Myth 3: Leaders & Managers will figure out what their agile role is magically

We have done a huge disservice to leaders and managers, as well as teams.  There are plenty of people that will say we don’t need managers and leaders. People can lead themselves. While there is an aspect of this that may be true, there are a lot of steps to get close to that idea.

This article will explore what leaders and managers need to do to succeed as they get started with agile or to help teams move from individuals to a team or even a high-performance team. It builds on Agile Leadership Myth #2: Self-Organizing Teams Don’t Need Any Help.   

Understand Agile Values and Principles – Not Simply Practices

Leaders and managers are often excluded from agile training. This might seem absurd if you have not experienced it, but many organizations seem to skip them, or they skip the training, or they do some simplistic presentation instead of training. When they are included, they often don’t start with a

Agile Managers Don't Magically Learn

Agile leaders and managers do not magically learn, they need to take deliberate action.

foundational understanding of agile values and principles – and how agile will impact their roles. This can set them back significantly.  The most common reason I hear is that they do not have time. What are they doing exactly? Don’t they have time to ensure that they lead and manage in ways that improve their effectiveness? This just seems silly if people are looking only at the trees instead of the forest.

I also see a lot of training, especially in the “scaling agile” space, focused only on practices instead of principles. This is costly because then people then tend to implement practices without considering the full implications or even determining the issues that would be addressed with the practice.

How can people lead and manage if they do not understand how agile will impact them or how to lead in an agile organization? I’m not just talking about software here, any organization that values being able to respond in a complex world should want leaders and managers fully engaged.

The Leader-Manager Role Shifts

Leading and managing in agile requires a shift in thinking about what value you can bring to the organization. It may require that you step back and assess yourself and how you see yourself. We often reward and promote people based on being a “solution-expert”, but we know that that alone is not sufficient to help teams be amazing. Knowing all the answers and telling people what to do is simply not enough to help teams over the long-term. Leaders and managers should be looking to engage with teams in ways that help tap into their expertise. One simple step is to start shifting from a telling, control-plan-based approach to an approach that favors experiments. Work with teams to find experiments they can run around challenging topics. Look for ways that teams can take ownership through this approach and tap into their knowledge.    

Leaders and Managers Need a Network of Help                             

Leaders and Managers often don’t have help. Asking for help can be challenging since there is a perception that they have to know-it-all and be experts. Working to establish a network of help, both internally and externally is important. You can certainly engage external help via leadership coaching as well, but even finding external peers in other organizations helps provide different perspectives. Regardless of the choice, they should have a network they can meet with to get help. As a leader or manager, you might be surprised if you ask for help AND offer it – others likely need help from you.

Be a Transparent Role Model

Being a role model is critical for leaders and managers to succeed. There is no option here. People see what you are doing and will do the same. If you are doing something, not doing something, saying something, or not saying something – you must consider the implications of your actions and inactions. If everyone in the organization was following your lead, will you be better off or worse off? Will your organization be more anti-fragile or fragile?

Transparency is a one of the pillars behind the idea of agile. Transparency continues to stand out as another one of the most critical skills and traits of a leader. The number of times a leader or manager tells me something that “no one knows yet”, yet I already heard it the day before, is absurd. Information moves through organizations fast. If you don’t want people playing organizational Mad Libs, and just making up assumptions about what is happening, just tell them. You are better off sharing the facts and even uncertainly (if that is a fact) than attempting to sugar-coat or pretend. You hire smart people – they will know something is going on anyway.

So What Can You Do?

Try taking just one of these ideas and digging into it. Better still, share this with a peer and dig in together. What would it mean for you to be more of a role model or be more transparent? What type of training have leaders already had? Was it sufficient? How can you expand your network or help a peer expand theirs to get help? As always, comments are welcome!


Interested in increasing your leadership abilities?  Checkout Agile Leadership – Leading Amazing Teams for Breakthrough Results.

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  1. Oh, now you’ve done it. Now all our managers are going to make us go back to waterfall so they have job security! Way to go, man! Great article. I hope you don’t mind that I shared this on twitter. I really appreciate your discussion about transparency.

Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

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