A decade ago, businesses saw change as either a threat to avoid or an opportunity to explore. Today, change is just another Tuesday at work.
This normalization of change has propelled a fringe IT philosophy into the mainstream. Our recent report 2022 State of Digital Transformation revealed that 57% of enterprises had adopted an agile framework for implementing digital initiatives. Even the federal government follows agile methodologies for 80% of its IT projects.
As agile becomes the go-to philosophy for software development, it’s influencing other areas of business, including non-IT teams. Executives across industries are reimagining leadership principles that thrive in an agile business environment — principles that don’t treat change as an anomaly but a culture.
What is Agile Leadership?
Agile means the same in leadership as it means in software development — leading teams in a way that empowers them to self-organize, drive continuous improvements, and become better at serving changing customer needs.
Note that we’re discussing agile in the spirit of the Agile Manifesto, not the technical details of its frameworks. So, for example, we are not discussing the principles of Scrum, which is just one of several frameworks of Agile project management.
Therefore, agile leadership principles don’t require you to be a scrum master, certified Agile practitioner, or even a technology professional. Instead, these principles are relevant to any leader who wishes to react better to change.
5 Principles of Agile Leadership
At Modus Create, we have been running a distributed agile organization for over a decade. Here are five agile leadership principles that have served us well:
1. Create Nets to Break the Fall, Not to Trap
You can’t be an agile leader without having the stomach for failures.
If your team feels fear of retaliation at every instance of failure, they’ll brush mistakes under the carpet rather than expose areas of improvement. To prevent this, create a psychological safety net at work where people are encouraged to raise red flags in time.
Failing fast might have become a startup cliché, but it has a lot to offer to agile leaders. It’s better to fail fast, learn, and iterate quickly than spend weeks trying to plan, only to realize your customer needs have evolved.
However, tolerance for failure must be matched with an equally passionate attempt to improve. This creates a feedback loop that encourages your team to try out new ideas and make continuous improvements.
2. Feed Insights, But Not With a Spoon
Agile leaders teach their team to ask the right questions, not just give the right answers. They empower their team to make decisions and take responsibility for them.
This doesn’t mean agile teams do whatever they want. As a leader, you need to provide guardrails and strategic direction, but there must be considerable autonomy to operate within that framework. Decisions in agile teams often involve negotiation rather than a top-down mandate.
When we were planning to introduce Jira throughout Modus Create, a few teams were apprehensive as they hadn’t used the tool before. However, it was critical to have all teams on one platform for better visibility and successful OKR-implementation. Still, no team was forced to adopt Scrum or a specific workflow on Jira. Each team was able to self-organize, create a custom workflow that would improve their operations, and still meet the organization’s needs — a classic win-win scenario.
3. Craft Concrete Yet Transparent Workflows
The previous example also relates to the third principle of agile leadership — creating concrete but transparent workflows.
A critical challenge for agile leaders is to break silos and ensure everyone has access to information to make rapid progress. By understanding work in progress across different units, you’ll be better informed to clear blockers.
Leaders must ensure that transparent workflows don’t imply a lack of trust. Therefore, it’s critical to stress that transparency is needed to help teams perform better, not to blame them.
At Modus Create, we can access any team’s Jira project and understand their existing priorities. This helps understand the rationale behind each team’s prioritization and sparks ideas for collaboration. For example, the marketing team can see the recruitment team’s project to understand hiring priorities and incorporate them in the social media strategy. They utilize Jira for collaboration rather than relying on siloed communication and “status-update” meetings.
4. Don’t Ignore Planning and Tooling
The Agile manifesto calls for prioritizing responding to change over following a plan. It also prioritizes individuals over tools. This is often misinterpreted to be an excuse against planning and tooling.
Agile doesn’t mean not having a plan. You still need a roadmap. However, your roadmap should be able to adapt to change. Similarly, without the right tools, you’ll struggle to align every department. But your tools should work for people, not the other way around.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for planning and tooling. For example, a shorter roadmap might work better if you are an IT company whose work is influenced by new technologies. On the other hand, if your business is in a highly-regulated industry such as healthcare or insurance, a longer roadmap might paint a more accurate picture.
Another misunderstood aspect of agile leadership is documentation. Most documentation is outdated as soon as it’s written, but there is a time and place for it. Successful agile projects have clear and condensed documentation that prioritizes working agreements over tactical frameworks.
5. Good Enough Is Good Enough
Suppose a business wants to sell its products on Instagram and spends three months crafting the perfect Instagram strategy to break in — hiring the right agency, building a list of influencers, developing branded collateral, etc. However, at the end of the quarter, it realizes that most of its prospects have moved to Tik Tok instead. This is not an inconceivable scenario in today’s digital age.
That’s why agile leaders often stress the importance of data in decisions. They understand how critical it is to have ears on the ground and revisit decisions based on updated information. Iterating based on real-time data helps minimize the risk of expensive pivots in the future.
Agile leaders often tout perfection as the enemy of progress. It’s much better to start small, iterate, and optimize rather than aim for the ideal solution.
Agile transformation isn’t a journey seeking perfection but adaptability. You’ll never be completely agile, just as you were never entirely unagile. Whenever one of our clients asks us to be more agile, we don’t start prescribing two-week sprints or 2.5-hour long planning meetings. Ultimately, the goal is to be more responsive to iterative change than you are today. The processes and frameworks are simply tools to enable that.
Good leaders know how to separate the agile theater from its core values and are experts at building high-performing teams with incremental improvements. Remember, you don’t have to be building software to be agile. Agile principles are for all.