The Leadership Principle: Executive Impact on Agile

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It’s not a secret anymore. I’m not sure it ever was a secret.

There are many differentiators that can ultimately impact whether or not an organization succeeds or fails in their adoption\transformation with Agile. But, none are as impactful as that of leadership influence. We’re not just talking about the “I don’t care what you call yourself as long as I get what I want faster” apathetic leadership. We’re talking about something much more meaningful and impactful.

I work with senior level executives on a daily basis and, while many for the most part want to see their people succeed and are genuinely curious as to how they can help, few understand what exactly that means when it comes to the “Agile Journey”. I often hear executives talk about Agile methods like the “Staples Easy Button” that we will just throw a portion of our budget into, get some training to the people and watch the increased efficiency roll in. But, when that tactic fails, they are quick to abandon the effort as a whole in order to seek out the next fad diet of organizational process.

What’s missing? The full understanding and application of what I call The Leadership Principle as one of the 12 Agile principles that support an Agile ecosystem.

As I work with companies from various industries, I find that everyone is quick to embrace the supporting Agile principles such as “simplicity, the art of maximizing the amount of work not done”, and “face to face communication is still the most effective form of communication” as well as “working software is the primary measure of progress.”

But, The Leadership Principle that seems to get overlooked states, “Build teams around motivated individuals giving them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.”

Environment – Support – Trust

Here’s the kicker, without all three things together, adopting Agile methods won’t work. Bank on it. Why?

As leadership, I can say I support your efforts and trust you to get the job done. But, if I don’t also provide the environment to be successful, you will churn and regularly experience blockers outside your control. I can in turn provide the ideal environment; complete with team rooms, ALM tools, video conferencing and foosball tables. I demonstrate my support through announcing to the world we are “going” Agile. But…at the end of the day if I don’t trust you to do your job, you won’t feel empowered to fail or be innovative and we will have a culture of fear. But let’s say I give you the best environment, trust you to make good decisions, but when change is needed or certain people don’t want to be collaborative or we need a change in organizational policy but I fail to provide my support in those areas…the teams will become deflated and ultimately decide this way of working is simply not supported by our leadership.

Leadership impact on Agile adoption outperforms overall impact to adoption success 5 to 1 in recent polls conducted by ScrumAlliance. In VersionOne’s “State of Agile” survey they conduct each year, leadership support or impact is what drives the top 5 blocker categories every year in one form or another whether its culture related, education related, environmental or tooling.

The ironic part of this is that leadership tends to benefit the most by the adoption as a whole. How? They are able to create more flexibility in their financial portfolio to see value delivered faster to customers. That, in turn, translates into quicker ROI on products delivered and happier customers. Team morale soars when they have the three items listed in The Leadership Principle. Employee retention is generated and the culture goes from status quo to innovation and quality.

All it takes is providing the right environment, supporting the efforts and trusting people to make good decisions and get the job done well. And if you are a leader in an environment considering adopting Agile methods or are already underway but cannot provide each of those items, just go back to what you were doing before.

Plenty of companies have succeeded by simply maintaining the status quo…just ask Blockbuster.


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