The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: two final lessons

This is the last in a series detailing six leadership lessons drawn from Agile by a recovering conventional manager – me!

Being a learner – inspecting and adapting

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 starts 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 discipline is often called “Inspect and Adapt.” it happens regularly in sprints or Agile increments of work.  It 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 practice encourages work to be done in small increments, with constant customer 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, rapidly but smoothly.  There is less sense of straining for impossible, 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 — a connection held lightly, creatively and flexibly.

Taken together, these lessons invite me toward 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 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, caring for ourselves and 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.

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The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: set a sustainable pace

This is the fourth of six posts detailing leadership lessons drawn from Agile by a recovering conventional manager – me!

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 injury to team members’ physical or psychological health, and to people just getting fed up and leaving. People with a desire for a balanced life tend to be driven out, undermining the diversity of the 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 distrustful slavedriver and builds mutual trust and safety, particularly trust in the team’s own ability to find and hold its own sustainable pace. Curiously enough, it actually seems to improve long-term productivity as compared to an over-pressured style.

The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: set your course, but commit incrementally

This is the third of six posts detailing leadership lessons drawn from Agile by a recovering conventional manager – me!

In conventional planning, leaders are called on to set major goals far in advance and then 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 simple, brief 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 keeps more options open and allows for constant learning and adjustment — responding both to changing circumstances and also to organisational learning about those circumstances.

The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: make and “ship” vs plan and perfect

Second in a series of leadership lessons this recovering conventional manager has learned from his inspiring Agilist colleagues.

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 respond to a working product.  Both the development teams and their customers learned quickly and incrementally. This way of working transcended the tendency of managers and planners to believe they could see far enough ahead to develop detailed specifications for a product months or years 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 before engaging with the market and the customer. Instead, we are all invited to set a direction as a hypothesis, then trust ourselves and our colleagues to create small increments of value frequently and rapidly in response, ship them to the customer, and learn directly from the results.

Next post: Set your course, but commit only incrementally and iteratively.

The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: value and liberate people

Last week’s post gave an overview of a recovering conventional manager’s (me!) six learnings from Agile. This post expands on the first of the six: 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 liberated, left to organise themselves and to work on challenges in their own ways. The magic 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 challenge from beginning to end, and continually to create working products 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 to work together in teams, 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 free and invite people to do their creative best, to feel inspired and liberated, and especially to thrive off the diversity of the range of their colleagues’ talents. In several of the post-conventional leadership frameworks I have experienced, we think of this as creating a container for creativity and innovation.  It is the opposite of command and control. It means creating a space for people to be free to bring forward their own solutions – in their diversity.

Next post: Making and “shipping” vs. planning and perfecting.

The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: six leadership lessons

As a perspective and a frame of reference for approaching creative work, Agile has its origins in software development … and … leaders around the world are now finding that Agile resonates in a much wider range of contexts, from entrepreneurship to personal and organisational growth.  

Where it succeeds, Agile seems to bring benefits of faster delivery, higher customer satisfaction, faster learning, enhanced individual and team innovation, and stronger team engagement.  Because of its focus on valuing people, collective intelligence, direct human contact and focused learning, I believe it is a crucial “foundation stone” for next-generation leadership.

The Agile way of working takes much of its inspiration from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, written by seventeen leaders of the software development industry, dating from February 2001.  

The core of the Manifesto says;

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing itand helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

The Manifesto’s authors also offer twelve very human, humane and creative principles that govern their work. You can find these principles, as well as the core Manifesto and information about its history and signatories here

With an outpouring of content about Agile and the frameworks connected to it, the vast global community of Agilists debate passionately and continually about what Agile means, what it is and is not, how it is succeeding and how it is failing.

As a recovering conventional manager, I have personally taken these six key lessons from Agile.

  • 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. My own learnings, though, have brought big changes to the way I look at leadership and organisational life. I believe that as part of an Agile ethos, they have the potential to transform leadership for many people and many organisations, to the great benefit of global society in the 21st century.

In forthcoming posts, I’ll explore each of the six themes above in greater depth.

What are your key learnings for Agile? What difference did those learnings make for you and those around you?

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