You Can’t Have an Agile Business Without Agile Leadership
I have a tendency to be cynical, so perhaps that clouds my perspective at times. But in recent months, I have found myself shaking my head at the number of articles about the importance of agile. These pieces are frequently published on well-respected websites, sometimes associated with the consulting industry, sometimes geared to a specific industry vertical, or sometimes presented by suppliers to various industries (software for legal firms or some such business). And they all seem to be writing about the concept of agile as a new solution to a new problem.
These articles are undoubtedly well-meaning, but when I read things like how agile needs to be part of the “playbook for the next normal” or the importance of being “digitally agile,” it’s as much as I can do not to roll my eyes. Some of these writers seem to genuinely believe they are offering something profound, that they have discovered the secret treasure of business success and are now sharing it with the world.
I get it, I really do. The events of 2020 have forced businesses to rethink how they operate and to consider what has to change. Anyone who can offer a solution is going to sell more software, get more consulting contracts, and help their own recovery.
But let’s not lose sight of reality. As we know it today, agile is almost 20 years old (the Agile Manifesto was developed in the mountains of Utah in February 2001), and I highly doubt that there are many businesses around today that aren’t aware of the concept, even if their understanding of the specifics is fairly rudimentary.
The world isn’t going to be changed by articles that seek to raise awareness of agile concepts or explain why they’re important. If agile is going to help businesses that have not yet embraced its benefits, then the focus needs to be somewhere else. It needs to be on changing the minds of business leaders.
A lack of conviction, not a lack of awareness
In my experience, the businesses that have not yet embraced agile (or that are limiting its use to only small pockets of their organizations) are doing so consciously. That doesn’t mean they are taking the right approach; it means that the decision-makers have decided that agile is not right for them.
There may be many reasons for that, and not all of those reasons will be solid—but it’s still a conscious decision that has been made. To have those organizations now embrace agile as a way to improve their business going forward requires those decision-makers to be convinced that something has changed—that the reasons for rejecting agile in the past no longer apply.
Obviously, things have changed for virtually every business this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has been more than disruptive—it’s cut a destructive swath through every industry and forced businesses the world over to find fundamentally different ways of working. As the focus now shifts to recovery, leaders are acutely aware that they need to deliver solutions quickly—while retaining the ability to adjust those solutions in response to changing circumstances, customer needs and internal priorities. Those of us who are involved with—and advocates for—agile know that it can be an ideal approach to use in such an environment.
But for leaders who have previously rejected agile, the same can’t often be said. For them, introducing agile at this stage is just another layer of disruption for their teams—and a further loss of control over the recovery for themselves. Asking a leader who already feels as though they are struggling to get a grip on how best to rebuild their business, to embrace an approach that requires them to give up more direct control, is unlikely to be well received.
This is where we need to focus if agile is going to successfully expand into new businesses and support more companies in their post-pandemic recovery. Make no mistake: I do believe agile needs to be part of every company’s recovery toolkit, but it has to be introduced in the right way. And that starts with creating an agile attitude.
Encouraging agile mindsets
One thing that most of the articles I referred to above have in common is that they are “Agile 101” type pieces that focus on project-level agile methods as a way to improve tactical delivery of work. That’s not going to work in businesses that are aware of agile and have already rejected it (in fact, the ideal target audience likely won’t even read all of the piece because they will reject the premise as soon as it becomes clear).
Instead, the focus must be on creating a more agile decision-making approach, of making it easier to adjust work in response to shifting priorities and circumstances. That’s something every business leader needs right now, and they are going to be more willing to embrace anything that can deliver it.
It’s also an approach that is more likely to succeed. Implementing agile from the top down immediately engages leadership in the process and allows it to consciously commit to each of the elements that is being applied.
For example, an adaptive approach to planning involves leadership at the heart of the that planning—and allows those leaders to see and understand the role project teams and stakeholders have in driving the adaptive planning process. They can then determine when they are comfortable, allowing those stakeholders to drive changes themselves—with an appreciation for the improvements in speed and reduction in disruption that will result.
Contrast that with a bottom-up approach that starts with an agile project delivery method like scrum. There, the approach is dictating that project teams are self-managed and leaders are almost “forced” out of the decision-making process. If that wasn’t something those leaders were comfortable with in normal operating conditions, it’s certainly not something they will embrace in the current environment.
A top-down approach also changes the perception of the word “agile.” Instead of being viewed as a project delivery approach, leaders will see it as a more flexible approach to how organizational strategy gets delivered. It will be viewed almost as a trait of the organization—a necessary way of operating in highly uncertain times.
Once the concept has been accepted in that way, it will be far easier for agile delivery methods to be implemented at the execution level. Agile project delivery will also be far more readily accepted because it is seen as an extension of that agile way of thinking, planning and delivering strategy—not as a way of removing control from leadership.
I also believe that top-down agile implementations will ultimately become more effective. Consider the struggles that many companies have had in scaling agile project delivery across multiple business areas and up into the decision-making areas of the business. In many organizations, it remains a niche approach that has been unable to consistently expand beyond IT areas. If agile starts at the top, then the entire business becomes agile and those barriers are never created.
I don’t know how businesses recover effectively from the impact of the pandemic without embracing agility. There are simply too many unknowns—and things are moving too rapidly—to not operate in a way that encourages flexibility and the ability to adjust quickly (and with minimal disruption).
It is therefore critically important that those businesses that did not embrace agile concepts prior to the pandemic be encouraged to embrace them now in a way that allows them to achieve the maximum benefit in minimum time.
That doesn’t happen by assuming that those businesses are unaware of agile and all they need is to be educated on the concept and why it’s a good thing. Very few business leaders are ignorant of agile project delivery methods; if they aren’t using them, it’s because they haven’t previously seen a need or didn’t want to operate in that way.
That mindset isn’t going to change by trying to implement agile at the project level. It’s only going to change by working with those leaders and helping them to think agile—leading them to create a business that is agile, not simply one that does agile.
by Andy Jordan
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