Agile Leadership in times of crisis

Lars Rosengren
Jun 26 · 4 min read

Agile is typically associated with more effective management of software projects. However, the principles and mindset from the Agile manifesto makes it relevant beyond this context.

In particular in times of crisis, as we are currently experiencing, taking an Agile approach to leadership is more relevant than ever. In this article, I want to provide perspective on some of these principles and why they are essential to modern leadership.

Aikido
Aikido

Embrace change

“Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”

Over the past couple of months, the most fundamental lesson is to embrace change. Of course this may be slightly more manageable on a project or individual product level. Nevertheless, it is possible to make this a core leadership principle for how we operate our business. Covid19 is unlikely to be the only turbulent change we will experience even in this coming decade.

To embrace change does not mean that we can predict and protect ourselves from future change. Rather, it’s about operating with the mindset that we have clear focus on our goals (or desired outcomes), but we accept that the world is turbulent and we maintain flexibility in how we reach our goals. We intentionally set ourselves up to be flexible, adapt quickly and continuously learn.

Trust & motivation

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

Many companies are set up like fortresses, trying to protect their secret sauce from the “outside”. This often results in a default mistrust in people and any tools or ways of working outside the scope of what has been centrally approved are frowned upon.

Not only does this typically slow down innovation and effective work, but the lack of trust and motivation in your teams has additional negative impact on the outcomes we work towards.

Also, in the current context, we have seen many large companies struggling to adapt to remote ways of working, because it was never encouraged before. We definitely have all the tools and ways of working available to us, to make it a fairly smooth transition to work from anywhere, but not unless it’s aligned with trusting our teams and providing them what they need to stay motivated and engaged in their work.

Sustainable work

“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

Beyond Covid, it is more relevant than ever to think about “what makes a sustainable business?”, not just in environmental terms (although that is a fundamental component).

There are definitely businesses that will struggle to operate in the present context, due to the dependency on physical space and in-person interactions.
Nevertheless, it is worth considering how could I keep my business sustainable, under extreme conditions.

We have seen some positive examples, to protect people in essential roles in society, so that we can still get food, health care etc. However, there are also cases when the leadership has been less sustainably minded, e.g. forcing their teams to come to work despite explicit risks, jeopardising customers’ safety. Although that may be what is necessary to keep the business afloat in the short run, it is likely that will have longer term repercussions.

Here, in the mindset of Agile, we should keep focus on our teams working with reasonable expectations and getting the best support they can, so that the work can become more sustainable over time.

Likewise, in times of crisis, it may be wise to consider how you set reasonable expectations on your team and customers, and how to support them in the best way you can, in order to sustain business over time.

Self organising teams

“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

At the very least in work related to digital design and development, it has been apparent that this is the make or break of a team during Covid.

Trust always has its limits, but if we start with trust as the foundation, rather than mistrust, we have a solid foundation to operate on in times of turbulence.

In order to maintain a degree of control, some of the other Agile principles i.e. short, continuous delivery, measurement of real results could provide some support. A fundamental mindset in Agile is that we reduce risk, by making the stakes smaller, and thus it’s easier to trust our teams.

Continuous reflection and improvement

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

There is never one recipe that fits every possible situation. This is also why Agile was articulated as a set up principles, rather than a toolkit and process to be followed to the letter.

As you lead with and Agile mindset, it’s important to aim to continuous learning and improvement. This can be done by frequently soliciting feedback and reflecting on how the work is progressing, the quality of the work, etc. We won’t fix every possible problem, but with a healthy degree of prioritisation, we make gradual adjustments and refine as we go along. It is remarkable what you can achieve with many small, positive changes over time.

Extreme conditions, such as the current pandemic, is an opportunity to reflect on and challenge our assumptions about how we lead and operate. An Agile approach to leadership may not provide a complete answer, but could certainly be good foundation to help us respond in a world of continued uncertainty.

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