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Six agile habits of a leader

Large enterprise leadership has conventionally been guided by traditional business thinking - while market conditions and competitive landscapes determine business goals, organizations are solely measured on revenue and profits.

At first blush, this approach seems to be in contradiction to the principles of agile thinking. The kind of thinking that fosters organization-wide empowerment, a shared purpose and working with multiple stakeholder perspectives. However, the agile leadership style harmonizes the seemingly contradictory themes of conventional management and the servant leadership model.

I recently came across Frederic Laloux's Reinventing Organizations. The book is considered to be the most influential management book of the decade and answers the critical question, “How to reinvent existing, traditional organizations?” In his book, Laloux alludes to the long power distance that exists in most traditional organizations that are 30 years old or more. And, in such organizations, cultural change inevitably permeates and sustains itself, across the organizations, only when the CEO drives such a change.

Here is a list of six leadership habits that can demonstrate agile thinking on a very practical level - a show, rather than tell approach. Motivated leaders should note that the six habits don’t require any policy, process or infrastructural change.

leaders and their agile teams in action

Habit 1: Use ALM (native) management tools to view statuses

What if executive management were to look up project statuses on Agile Lifecycle Management (or ALM) tools like Jira, Mingle or VersionOne, as opposed to decks and word documents? It will save the middle management enormous time spent on report creation. Also, the quality of content within ALM tools will improve dramatically - stories will be better conceived, acceptance criteria will be rigorous, and the quality of information captured on RAIDs will improve dramatically.

Additionally, I’d recommend downloading the mobile version of the ALM tool in use, as a ready reckoner of what the teams are working on. More often than not, the mobile app is not popular in organizations but, when leaders are seen leveraging this channel, the rest of the organization is bound to follow.

Habit 2: Attend showcases on the ground, where the team sits

Teams can spend up to an entire day when setting up systems for project showcases, which, in my opinion, is a waste of productive time. In many organizations, teams are nervous about a demo to the big boss. Hence, what should be an opportunity to discuss work achieved, and obtain constructive feedback becomes an activity filled with overheads that focus only on sharing status updates. These overheads discourage teams from conducting regular demos. Instead, teams focus on just one big demo. Furthermore, the oft-canceled showcases (a discouraging trend) have a negative impact on development discipline. When the team doesn’t feel in charge, the team (the leadership and the organization at large) is not agile.

Agile would be when executives come over to the team table and view scheduled showcases. Also, the chances of catching problems even before they turn into issues are higher, especially when executives attend the demos at a regular cadence - more like an everyday dinner versus a special dinner date. Teams would be more comfortable to discuss sensitive matters in their area of comfort (their bay) as against bringing up risks in the executive’s cabin.

In addition, executives will enjoy an in-depth insight into the team dynamics, working styles, and practical constraints (such as slow developer machines, an underpowered build machine or fragile VPN connection) of teams working on some of the organization’s most important initiatives. Executives will also enjoy the experience of being a part of the action and, this will go a long way in building camaraderie within the teams as well.

Habit 3: Lead open communications

While the latest models of laptops are provided to employees in most organizations today, most online meetings in Fortune500 organizations are blind - no one turns on their webcams during meetings. I would consider this a pretty big indicator of an organization’s culture of ‘encouraging anonymity.’ It also encourages a lack of participation and eventually, lack of effective team collaboration. I recall two instances during meetings at a Fortune100 organization. In the first instance, I was ‘notified’ that my camera was on during a call. And, in the second, I was told that my video was ‘affecting’ bandwidth on the call.

Often times, team members are on calls for 3 to 4 hours that stretch from evenings into late nights and, I have observed that the fatigue and ennui that comes from sitting in such a barrage of calls translate into passive resistance. Only about 20% of members are really active on team calls.

Imagine the impact it would have if leadership lead the way with this change; Vice Presidents and Directors keeping their webcams on will motivate team members to follow. In fact, I believe that if all meetings took place with cameras turned on; organizations wouldn’t mandate 8-hours-in-office work policies. And, I would go wager that we will have a lesser number of calls in general.

Habit 4: Ensure everyone’s participation in retrospectives

A prime directive of the agile retrospective reads, “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” - Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review. But, I have observed in many instances that middle management, when running retrospectives, more often than not have a predominant focus on messaging and reporting. The entire purpose of retrospectives, which is to reflect and get better is lost.

Senior leadership has to be deliberate about putting the (true) retrospective approach into practice. To start with, leadership can start engaging with the mistakes they have committed, and I believe that is one of the surest characteristics of a servant leader; the courage to show vulnerability. Leadership can attend retros of new teams at least until one successful release is made by the team. Another step I suggest is for executive leadership to get a peer executive to facilitate at least the initial few retrospectives.

My personal belief is the bulk of the retrospective action items lie with management and leadership. These actions could range from organizing training sessions on specific skills to coordinate better collaboration across (siloed) departments and, sometimes just agreeing to stand by the team for the next release. If the leadership does not have an action item emerging out of the retrospective, I will hold that as a cause for additional reflection.

Habit 5: Walk through your plans with the teams

Leaders should publish their big/annual plans on a wall, just like projects do with their stories, iterations, and backlogs. I would advise walking the wall once in two weeks with an open invitation calling for a walkthrough. This invitation demonstrates the leadership’s willingness to walk the talk. Such an informal setting might unleash suggestions and ideas that are truly different.

Also, when a leader shows progress (or sometimes a lack of it) teams will be more forthcoming to share their progress and in fact, challenge their own leadership.

Habit 6: Remove one blocker a week

A key characteristic of an agile culture is when team members approach the higher rung of management more often than the managers ‘call on’ their employees. One of the most productive ways to enable such a practice is by removing a blocker a week. It could turn out to be one of the smallest blockers for a particular team - for example, getting a few minutes from a crucial market facing person or a subject matter expert whose time is usually difficult to get.

In conclusion, I’d take a moment and reflect on what Mahatma Gandhi said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” For all of us who have struggled to transform our words of support for agile thinking into actions and habits, the above suggestions should provide a good starting point.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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