Working in an agile environment challenges some leaders immensely, as the way of operating is quite different than may have been experienced in the past. Some executives relish in it; others find it harder. This means that in some cases for the agile executive it can be a marriage made in heaven, while in other cases it can feel like “just staying for the kids”. However, agile is the way forward for many organisations, and the agile executive is an essential component of the overall agile team, so it is best to work towards making this a marriage that everyone wants to be in. Let us have a look at the difficulties that new agile executives have in adjusting, and the value that they can add if they approach agile effectively.
When the Executive is an Impediment to Agile
When I have visited organisations to consult on agile, I have observed that the agile executive may often feel that he/she does not have much of a role to play in agile. This is inaccurate, and the agile executive most certainly should be involved. Just because people are empowered within teams does not mean that the executive can sit back and put their feet up. Stepping back too much can mean that the project does not have the support it needs throughout the organisation. It can also mean that the culture of the company is not properly adjusted in the way that it needs to be for agile to work effectively.
Another challenge with some executives is not adjusting well to feedback. An important aspect of agile, is the sharing of feedback, which team members and managers need to feel able to do. This sometimes means that people will “manage upward”, providing feedback to executives. For some, this may feel rather uncomfortable. However, if others are fearful of the repercussions of offering feedback, or feel that there is no point because it simply will not be heard, this is a problem. The agile executive needs to be able to open up and let that feedback in.
For a newbie agile executive who is used to a command and control management style, learning the new ways of agile is likely to pose some challenges. It will may feel like a considerable adjustment, to move away from the old ways of doing things. Traditional managers may find themselves wanting to step in too much, or to try and swing project management back to more of a waterfall approach where they felt more in control of what was going on. For these managers, agile may feel as if the marriage is “just staying for the kids”. Yet there are plenty of opportunities to make this a marriage made in heaven, by changing how things are done, and this may lead to the executive enjoying a more rewarding role overall.
When is the Agile Executive Adding Value?
Agile executives have a critical role to play in the agile environment. First and foremost they need to drive transformational change throughout the organisation, so that everyone adapts to the new “way we do things around here.” There has to be cultural change to achieve this, and it must start at the top, with the executive. If the agile executive talks the talk but does not walk the walk, problems will ensue, because people tend to follow what others do rather than what they say. Saying what needs to be done and acting in the same way is essential. Importantly, transparency has a core role to play within this, and executives need to embrace this with their own behaviour. Sharing an inspirational vision and setting stretching but achievable goals are also important in this context, so that expectations are clearly set, and people know what they need to work towards.
Building the right culture within the organisation needs to focus on the behaviours that will build software (or other products/services) that will work, rather than having too much bureaucracy around project management. There needs to be less of a focus on the rigid following of processes, and rather, an emphasis on delivering a product that the customer can look at and feedback on as soon as possible. This gives the organisation the best chance of delivering satisfaction to the customer in the longer run, and less chance of the product not working in the way the customer intended at a stage that is very late in the development process.
The agile leader also has a key role in sponsorship of the agile activities. This should not be underestimated as it provides support for the agile project within the organisation. The agile executive can be a facilitator in ensuring that teams work together effectively, for example. By focusing on the big picture rather than the minute details, the executive can help to ensure that high level obstacles to the project are broken down. Another key activity is making sure that resources can be made available as needed so the project does not get impeded. These kinds of activities can smooth the project along its way. There is also an element of coaching involved to help the team members and leaders achieve their goals on the agile project. These are all important ways in which the agile executive could and should work to ensure they drive a marriage made in heaven.
Executives have an essential role to play in agile, which is often underestimated. They need to be transparent and champion the agile cause. They also have to support the agile team and managers so that the project can be executed successfully. Relying on a traditional command and control style will not work in the agile environment, and nor will doing nothing. Executives that want a smoother transformation to agile will step up and lead the way by example, showing employees what they expect of them through their own behaviour. This type of leadership will help ensure the agile transformation the greatest possible chance of success.