Understand agile leadership

What is agile leadership and why does it exist?

Most of the leadership and management tools and techniques we use today are more than 100 years old. They come from the industrial revolution. The world has evolved dramatically; it’s about time leadership practices caught up, too. This article contains a lot of information about agile leadership, what it is, how it differs from standard management and why it is essential for modern, innovative organizations of the 21st century.

Agile leadership is a way to develop organizations that can respond to any strategic challenge. Because we don’t know what’s coming around the next corner, so we’d better be ready to react to anything. It’s about creating teams and individuals who can respond to these challenges. Agile research has transformed traditional companies into agile digital companies.

Why agile leadership?

“VUCA world” (abbreviation for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity”) has been discussed by labor market experts for years. Behind Vuca-Welt stands the fact that globalization, digitization and networking mean that the same parameters no longer apply in the analogue age. Changes are permanent and new principles and framework conditions of leadership are necessary.

The reasons for this lie in the increase

  • the trend change speed in the markets and the growth of innovations in technologies, working methods (volatility / volatility)
  • the erratic nature of developments in contrast to the well-known slower movement (uncertainty)
  • Globalization and digitization (complexity) as well
  • reverse – often contradictory – change of business-critical parameters (ambiguity / ambiguity).

What is agile or agility?

A lot of things are called agile – especially by people who want to sell something. If you ask the manufacturers of paper products, they will tell you that in order to be agile, you need to write your user stories on the sticky note cards they happen to be selling. If you ask a consultant, you’ll probably hear it’s a software development methodology that companies can learn when they buy their services. And if you talk to orthotic shoe manufacturers, they’ll tell you that the key to agile leadership is meeting everyone who gets up. So the more comfortable your shoes are, the more agile your team is.

The actual definition of agile leadership can be found in the Agile Manifesto. The manifesto makes it clear that agile leadership is not a method. It is not a specific type of software development. It is neither a framework nor a process. Most things marketed as agile leadership miss the point of what agile leadership really is.

Agile leadership is a set of values and principles. Discussing Agile is often about following different practices in the workplace, using different methodologies, and even developing specific tools. While these things can help a team trying to follow Agile leadership, they are not Agile in and of themselves. So while a couple may find that a standup is helpful, the standup is only agile to the extent that it is the result of a team following agile principles and values. Once you understand this, it’s easy to see that Agile is a set of beliefs that teams can use to make decisions about how they develop software. At the same time, the term ” Agile ” is often misused when claiming that this or that is the right way to be agile. When the software development teams really understand what Agile is, it’s amazingly flexible. Agile leadership doesn’t make decisions for you. Instead, it provides the basis for team members to make decisions that lead to better software development.

The Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto is only 68 words and states that we can develop software better with the help of values and tools. This is what the Agile Manifesto says:

We discover better ways by building software, by doing it and helping others to do it. Through this work we have learned to appreciate values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes. And tools.
  • Working software instead of comprehensive documentation
  • Cooperation with the customer instead of contract negotiations.
  • Responding to the change rather than following a plan.
  • Motivational sticky notes with a man’s face

Why is agile leadership important for leaders?

If we rewind about 130 years, very few people have considered how work gets done. People worked mostly in the factories, they worked as they saw fit, as they had worked out over the years, as they had been taught, and there was a wild divergence, someone was doing it one way and someone the other way. If we had to edit a tire, there would be six, seven, even eight different ways, and some would be efficient, some not.

A man named Frederick Winslow Taylor was fascinated by these differences. He figured if some people do it a certain way that’s quick and efficient, and others do it the other way, wouldn’t it be better if everyone did it the best way? Suppose he had figured out the best way to do things that didn’t just consist of editing clothes. It was about a whole range of tasks that arose in the factories in which he worked. So he figured I’d contact my assistant with a stopwatch to tell the time, and I’d figure out through trial and error what the one best method was for each of the tasks we were doing. I will then document that in simple steps and encourage employees to do it in this one best way. This wipes out the variance, meaning everyone uses the most efficient, cheapest, and quickest way to get a result.

The world has changed fundamentally since the industrial revolution; many people no longer work in factories but do creative, knowledge-based work. They are highly skilled and very competitive. They think for a living, not do for a living. The work changes every day. So to find the right way, the people on the ground have to do the work and think in real time. The model has become too slow and ineffective. It’s time to reinvent it to fit the 21st century, not to mention the widespread displeasure created by telling people not to use their brains.

The agile working environment

Agility isn’t a fad, it’s a business imperative. Agility is turning the business world upside down. It requires strategic leadership experience and entrepreneurial thinking to stay ahead of the curve in the market. It’s a new way of working, but too much effort leads to subpar results. Ineffective leadership and managers with weak leadership styles, dysfunctional teams and low employee engagement can be the problems.

It can take 1 to 3 years to achieve full enterprise-wide agility. We are currently in a health pandemic. People are working from home and many companies are going virtual. In this situation, only agile organizations and companies with an agile culture will survive and thrive.

The 3 most important principles for the agility of companies

Principle 1: Create the environment for excellence

Leadership and management is no longer about telling the employee what to do, and it is no longer about finding the one best way and ensuring compliance with that one best way. Think of leaders as gardeners creating the environment; they cannot make the flowers grow. All they can do is find the right combination of light, soil quality, and moisture, and then step back and let the magic happen. This is exactly how leadership methods must be used and agile leadership implemented with agile teams and managers.

They should work with an agile mindset and should continuously improve and properly evaluate the culture, create the clear vision of the agile organization, strengthen the value of it, create the system and the interior in which the teams work to set the direction and strategy .

Then they should trust that the team members or employees will do the right thing. Highly skilled, highly engaged, empowered and highly motivated teams will do better work. If team members are allowed to use their wits and come up with new ideas, then they can work successfully. And traditional leadership, serving leadership and traditional companies are transformed into good leadership coaches, agile employees and agile organizations.

Principle 2: Decentralization of decision-making

In a world where few decisions have to be made and the world is simple, perhaps one or the other executive can make sense of it. You can study with a stopwatch like Taylor, find the best way, and tell people to do it repeatedly. This works in a factory where repeatable manual work is done.

You can imagine that most people today don’t work in factories, but in organizations that do complex, creative, high-skilled knowledge work. They will think for a living. Every day they come to work they think instead of working with their hands. Decisions must be made in real time. When work has so many moving parts, is so complex, and interacts with so many other people, it is no longer appropriate to assume that one person is in charge and making all these decisions for people. It’s too slow and ineffective. It’s too slow and ineffective to relay information to the appropriate authority and then try to make sense of what’s happening, resulting in command failures. And when that doesn’t work, we go up and down, resulting in queues, bottlenecks, delays, and bad decisions that result from this model.

What’s the alternative? We need alignment and a powerful, agile leadership model. Agile leaders put decision-making power where the information is. In this way, the self-governing teams gain strategic leadership experience.

Principle 3: Develop everyone’s own skills

One of the most successful leadership coaches of all time, Bill Campbell, once said: To be a good leader you have to be a good coach. Because the higher you rise in the world, the more your success depends on the success of those around you.

What did he mean by that? As leaders and managers you don’t do any work. You create an agile environment with agile leadership and you change programs. That means the people doing the work are the teams, the self-organizing, cross-functional, highly engaged, creative groups of people/individuals. They do great things.

So the better you make the people around you, the more successful an organization will be. It would be helpful if you were a good leadership coach and mentor.

Agile organization

Characteristics of an agile leader

A good leadership coach or agile leader has a few qualities that help them work gracefully and achieve growth. As we know, actions speak louder than words. An agile leader runs a successful organization by employing elegant style and agile practices. Good leadership skills increase employee engagement, and the employees themselves function more dynamically. The characteristics of an excellent agile leader are:

psychological security

We need to respond positively to the challenge and feedback rather than being defensive and closed off.

Agile learning ability

Another characteristic of agile leadership or leaders is the encouragement to learn entrepreneurial agility every day. So a certain level of risk-taking is essential if we want to innovate. Therefore, supporting people to learn from mistakes and experiments and to take these smart risks instead of blaming them is helpful to encourage others to make more mistakes and learn.

disruptive thinking

Let’s challenge your employees to think the unthinkable; let’s not exclude ideas, but rather encourage challenging the assumptions that guide daily behavior.

Focus on the customer’s vision

Agile leaders help their employees focus on what customers value most, not internal issues.

Ruthless prioritization

It’s about defining the things that make the biggest difference between the customer and the company, and doing those few things with flying colors rather than overwhelming team members with too many activities.

improvement in performance

An agile leader must coach employees and give and accept constructive feedback instead of focusing on what employees did wrong.

Sharp analysis and decentralized decision-making processes

The agile leadership expert delegates and shifts decision-making as close as possible to the customer, allowing the organization and employees to respond to changing customer needs.

Joint performance and organizational learning

Agile leaders break down the silos, reach out to employees to accelerate the process, and encourage employees to take news to the skies and collaborate on a day-to-day basis.

So if you adopt these eight characteristics of these eight agile ways of working, you can be an agile leader in this uncertain world. These can give you a deep understanding of the agile digital age. And it will help you in agile transformation, building agile businesses fit for today’s market dynamics and management.

Agile Leadership & Scrum

In this context, the term “Scrum project management” often appears, with the connection to agile leadership being that both focus on the following topics:

  • Good decisions
  • good cooperation between people in an organization
  • Clear goals, what needs to be done and why
  • A great deal of flexibility in the way it is done.

Like agile leadership, Scrum provides a framework in which people work together to complete a project or task as efficiently as possible with the highest quality and little waste. Scrum values team building, self-organization and timeboxing

Agile Leadership & Design Thinking

The design thinking approach, which encompasses design theory, design philosophy, and design methodologies for problem solving, was popularized through the work of Tim Brown of IDEO and John Seely Brown, a researcher in the field of computer science, technology, and design.

It combines design thinking with agile practices like sprints, rapid iterations, etc. It involves a cross-functional “team” that understands the connections but also knows how to develop software

Although this approach is not directly related to leadership or management, it can be applied to many different aspects of life that require leadership skills in solving problems within or outside of corporate developments. This article will focus more on the application of design strategies in an organization that already has agile principles in place.

Design thinking aims to create better solutions by putting the team in the end user’s shoes.

The design process consists of five steps

1.) Empathize (role)

Exploring the design context through client visits, interviews, etc

2.) Define

Figuring out how to solve design problems by creating sketches of possible solutions

3.) Ideating

Brainstorm ideas for a solution to take forward with prototypes tested with potential users

4) prototyping

Build models or replicas of workable design solutions using technology or alternative methods

5) Testing and Refining

Testing design concepts through prototyping and observing customer reactions until a prototype is ready

The design process can be applied to many different business areas and was used, for example, by the design team at Facebook to create a new newsfeed that allows users to easily navigate through the content.

Facebook realized there were issues with the current newsfeed design, as users had to click and scroll more to find what they wanted. Also, it was difficult to view friends’ posts from different sites in a continuous stream, resulting in not being able to see important updates from their family or close friends.

To solve these problems, after an extensive interview process with a total of 80 people who represented a broad cross-section of the population but had no connection to Facebook itself, the Facebook design team carried out three key design proposals: Design a continuously scrolling news feed that displays the posts displayed in chronological order; Draft an inline link with preview functionality that allows users to easily navigate between profiles; and design of multiple navigation nodes. These design proposals were then created as paper prototypes and tested with multiple focus groups to refine the design solutions

The process was successfully implemented in Facebook’s new News Feed in 2012 and has since become the most requested feature on Facebook.

Design thinking can also be applied to agile development teams, allowing developers and designers to work more closely together through design strategies such as co-creation or co-design.

Co-creation allows developers and designers to work side-by-side throughout the product design process, while co-design allows them to design together from the start. In co-design, developers and designers work together on design problems, while in co-creation, design and development teams design together but then split into their respective design and development processes

Although design thinking is not primarily related to agile principles, it has been used successfully in many companies already adopting agile practices, such as Agile Uprising and Atlassian.

An example of a company is the Atlassian design team that developed ShipIt Days. At ShipIt Days, design team members work with groups from different departments at Atlassian on small projects to create better products for all users. They iterate quickly by testing assumptions, validating design concepts with clients and design team members, and through rapid prototyping.

Task-oriented leadership focuses on achieving goals. These managers are typically less interested in building relationships with employees. This approach tends to be autocratic, and the leader places a high value on structure plans and timelines to get things done.

There are rules and guidelines that everyone must adhere to and from which no deviations are permitted.


Agile leadership and strategy must be crystal clear and reflected in business plans. At the same time, an agile culture of employee engagement and willingness to change must emerge. Culture can defeat strategy.

High-performing employees can only work in an agile structure with cross-functional networks. The design must support the strategy, not the silos.

The development of agile leadership has produced many agile transformations in the business world.

So in summary: create the environment for success, set the vision, set the values, follow the principles of agility, work in an exemplary way to decentralize the system with a common goal and common results, and leave those with the informed choices. And finally, you will become a great coaching mentor and help the people around you to grow. Your success depends on the people around you; being great and achieving great things are inseparable.

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