The 12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership

The 12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership

 The 12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership

 
Based on several years spent supporting and coaching leadership, at all levels of an organisation, I have come to value twelve dimensions in the way leaders think and act that will sustain an Agile transformation and Agile delivery. This article introduces those twelve dimensions and goes into a little detail for each one.
It’s one of the big myths of the Agile world - Agile does not need Management!  Of course, the real answer is not so black and white. As a stereotypical consultant would say, “it depends” on how you define that act of management. It is true that the old ways of command and control, of micro-management, are no longer needed, but the mindset and actions of great Leadership are vital to the success of any Agile endeavour or transformation.
 
Agile Leadership is a real hot topic at the moment, and one that is taking more and more of my coaching time across many different types of organisation, but how do you define great Leadership in an Agile environment?  Well, I really liked a comment I read the other day by Michael Hamman.
 
“if we are to truly realise a vision for a deep and sustainable organisational agility, we need to shift our fundamental assumptions and beliefs about the very idea of ‘leadership’.
This got me thinking. Which aspects of leadership, that I have experienced over the last few years, have brought about lasting change and strong, successful delivery? Which aspects have I witnessed that have devastated teams and organisations?

I also thought about the jewels of knowledge picked up over the years from articles, conference keynotes and reading books like Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo, Evolvagility by Michael Hamman and Unlocking Agility by Jorgen Hesselberg.
 
From this reflection, I identified twelve key dimensions of Agile Leadership, six based on Mindset, the way we think, and six on our behaviours and actions. 
12 Dimensions of Agile Leadership by Jonathan Kessel-Fell
Let’s look at each one of these in detail, starting with the six on the left-hand side. What is the change in mindset required, this new way of thinking?
Shared Vision and Passion
Before you start any journey, you need to know where it is you are going, especially if you are struggling with this new world filled with Volatility, Uncertainty and Complexity, and your transformational journey a matter of survival. This first dimension of leadership thinking is to have a clear idea of what your organisation will look like in the near future, how do you expect it to work using Agile and Lean, and how will you interact with the new organisational structure.
Once you have this vision in place within your mind, you need to believe that reaching this goal is possible. You also need to know how to share this vision with a passion so that you inspire others to join you on the journey. Let’s be honest, this is going to be a long and difficult expedition and it’s always good to have a friend along to help and uplift you when the going gets rough.
Not Taylorism Why Agile
This one has a strange title but is centred around the ‘Why’ and ‘What Form’ of adopting Agile. At the start of the 1900s Frederick Taylor, through scientific observation, tried to find best practice or approach to doing a specific activity or job. Once identified with one person, this same practice or approach could then be shared across an organisation or other organisations to enhance their productivity and increase output.
Sadly, people approach Agile Transformations in exactly the same way, thinking what worked really well in a past Transformation will work just as well here, or by applying a standard, off the shelf, blanket framework, scaled approach or delivery model that they think, or worse, some consultant says is best. If you want to learn more about this, have a read of one of my previous articles, The Tayloristic Application of Agile

The first thing is to ask ‘Why’?  

Why are we wanting to move towards Agility in our Organisation? What challenges do we face? What benefits will it bring? What size of Cultural and Organisational change are we prepared to endure? Look at all the possible options and frameworks that are out there, and then from these develop the perfect fit of ‘Agile’ for you and your organisation’s situation. 

One of the big ‘Whys’ about moving towards Agility is to adapt to a rapidly changing market and customer demands. Even in such a chaotic delivery environment we know that we need to satisfy, even delight, our customer by giving them what they want and doing it quickly (Agile Manifesto – Principle #1)

A strong blend of Voice of the Customer activities and Design Thinking will allow you to identify and empathise with your customer’s experiences, both good and bad. This empathy will guide you as you correctly define, ideate and experiment in iterations, with strong rapid feedback, to delivery real value to your customers.  Though this might seem a short bit of guidance, the actual task to achieve this is massive and vital to the success of your delivery and organisation’s survival.
Understand where we are with VUCA and Cynefin
There is a classic joke that when someone was asked for directions to a chosen destination, their response was “well, I wouldn’t start from here”.  For this journey of Transformation, you need to know where you are starting from. What are your personal areas of skill, what are your characteristics, what is the culture of your Organisation, what is the environment, the surroundings through which you and your organisation will travel?
For this personal introspection I would use a bit of internal honesty, emotional intelligence and self-awareness. For the rest I would use VUCA and Cynefin. VUCA will allow you to reflect and identify how Volatile and Uncertain the environment your Organisation finds itself in is, and how Complex and Ambiguous both the customer demands are, and the possible solutions will be, in that setting.

Once you understand VUCA, Cynefin will then allow you to take the next step in deciding your approach. Cynefin is a Welsh word, similar to habitat, and provides decision-makers a "sense of place" from which to view their perceptions. Its five decision-making contexts or "domains", obvious (or simple), complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder, will help you as a Leader to identify how your organisation perceives situations and make sense of your own and other people's behaviours.
Continuous Transformation via Improvements
The best way to describe this dimension is to quote Mike Cohn from his keynote address at the Agile2010 Conference held in Orlando, Florida. “The goal is not to become agile, the goal is to understand how to be more agile. Agility is a result of a mindset; not a process. An enterprise will never finish ‘becoming agile’ because it will always find ways to improve its operations.”
How you do this is beautifully defined in the 12th Principle of the Agile Manifesto, ‘At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly’. This can be applied to Organisations, Teams and Individuals as they reflect on past successes and failures. You will be continuously transforming as you continuously improve.
 Learning as an attitude Learn from Failure
The best leaders are those that are always ready and willing to learn, who take every opportunity to acquire knowledge and experiences that will help them to grow. They have a genuine curiosity in all things new and in the achievements of others, even if at first glance they bare no relation to their current role or area of responsibility, for that is where the seeds of real innovation lie. 
They also have a strong desire to share the things they have learnt with everyone around them and find joy in the success of others who have put this shared learning into action.  One of the best learning opportunities we have is when we don’t get things quite right. Failure in not a bad thing, unless of course you don’t take the time to inspect and adapt. To FAIL is just our ‘First Attempt In Learning’, and if it’s not our first FAIL, it is just a ‘Further Attempt In Learning’. Take some time out, after finishing this article, to watch Will Smith’s excellent YouTube video Fail Early, Fail Often, Fail Forward.

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.  Now that we have this new way of thinking defined, and through its application we are starting to develop our new mindset, let’s have a look at the new behaviours or actions, the new way of working, that this thinking and mindset will inspire.
Servant Leadership
Of course, at the top there needs to be Servant Leadership.  Traditional management / leadership generally comprises of the building-up and use of power by someone in ‘authority’ to try and get as close as possible to the top of the pyramid. Servant Leadership is different. Servant Leaders share power, do not consider a person’s hierarchical position, puts the needs of others at any level first and focuses primarily on the growth and development of people so that they have the chance to do the very best they can.
This is a huge topic so I will leave it in the hands of the professionals. My first recommendation is to read through an excellent online paper, The Understanding and Practice of Servant-Leadership, and reflect on how to apply the 10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader in both your working and personal lives.
Create Environment and Culture
The most important thing an Agile Leader can do is to create and nurture a working environment and culture that is emotionally safe and supports experimentation, collaboration, continuous improvement and learning.  For me this is what the 5th Principle of the Agile Manifesto is all about, building the right environment and giving as much support as possible so that your team and organisation can do more than just grow, they can thrive.
Of course, this will not be a quick or easy experience. It may take years, but it is vital to bring about not only a lasting transformation, but also real organisational achievement. The reason it takes so long, it can only be achieved by building a strong foundation of Trust, a foundation that will help the organisation overcome Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. These five dysfunctions, which I recommend you study, are stacked in a pyramid and are hierarchical, much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Without building a strong foundation of Trust at the bottom, there is no achieving the higher-level goals that bring about success.
Skills Tools and Techniques
OK, let’s be honest, as Leaders we don’t actually do that much to deliver the finished product. Far more skilled and technical people will do all the hard work, but for them to be really successful, their effort will build upon a cultural foundation we have laid and be guided by our vision and care.  For us to do this well we need to understand their world, their needs and their concerns. To help in this endeavour I recommend three areas of improvement.
First, we need to develop a personal, high level understanding of the basics in Lean, Agile, Scrum, XP, etc., their benefits and their possible pitfalls as they are put into practice within the working environment. It would also be good to get some experience of specific tooling they use for transparent communication and collaboration.  
 
Next, we needed to understand what makes great Agile KPIs, what are the right things to measure to help us all improve and how to use the results, no matter how good or bad they are, in a positive way. Combined with these we also need transparent delivery reporting and Agile maturity assessments, all willingly shared through clear visual management in open Obeya / War Rooms.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we need to get out of our offices and spend meaningful time with our people. The leadership technique of Gemba walks or ‘go and see’ allows you to understand your team’s real world and issues, and then apply Inspect and Adapt through Kaizen, or continuous improvement, in those areas that will make the most difference to them as a team and individually.
Agile Governance
For any organisation good governance is a must for robust product delivery. But then along comes Agile which requires, what appears to be, a totally different approach. Gone are the original quality gates and prescribed documentation, replaced by rapid change without a CR, decisions made by collaboration, refined backlogs and iterative events.

As an Agile Leader you need to refresh your understanding of today’s governance models and frameworks. They have all come to the realisation that Agile is not going away and have put together some quite good updates. This includes ISO, Prince2, CMMI and, since the end of February 2019, ITIL with the release of version 4.

The big thing to remember is that Governance is not a set of documents or meetings. The Charted Quality institute states that “good governance may be achieved by both the creation and use of systems that ensure consistency and repeatability of processes. Most importantly this must be cascaded from the highest level of the organisation”. They also point out that “consistently good governance, as an input at all levels, creates an output of a culture of excellence - leadership’s behaviour defines the behaviour of the workforce”.
With this definition in mind, Agile is strong in Governance when lived correctly. Definition of Ready, Definition of Done, Regular Inspect and Adapt, Fast Feedback and Continuous Improvement are excellent ‘systems’ that create an amazing culture of excellence.

These last two dimensions came specifically from learning I picked up in Jorgen Hesselberg’s excellent book, Unlocking Agility.  For this dimension Jorgen shares the observations of Dr Watts who likened cities to ecosystems. With their diverse population these city ecosystems can adapt and grow, under periods of disorder and uncertainty, when given the space to try different solutions and evolve. Companies on the other hand, under the same difficult circumstances, turn to command and control mentalities and strict plans, which in the end can lead to collapse.

In today’s VUCA world our organisations need to create and support ecosystems of autonomous experimentation. As leaders we need to be “creating boundaries within which people can work together towards a common goal” and inspiring our people so that we “influence, rather than control, an outcome, while allowing creativity, collaboration and innovation to naturally happen”.  This space for Innovation leads nicely into the final dimension.
Innovation can be dangerous, it is risky and can lead to regular failure. Of course, we now know that failure is great for learning, and in Cynefin’s Complex segment, this pioneering experimentation may be the only way to find the solutions needed for success.  But many of our organisations provide services that are vital to the running of our business sector, our communities or even our country, and this risk of failure is not acceptable in any form.

This is where Nassim Taleb’s “barbell strategy”, from the world of investments, can help both protect services and drive radical development in an enterprise context. It is the concept of keeping the majority of your capital safe by investing it in Risk-Free assets, while on the other hand using the remaining capital for very risky investments.

As an Agile Leader you can devise a working environment where the majority of the organisation’s effort is targeted towards the support of proven, low risk, run activities to keep your services stable, while a significant but smaller effort is allocated to a separated risky but innovative set of activities.

Finally, I would like to consider this well-known saying; “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together"As a single Agile Leader, you can make a huge difference in the lives of your team members, but unless these changes are supported by the whole organisation, these changes will not last.If we are to achieve the dream of deep and sustainable organisational agility, we need to alter our assumptions and understanding of what Leadership is. 
As an Organisational Leadership Team, together you need to be united in your agreed vision, direction and approach, you need to understand that leadership is no longer a top-down, role-based authority, and you need to comprehend and support ‘True Leadership’ as an organisation-wide phenomenon that can exist at any level or in the heart and mind of any individual.  Implement these 12 Dimensions in your day to day life and you will live the Agility dream.
Agility in action
 
 
                                            Jonathan Kessel-Fell
 
About: 
With over 25 years’ experience in the IT industry, Jon is using this knowledge to help support Organisational Agile and DevOps Transformations through his role as an Enterprise Agile Coach, Agile Coach, Training Facilitator and Consultant. He is also sharing his enthusiasm for Agility, Leadership and Cultural Change as a Keynote Speaker at International Conferences and organisational events
He is a longstanding and highly respected Coach, having helped lead two of the largest FS Agile Transformations in Europe and has hands-on experience in the Investment, Retail & Online Banking, Business Intelligence, Automotive, Retail & Government sectors.

His professional experience covers:
>Implementing and maintaining Transformations in adopting Agility in large scale organisations such as UK Government, Barclays, HSBC, BNP Paribas Fortis, Euroclear, Volkswagen, Volvo or IKEA, either as part of the Transformation Leadership (AWG / LACE), a large Coaching Team or as an individual Coach / Consultant.
 > Implementing and supporting [email protected] for co-located or distributed teams through the pragmatic application of scaling frameworks such as SAFe, Spotify, Spoti-SAFe, LeSS and Custom-DA.  
> Promotes Agile cultural and environmental change to support and accelerate the adoption of Agility, by tracking adoption progress through continuous improvement and maturity assessments.  
> Guidance in the application of Test Automation, Continuous Integration, and in the use of Agile progress and collaboration tools such as JIRA, JIRA Align, Confluence, Azure DevOps, ServiceNow & Rally.  
> Providing training in Agility and DevOps practices, especially in Leadership, around the globe as a Capgemini University
* Qualified Facilitator (UQF) and ICAgile Authorised Trainer.   
* Capgemini University was recognised by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) as one of just 16 accredited corporate universities in the world
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