Leadership in Agile organizations: from micro-management to trust-based coaching.

September 26, 2018 | Guest Post by Organize Agile

OIA

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Agile way of working, agile organization, Scrum, squads, Holacracy, whatever it’s called in your organization and whatever the shape it takes: working in a new way requires a new leadership style. In a series of articles, I will take you on a journey through the subject of leadership in agile organizations.

Leadership Challenge

Micro management is finished… that is, if you chose to work in an agile way. Agile ways of working focus on delivering the most value for the customer. Employees are in close contact with the customer and are given the mandate to do what is required. Clear boundaries are still provided, and — depending on the chosen framework — clearly defined roles and agreements are in place. In other words, employees are given the freedom to deliver value to the customer in the way they feel is best.

What to do if you’re are a leader that preaches agile but still checks reports for punctuation and proper spelling? Who intervenes in all aspects of what your team, department or managers do? You will need to practice a new style of leadership starting with such alien concepts as ‘sitting on your hands’ and ‘asking questions instead of providing solutions’.

In an agile organization it is crucial for people in leadership positions to learn to provide clear boundaries, and to allow freedom to operate and share responsibilities within those boundaries. And when we say share responsibility we do really mean share. Compare how a product owner and a scrum team share responsibility. The product owner is responsible for WHAT, the team for HOW, jointly they are responsible for the product.

The subtle art of sitting on your hands

At Organize Agile we are currently assisting a medium sized public organization transition towards an agile organization. One of my colleagues was discussing the transition roadmap with the senior management. During the conversation the focus turned towards the new e-learning platform and what shape it should take. The management team discussed the new platform in detail until my colleague reminded them that the HOW was up to the development team.

I am struggling with sitting on my hands

Elsewhere a manager sighed ‘It’s not easy sitting on your hands. I am learning but I’m struggling. Especially when I feel the team should do things differently or when my own manager is breathing down my neck’. Sounds familiar?

Coaching instead of ready-made solutions

Agile is all about trust. While plans and micro management create a false sense of security, trust focuses on letting go, daring to trust another capabilities and offering support rather than spelling everything out.

I have seen many examples of what trust can do to an agile team. One of the most poignant was seeing an employee passionately argue a case in front of the management team. Something that nobody, including herself, had expected her to be able to do. Excellent!

The team of directors of one of our clients, who are currently in the middle of their agile transformation, is currently focused on the question how they can reshape their departments into self-organizing teams. To my mind one of the most important parts of this assignment is developing the right mindset in employees, leaders and supporting services. Managers need to become aware of their new role: if an employee comes to you with a problem, help them by coaching them. Offer trust, not a solution. Ask questions.

Stop looking at your manager!

Employees need to take ownership

To employees this means that they should not bother leaders with every little issue, or focus on the manager in meetings. Consider team behavior in meetings: even when a team is highly self-organizing they will behave quite differently with a manager present. Often you will see that at least a part of the team will direct their points primary at the manager and look for non-verbal signs of confirmation. They key to changing such behavior is making the team aware of their behavior and coach them to do things differently.

Transparency

Trust includes access to as much information as possible. Make it easy to access and share information . This includes insight into financial margins, information from management meeting, budgets and maybe ultimately even remuneration. Make sure there is a way in which information and trends teams see at their customers is shared with other teams and managers. Agile tools and frameworks are a great help. Scrum and Agile Portfolio boards are a highly visible and offer easy insight into team activity and ambitions. Similarly, tools like Slack can help to make information broadly available. Regardless of the means used, the decision to really start sharing information should be your first stop.

Conclusion

In an agile organization leadership focus needs to be on giving and receiving trust. Agile leaders do not intervene, they coach. Instead of offering ready-made solutions, they offer clear boundaries, direction and ask in-depth questions. Only in such an environment will teams do their best work and deliver real customer value.

This article is a guest contribution by Organize Agile

About Organize Agile

At Organize Agile we believe that organizations are ready for a new way of working. Agile organizations respond faster to market opportunities, delight their customers and keep learning by doing. With our passion for organizational flexibility we help our clients achieve better results. We are a global team of trainers, coaches and consultants, specialized in the application of Agile and Scrum in business, outside of software development.