Most technology organizations recognize that Agile principles and practices have worked well within their development organizations. An Internet search for the name of your competitors and “Scrum” will likely demonstrate what I mean. I started using this approach years ago with skeptics who had not been paying attention to what was happening in the industry; it hasn’t failed me yet.
But the more successful organizations I have had the pleasure to work with realize that it takes real Agile leadership — not just Agile development — to achieve the organizational agility that will allow the entire organization to succeed.
So what, exactly, do Agile leaders do that makes such a difference?
First and foremost, Agile leaders empower their workforce. Agile leaders enable teams to take ownership of their work and trust them to get their job done. What we typically find when teams are empowered to figure out how they will accomplish their goals is that they not only deliver, but they collaborate more and enjoy their work more. As a result, productivity rises. Agile leaders establish the vision, build awesome teams, support them, and get out of the way.
Agile leaders are also responsible for enabling innovation. If your teams are habitually late, unpredictable, and in constant fire-fighting mode, it is doubtful they have much time for innovation. Innovation requires experimentation. Experimentation involves risk. If your culture is completely risk-averse, it is unlikely there is much time for innovation. Innovation drives new product ideas, which create new opportunities that will ultimately drive revenue.
Agile leaders provide a stable environment, helping teams focus on the highest priorities and preventing them from having to multi-task on three different projects at the same time. Agile leaders encourage their teams to continuously improve. This may take the form of allowing teams time to work on improvements or providing them with the training they need to be successful. Getting better takes time, and leaders need to support this objective.
Agile leaders foster a high-trust environment. Trust needs to exist both within the team and across the organization. I often tell leaders that they are responsible for creating the environment that will allow teams to become predictable. Once teams become predictable, trust is usually established across the organization. This requires leadership to remove the systematic impediments that prevent teams from becoming predictable.
Agile leaders need to understand that an Agile transformation is not something just for the developers and testers. To achieve true organizational Agility, the entire organization must be in alignment and understand the new approach and how it will affect their role, regardless of whether they are in development, product management, sales, finance, HR, or wherever.
In the end, the agility level of your organization will not exceed the agility of your leadership.
[For more from the author on this topic, see "Organizational Agility: Why Agile Leadership Matters."]