David Herron

The following is a guest post from a long time friend whom I have worked for and worked with.  Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t, however, I always respect his opinion and wisdom.

Agile and Leadership
David Herron (d.herron@softwarevalue.com)

It took me a while to get used to the fact that agile development does not incorporate the use of a project manager position. Having been brought up in a traditional waterfall, PM-centric software development environment, it was difficult for me to make the transition (mentally) to agile. After all, how can a project stay on budget and be delivered on time without following sound management principles? If there is no one at the helm to manage the project and to steer things in the right direction, how can things possibly progress and stay on track! Who is leading the way? The Agile methodology advocates for self-organizing teams. That was a foreign concept for me to get my mind around.

I have now been around enough successful agile projects and have observed first-hand that ‘project management-less’ agile works. It works, in part, because agile (Scrum) promotes a team dynamic and provides a framework that demands discipline and incorporates well-defined principles and practices to guide the way. Agile promotes self-organizing teams, the meaning of which I stretch to include self-managing as well. But how can a team lead itself? What makes agile work? Where is the leadership?

As I searched for answers to that question I turned to the experts. In their highly regarded book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, Kouzes and Posner identify five fundamental practices of successful leaders. It turns out that the Scrum framework and the mindset of the agile team incorporate characteristics we find in successful leaders. Studies by Kouzes and Posner have shown that leaders: challenge the process; inspire a shared vision; enable others to act; model the way, and encourage the heart. These elements can be observed in agile practices.

Kouzes and Posner have observed that individuals, regardless of their position in the company, can develop their capacity to lead. Leaders care to make a difference. Doesn’t that sound like the members of an agile team? Leaders are willing to challenge the process. They have a shared vision of an improving the process for a better outcome. The Agile frameworks such as Scrum provides a model or a guideline of how to move through the process; how the work should flow. Scrum enables others to act; enables everyone to act through defined roles. All this requires hard work. As one small success builds upon another, there is cause to celebrate those accomplishments and to recognize both team and individual efforts.

Challenging the process

Defined – Change the status quo, innovation, look to improve, experiment (and take risks)

If you have decided to move from waterfall to agile then you have decided to try something different. Perhaps something better. Something to improve the way you currently develop and deliver software. You could say that you are changing or at least challenging the status quo.

As excitement builds around the thought of venturing into new territory, the team has taken on the challenge of doing something different. Not everyone likes change and not every team member will necessarily have bought into the process. But everyone is aware that they are doing something different. They may see it as an experiment and consider it to be taking risks. The ideal team composition will be a collection of team members that are advocates for agile.

Inspiring a shared vision

Defined – Make a difference, envision the future, and enlist others

A project team about to embark on an agile project has, typically, been properly trained and is prepared to begin the journey. If it is one of their first attempts at agile, then the team is most likely comprised of individuals that share the agile ‘vison’. They have a sense of what is possible. They are excited about being able to make a difference. Not everyone will be onboard, but those that are will most likely try to bring the others along.

Moving forward into the ‘unknown’ each member of the newly formed agile team will have a vision of what to expect. Through their initial agile training, they have learned about agile practices and principles and what their roles and responsibilities will be. They have a shared vision of how they will be working as a team.

Enabling others to act

Defined – Collaboration, spirited teams, atmosphere of trust, and each person is empowered

How does agile incorporate these characteristics? Scrum serves as a great example. Within Scrum, there are assigned roles and disciplines that foster an atmosphere of trust. Each person has a role to play and each role is equally important to the success of the desired outcomes. Scrum requires collaboration and teams learn to self-organize and work together towards a shared vision of desired outcomes.

The daily standup is a good example of collaboration and developing an atmosphere of trust. Each individual is recognized and participates in the standup meeting. Team members are encouraged to be open and honest and to look to serve the teams objectives, helping other team members when and where possible.

Modeling the way

Defined – Create standards of excellence, examples, establish values, achieve small wins, and create opportunity for victories

There are various approaches/models to agile, e.g. scrum, XP, Kanban, just to name a few. To call these standards would not be the agile way, but they are all very well defined within specified boundaries. They all incorporate, to one degree or another, lean principles. The goal is to have a process whereby the workload is managed to maximize efficiency and effectiveness of the flow of work.

Using Scrum, the workflow is managed using time-boxed iterations. Each iteration delivers a number of user stories (small wins). The cycle is repeated and the flow is adjusted until the team has reached a repeatable velocity of delivered working software.  Frequently delivered software is in itself an achieved victory, a small win.

Encouraging the heart

Defined – Hard work, keeping hope alive, celebrate accomplishments

One of the first myths I heard about agile was that there were no rules, no documentation, and no discipline. Like most myths, it simply isn’t true. Agile is hard work. I would contend that in order to be successful, agile requires a great deal of discipline and adherence to defined practices. Various ‘F’ words come to mind when I think of agile; flexibility, flow, freedom, fun. Agile encourages the brave at heart to experiment within the principles of the agile methods being used. One size or one model does not fit all.

There are of course other elements of agile methodologies, such as the incorporation of lean principles, which contribute to the positive outcomes of using an agile approach. I doubt that the ‘founders’ of agile, those individuals that came together to create the agile manifesto, started with a foundation of leadership principles. The connections to these leadership principles are simply my observation and possible rationalization for why, in part, agile works. Using that as a starting position, it would stand to reason that agile practices can be enhanced by training individuals to become better leaders.

Leadership training is not something we hear a lot about. We subscribe to the belief that we can train people to become better project managers, but we seldom think about leadership training. If individuals can develop their capacity to lead then why not make that investment in training everyone to be a leader. A leader does not have to be an individual in a management position. Sports teams usually have a number of senior players and one or more individuals labeled as captains, but they are not necessarily the team leader(s). Leadership may not come naturally to some, but people can be trained and encouraged to be leaders. Given the proper atmosphere, one where ‘thinking outside the box’ is encouraged, organizations can expand their capacity to produce and to innovate as individuals pick up the challenge and lead the way.