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Agile Leadership: This is Going to Hurt

By Jay Anderson and Russ White

In our most recent blog, we focused on how Agile Ready LeadersSM can overcome resistance when moving to Agile. Change is hard…but it’s also what Agile is all about—solving problems in new ways. We spelled out the leadership competencies necessary to drive and facilitate change, which can help your teams excel at adapting to ever-evolving business needs. Develop these and you’re home free, right? Not quite. There’s much more to manage (and more suffering to come).

Agile environments tend to be radically different from the environments they replace. As Agile takes root in your organization things will move faster, stresses on individuals and teams will be different, and processes will morph. A higher level of accountability will be expected at both the individual contributor and team level. Things that used to matter greatly may no longer have value. The cheese is going to be moved…and it’s going to hurt!

Taking responsibility for problems

An effective Agile environment will quickly expose barriers to results (technical or process), inefficiencies and, likely, personnel issues. For example, Agile Ready LeadersSM often find that the superstars of the former work environment are unable to cut it in the Agile world. These once-lauded individual contributors may be utterly unwilling to cooperate in a team environment, preferring instead to hold their expertise to themselves. Teams are another problem. Frequently, as your team gains in efficiency and predictability, other teams’ inefficiencies become readily apparent.

When faced with newly exposed challenges, you, as a leader, will have to decide definitively: Do you take responsibility for the problems you encounter or do you spend time deflecting blame, pointing fingers at others, or just quitting and walking away in shame? As we said in a previous blog, humans can choose to be responsible. They can respond in a way that doesn’t shout victimhood. An Agile leader must never resort to a lack-of-action plan. Waiting and hoping that something will get better almost never works in the real world.

Our hope is that you will realize that your job is to take responsibility for the problems that pop up and work with your team to fix them. Specifically, you should:

  • Remove barriers: Be a facilitator and influencer, and fix the problems that are now obvious.
  • Partner to resolve systemic issues.
  • Be transparent and don’t fear reality/truth. (“Sincerity means that appearance and reality are the same.” —Oswald Chambers)
  • Have the courage to remain steadfast; avoid reverting to old ways.
  • Be a collaborator; simply “driving” for results won’t cut it anymore.

If you are doing these things, you’ll likely be a competent leader and the Agile methods you are working with will likely be adopted. However, we think that Agile Ready Leaders should aim even higher. Your goal is transformation—making your organization a healthy, sustainable, and innovative workplace in which people enjoy working toward results that matter. Time for more hurt.

The hurt continues

Dentist: this is going to hurtOne source of this hurt will be the contingent that believes artificial harmony is what you are striving to maintain. This couldn’t be further from the truth. An Agile Ready Leader realizes that artificial harmony is not conducive to problem solving, nor to having the tough conversations that will enable a team to commit to a plan and to one another, to do all it can to make that plan succeed. People will simply agree and never commit; they’ll walk out of the room to follow a whim. This so-called “harmonious” group is not a team at all, and an Agile leader must recognize and remedy the situation as fast as possible. Once a trusting environment is in place, the leader must help the team figure out what needs to happen if Agile is to be embraced and implemented.

And the hurt goes on…Now we get to the Agile Ready Leader’s real job. Your real job is to “mine for conflict” within the team. You need to encourage productive conflict and open debate. We aren’t talking about nasty personal attacks and political drama. Rather, robust, respectful dialog about how to attack problems and uncover the core issues. You will promote meaningful debate around issues warranting discussion. The airing of opposing ideas will cause a bit of organizational discomfort, but unlike disagreement, discomfort is healthy…and it’s your job to keep it this way.

Be sensitive to your group members’ communication style. For example, are they being assertive or too passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive? The latter is by far the worst; it is very destructive to a team because it’s not clear, honest communication, and it’s typically at the expense of another person. If this is a problem within your team, do your absolute best to stop it, even if you must remove the offender.
In the accompanying illustration, we’ve depicted the optimal style of communication. In a healthy, trusting environment, a team should be able to share its thoughts and feelings in a very open, assertive fashion. In other words, if there’s an “elephant” in the room, it should be exposed and disposed of as quickly and directly as possible. This way the problem can be solved (and not made worse by ignoring it). However, if a team consistently communicates in a passive way, spends too much time making members feel good, or is not aware of its surroundings, it creates an artificial environment that is hiding or avoiding problems. Team results will invariably suffer.

On the other hand, if the team’s style moves too far to the aggressive side, conversations will become disrespectful and people will feel attacked and insulted. Once this happens, the discussion will basically end because no one enjoys being attacked. If, as a leader, you ever move too far to the aggressive style, you must apologize. Your “I’m sorry for behaving like that” is the first step to rebuilding the trust that has been destroyed. Again, Agile Ready Leaders must possess basic humility and self-knowledge.

Addressing the elephant

In closing, please remember that debate can only be healthy within a team of people that is truly comfortable expressing vulnerability. Team members must be able to admit they have a problem within the discussion. The “elephant” must be addressed, and no artificial harmony allowed. The team must feel safe with the impending conversation. People must know they can communicate in an assertive style. If the team is not able to talk about the problem(s) in an open way that will ultimately lead to a solution, then, as a leader, you need to revisit the concept of “real team trust.”

As author Patrick Lencioni has said, “Members of trusting teams admit weaknesses and mistakes, take risks in offering feedback and assistance, and focus time and energy on important issues, not politics.” All of this must be in place first. Then, as problems are identified and solved, results will be recognized and the hurt will start to go away.

This is the fifth blog in a series on Agile leadership. Read more from the series:
Part 1: Becoming Agile Ready Leaders

Part 2: Agile Ready Leaders Get Their Start in Kindergarten
Part 3: Hairballs and HiPPOs - Agile's Biggest Derailers
Part 4: Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Vehicle

Jay AndersonJay Anderson is passionate about helping people work in teams that solve complex problems. Over the past five years, he has been leading the transformation of the technology department at DDI through the application of multiple Agile methods.


Russ WhiteRuss White is Vice President of Technology Strategy in DDI’s Global Technology Group. He and his team are experts at applying Agile management techniques to a wide range of business environments beyond software development.

Posted: 02 May, 2017,
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