Talk of expanding Agile methodology and leadership beyond software production began in earnest around a decade or so ago and it was in 2015 that Barclays, one of the larger companies renowned for implementing Agile business-wide, began its transformation.
Six years on, many large organisations are yet to introduce Agile and clearly defining what it means in practice for their leadership teams can be problematic.
This article aims to help you consider how agile leadership is being defined in your organisation and how your leadership team is currently measuring up against the hallmarks of agile best practice.
What then is your organisation’s definition of agile leadership?
If your CEO has given you a brief to introduce “agile leadership”, what do they actually mean? For some CEOs, agile leadership is relatively straightforward – they want leaders who can solve problems rapidly and adapt to fast changing circumstances.
Fair enough, but if your leaders are still operating in a traditional hierarchical and bureaucratic culture, the world will have moved on before their rapidly created, smart, solution can be implemented.
As many of you will know, truly agile leadership entails more than rapid problem solving and the ability to adapt. It requires nothing less than a total transformation of mindset about what it means to be a leader. And, as McKinsey’s paper “Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-century organizations” argues, it can only truly flourish if your top team consistently role models agile behaviours and introduces an agile business strategy and operating model.
Where does your organisation fit? Is it handing L&D the job of creating “agile” leaders but limiting that to essentially working faster while remaining in a hierarchical, bureaucratic and directive structure? Or has it truly committed to Agile?
A mindset transformation
If your CEO does want truly agile leadership across the whole organisation what does this mean? And is the idea of a total transformation of mindset, really warranted? In a nutshell, yes.
The competencies which make your leaders successful when operating in a hierarchical “machine” (planning, directing, controlling to bring certainty, and being authoritative) most definitely differ to those needed in a truly agile organisation which is a living, organic network (creating vision and purpose, being an architect, coach, and catalyst).
General Stanley McChrystal, author of the agile leadership classic “Team of Teams” and former US Joint Special Operations Commander, has spoken of how he had to “unlearn what it means to be a leader”. “I began to view effective leadership…as more akin to gardening than chess. The move-by move control that seemed natural to military operations proved less effective than nurturing the organisation…to function with smart autonomy.”
McKinsey say that to become agile, leaders need to do three things – personally transform; support their teams to work in new ways; and ensure that agility is built into the design and culture of the whole organisation. Structural changes, such as moving away from a 12-month budget cycle, are essential.
It’s an inside job – personal transformation
Keeping the focus on leaders’ personal transformation, McKinsey describe achieving “inner agility” as a shift from a reactive to a creative mindset.
As you may know only too well, in a reactive mindset we are driven by circumstances and others’ expectations and it’s typically where many people find themselves on most working days. Emotionally, it generates fear, anxiety and stress.
A creative or self-authoring mindset, however, means we create our own reality by tapping into and expressing our authentic selves, and our core passion and purpose. This expands our perspective and focuses us on the positive, creating joy and flow.
You can gauge how far your leaders are still in the traditional versus agile mould by considering how they’re spending most of their time. Are they reacting to problems and their boss’ requests, trying to control others and working to deliver perfect outcomes? Or are they pursuing their purpose, trusting and empowering others and exploring new, possibilities?
Reactive to creative mindset shifts
So what are the three mindset changes necessary to make the shift from a reactive to a creative mindset?
From certainty to discovery – fostering innovation
Certainty is about seeking control and replicating the past, whereas today’s environment needs a mindset of discovery which seeks diversity of thought and embraces risk and experimentation.
From authority to partnership – fostering collaboration
Traditional organisations have silo’d hierarchies based on authority where leaders are seen as superior to subordinates. Agile organisations have networks of autonomous teams, managed by agreement and based on freedom, trust and accountability.
From scarcity to abundance – fostering value creation
In stable markets, companies maximise their shares at others’ expense. It’s a win/lose approach with a scarcity mindset. As today’s markets evolve continually and rapidly, McKinsey believe that leaders should adopt a mindset of abundance, recognising that change brings potential and leaders can make the most of opportunities by being customer-centric, entrepreneurial and inclusive.
Truly agile leadership means humility and emotional maturity
Successful agile leaders create purpose and coach, rather than direct, their teams to success. They have let go of their self-image as experts who have all the answers. They are comfortable with working collaboratively across the whole of the business, working with an overall purpose in mind, rather than the success of their specific area. And they are supported by a business strategy and processes which enable rather than frustrate them.
Hopefully, this article has helped you to reflect on what your organisation wants from its leaders, the support its willing to provide and where your leaders currently are on the road to being truly agile.