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Leadership Agility Compass – Reframed

I’ve often held the perspective that there are no real ‘L’eadership roles within Agile teams. The entire notion of a self-directed team in some ways confuses the role that leadership plays within Agile contexts.

One of the leadership dynamics, at least from my perspective, is at the Agile or Scrum team level. I’ve always observed that leadership is one of the central ingredients to a successful Agile adoption. In fact, the larger the scale, the more important it becomes.

That being said, the larger the scale, the more incumbent managers and leaders struggle to figure out the new role they need to play in the shift. And quite often the organization really doesn’t support them (coaching, training, funding) in this effort. It’s sort of left as an exercise for the student; which mostly fails.


Leadership Agility Compass

I’m intrigued by Bill Joiners’ Leadership Agility Compass idea presented in his book – Leadership Agility. For the post I’m referencing his LinkedIn article that can be found here:

The compass has four “territories” that cover areas of concern or focus areas for the Agile leader. For the purposes of my post, I’m going to reframe these territories from being management or leadership-centric, to being tied to the ScrumMaster and Product Owner roles within the Scrum framework.

I think the territories present an interesting view that supports the expansive focus that these two roles should have. That is if operated by more experienced individuals.

Here are the 4 territories:

  1. Context-Setting Agility: The larger systemic context surrounding your initiative.
  2. Stakeholder Agility: Your initiative’s key stakeholders.
  3. Creative Agility: The specific problems and opportunities your initiative must address for it to be successful.
  4. Self-leadership Agility: Yourself as a leader.

Next we’ll explore each in turn.

Context-setting agility

Think of a specific real-life initiative you are planning or are already undertaking. Focus your mind on the doing of this initiative. Now, step back and let the larger strategic context of your initiative come into view. As you scan this larger environment, you recognize and anticipate changing circumstances, you decide which initiatives are most worth your time and effort – and why, and you clarify the outcomes you want each initiative to achieve.

From an Agile team leadership (SM+PO) perspective, quite a lot of this falls to the Product Owner. It implies engaging your team in backlog refinement activity towards not only the current or next sprint but with enough look-ahead so that they (and you) can contribute to future release planning and forecasting.

And this isn’t simply focusing towards features, but having a balance across features, infrastructure, defect repair, and addressing technical debt.

It also implies that the ScrumMaster and the Product Owner get together to provide a “vision” for their team. Often this only focuses on the product or application the team works on. And yes, that’s certainly an important part of it. But it should also include continuous improvement initiatives and team investment. For example, what is the vision around team cross-training, investment in automation, or experimentation.

Finally, all of this good strategic thinking needs to be communicated outward and upward so that the organization is fully aware of and supporting of your vision.

Stakeholder Agility

Now, when you step back from focusing on your initiative, bring to mind its key stakeholders. These are the people and groups who will be impacted by your initiative and whose support you need for your initiative to be successful. As you step back and survey this territory, you can identify your stakeholders, then put yourself in their shoes: How do they view and feel about your initiative? To what extent are they aligned with what you want to do? To the extent that you are not aligned, how can you engage with them in ways that might lead to more optimal alignment?

This is often one of those areas where many ScrumMasters and Product Owners lack skill and courage to truly align and innovate their connection to stakeholders. Often it is much simpler to deliver “the ask”. But that may not tell the entire story surrounding your stakeholders’ challenges and real problems.

In larger scale efforts, often Product Owners have many “stakeholders”. I remember a set of teams at Deutsche Bank a few years ago that had approximately 15 stakeholders spread about the world for a specific application. It was incredibly challenging for the Product Owners (2 in this case) to align everyone. But that’s exactly what the teams needed in order to work on a cohesive set of features.

The above example is a place where ScrumMasters with strong facilitation skills can shine. For example, you could leverage playing value poker with included funding as a way for the large stakeholder group to align their priorities towards shared business value. And it also requires a great deal of courage to tell some stakeholders – “No, clearly this feature doesn’t have the global priority to fit into the teams’ capacity.”

Here’s a link to an article exploring value poker

Creative Agility

Another territory is made up of the specific issues your initiative needs to address. Creative agility starts with stepping back and identifying what these key issues are and how they are related. It also involves diagnosing the underlying root causes of these issues, and developing creative solutions. Why creative solutions? Due to the nature of today’s turbulent business environment, the problems that need to be addressed tend to be novel and non-routine and to cross organizational boundaries. Research has shown what you already probably know: The best solutions to these “ill-structured” problems come when we engage our capacity for creative thinking.

This territory probably excited me the most from an SM+PO role perspective; mostly because it’s often a weak area of both.

I’ve often talked about Scrum/Agile not being a speed play, stating that it’s a quality play that has the potential to go fast. But that potential is only realized by focusing on certain things. I mention four areas in this post, but the one that aligns here is the creative or innovative problem solving.

It’s often the hardest area to truly inspire your teams to engage in, but it’s the one with the greatest promise from a speed and customer value/delight perspective.

I can easily think of three areas where you can both make a huge difference in your teams.

  1. Creativity when refining your backlog
  2. Allowing for space (slack) for your teams to think creatively and innovate.
  3. Encouraging experimentation (learning) as much as possible, and yes I’m going to say it, embracing failure
  4. Honoring “all voices” within the team, because you never know where the creativity and innovation will come from.

I sometimes tell Product Owners that a big part of their role is making “mini-PO’s” out of every member of their teams. This sets the stage for creative solutions, as everyone starts thinking of the customer, their persona, and creative solutions to their biggest challenges.

You get much better results of it’s the entire team envisioning the future creatively.

Self-leadership Agility

The fourth territory is, frankly, the most frequently overlooked. There is a saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You yourself are at the heart of everything you do as a leader. You activate your self-leadership agility when – before, during, and after an initiative you lead – you step back and reflect on yourself. Stepping back repeatedly in this way allows you to accelerate your own leadership development by clarifying your strengths and areas where you want to improve, proactively finding opportunities to stretch and grow as a leader, and reflecting your experiences as you continue to experiment toward higher levels of effectiveness.

I agree with the point Bill makes here that this area is often overlooked. I highly recommend that a Product Owner and ScrumMaster frequently assess themselves and their teams. This normally begins by creating a “leadership partnership” between the two roles where they work together to lead the team. The partnership allows for honest and open communication about anything – weaknesses, blind spots, challenging conversations to be held, stakeholder “management,” etc.

For example, privately having ongoing discussions between (SM+PO) related to team challenges, strengths & weaknesses, and opportunities for growth. Then presenting these ideas for consideration and action in retrospectives. I’ve found that Agile teams rarely can figure out everything from their own lens. Having the ScrumMaster and Product Owner provide that courageous and independent view can often be the difference in teams achieving a high level of performance.

Another important part is meeting with the leadership and stakeholders for their team, usually behind closed doors, and asking for honest feedback about themselves and their teams. Seeking out all forms of feedback and embracing it towards action and change is a critical skill.

Wrapping up

I just want to thank Bill for writing such a neat book that has relevance for leadership and beyond. I’d encourage you to read it, but, more importantly, to leverage the concepts to change and broaden your lens.

Agile teams need their ScrumMasters and Product Owners to step up to a different level of thinking and role beyond facilitating a stand-up and writing user stories. And this model helps you in that journey.

Stay agile my friends,


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