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Why Agile delivery demands a different type of leader

By Amy Dickinson, pa People and talent expert

Leadership in an Agile environment is a world away from the traditions of ‘command and control’. Agile teams are self-organising and empowered, and decision-making is devolved. In this environment traditional management methods can block the innovation and collaboration that characterises successful Agile teams.

So it’s no surprise then that, year on year, the world’s longest-running Agile survey shows the top blocker for successful Agile programmes is companies’ inability to change their culture. As leaders are our ‘cultural architects’, ensuring they understand the personal journey that they may need to make, and the behaviours they need to promote is critically important. While traditional leadership focuses on predicting and planning, Agile leaders move to a mindset of “sense and respond”. They are ‘enablers’ of the team and promote a culture of continuous learning and innovation.

When organisations fail to transform leadership values along with delivery approach, the real power of Agile is lost. The reality is that failing to invest in leadership development means you risk damaging or slowing your transformation programme.

Say goodbye to the hierarchy

Agile promotes flat structures and decentralised decision-making, and makes ‘top down’ management a thing of the past. Leadership becomes a collective responsibility for the whole team, which means you need to encourage and develop highly engaged leaders at all levels of the organisation. Seeing leadership as a personal attribute rather than a grade empowers people at all levels.

In the financial sector, I’ve seen one client do this by cutting out conventional management layers and instead introducing the concept of Agile product owners – decisive, forward-thinking leaders who can influence a team to achieve great results.

Be pioneering and bold

In today’s fast-paced world, being the first to market with a new service can make or break an organisation. And start-ups without the baggage of years of history and outdated technology systems are often better placed to seize these opportunities.

Being slow and steady may no longer win you the race, and leaders need to be seen to innovate, and take bold steps to deliver success for the team. They need a compelling vision, and the strength and charisma to lead a team towards that goal. 

agile tranformation and delivery

What does an Agile organisation look like? Five characteristics to help you thrive.

Find out more

Think end-to-end

Being first to implement a new service is reliant on identifying, understanding and grasping new opportunities as quickly as possible. Agile leaders are inquisitive and know that survival and success is reliant on continually seeking out new, better ways to deliver to customers.

They are continually learning, and expect others in the team to promote a learning culture. We worked with a top-three retail bank to create an app to support leadership development. Acting as more of a sat nav than a map, the app made learning content readily available at helpful times – for example when performance reviews were due.

Build psychological safety

Agile leaders are emotionally aware. They are astute in understanding relationships with individuals, the team, and the wider organisation. They are able to flex their leadership style based on the situation, drawing on different facets of their leadership style to support and enable the team.

They know that feedback and learning is essential for a successful team, and so build an environment of psychological safety where all team members feel their voice will be heard without fear of retribution or humiliation.

Be a ‘servant leader’

While coined by Greenleaf in the 1970s, the concept of a leader who is there to serve, rather than direct, is highly relevant to Agile organisations. Motivated by the desire to achieve success for the team, servant leaders aren’t following a personal agenda but are there to facilitate the success of others.

Empowered, decisive, collaborative leadership is an essential ingredient of Agile delivery. Taking time to work with leaders to understand how their roles may change, and the personal journey that they may need to make will help to ensure success.

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