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Agile development requires new leadership style

By Tomas Vedsmand, Partner GEMBA Innovation, tv@gemba.dk or +45 4036 5502

In recent projects introducing agile as a new way of working with development projects, I came across the changed role of leaders in an agile context.

Working agile requires new ways of leading development teams and individuals. In a classic project management environment – for instance done by R&D-managers, program managers and line-managers – leadership tasks are often connected to ensuring that projects are progressing according to milestones, manage individuals so they perform their tasks as planned and – too often – on micro-management of weekly or even daily questions arising from the project team that needs management decisions. The leadership role may also require considerable time for collecting and reporting of progress from development projects and teams to upper management.

In agile development, good leadership is first and foremost to ensure the best opportunities for teams to stay focused and get things done on solving their backlog, meet sprint goals, do sprint tasks and demonstrate increments. Leaders still need to communicate the vision and show direction, but team leadership, coaching and daily decisions are done in the team, including Product Owner and Scrum Master. Outside leaders need to change their focus and style of leadership.

In agile, the most important tasks for leaders are to ensure – and commit – resources for the teams, protect their teams from outside pressure, engage in demo’s and reviews and assist in removing impediments for teams so they can work efficiency and speed.

Another important task for leaders in agile are ‘priming’ the environment about the agile way of working, such as to interacting with top management, stakeholders and customers.

Furthermore, agile leaders should promote a lean governance that lead and support teams and with as few interruptions as possible. It includes communicating with teams to ensure that agile projects are within the company roadmaps and current portfolio decisions – and agile leaders should stribe for lean documentation from the development team. Experience shows that – at least some of – the sprint reviews may be used as mini-gates and lean governance.

Redefining the role of leadership to fit an agile context is, thus, an important theme when introducing agile in development. Its important to get leaders to understand and help them to see their new role – and it may require an effort. The good news is that most leaders find it appealing to let micro-management go and focus more on the bigger picture.