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15 October 2021

Agile leadership - more than just a buzzword?

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Leader looking optimistic using agile working method of postit notes

There are many terms that we hear bounded about in the business world and the term “agile” seems to be making its way into our business vernacular with increasing regularity. But what does agile mean? And why is it so important that organisations develop agile leaders?

The roots of agile began with changing the way software was developed and delivered. In the approach to developing better software, certain guiding principles were agreed popularly known as the Agile Manifesto which set out the following statement:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it through this work we have come to value, individuals and interactions other processes and tools working software over comprehensive documentation customer collaboration over contract negotiation responding to change over following a plan.”

Agile is a philosophy, an attitude, a way of thinking.

You might be reasoning; “I don’t work in software development, agile has no value to offer me.”. However, the agile philosophy has transformed organisations of all sizes because it is primarily about a mindset that creates room for change and improvement. The disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has been unprecedented and many businesses have found themselves in the mode of reaction rather than response. As the old saying goes:

“necessity is the mother of invention”

Many business teams were forced to adapt, innovate and become more efficient as the uncertainty and restrictions surrounding the pandemic grew in momentum. Now as the world tries to find its feet again, leaders with an agile mindset are more important than ever. Successfully adjusting to new ways of working and responding rapidly to changing market needs comes down to leaders with an agile mindset.

Agile leaders actively create and facilitate the right environment for teams to learn from each other and collaborate more effectively. They encourage teams to gain quick feedback from customers and then empower them to act and adapt to that feedback. The agile leader is focused on quality and creating a culture of never-ending learning and improvement. Agility as a leader is not about micro-managing people nor is it about letting people loose in total freedom. Agile leaders are involved in the constant balancing act between rigid structure and anarchy that is so important in today’s everchanging uncertain marketplace. Being an agile leader is all about empowering the team to do their best work as efficiently and quickly as possible. How the agile leader thinks and acts is very important to unlock the potential of those around them.

What are the key qualities of agile leaders?

  1. Growth mindset – The growth mindset as opposed to the fixed mindset is the idea that we can always improve and get better at something if we apply ourselves. A growth mindset embraces the process of learning and improvement. A good starting point for the growth mindset is admitting that you don’t actually have all the answers which take humility. Humility as a leader means that you can facilitate an environment of learning. It is a powerful statement to say as a leader, “I don’t know the answer but let’s find out”.
  2. Empower people to own the process – An agile leader provides their team with the outcome that is required but then empowers the team to work out how to achieve that outcome. When the team owns the process they also share a feeling of accomplishment when they achieve the outcome. By focusing on outcomes rather than dictating specific actions the team should take, the agile leader unleashes more of the creative potential of the team and are also much more engaged in their work.
  3. Flexible in their approach Agile leaders who focus on the outcomes they require rather than controlling the methods of how to get there will have to be flexible in their approach about how the team decides to execute the mission. When self-managing teams are first created there may be mistakes and some degree of chaos as experimentation and iteration takes place. The agile leader is not a control freak, but is flexible, understanding that it is a process and fundamentally trusts his or her team.
  4. Coach people – Agile leaders are fantastic coaches. The skill of coaching is about asking the right questions, listening and allowing other people to work out solutions and what needs to be done. It can be tempting as a leader to tell people the steps they should take to progress, but this does not develop their own thinking and problem-solving skills. The agile leader coaches people to find their own solutions by asking the exploratory questions that can help an individual find their own path through a challenge they are facing.
  5. Welcome constructive conflict – Agile leaders do not always make the final decision and are ok with people challenging them. Traditionally, a leader may be given a range of options from which they make an informed choice of a particular course of action, the rest of the team complies with this decision. Agile leaders facilitate decision-making through collaboration and data analysis. Meetings are not about updating the boss, but collective problem solving to find the best possible solution. Agile leaders welcome constructive conflict and eliminate passive participation.
  6. Understand your people – Agile leaders get the best out of their people by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals in their team. It takes time and effort to really understand the individuals within our teams but it is essential if we really want people to do their best work. Like the art of good parenting agile leaders know when to push people to exceed their own limitations and when to pull back and offer support. Agile leaders establish trust by understanding the values and the goals of each team member.

Research suggests that many businesses could benefit from becoming more agile and the start of organisational agility is agile leadership. Mindset is the key to agility however it can be a challenging obstacle to overcome. Many leaders have reached their positions with skill sets that are contrary to the agile mindset. Agile leaders have to be willing to let go of control over their teams and become more of a coach rather than a decision-maker. Acting with humility may seem counter-intuitive to the traditional leadership qualities of showing competence and confidence. It is the organisation’s job to show leaders the benefits of an agile approach and how to implement this approach into the specifics of their role.

There are now so many buzzwords that are associated with the concept of agility and agile leadership that can sometimes confuse leaders as to what exactly is expected of them. It is important that we don’t get too hung up on the buzzwords and really focus on the essence of agile leadership. Leaders can empower others, delegate outcomes, give autonomy to staff, and involve them in the decision-making process.

This agile leadership mindset is increasingly relevant today as business responds to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, the speed of technological advances, and the competition to attract and retain the best talent. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the subject of leadership and leadership styles, however applying the agile mindset principles to your leadership approach would certainly bring value to you, your team, and your organisation.

Hiten Bhatt

Hiten Bhatt

Hiten Bhatt is a guest writer for MHR, a Coach, and an Author on the subjects of Wellbeing, Leadership, and Personal Development.

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