15 May 2020
Posted by: John Williams
Leadership used to be easy. So easy, in fact, we didn’t even call it leadership – we called it management, and it just entailed telling people what to do and bawling at them if it didn’t get done. The strutting management hero bestrode the corporate world, and woe betide anyone stepping out of line. Then, it started to get a bit harder, and to involve things like ‘motivation’ and ‘support’ and ‘reward’, and we had to begin taking notice of workers as people, and the word ‘team’ crept surreptitiously into the language. And as if that wasn’t enough, along came ‘talent acquisition’ and ‘learning & development’ and ‘diversity & inclusion’, and, and, and…
And now, we live in unusual times. Context is everything, and this is no longer the stable, sure, simple and straightforward world of the ‘manager’, if it ever was. The antidote to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, is the power to adapt and respond – and that’s Agility. At the Agile Business Consortium, we’ve developed a Framework for Business Agility, with five elements – People, Culture, Strategy, Governance and Leadership – that form the foundation for agile behaviour. And the element from which all the others flow, is Leadership.
In a VUCA world, we need leadership that thinks about people first – customers and employees – and understands how to optimally engage both in co-creating successful outcomes. Leadership that is confident in the face of the unknown, not paralysed by doubt. Leadership that understands risk, and does not take refuge in indecision. Leadership that is thoughtful, yet not hesitant. Leadership that experiments, learns, and then iterates successive solutions to the ever-rolling changes emerging as a new kind of normal. In short, we need Agile Leadership.
So, assuming this elusive competence – this ‘Agile Leadership’ – can be found, what is it..? How do we do it..? Most crucially, if it is better than other sorts of leadership, how do we prevent the (non-agile) rest of the world from getting in the way of success..? (For those of you sceptical of there being more than one sort of leadership, American Express quotes seven different types, from Autocratic to Laissez-faire, and that’s not even counting Situational, Visionary, Servant or Transformational…).
Let’s start from the top. What is Agile Leadership..? A quick google of the term flings up 91 million entries, in just over half a second. Yes, we have the Consortium’s Framework definition, as the context for agile leadership. We have the Wikipedia definition – “the craft of creating the right environment for agile teams to thrive”, “to encourage and empower cross-functional teams“, and “provide an environment where it is safe to fail”.
We have a raft of experts from the legendary Lee Iacocca of Ford and Chrysler fame, to our friend Evan Leybourn at the Business Agility Institute, who have given us cogent, credible models for agile leadership. Agile leadership is clearly a real thing.
Yet in getting to the definition, and then the function, of agile leadership, maybe the notable bit is not the agile – it’s the leadership. In this context, the word ‘agile’ is merely (if I may be permitted to use the word ‘merely’ in connection with agile) the descriptor. The point of it all is the leadership.
There are two elegant expositions of what we mean by leadership. The first is Nick Barron’s 2016 LinkedIn article, ‘The Purpose of Leadership is to create more leaders not followers, outlining the crucial words and phrases that define accessible, supportive, successful (I might even say Servant) leadership.
The second, and my favourite, is Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy – surely the best example many of us will have seen, of leadership creating real momentum.
So how do these exemplars of leadership translate to the ‘agile’ context?
For that, we need to be clear what we mean by agile, and we can go to no better source than the guru of agile, Stephen Denning. Stephen’s book, ‘The Age of Agile’, gives us the Three Laws that define once and for all the power and the challenge of agility.
These are: The Law of the Small Team; The Law of the Customer; and the Law of the Network.
So, marrying The Three Laws with ‘the purpose of leadership’ being ‘to create more leaders’, we arrive at this conclusion: Agile Leadership is ‘the facilitation of small teams to swiftly deliver greater value to the customer through optimal use of resources from across the organisational network’.
A bit of a mouthful, admittedly. Maybe simpler to say ‘Delivering better stuff, more satisfyingly for customer and provider’ – and doing so, no matter how VUCA the world may be.
Que será, será
Okay, so this agile leadership thing, how do we do it..? Well, implementing the Nine Principles of Agile Leadership will be a good start, as in Figure 1:
Figure 1: Nine Principles of Agile Leadership
Try applying these Principles as the basis of your operating model. Focusing relentlessly on constant Communication across the organisation, cultivating Commitment from every level (beginning with the C-suite), and publicly rewarding Collaboration, will lift your organisation out of insularity. Then you’ll begin to feel that flow of connections, ideas and innovation that differentiate the agile organisation from The Rest.
And now, having determined what agile leadership is (sort of), and how to do it (or at least, how to begin it), how do we prevent the rest of the world’s traditional non-agility from getting in the way..?
For every problem there is a solution…
…that is simple, elegant and wrong. Don’t be fooled – ‘agile’ is not the answer to everything, even literally. Sometimes you need to move very fast, in a clear, organised, replicable, unrelenting way – 100 metre runners don’t stop every 10 metres for a retrospective, and the agile leader knows when to implement the elements of agility. (For example, the agile leader recognises that many marathon runners do check the time at each mile – a sort of on-the-run retrospective).
There is no doubt, the world Out There wants us to be predictable. Annual budgets and 3-year strategies might be a pain, yet that’s nothing to the backlash when you go to the Board with ‘Yeah, we’re just doing 3-month rolling forecasts now, and if this product line doesn’t make it through the decision gate, we’ll likely toss it out and do something else’.
Trust me, a swooning C-suite is not a welcome sight, and when they recover, you need to be on a fast horse travelling swiftly in the opposite direction. Ergo, the agile leader doesn’t just apply the Nine Principles to the workforce – they apply the same principles to every stakeholder. Employees, Board, peers, suppliers, investors, partner organisations, even (sometimes), competitors – all get the Communication-Commitment-Collaboration treatment. Only that way can we generate confidence in our competence, and in the agility we try to share.
Oh, and we before get carried away, let us not forget, all stakeholders are not the same. Yes, they all deserve the same consideration – they all have a stake in our success as leaders. Some, though, have more – how to put this – influence.
The greatest resistance to agility comes at the threshold between leadership and operations – in other words, ‘middle management’. Treat that cohort as both greatest challenge and greatest resource, and persevere - following the Nine Principles will help you craft an organisation that facilitates openness, innovation and improved performance.
And there we have it. Of course, being an agile leader isn’t as easy as I glibly make it sound – and that just means we need to give it some effort. Being agile means having the power to sense, adapt and respond.
Being an agile leader means being able to facilitate Communication, generate Commitment, and achieve Collaboration right across your organisation.
In this VUCA world, getting that right will really help you make a difference. And that’s why we are all here, is it not..?
What is Vision 2020?
In 2017, the Framework for Business Agility was the foundation for the Agile Business Consortium's shift from focusing solely on agile methodologies to encompassing a more holistic Business Agility.
Now, the Framework is surrounded by the myriad other frameworks, outlines, templates, constructs and matrices occupying the business agility arena. So, in 2020 we’ll revisit and evolve the Framework, with a panel of global experts to provide commentary and fresh perspectives.