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Lead Your Agile Transformation by Example

by Dean Kynaston
leading by example

Recently, during an engagement, I was able to go to dinner with some of the team members. Through the conversation, someone made the statement, “Everyone knows our leader has not bought into agile transformation.” I was perplexed.

This particular organization has deep roots in a traditional waterfall project management approach. They continually set unrealistic expectations with business stakeholders making commitments they couldn’t keep. They struggled with excessive work in progress and endlessly changing priorities. They had amazing people, but the hierarchical management style was stifling. While the culture was open to transparency, they were unaccepting of failure. Unfortunately, fear permeated much of their thinking and actions. 

What perplexed me about this statement was that I knew the leader wanted to transform the organization, company, and culture. I knew that they personally approved the agile coaching, mentoring, and training engagements and desperately wanted the outcomes. I knew they were trying to be the voice of agility with their c-suite peers, and they had spoken openly about the agile progress in an “All Hands” quarterly conversations with the organization. I also knew they were challenging their staff to empower others and to innovate.

Why was this not enough? What more could this leader have done to demonstrate more commitment to the agile transformation?

corner canyon

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. - Lao Tzu

Lead in getting trained

Leadership could have participated in agile training. When others attended, they thought about how much they wished the leader or other leaders would have attended. Employees learned new ideas for improving their culture but had low confidence that those in charge would be open to or supportive of the new ideas. 

Think of the impact it would have had for the organization had the leader been able to say, “I am now trained (or better yet, scrum certified)! I now understand how agile frameworks are different and look forward to having everyone use what I’ve learned.”

Scrum master, product owner, developer, or agile leader certification courses are crucial training opportunities for leaders (CSM, CSPO, CSD, and CAL, respectively). Other visible, powerful training opportunities are scrum gatherings and local agile meetups. 
 

Lead in practicing agility

They could also practice agile techniques with their team. While the leader kept a running agenda (backlog) of topics to cover with their staff, they did not use scrum with their team. They missed using scrum events such as sprint planning and daily standups to propel their own team’s work. They did not discover with their team the value of the Agile Manifesto and 12 principles to encourage trust, motivated individuals, sustainable pace, failing early, etc.

Using scrum with their team would have provided opportunities to demonstrate and highlight courage, focus, commitment, openness, and respect (scrum values). The leader’s team example of adapting to change, which they were very good at, was hidden because the team was not doing sprint reviews, which employees would be able to attend as stakeholders. The organization questioned, “Why do we have to be agile when our leader isn’t?”

Think of how employees would feel about their agile transition if they could see the leader using:

  • Scrum to accomplish priority work.
  • Daily standups.
  • Sprint reviews actively seeking stakeholder feedback or talking openly about a recent failure and, more importantly, what the team learned from it.
  • A transparent backlog or team burndown chart. 
  • Transparent retrospective improvement actions and experiments. 
  • Work in progress limits to help more of the teams to become more aligned on common goals.

Lead in inspecting and adapting

Leaders could inspect the teams and product increments. Sprint reviews were not a priority for the leader. We often say in Open Space events that we want people to “vote with their feet” or, in other words, attend where they think they’ll either provide or receive the most value. By not joining sprint reviews, this leader “voted with their feet,” sending the message that the team’s efforts and product increments were unimportant. 

Skipped sprint reviews caused the leader to miss productive coaching opportunities. They lost opportunities to express encouragement or confidence, ask questions, and offer help (qualities of servant leadership). They missed chances to inspect sprint or release burndown trends to understand the team’s challenges better. They missed out on being seen and heard supporting the transformation.

Think how motivating it would be during sprint reviews for a team to hear their leaders express appreciation for performance or, if there are challenges, confidence that the team will overcome them. Or positively reinforcing new behaviors, such as celebrating a team swarming together on one highest priority story at a time, building team, and personal capability would make an impact. Think about how a team would feel if they have an impediment removed by their leader, or better yet, the leader took the time to teach the team how to remove their own impediment. 

Attending visioning, roadmapping, release or sprint planning sessions, daily scrums, sprint reviews, and product discovery workshops are excellent opportunities to “vote with your feet.” You may not be able to participate the entire time, but make at least one comment or ask one question when you do. Let everyone know you attended and reinforce that whatever they are working on is your priority, too. 
 

Lead in trusting others

Lastly, the leader held their leadership team accountable for the delivery instead of creating an environment where scrum teams were accountable. Paradoxically, the impact of holding their staff responsible for delivery was that it drove them to create an environment that produced the wrong behaviors.

The leadership team began feeling like they needed to control the product backlog and product delivery team members. They felt like they needed to start pushing velocity, architectures, and solutions on the product development teams, rather than enabling an empowered, self-organizing “pull.” This caused teams to become “doers” rather than “thinkers.”

Highly paid, talented people with unlimited potential had their creativity, personal growth, and development opportunities inadvertently squashed. The leader’s lack of trust led to their staff’s lack of trust, which cascaded downwards. 

Imagine how much more powerful it would be for the leader to enable the product delivery teams to hold themselves accountable. Agile organizations want the people most familiar with the system to address the problems. No one understands the specific problem better than the team, and we need to trust them.

The fifth agile principle serves this very purpose: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.” Building organizational, team, and individual capability is the primary responsibility of today’s leadership.

Leading is difficult, especially during times of change. When a leader helps an organization transform, they must adapt just as much, if not more, than those they’re leading. Our experience at Platinum Edge is that effective, enduring organizational change has strong, visible executive ownership.

My favorite boss once taught me a principle that has stuck with me nearly every day of my career. He said, “Leaders are ALWAYS watched.”
 

How does your organization see you?

If you want your organization to change, then you must change how you lead. Let your example be the guiding light for your agile transformation. Make it easy for your organization to follow. Lead by example in learning more about agility, practicing what you learn, inspecting and adapting, and trusting your people.

Use our assessingrecruitingtrainingcoaching & mentoring services to help you lead by example.
 
 

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