There are four leadership concepts that can double the chances that your Agile transformation will be effective and stay that way! These four concepts are not new, but they require a degree of passion and constancy of purpose that are often missing. The idea of constancy of purpose was the first point in W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for management (Out of The Crisis – 1982 MIT Press) that has rewritten management and leadership philosophy across the globe. Deming’s philosophies form the bedrock for the Agile and lean revolution in which we are currently engulfed, so we ignore Deming at our own peril. Agile delivers great benefits, but those benefits require leadership and vision to provide motivation and constancy of purpose. The four cornerstones that define Agile leadership are:

  • A focus on behavior;
  • setting the bar high;
  • developing self-awareness; and
  • deploying measurement.

  1. A Focus on Behavior – Simply put, you are what you do. Define and explicitly state how you want people to behave in addition to expressing the values you want to be emulated. Behaviors are the true window to the soul and a direct reflection of how an individual interprets values and culture. Nearly every change leader understands (or at least will state) that values and culture are critical. Agile practitioners and pundits are no different and generally expound on the core Agile values. Values like empowerment, alignment, transparency, and building in quality are just some of the values that we place at the core of Agile. The disconnect often occurs between how each person in the value chain translates their own definition of values into behavior. Strong Agile leaders focus on behaviors as the immutable translation of values and culture. Just as one of the principles in the Agile Manifesto is that the only real measure of progress is functional code, Agile leaders know that the only real definition of values and culture is behavior. Explicitly define the behaviors you want in your organization and then execute behaviors.As an example of the disconnect between espoused values and behavior, I have performed an informal poll in organizations that promote empowerment as one of their primary values. In almost every case when I asked for the best example of empowerment, I was greeted with a deer-in-headlights look. Every person I asked had a difficult time remembering an example. There was very little linkage from organizational values to the day-to-day behavior. In a few cases, when pressed, the examples of empowerment that emerged related to the ability to make rules that disempowered others. In that case, one person’s definition of empowerment was certainly not the definition the person on the receiving end had in mind.The values you exhibit through behavior matter more than those you only espouse in words.
  2. Set the Bar High – Set tangible goals that reflect the outcome you want to see as a result of the transformation. Goals must focus on both the outcomes and the behaviors required to achieve those outcomes. The bar must be set high enough to channel the energies of the organization toward accomplishment, while at the same time be achievable so that those charged with the goal can be held accountable. There is little motivational value to setting goals that are recognizable as lost causes as soon as they are set. Setting a high bar for an organization’s product or program’s deliverable alone is not sufficient. As the headlines in the Wall Street Journal have suggested, goals that focus specifically on one aspect of output can lead to unintended consequences. Wells Fargo and fictitious accounts jump to mind as an example. Goals must encompass both the outcome as well as the journey to that outcome or destination. Several years ago, my eldest daughter convinced my wife and me to go Machu Picchu and to traverse the Sun Gate at dawn. Definitely a high bar for a middle-aged couple living a whopping 600 feet above sea level. If our only goal was to get to Machu Picchu we could have taken the train. Instead, we set two goals, first to hike the Inca Trail and then to arrive at the Sun Gate at the appointed hour. The “trek” part of the goals fundamentally changed our behavior, the trek included three-plus days of hiking, climbing, crawling, sweating, and an occasionally exasperated utterance at somewhere between 8 and 12 thousand feet above sea level. The journey changed how we perceived the ultimate goal and guided how we attained that goal in order to derive the maximum value. Taking the train to Machu Picchu would not deliver the same enlightenment as toiling for days to attain that goal. Transforming and using Agile requires involvement in the journey; learning to read a burndown chart, understanding how the product backlog relates to and supports organizational goals, or perhaps even using Agile practices to guide work you are leading are evidence that you are on the same journey as those you lead. Shortcutting the goals of Agile transformation by not participating in the journey sends the equivalent message as taking the train: that the journey is not part of the transformation.
  3. Develop Self-Awareness – Agile leaders must be self-aware. Self-awareness is having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. Building on the understanding of self allows a leader to understand other people. Self-awareness is a first step for leaders to put their own baggage aside and to support others. Change in the workplace is difficult. Being good at conflict management and exposing issues is important for leadership when leading change, but if a leader not good at understanding his or her own cognitive and emotional biases it will be difficult for the wannabe leader to connect with those around him or her and for others to follow. The linkage between self-awareness and transformational leadership is not merely pop psychology. In recent years the academic literature has empirically established the relationship between self-awareness and transformational leadership.One of the clear traps Agile leaders or aspiring Agile leaders face is that it is easy to believe in the transformation you are leading so much that you forget that not everyone thinks the same way you do. Even if those around you believe in the same ultimate goal, their thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and motivation will be different. As a leader, you must be able to untangle your ego and emotions from those you seek to lead.How a leader acts (behavior) is an outsized attribute of Agile leadership. However, nearly as important is that an Agile leader must understand how his/her behavior affects others. That knowledge provides a feedback loop.
  1. Deploy Measurement – The only way to know whether any transformation works and CONTINUES to work is to measure both what is being delivered by the overall system and the behaviors that deliver those outputs. An Agile leader will approach measurement from a systems-thinking point of view. Delivery of value typically requires a complex set of interlocking systems. An Agile leader has to have the pulse of both the overall system, as well as an understanding at a more finite level. For example, have you ever observed a team spend time researching, prototyping, piloting, and then implementing a change to improve a product’s delivery rate, only to find that the process change yields little to no big picture impact? The second or third time you make this observation it drives the point home that optimizing steps within a system doesn’t always translate into better overall performance. Agile leaders take a more holistic path that prioritizes and validates the flow of work in which the output and the path to delivery are interlinked.

Goals establish where the leader is going. As Lewis Carroll stated, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Measurement is the only mechanism to know whether we are progressing towards the goal(s). To use Agile terminology, goals and measurement are a feedback loop. A self-aware leader needs empirical feedback or they could fall prey to cognitive biases

Agile Leadership Isn’t Horsing Around

and logical fallacies.

Becoming Agile and staying Agile in an organization is not the outcome of reading a proclamation and declaring victory. There is a lot of hard work to actually transform an organization and then keep it transformed. Part of the work is to express the values that are the bedrock of the organization. But more important is to define how you want EVERYONE in the organization to behave (and no, I am not suggesting stealing a page from the Stepford Wives) based on those values. Expressing the behaviors that are expected is a far less ambiguous means of setting expectations than expressing the need to embrace values alone. Defining behaviors provides a path to attaining organizational goals. Leaders recognize that Agile or any other framework is just a means to deliver value. These four cornerstone attributes are required to deliver the transformational leadership needed for Agile to be effective. Agile is an empirical process based on transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Defining the behaviors needed to deliver specific goals coupled with the feedback of measurement and the self-awareness to interpret how the journey is impacting those around you translates leadership into an empirical process which is at the heart of Agile.