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Why Starting at the Top Matters Most – 6 Principles of Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is no longer a spectator sport. The days when executives would literally be on the sidelines giving instructions to employees are long gone. Modern managers are right in the thick of it and not just on the sidelines. They have said goodbye to the former management ethos of “the boss has the final word” or “rank always trumps”. This is a good thing because in a business world facing major transformation processes, more and more companies are using agile working methods. Teams now organise themselves, manage projects via Scrum and head towards their goal at a rapid pace. They do not need people who are too big for their boots, but rather coaches who roll up their sleeves and lend a hand. But what is really needed for agile leadership?

1. Having the Bible at Hand: Agile Leaders Know the Agile Manifesto

Those leading agile teams should know the ultimate foundation of the agile approach, namely the Agile Manifesto, which was written about 15 years ago by agile gurus like Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland and is still as up-to-date as ever. Of course, the principles of agile work formulated back then have developed further, but at its core, the Agile Manifesto is still relevant and therefore is fundamental to every agile leader.

2. Less Talk and More Action: Agile Leaders Are Masters of Action

While the Agile Manifesto is initially something to be read and internalised, in practice it revolves a lot more around doing. Agile is all about taking action and therefore actions speak louder than words. Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see” and in fact, managers should be careful to create an even balance between the goals they set and the subsequent actions that follow. Agile always means change, and modern leaders should not only preach this, but also begin to create the conditions for successful change. This includes a self-critical examination of their performance and being open to feedback from their own team.

3. Feedback on a Level Playing Field: Agile Leaders Cultivate Constant Learning

Speaking of feedback, that brings us to our next point. One of the basic principles of agile work is to reflect at regular intervals on how a team can reach its goals even more efficiently. Whether in sprint review meetings or through retrospectives, agile teams share lessons they’ve learned at frequent intervals. In all this, agile leaders function as a catalyst by cultivating continuous learning based on mistakes and new insights. This is a natural part of their daily work and they even begin by looking at themselves.

4. Free and Motivated: Agile Leaders Solve Roadblocks for the Team

Agile leaders have internalised that the best results are achieved when their team has the greatest possible freedom of action, and when achieving the overarching goal takes precedence over the personal sensitivities of some. To this end, managers must not only be able to empower employees, but also to enable and motivate them to work independently and not let possible opposition distract them from achieving their goals. However, this is not done in a monthly status meeting or even in the annual review session. Motivation and empowerment have to be given afresh each day. So in Scrum, every sprint ends with a detailed review.

5. The End User Counts: Agile Leaders Focus on Real Success

We live in times in which companies in all industries and of all sizes are undergoing transformational processes, and the tendency to become too self-centred is increasing. The arguments of transformation objectors know no bounds: What has been achieved should be preserved, change has its limits and day-to-day business must not be endangered. Agile leaders are not impressed by these arguments and instead focus on what really counts, namely developing a minimum viable product (MVP) that is honed step by step. Success is not measured according to the HiPPO principle (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), but instead on the basis of end users’ feedback and their assessment of the result.

For more information on how to incorporate agile leadership into your organisation, please take a look at our white paper Using Agile Principles to Transform your Business Projects which you can download here free of charge.

By the way, if you want to get to know swarmOS, visit us at the Atlassian Summit in San Jose from the 12th to the 14th September 2017. You will find us at booth 235B.  We would love to meet you!