A Conventional Manager Learns From Agile: Six Leadership Lessons

I suppose you could say I “grew up” in business as a “conventional” leader. The ideas of leadership I was exposed to during my business education and the early years of my career focused on the skills and aptitudes of the leader as individualist. The leader was supposed to be visionary, wise and insightful. He or she was supposed to set the course, motivate the followers and achieve the goal by leading a disciplined process of execution. 

Long term goals and detailed planning and accountability were all good things. The leader was supposed to give clear, SMART instructions, and followers were supposed to follow. Accountability usually meant that juniors were assigned tasks from above, and that they delivered what was asked of them - in detail.

Looking back, I can see that things rarely worked out the way we planned. Our visionary leaders, though often personally admirable, didn't have all the answers. They couldn't actually see very far ahead.  We wanted to believe they could.

And when we ourselves got to a place of greater seniority, we discovered we couldn't see that far ahead either. We felt the pressure to set a clear direction. To set aggressive long-term goals. To have both a strategy and a plan. To give clear, unambiguous instructions.  To hold people accountable. To be personally responsible for achieve those goals.  To be a strong and effective boss.

It was strange how each year’s multi-year planning exercise seemed to be starting fresh. Strange how often the goals from last year were almost forgotten as we reset our vision in the light of reality: of our most recent experience and learning and the latest information.

It was also strange how often junior people chafed under the “leadership” of their seniors. How little they felt personally challenged or engaged. Creativity was almost never discussed. It was a remote idea, for artists or something. We all had our jobs to do, our orders to follow. The biggest challenge was living with all the pressure and the frustrating sense that there must be a better way.  

In the last few years, I’ve had the great good fortune to begin working with people who seem to be living in an new and different world. The Agile world. I don't want to over-idealise it, as I’ve learned the Agile world can be also be an ideal, whereas real daily life has real warts and limitations. But as someone who cares a lot about leadership, my exposure to Agile ideas, combined, it must be said, with other thinking about “post-conventional” leadership, has opened up new vistas for me about what leadership can mean, and how it can bring new life and new creativity to organisations.

As my friends and colleagues have helped me to explore and come to understand the Agile ethos, my learnings seem to have crystallised around six key themes.

  • Creating contexts that value and liberate people
  • Making and “shipping” vs planning and perfecting
  • Setting one’s course, but committing only incrementally and iteratively
  • Finding and holding a sustainable pace
  • Being a learner - learning to inspect and adapt
  • Bringing a big vision to life by carving it up into small chunks of work

I own that this perspective is a personal one, and that others approaching Agile will learn and value different things. But my own learnings have been personally transformative, and I believe that as part an Agile ethos, they have the potential to transform leadership for many people and many organisations, to the great benefit of our global society in the 21st century.

I want to write more extensively about each point, but as an overview, let me touch on each of the six themes.

Creating contexts that value and liberate people

In the course of their learning about software development, the founders of Agile came to understand that their front-line creative teams were their greatest resource. They came to see that small teams created amazing results -- when they were truly empowered, left to organise themselves and to work on challenges in their own ways. This happened when people were not told what do in any detail, but were allowed to find their own way. In particular, the results were most amazing when groups of diverse people were put together in ways that allowed them to meet a defined challenge from beginning to end, and to create a working product that delivered customer value.

The leadership conclusion I draw from this is that there is tremendous power for people and for the organisation in trusting people and valuing them for their creative gifts. Instead of the conventional command and control ethos (tell them what to do and monitor them), give people a challenge and trust them to get the job done. Again and again, I have seen this approach liberate people to do their creative best, to feel inspired and liberated, and especially to thrive off the diversity of the range of their colleague talents. In several of the post-conventional leadership frameworks I have experienced, we think of this as creating a container.  It is the opposite of command and control.  It means creating a space for people to be free to create their own solutions - in their diversity.

Making and “shipping” vs planning and perfecting

The Agile pioneers discovered that it was far better to create a small amount of working software and release it fast than to wait for a large product to be fully ready. This was because users and customers would then have an ability to try out and react to a working product.  Both the development teams and their customers learned quickly and incrementally. This way of working transcended the tendency of leaders and planners to believe they could see far enough ahead to develop detailed specifications for a product far in advance. Instead, the product was developed in small increments, with learning all along the way.  

As a leadership matter, this approach is the antidote to leaders’ believing they can create a detailed answer to business challenges from the beginning. Instead, they are called to set a direction and then trust their people to create small increments of value frequently and rapidly, ship them to the customer, and learn directly from the results.

Setting one’s course, but committing only incrementally and iteratively

In conventional planning, leaders are called on to set major goals far in advance and then to stake their reputations on achieving those goals.  In Agile planning, a direction is still set; a vision of the future is clearly articulated, often in the form of a narrative or epic, but that commitment is held lightly. In the first instance, the organisation commits only to small incremental steps toward the vision.  The effectiveness of each of these steps in the market is continuously evaluated, and then the next small step is committed.  This approach allows constant learning and adjustment -- responding to changing circumstances, but also to organisational learning about those circumstance. In this way, with the idea of real options in mind, the organisation keeps as many options as possible open:  “Options have value, options expire, never commit early unless you know why.”

Finding and holding a sustainable pace

In conventional management, all too often there is huge temptation for senior leaders to drive their organisation very hard, putting everyone under huge pressure and creating a culture of overwork and burnout.  This way of working often leads to team members injuring their physical or psychological health, or just getting fed up and leaving.  People with a desire for a balanced life tend to be driven out, undermining the diversity of team.

The Agile founders discovered that their teams were most productive over time if they found and held a sustainable pace.  “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”  This approach moves away from management as slavedriver and builds mutual trust and safety, particularly trust in the team’s own ability to find and hold its own sustainable pace.

Being a learner - learning to inspect and adapt

The Agile founders built into all their processes a regular pattern of retrospectives - a disciplined practice of looking carefully at their work and their processes and sensing how to improve. Crucially, this practice started at the team level.  Instead of being judged from above, the team assesses itself on its performance and comes up with its own ideas for improvement.  This is often called “Inspect and Adapt”, and it happens regularly in sprints or Agile increments of work.  

The leadership conclusion I draw from this is that there is tremendous power for people and for the organisation in trusting people and valuing them for their creative gifts. Instead of the conventional command and control ethos (tell them what to do and monitor them), give people a challenge and trust them to get the job done. Again and again, I have seen this approach liberate people to do their creative best, to feel inspired and liberated, and especially to thrive off the diversity of the range of their colleague talents. In several of the post-conventional leadership frameworks I have experienced, we think of this as creating a container.  It is the opposite of command and control.  It means creating a space for people to be free to create their own solutions - in their diversity.

This process builds self-reflection, healthy self-criticism and continuing learning and change into the organisation at every level.  While formal leaders can contribute, of course, it is not a top-down evaluation exercise and leads to increased self-responsibility and a learner culture at all levels.

Bringing a big vision to life by carving it up into small chunks of work

Because Agile encourages work to be done in small increments, with constant testing with customers, feedback, reflection and change, big visions get built in small steps.  This takes a lot of risk out of the process, and does not require leaders to commit to a full plan early on.  

Not only does this way reduce risk, but it also reduces strain on the organisation. Instead of huge leaps, the organisations can change in small increments, changing rapidly but smoothly.  There is less sense of straining for impossible or unrealistic or invalid goals, and more a sense of dancing with reality. All the while we maintain a connection to a vision of the future, but a connection held lightly, creatively and flexibly.

Taken together, these lessons call forward for me a much more humane, humble, curious, dynamic and creative vision of leadership.  I’m reminded of my friend and teacher Olaf Lewitz’s idea of “Surprisability”: we create spaces where people can do their best creative work, surprising themselves with what they can do, and being surprised by the beauty and uniqueness of their diverse colleagues. We make things and present them to the world, and are prepared to be surprised both by their successes and by the surprises of learning how our creations might change or evolve to improve. With our intended outcomes in mind, we set a course to the best of our ability, but stay fleet and flexible - Agile! - fully prepared to be surprised, and to learn from and capitalise on those surprises. We hold ourselves and our colleagues gently, invoking extreme self-care and extreme care for others as we create sustainable, welcoming and creative workplaces. And in doing all this, we bring great things to life in the world, little step by little step, delivering something new and beautiful every day.

I’m inspired by this vision of leadership, and I plan to do my best, over the coming years to help bring it more and more to life. Perhaps we will meet somewhere along the way.

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Topics: Leadership, Agile, Learning, planning, Creativity, trust, valueship, incremental, sustainability