group almost doubled their Scrum delivery teams in three years, and how the role of leadership had to evolve across the whole organisation to support it. Almudena Rodríguez Pardo will also talk about the ups and downs of one of the most popular enterprise agile frameworks — SAFe: Scaled Agile Framework.

Agile Leadership Challenge #3: It can be exhausting!

In a lot of ways, agile leadership is harder than traditional leadership. If you’re doing it right, you care a lot more. Often you’re the filter between harsh top-level objectives and truly trying to motivate your teammates. You feel the brunt of the pressure of mergers, acquisitions and other major changes to manage. And while your team may be flat, you still feel responsible for communicating decisions ranging from mentoring to hirings and firings. 

Burnout isn’t just an agile struggle. Across all industries and around the world, burnout is a real problem. And in the IT space, we are focusing on developer burnout which is essential, but we sometimes neglect to address it in leadership. Particularly if you are embracing the idea of being a servant leader, you can concentrate so much on the needs of the team that you forget self-care. When you give everyone a sense of ownership, how do you make sure that everyone — including you — feels able to disconnect? How can you increase your own motivation? 

As Jeremy Renwick puts it, there’s a lot about the idealistic side of agile leadership, but not a lot of practical tips — something he will rectify with his four-pronged talk. Jim Hamill will offer ways to address the most important consequence of business agility — organisational psychology — in his very interactive talk. Finally, back at her sixth Agile Tour London, Portia Tung is giving a talk on Playful Leadership, where you can actually have fun instead of dreading being a change agent.