4 Ways to have impact as Agile leader

2022-01-04 Ron Eringa

Modern organizations often find themselves in a position where they are too slow to deal with changing market conditions, global crises and ever-changing customer demands. This increased complexity is turning our workplace more and more into a complex adaptive system, where no one is in full control and no one has complete information.

Frameworks like Scrum and the Agile manifesto are often used to implement new processes, roles and the way work is organized. However, many traditional organizations struggle to adapt their leadership approach:

  1. Not everyone is aware and can accept that their organization has become a complex adaptive system
  2. They keep using rational prediction models rather than empirical approaches
  3. They keep using top-down decision making rather than distributed decision making in self-organized cells that interact with each other 
  4. They fail to understand that self-organization requires self-actualization and therefore a different leadership approach

Self-actualization

The traditional management approach where top-down decisions and processes are used to keep people compliant can be successful in a predictable situation with traditional business models. However, in a complex adaptive system this traditional management approach no longer works. The most important job of a manager in such an environment is to create new leaders in all parts of the organization. A complex adaptive system needs leaders that guide people and teams in their self-actualization process. In this way traditional management responsibilities can gradually shift towards those doing the work.

Abraham Maslow describes that to self-actualize and become the best version of ourselves, we first need to satisfy a few basic needs such as safety, love, belonging and self-esteem. Our job as leader to help people self-actualize starts right after people are employed (when physiological needs and safety needs like job security are met).

4 levels of impact

In a business context there are 4 levels where leaders can create the right preconditions for self-actualization.

Level 1: Leading yourself

Leading yourself, or personal leadership is the ability to take charge of your own life and make the right choices. The greatest project you will ever work on is YOU, after all…

The greatest project you will ever work on is YOU

To be able to lead yourself means that you understand:

  • who you are and what makes you tick
  • how your personal mission is shaped by who you are
  • how to make deliberate choices driven by this mission

In the beginning of my career, I had a few colleagues that suffered from symptoms of overworking, burn-out and pursuing the wrong career path for too long. I think it was because of these examples that I had a raised interest in personal leadership development and self-actualization. All the books, blogs and leadership programs I have absorbed since then revealed a pattern that helped me understand more about myself and my purpose.

Core

In the first stage of my personal leadership journey, I started investigating my qualities, allergies, pitfalls and challenges. With these insights I learned more about who I am, what my values are and what gives me energy. To discover you own Core think about the following questions:

  • What gives me energy?
  • What drains my energy?
  • What are my values?
  • What are my core values?
  • What are my qualities?
  • What are my allergies?
  • What are my pitfalls?
  • What are my challenges?

In this blog you can find more information about discovering your own Core.

Mission

Once I understood my Core I got better in defining what my future should look like and what my personal mission was. To determine your own mission, start with your Core and ask yourself questions like:

  • What is your purpose (personal & work)?
  • What ambitious goal gives you a lot of energy?
  • What would you be doing if you would have unlimited resources?
  • Who inspires me and what can I learn from that person?

Choices

With my Core and Mission defined, I gradually became better at making bold choices. It is so easy to make the wrong career choices and get distracted by external expectations, performance programs, pay rates, competition and status.  Saying yes (and especially saying no!) to a new opportunity is much more satisfying when it is driven by your Core and your Mission.

These questions might help you in making more deliberate choices:

  • What do I need to stop doing?
  • What do I need to start doing?
  • What opportunities do I skip?
  • What challenges do I want to overcome?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How would like to grow?

Level 2: Leading Others

Once I made more deliberate career choices, I started to feel more responsible. However, with this feeling of responsibility also came the urge to solve most of the problems myself. Back then I was a Scrum Master and I noticed that the rest of my team members weren’t developing the same level of self-actualization. The most difficult thing I learned from this was not to solve every problem myself but to involve my team members and transfer this responsibility.

Once I was able to set my ego aside and focus on helping my team members grow, I started to understand what it takes to build great teams. I became a much better leader, once I helped others walk the same path I once did. I learned that the best leaders create more leaders, so that leadership can grow. The good news was that others could use the same pattern for their personal growth…I just had to facilitate them in doing so.

As a leader, ask yourself:

  • do you have enough confidence and skills to help people find their Core and Mission?
  • do people feel enough psychological safety to take deliberate decisions, once they know their Core and Mission?
  • do people have your full support when they make a decision?
  • what do you do when someone’s values are not aligned with those around them?

Later, when I became a manager, I found that it was easy to fall into the same trap of fixing problems and taking most decisions myself again. Especially, because all my management-peers were using the same traditional hero-style leadership approach.

Our trust and ego are often in the way for others to step up: every decision we take ourselves is a missed opportunity for others to feel responsible. As a leader it is our job to provide people with the right boundary conditions to take decisions themselves. Here are a few examples where we applied this in a business context:

  • Owning a budget as a manager creates a lot of responsibility but also a fear of making mistakes. Instead of bearing all this responsibility myself I chose to share it with those doing the work. Once you make an entire team responsible for the budget, they will start looking for confirmation that they invest their time on things that are most valuable for customers. I have seen teams come up with some very creative solutions (…not the typical ones we would come up with ourselves) when budget issues appear.
  • People will only be completely open to be guided in their personal growth when there are no hidden agendas, politics or hierarchical positions in the way. Informal leadership roles like the Scrum Master (provided that they have the right leadership skills) are often a better facilitator of such career conversations, since they are much closer to the people in the teams.
  • One of the most often heard complaints from managers (and myself) is that there are so many meetings to attend. Besides the fact that there are different ways to stay informed it is often also related to our willingness to delegate more responsibilities that keep us from breaking through the soul-sucking meeting culture in organizations. The answer is often quite simple: reserve specific no-meeting slots in your agenda and be careful with recurring meetings, so you have to make more deliberate choices on what meetings to attend and skip (or delegate to others).

Level 3: Leading Teams

The same ‘Core-Mission-Choices’-pattern can be used for teams to self-organize and grow.

Team Core

To help a team define their Core, help them discover:

  • how they can deliver most value to customers
  • what values they all share and how these team values connect to the organization values
  • what team culture they have and how this team culture relates to the organization culture
  • what group dynamics they typically have
  • what qualities, pitfalls and challenges they have as a team
  • what it takes to build psychological safety in the team

Another important leadership responsibility is to understand a team’s culture and dynamics, make them explicit and understand how they relate to the company culture. A team leader needs to understand what factors will contribute to setting up the boundary conditions for a team to self-actualize as a whole.

Team Mission

Once this Core is explicit, the team should be facilitated to define their mission. The team mission should be built upon the shared Core of the combined team members, the organization Core and the product goal, that is defined by the product owner and the stakeholders:

  • Help Product Owners define a Product Vision that is known to all team members
  • How does the team’s Core contribute to accomplish the Product Vision?
  • What mission statement can you craft using the team’s Core and the Product Vision?
  • How does the team mission align with the Organization Mission?

Team Choices

For teams who have just defined their mission it is hard to start making deliberate choices, especially if they operate in an environment that is not used to teams making their own choices. That is why leaders need to support teams in every way they can to backup team decisions, based on an aligned mission and product vision. Once these kind of initiatives appear, leaders need to be ready to give up many of their traditional decision responsibilities, even if at first they might take the wrong decisions. It is the leader’s job to create an environment, safe enough for teams to make mistakes, as long as they learn from them.

Delegating Team Leadership

The first thing I do when being responsible for multiple Agile teams is to make sure that each team has enough internal leaders to help them grow:

  • A Scrum Master that is capable of leading individual team members and entire teams towards self-actualization
  • A Product Owner that is capable of leading stakeholders, team members and customers with a product vision that is aligned with the organization’s purpose
  • Technical leaders that feel responsible for building products\services with the right quality mindset

With these leaders in place, teams can explicitly focus to self-actualize and become the best version of themselves. Very often organizations underestimate these leadership roles and their efforts in helping teams grow.

Level 4: Leading the Organization

In the early days of my career, only teams with complex projects were experimenting with an Agile\Scrum approach. Very often, the more traditional parts of the organization didn’t see the need to work Agile yet. Mostly there were one or two value chains that worked agile, with smaller IT teams and a bunch of stakeholders.

In the last decade the more traditional parts of organizations also realize they are no longer successful with a traditional approach. As a result, the coin has flipped: entire organizations have become a complex adaptive system. With this shift we see a typical problem appear: the leadership and culture of most traditional organizations clashes with the Agile mindset and culture.

At this scale it’s not only middle management that needs a different leadership approach, but we need our corporate leaders to become sponsors of the change. Not surprisingly, corporate leaders can again use the same pattern to self-actualize their entire organization.

Organization Core

Corporate leaders ensure that the Core is used for all decision making. Ask yourself the question:

  • Does every employee (and especially our leaders) believe in the organization Core?
  • Do our customers believe in our organization Core?
  • Do we know what is most valuable for our customers?
  • What cultures do we have in different parts of the organization and are they aligned with this Core?

Organization Mission

Building an organization or corporate mission can be a hard and long journey. It takes a lot of effort and involvement of many leaders in the organization. To develop self-actualized and self-organized leadership, corporate leaders need to make sure that:

  • there is an explicit corporate mission that solves real customer problems
  • all customers know this mission and recognize its added value
  • all teams have aligned their mission with this corporate mission
  • all product roadmaps and strategies are derivative of the corporate mission
  • that all employees know this mission and believe in it

Strategic Organization Decisions

Corporate leadership should make sure that:

  • there is a feedback loop from real customers to make sure that the strategic course and mission are still aligned with the latest needs of customers
  • besides teams, everyone else in the organization takes strategic decisions as a result of the corporate mission
  • once the organization has reached a certain level of self-actualization, the system doesn’t return to a former state (as a result of staff turnover, setbacks or other external factors)
  • they support attempts to make autonomous decisions based on the corporate mission
  • the organization is an ecosystem where people feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them

Applying the pattern at corporate level

In the last decade I have seen many organizations in their early stages to apply this pattern at corporate level. So far, most of them are still in the beginning of this journey or they have only transformed small parts of their organization to work this way. Companies like Netflix (suggested read: ’No Rules Rules’ by Reed Hastings), Pixar (suggested read: ‘Creativity, Inc’ by Ed Catmull) and Buurtzorg Nederland (suggested read: ‘Reinventing Organizations’ by Frederic Laloux) have proved that such an approach can be successful at the corporate level. 

And of course there are many other areas where we can be inspired by great examples of functional complex adaptive systems like ant colonies, neurons in our brains, cells in our immune system and the stock market.

While it is these examples that inspire us to keep pushing the bar forward at the corporate level, we also have to acknowledge the typical issues that prevent us from successfully applying this pattern.

Final reflections

You will probably have recognized the “Core-Mission-Choices”-pattern since it is used by so many leaders out there. Some might also recognize it as Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle”, as it was described in his famous TED talk ….and of course, it is based on the same idea. The only thing I added to this pattern is not only to start with WHY, but also with WHO:

  • First, ask yourself if you have the right leaders to guide the change (WHO)
  • Right from the beginning, engage with these leaders on the reason for the change (WHY)
  • Once we have the Core (WHO + WHY) in place, ask your leaders HOW they can help to change
  • Leave the WHAT to those doing the work. With the right Core they will discover ways to achieve your purpose.

Unfortunately, many agile transformations nowadays start the change in the opposite order:

  • They start with a lot of WHAT decisions: implementing new tools, processes roles, scaling frameworks, etc
  • Then they try to answer HOW to successfully apply these new approaches
  • Once all that is in place, they try to find and motivate the people (WHO) to buy into the reason for the change (WHY)

This leadership development pattern in this blog explains how to create leadership on all levels of the organization.

It is so much harder to lead others if you don’t understand how to lead yourself. The more we can lead yourself at level 1, the better we can lead others, teams and organizations. As we develop our capability to lead at all 4 levels, we will get more comfortable to work in the complex adaptive system that our modern workplace has turned into.

Want to learn more?

  • ln this blog I explained how I’ve used Core Qualities to help people, teams and organizations to discover their Core.
  • The book ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ by Steven Covey and this mission Statement builder can help you make you values and mission more explicit
  • This iMission (iPhone) app by Dutch leadership expert Remco Claassen is another great way to find your personal mission through values

Ron Eringa

Ron’s mission is to create organizations where people love to work and create value to the world. As trainer for Scrum.org, writer and frequent speaker he is enthusiastic about leadership development. Ron has helped many organizations to develop learning journeys for their Agile Professionals. Founder of Agile Leadership School.

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