Pivoting to Agile Leadership through Decision Making - Discuss Agile

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Pivoting to Agile Leadership through Decision Making

Companies world-wide are adding Agile methods in an effort to gain greater agility and responsiveness to complexity and disruption. No one knows how many coaches there are but you will find some in almost every IT department. Steve Denning reports that Scrum Alliance has certified around 300 Scrum trainers and there is around 700,000 Certified Scrum Masters world-wide. Many big firms have Agile coaches but don’t bother with certification. The quality of Agile varies from high to ‘fake Agile’, which amounts to using the vocabulary but not the mental attitude or understanding. In Steve’s words: “It’s a bit like asking how many firms in the world are being well managed?”

Agile methods will not lead to the mindset required without an intentional step up a level or two in awareness, self-discipline and know-how. Otherwise it is too easy to try to sell Agile to traditional management resulting in escalating resistance.

Traditional managers are being confronted by the addition of a disruptive force to the ‘way things are done around here. Out of the need for more rapid response, Agile methods arerapidly being adopted as a short cut to achieving faster speed to market. Introducing an approach that places people ahead of process creates a collision with the underlying belief in traditional decisions making that capital assets are more important than people.

Several more factors escalate tension between Agile and traditional management.
In traditional management hierarchies, decision-making is centralized in positions of authority; a liability in today’s complex world. Agile is about cooperation and collaborative teamwork, using rapid iterations. Failure is a valued part of the process to arrive at a viable product. Power is distributed to the team. Management can be invited to experience the difference but the teams effectively manage themselves when functioning at a performance level. Agile imposed on traditional management triggers fear of losing power defined as having control over others. The fear impairs decision-making, from a brain science point of view, and it all goes downhill from there. Once the fight-flight part of the brain has been triggered, Agile is viewed as a threat. All attention goes to managing, meaning controlling,the threat.

  • Making the Leadership Pivot: Agilists prepared to close the gap and convert the tension into a positive for the entire organization can work with management by starting with discovery first, so everyone knows the situation from both perspectives. Discover is a set of questions that are posed with the genuine intent to understand. They include questions like: What assumptions are we making? What can we do to build trust in the situation? What is the cost of not building trust? Gaining shared clarity on the value of cooperating to achieve success, however defined, turns cost savings proposals for instance,into holding mutual benefit for management reputation and workplace health. Leading with an open mind and keen awareness is key.

Traditional management is driven by profit so there is always an underlying fear of failing to meet quarterly targets, or not achieving status inside the power hierarchy. Low trust is inherent in the system as is ‘tell-sell’, and if that doesn’t create results then ‘yell’. Introducing Agile often activates exactly the same response from Agilists who try to sell the benefits of Agile. Explaining the benefits will not convert management minds to either accept or embrace Agile. The opposite occurs. Selling or explaining the wonders of Agile can create the resistance you are trying to avoid. When you detect resistance, step back and shift both perspective and approach.

  • Making the Leadership Pivot: Place the opportunity for faster results as a joint effort when ever possible. Observe the situation from a distance to gain clarity on what is triggering resistance, then try something new. Offer proposals that speak to the profit motivation, while redirecting focus to the role of people in achieving profit. Though it sounds obvious that people power performance, in traditional hierarchies decisions are not made with the impact on people or customers in mind. Shift the focus from the negative (cutting costs) to the positive, such as generating cost savings, which is a far more brain friendly approach.

The skills it takes to tell someone what to do are no where near as sophisticated as the skills required to create psychological safety when entering new territory. In this case, new territory is defined by Agile and the openness to work with short term feedback loops. As you take small steps to build confidence in working together, momentum will build. Wisely, using the social and emotional feedback from the working relationship will strengthen speed and results.

Dawna works with progressive early adopter decision-makers to create growth oriented workplaces and conscious leaders. A speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Decision Making for Dummiesand contributed a chapter on the new purpose of business to ‘The Intelligence of the Cosmos” by Ervin Laszlo. She coaches leaders and coaches on the nuances of transforming mindsets, awareness and leadership and runs advanced master classes on decision-making for complexity. Dawna hosts the Insight to Action podcast for business innovators and is working on a Virtual Reality experience for removing stigma to depression while developing skills. Contact her through www.FromInsightToAction.com and LinkedIn.

Other Q & As from the session

Some managers don’t want to risk trusting the team possibly feeling their reputation is at risk. How to work with such managers who are under business pressure to perform?
Not surprisingly this is a challenging area requiring a certain amount of experimentation to discover what will work best given the emotion and the pressure everyone is under. Empathy is key. Managers are not trying to sabotage your efforts. They are, as you noted, under pressure and so pass it on. Traditional management focuses on minimizing risk. So do entrepreneurs but instead of being risk adverse, entrepreneurs calculate risk in relation to benefit. Recently a manager asked me if what I was proposing had ever been done before. I replied no. His response… “Then we cannot fail”. Exactly. Not all will respond to the opportunity to enhance their reputation through leadership but if their ambitions are to increase status, risk of failing must be put in the context of how to avoid failure. Iterations to adjust to feedback reality provides, are central to achieving viability. Build a bridge from the familiar to the new to make engagement and support easy. In my work coaching Agile coaches, experiments take the form off how to communicate without creating resistance, how to clear your own triggers so someone else’s fear does not become yours and what stance to adopt to optimize safety so that the conversation builds trust, not division. These are your goals as a coach.

Are there any specific metrics for executives to convince them on a growth mindset?
Yes, there are but they seem to be all over the literature. Probably this first section of this will help. Key benefits are resilience – higher performance after setbacks, greater capacity for self-regulation and control which is critical in dynamic tense conditions for decision-making. Keep in mind that if management is mentally fixed on their beliefs, providing data may increase conviction of their belief. Try conveying the value of a growth mindset without sounding like you are selling it. Always stay focused on the goal, not on the person so that there is less chance of perceiving learning and growth as a threat to certainty and stability.

How to convince senior management to move to Agile?
If you aim to convince them, you will likely create resistance. Casually, invite management down to observe what you are doing. Ask for their input. Make it informal and social so that there is no threat to authority implied in what Agile stands for. Creating safety and openness is the first goal.

How to convince executives to buy-in to Agile where there is apprehension?
As noted above, do not try to convince them especially where there is apprehension. You will only confirm the underlying fear. Use your results, invite their contribution- make it non-threatening. Observe whether apprehension is increasing or decreasing. If it is increasing, change approach. If it is decreasing, you are getting the feedback that says you are on the right track.

Should leadership move to Agile leadership before teams move?
Teams can lead. Leadership may follow. Leaders can lead; teams may follow. Keep in mind that much ‘leadership’ at the top is really confused by the idea that if you are in a position of authority you are a leader. There is no linear logical ‘right’ way to move forward. Aim to move forward without leaving anyone behind which means avoid judging those who do not see the value immediately. Keep the door open for someone to change his or her mind.

Are stability and agility two opposite poles?
Great question which leads to shifting perception (an agile skill set). Hierarchies are designed for stability, certainty and predictability. Agility, with or without Agile, is more fluid way of getting things done through trust and engagement. Uncertainty and complexity demand an iterative approach because plans simply don’t work as many of you may have noticed. Reality rarely respects nicely laid out plans so agility through working with uncertainty can generate stability but in a different form… in the form of rapid response to emerging conditions. So while stability is a product of a hierarchical command and control structure complexity is pushing a change to how stability is achieved. Stability is achieved through agility not through attempting to control the uncontrollable.

Flexibility in communication is useful to take differences in view, explore them, then bring the ideas together into a shared goal. The feedback does indeed improve team and leaders rapidly. Great observations from the notes.

How to impose Agile when the organization is owner-driven or CEO driven?
Don’t impose. Ever. Introduce with a solid rationale (why are we doing this-what does it mean for us all), then experiment. Learn. Adjust. Imposing works against success100% of the time.

Should we discard all practices in search of agility?
I will start by distinguishing Agile mindset from agility. Agility can be achieved through many ways. Self-organized designs, adapting metrics and performance management to reward teams and take the focus off of controlling behaviour to creating the conditions where contribution is supported. Discard practises that limit agility. Keep the ones that support and create value. Experiment in iterations to find out what the effect is. If you are working intuitively and have a solid knowledge of social interactions and human dynamics, you will select high leverage decisions, meaning you will gain greater agility through fewer steps.

How can we present a business case of Agile mindset to Leadership- how to start as a change agent and bring it in companies culture?
This is an article title on its own so I will write something for the HuffPo Great Workplace Cultures in this months post. Watch LinkedIn for the link. Meanwhile, you may take inspiration from a program I recently did with a company in Norway who got rid of budgeting. Listen to how they implemented the process and you’ll gain ideas on how to introduce change without creating resistance.

How can this be implemented especially in startups where there are less number of people and no agile coach?
Take a look at the many ways companies are self-organizing through different governance models. I put a list of the podcasts I’ve done on my site here. Even small companies can go to command and control where personal proficiency is low.

Questions I am not qualified to answer:
Is Agile leadership from service different from agile leadership from a product development background?
When do we need to use agile methodology?
How can this be implemented especially in startups where people are less in number and no agile coach?

Because Traditional Manager is not a Technical its Okay, but in Agile / DevOps we should have knowledge in Automation

Does Agile Manager need to equip Technical Skills?
How important to get customer buy in to implement agile?

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