Building an agile organization can be daunting for leaders, no matter their tenure and experience. Agile principles often run counter to age-old business approaches, so here are some tips to embrace your new role as an agile leader.
Think Differently About Your Role
Most leaders get promoted because they were very good at whatever they did in their previous role. Subject matter expertise helped you achieve success, but probably failed to prepare you to coach and grow your employees. As an agile leader, your job should focus less (Less! Not zero.) on your domain/department, and more on setting your employees up for success. What obstacles can you remove from their path? What do they need to achieve their goals? And, most importantly, what is the vision they should be striving to make reality?
Set a Clear Vision
Arguably the most important responsibility you have as an agile leader is to set a clear and strategic vision. Your vision should be oriented around customer value (Customers don’t care about increasing your profits, they care about the problems you’re going to solve for them.) and the strengths that set your organization apart from the competition. How will you leverage your business’ unique approach to bring even more value to your customers, to solve new problems for them? How will you know your strategy has succeeded? What will you see and hear and experience? How will success be measured? Paint a clear picture for your employees so they know what future they’re striving for, then let them help plan how to get there.
Change is scary. Make sure you are taking to communicate your vision to all of your employees and peers (and be ready to articulate it again and again and again). This will allow everyone to get comfortable with the direction in which you’re all heading, and will increase the odds that their work will align with the vision. Take the time to explain what experiments you are running, how it aligns with the vision, the value this change will (hopefully) produce, and the expected impact on your employees. Help them to feel informed and included, and alleviate their fears that the changes will be damaging and/or irreversible. Since agile organizations usually rely on continuous improvement, it’s important to avoid change exhaustion by letting employees be part of these experiments and have a voice in how they are executed and prioritized.
Match Your Structure to Your Strategy
A common leadership mistake is to attempt to infuse agile principles into an outdated organizational structure. It would be great if you could think agile without having to change any of your structures and processes! But that is almost never how it works. “Your structure is your strategy,” as agile thinker/philosopher Tom Meloche says, and if your structure is full of silos and hierarchy… so is your strategy. Instead, look at the groups of employees across your business and envision how they could work more seamlessly together, improving the entire value stream rather than a single component. Where are groups closed off from each other? Where are the bottlenecks in your process? Map out the dependencies between your departments and consider how to alleviate them. Center your teams on customer value and empower them to deliver that value.
Collect and Respond to Feedback
Lastly, increase your odds of success by listening intently to feedback from your customers, employees, and peers. Your observations are going to be limited (You are only one person!), but you have many other people who can give you a broader perspective. Find out what was successful about each experiment, what could have gone better, and what you should adjust next time. Don’t be afraid to run variations of the same experiment– no need to throw out a good idea just because you made some mistakes in your first try.
Take-aways: Think of yourself as a supporter and coach more than a subject matter expert, create a clear and strategic vision of the future, look at ways you can improve your org structure to enable agility, communicate early and often to the employees impacted by your change, and collect and respond to feedback as you go.
Questions: Agree? Disagree? How else can leaders support agility in the workplace? What are some pitfalls they should strive to avoid?
Want more information: Some of these topics are discussed in our Leading SAFe Class, but for a much deeper dive, one of our coaches can provide specific strategies to help you become an agile leader by reaching out to us for consulting.