An Agile approach to leadership development

The developer stereotype is familiar enough to be a trope at this point: socially isolated brainiacs with little interest in their own or others’ personal growth. And yet one of my greatest insights into leadership development has come from working with software developers. Kate Garmey, a regular thought partner of mine, introduced me to the Agile approach to software development a few years ago with these basic steps:

  1. Take time to gather as much information as possible at the start of your project. Really get to know your clients and the full context in which they work.
  2. Start small. Build small pieces of the project quickly, try them out, tweak them, and try again.
  3. Test your product every step of the way. Expect to fail early and repeatedly.
  4. When the product is delivered to the client, do a retrospective on the process and get feedback.
  5. Commit to continuous improvement. The project is never done.

Agile revolutionized the way software is developed and delivered, and it seemed to me that the same tenets could be very powerful in the world of leadership development. Taking the teachings to heart, I did some more research, a lot of testing, and came up with an Agile approach to leadership development.

  1. Don’t offer off-the-shelf approaches to leadership development. Don’t use the same assessment tools all the time, without regard to the nature of the problem. Take time to really understand the business context and the barriers to success.
  2. Do experiments. Try different ideas and approaches out and be ready to change and customize them quickly.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s the only way you will be bold enough to do really creative work.
  4. Take the time to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. In my experience, failing to reflect is one of the most common mistakes business leaders make.
  5. Continuously look for ways to make a good program even better.

One note of warning — the Agile approach to leadership development is not a one-size-fits-all panacea. Much like with software development, there are situations when an Agile approach won’t offer the best solution, especially if the client is not interested or available to give the frequent feedback this process requires. Some clients may find iteration annoying, or feel that it indicates a lack of expertise or confidence. But for many clients, it’s a highly collaborative and effective way to build something together. And for developers who already use the Agile approach everyday, applying the same logic to professional development can open up huge opportunities for improvement.