Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Leading Agile organisations: Competencies leaders need to make the shift

It is evidenced by the big four management consultancies, that the strategic benefits of adopting Agile methods, organisational-wide, promises increased speed to market, giving companies the advantage over the competition when it comes to innovation and getting their products and services into the hands of customers.

The data also suggest that Agile organisations are more likely to stay relevant to the market while flexing to the rapidly changing macro-external environment and meeting the needs of the new generations entering the workforce.

The Versionone ‘State of Agile Survey’, the 2018 global, multi-sector annual survey of around 1,500 responders into enterprise agility has indexed the top five benefits of realising Agile adoption. The top five benefits include — increased ability to manage changing priorities (71%), project visibility (66%), business/IT alignment (65%), delivery speed/time to market (62%), and increased team productivity and team morale (61%). Overall, there is an increasing shift in boardroom conversations towards Agile, as leaders agree becoming a more adaptable and innovative organisation is a strategic imperative, if they want to survive.

Why Agile is challenging to scale

The Agile Manifesto sets out four common values that are widely adopted in the ecosystem. They have been translated by McKinsey into the ‘5 Trademarks of agile organisations’ including 25 practices for organisations wishing to transform. However, even with all the latest thinking and documentation on how to shift to more Agile ways of working, many organisations are still struggling to scale Agile. More than half of organisations (53%) state this is because the current organisational culture is at odds with Agile values (Versionone).

If you read my last article on ‘How to build a creative and inclusive culture’, you will understand that culture arises from beliefs and underlying assumptions held by leaders and employees across the organisation. Therefore, theoretically learning about how to implement Agile, or achieving acceptance from the Board to kick-off a new organisational design programme will not affect people’s beliefs.

According to an article, citing a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review of nearly 3,000 executives, 70% of enterprise transformations fail. Failure is not because leaders under-plan or underplay the change initiative — but because the conversation, and the transformation needed to start with them!

Few leaders would disagree with the notion that an Agile culture transformation should start with leadership culture, but because of a) their own eagerness to demonstrate the business case, b) unrealistic timeframes, c) unrealistic promises, d) wanting the change to start everywhere else but with them, d) other internal or external pressures, few take the additional time required to set up the change for success by reflecting the mirror upon themselves. The issue, apart from the obvious waste of time, resources, effort, fatigue, loss of confidence and commercial impact is that unsatisfactory results can be avoided if leaders took accountability for their transformation by recognising Agile is first and foremost a mindset.

Agile leadership needs a new type of leader

According to Scrum Alliance, Agile is a mindset:

“Agile is a mindset, a way of work that allows product creators to easily adjust to stakeholder and user needs. The Agile mindset was built on the need to foster innovation, and to foster workplaces that support and promote innovation.”

Any organisation aiming to adopt organisational-wide Agile values and practices successfully, needs a fundamentally different type of leadership. The most successful way to effectively and sustainably shift the organisation to take on more Agile methods is to transform current behaviours by going underneath to understand the mindsets, beliefs and habitual thinking patterns that are currently embedded in the culture and shift leaders to a new way of operating.

Shifting from reactive to creative mind-sets

Leaders need to be supported to shift their current mindset and transform behaviours to one that embodies Agile values and agile ways of working that can ripple out across the organisation. For a leader to foster values such as: commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect (Scrum Guide) they need to shift their internal operating mode and style of leadership from one that is ‘reactive’ to one that is ‘creative’ (Robert J Anderson and William A Adams, Scaling Leadership).

As referenced by McKinsey: “Reactive, or socialised, mindsets are an outside-in way of experiencing the world based on reacting to circumstances and other people. Creative, or self-authoring, mindsets are an inside-out way of experiencing the world based on creating our reality through tapping into our authentic selves, our core passion and purpose.”

Reactive mindsets lead to reactive leadership styles that have been built up by living up to the expectations of others, the culture and society at large. Leaders have learnt by the societal rules and play by them and then build their identity, self-worth and security around them. These leaders define themselves by the outside-in, externally validating themselves in one of three ways, through their relationships, intellect or by the results they achieve. This is categorised in the Leadership Circle Profile as the three summary reactive dimensions: Complying, Protecting and Controlling. There are 11 reactive tendencies in total, all of which are based on limiting assumptions and behaviours that result in fear of rejection, being risk-averse, indecisive and compliant — all of which are not conducive for an agile environment. The more leaders fear failure; the more leaders are likely to fail to delegate, collaborate, build teamwork and allow others to engage in meaningfully and creatively (Robert J Anderson and William A Adams), negatively correlating to leadership effectiveness and business performance.

The transition to a creative mindset or inside-out mode of operating happens as a result of the leader shedding the old reactive assumptions and beliefs that had been socialised into them by realising the nature of the inside-out experience. This can be assessed by scoring highly on 18 creative-level competencies of a leader’s Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) 360.

As leaders transition, they let go of the belief that their worth and value are tied up with how they are seen, how smart or accepted they are by cultural expectations. They become more open to experimentation, self-authoring, courageous and self-organising where self-expression and collaboration become the new internal guiding principles.

Overall, creative competency has a strong correlation (.93 — perfect correlation is 1.0) to the measure of leadership effectiveness based on over 500,000 leaders worldwide. Creative and innovative leaders are internally and externally balanced and are both people and performance orientated; they tend to share power and decision-making allowing for rapid progress. The focus becomes high-performance through teamwork and self-development which opens the door for more Agile ways of working.

In summary

Agile leadership can be realised by transitioning leaders to fully embrace their creative competencies by letting go of old reactive tendencies. This is the minimum level required to create lean, engaged, innovative, creative, agile, high-involvement, high-fulfilment, organisations that can evolve their organisational designs and cultures so to thrive.

The sad fact is, according to the LCP data, only 20% of leaders are operating out of their creative mind. To kick start a successful Agile transformation, and level up our leaders a few percentage points, here’s what you can do:

  • Recognise: The first step is to help leaders recognise their current beliefs and behaviours individually and collectively through an individual and collective 360 so that they can see how these are inhibiting the organisation’s transformation to Agile.
  • Immerse: Then, once committed to undergoing the personal transformation required for the future Agile culture, undertake an experiential group intervention and coaching to shift mindsets to an inside-out way of experiencing and operating. It’s the quickest way I know to create personal transformation and therefore sustained organisational change.
  • Implement: Once the groundwork has been undertaken, you will find there will be less resistance and more commitment to implementing new Agile frameworks, processes and ways of working.

However you go about shifting the organisation to Agile, start with the leaders. Organisations give up or get stuck on how to implement Agile, and it is not always because Agile methodologies are not right for them, it’s because they’re not going deep enough to understand what’s driving the mindsets and behaviours that are getting in the way.

About FastCEO

We help our clients realise the human experience through powerful and immersive experiences that shift mindsets and transform behaviours while focusing on solving leadership and business challenges.

We do this through a range of immersive and experiential leadership programmes, 121 intensives, 360 and cultural reviews, culture development and innovation workshops.

We aim to strengthen the existing value-chain, working with angel investors, venture capitalist firms, business-focused accelerators and established organisations to support the growth of the UK economy.