27th July 2021 | Peter Amor
How applicable is agile leadership within a traditional organisational structure?
“Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you are going to fail at everything.” – Marilyn Monroe
History has shown through all endeavours, be it in business, sport or academics, that those who are able to adapt to change and remain open to new ideas are the most likely to achieve continuous success. What does it take to be adaptable? Is there a mindset that fosters easy adaptation? Another word for adaptability is agility, and increasingly we see the concepts of agile management, agile organisations and agile leadership rising in prominence as a business practice to foster adaptability to drive growth and continued success (Goldstein, 2019).
Recent events have demonstrated that the rules and the circumstances of the business environment can quickly dramatically change. Those businesses that adapt the fastest are the ones that can take the fullest advantage of a situation.
Through a growth mindset that facilitates business agility it is possible to navigate all circumstances and continue to thrive. The challenge in most business scenarios is the need to adhere to structures and rules. Moreover, there are regulatory and compliance requirements that must be met. The structures of hierarchical or matrix-style organisations, that have long existed, provided a basis for business success. Large multinational public companies must comply with multiple regulatory requirements and are answerable to numerous stakeholders, not least of which are the shareholders. It is necessary to have the right level of management, quality checks, processes and controls to ensure business is operated in a compliant and sustainable way.
My supposition is that, whilst there needs to be a level of autocracy and hierarchy to provide structure, in the broader organisation an individual unit can take advantage of an agile approach.
Within the overarching framework is it possible to conform whilst being flexible enough to operate individual business units agilely to take advantage of the talent, ingenuity and drive available? How can this be achieved particularly given there will be certain factors beyond the control of any leader? Is it possible to set the balance between structural integrity and where autonomy can be maintained?
My position is that agility without structure leads to chaos. A well-defined structure provides the boundaries under which a team and organisation can adapt. Structure without the flexibility to adapt over the long term can lead to failure. The tenets of agile leadership are applicable inside a structured environment.
Having a growth mindset, focusing on the requirements of the customer first, teams networked and collaborating, and fast decision-making can be an effective leadership style at a team, group or division level.
Microsoft’s transformation under CEO Satya Nadella is a widely cited example of a large company embracing agile leadership. Nadella realised the transformation needed to come from within Microsoft and “job one was to build hope”. To do this Nadella set clear objectives to “drive cultural change top to bottom” and to “communicate clearly and regularly”, ensuring the vision was linked to the culture.
Mindset became an important aspect whereby Nadella declares: “I think of culture as a complex system made up of individual mindsets.” By focusing on having the right mindset, solutions to “delight customers” and driving “execution with urgency” Microsoft demonstrated that agile leadership can be applied to large, complex organisations supported by a well-defined structure.
Agility at scale needs to be a ground-up movement that starts with agile leadership. The agile leader should be able to clarify the boundaries of the structure and then espouse the culture of the team based on a clear direction, a focus on achieving success, clear and open communication and creating an environment of empowerment with the emotional safety that enables constantly trying new things whilst quickly learning and adapting to meet the end goal.
It is possible to apply the rules and define a structure whilst adapting quickly to achieve the highest level of success. Being agile starts with agile leadership that permeates the mindset and culture of the team and can be applied in a broad operational context. Even with a large, complex and highly structured organisation such as SAP, agile tenets can be followed with a leader who is willing to adopt an agile approach.
The focus of my research project will be understanding what makes an agile leader and their ability to create and manage an agile organisation. What are the specific characteristics, cultural traits and mindset that define an agile leader and what makes them different? I investigate whether it is possible for an agile leader to create an organisation that can co-exist in a more traditional autocratic and hierarchical organisation, such as SAP. By understanding the core modus operandi of any agile organisation, I seek to determine how both agile and more traditional leadership methods can coexist through a practical understanding of what it takes to best implement an agile leadership approach.
Aims and objectives
SAP has evolved around a matrix style organisational setup as a means to manage the complexity between different lines of business, different functions with different roles and responsibilities. This is combined with the respective hierarchy and delegation of authority along each reporting line. The intended benefit is allowing the different business and functional areas to collaborate with each other and support the diverse needs of the business.
As outlined by (Hesselberg, 2018) the key drawback with a matrix organisation is “that employees are supervised by multiple managers at once…. Employees in matrix structures often report feeling conflicted and confused regarding which priorities to follow.”
Often the conflict is there for a reason. Teams are on opposing axes of the matrix to ensure that each is keeping the other in balance. In my experience this can have the positive effect of keeping the tension between different priorities; the sales team intent on winning the new opportunity whilst the delivery team focus on what is practical and feasible. The sales teams motivate the delivery team to find solutions whilst the delivery team focuses the sales team on the most viable solution without one priority dominating the other.
A leader must see the external opportunities and the internal capability and culture, and all of the connections among them and respond to them before they become obvious parts of the conventional wisdom– Satya Nadella
The downside is it can create tension between the two parties which can be difficult, and time consuming, to resolve through multiple stakeholders. This can have a detrimental impact on the opportunity and the customer through the time it takes to resolve and the additional complexity.
It is possible for matrix organisations to be agile as seen by the example of Spotify (Ratanjee & Dvorak, 2018) where “building a culture of collaboration is crucial” to the creation of an agile matrix-based structure. So how to find the right balance? The key areas outlined in Mastering Matrix Management in the Age of Agility (Ratanjee & Dvorak, 2018) are the importance of leadership in creating the right culture. Not having the right culture in place “can be a strong impediment to realizing the benefits of organizational agility” (Ratanjee & Dvorak, 2018).
This perspective resonated strongly with me particularly regarding the idea of building a “culture of collaboration” and “one that is customer-focused”. Potential conflicts across the matrices can be effectively managed if everyone is focused on the customer first whilst working in an open and collaborative manner. Setting priorities allows for agility to adapt with the customer in mind and collaboration as the foundation.
My supposition is that whilst there needs to be a level of autocracy and hierarchy from a broader organisational perspective, an individual unit can take advantage of a more agile organisational approach. Large multinational public companies have to comply with multiple regulatory requirements and are answerable to numerous stakeholders, not least of which are the shareholders. It is necessary to have a structure that provides the right governance, quality checks, processes and controls to ensure business is operated in a compliant and sustainable way.
Within the framework is it possible to conform and be flexible to operate individual units agilely to take advantage of the team’s talent, ingenuity and drive? If so, then how, particularly given there will be certain factors beyond the control of the leader of the agile organisation? Is it possible to find the balance between conformity to the broader organisational operating requirements and organisational autonomy?
I believe that agile provides a foundation for harnessing the best of the team through providing an environment that empowers them to take responsibility and to have the autonomy to make decisions. Through harnessing a team’s capabilities and maximising the potential enables faster adaptation to better serve the end customer’s requirements. I am a strong advocate of serving the customer and being a servant leader who acts to the benefits of the customer through building strong individuals into a strong team.
Accordingly, I focused my research on how the agile leader can position themselves and continue to grow whilst also conforming to and maximising the structures in which they operate. Do the characteristics, skills and attributes an agile leader possess change once they have a broader role and a greater responsibility for necessary organisational structures?
The basis for my research was that of an Insider Researcher. Given the nature of my research is focused on the people that make up an organisation, their traits and mindset, I have undertaken my investigation using ethnography (Walford, 2009). Through ethnography I could be both an observer and a participant which allowed me to include an important auto-ethnographic element.
The approach to data collection was a mixture of internal investigation, external investigation, broader research and my own experience. Particularly for the internal and external investigations, I structured my research on a set of standard questions. Based on the responses, I endeavoured to identify the similarity and differences so as to best analyse how different people were able to adopt agile leadership and the impact it had on their business and their teams.
The key components of my research were:
- Internal. A series of interviews with a cross-section of people.
o My Team
o Team members in my line of business
o Leaders across SAP, particularly other lines of business.
- External. I identified leaders from other organisations who had demonstrated through new business, economic crisis and changing circumstances to have a clear growth mindset and agile leadership qualities.
- Industry Research. There are a number of technology firms that have been able to demonstrate agility whilst operating in large, complex, multinational and regulated environments.
The approach for the qualitative research I adopted were based on three methods (Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2020): in-depth interviews, observation, and focus-group discussions.
All the interviewees were familiar to some degree with the concepts of Agile Leadership. They largely understood what Agile Leadership entailed and the core principles. What was mentioned frequently was a level of scepticism on the practicality and a concern for the ability to apply Agile Leadership in real business scenarios. This point was particularly relevant in relation to how Agile Leadership could be applied at SAP.
The concepts of Agile Leadership were considered great in theory but a lot more difficult to follow through practically, especially in larger, more complex organisations. There are many articles on what is agile and the benefits of agility. There tend to be gaps in relation to case studies of how agile leadership can practically be adopted – the most stated effective method to change to agile being through changing behaviours that impact mindset to create a different culture (Goldstein, 2019) – but it is difficult to gain insight on how this was achieved so other organisations can do similarly as discussed during an interview: “With agile leadership you’ve got to find the right people with the right power to really agree what we need to create this and then govern it properly. There is a whole cadence and structure to ensure right sponsorship, cross socialising, provide assistance where needed and actively managed.”
Having a growth mindset, focusing on the requirements of the customer first, teams networked and collaborating, and fast decision-making can be an effective leadership style at a team, group or division level.
Need for structure
Autonomy and freedom are not the same. Autonomy allows for self-management within an agreed framework that provides an element of freedom without leading to problems from a lack of control. It is necessary to put some structure and boundaries around an organisation. Agile without boundaries can lead to chaos as this interviewee observed: “Once you don’t have the stability in what you are doing you lose focus.”
The idea of autonomous units working independently but collaboratively is not an unusual approach. The concept of organisations evolving from “machines” to “organisms” was a theme of the McKinsey study (Aghina, et al., 2018) that outlined the nature of agile organisations and the requirement for structure as a trademark. What the interviewees considered important is finding the balance between the level of autonomy that allows for independent action against necessary checks and balances aligned to corporate requirements.
By ensuring a well-defined and understood structure an agile leader can build resilience into the organisation. Resilience enables consistent long-term performance which can be effectively managed through flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
Communication and transparency
When it came to how to adopt agile leadership the idea of constant and open communication that provided transparency was considered critical by the interview participants: “Providing communication and transparency that things will adapt and evolve is important so people can prepare and find a way to be successful without disruption. Communication skills are critical to be able to guide people through uncertainty.”
Never been a subscriber to fail fast. Has negative connotations. Prefer to learn fast and adapt accordingly.
Agile leadership conceptually is relatively new, and not necessarily widely adopted, creating a level of uncertainty associated with its application. The lack of understanding can lead to distrust and cynicism which can have an impact on the robustness of the team and the ability to be flexible. There was a point of view that this perception can be looked at another way when it comes to members of the organisation: “We underestimate our employee base and the resilience and the ability to adapt. Our people can adapt and can perform and succeed with so much thrown at them. Sometimes we don’t give them the credit they deserve.” Given that agility is built around the power of individuals and their ability to collaborate to foster ideas, open and clear communication is essential.
Mindset and behaviours
Underlying agile leadership success is fostering the adoption of a growth mindset that drives the right behaviours. The perception is having a growth mindset makes you an agile leader (Denning, 2019). A growth mindset is at the core of agile leadership, but leadership styles can vary regardless of the level of flexibility. It is the behaviours of the individuals personified in the behaviour of the leader that ultimately determine success. The types of behaviours and how they are embodied by a leader defines the culture.
One overarching concern with agile leadership is the right balance between building a business versus immediate business challenges. The following statement is indicative of a commonly held point of view: “The problem with the agile method is you need a lot of patience for what isn’t working as much as what is. In the business world, especially in leadership, you can lose patience and you don’t get the opportunity to be a builder very often. You’ve got to be an executioner.”
This was further highlighted by another similar perspective: “Focus on quarterly results is not strategic. Agile projects need to be designed in a strategic context but executed in an agile tactical way; directly relating their impact to quarterly results is always a challenge.”
Such considerations are true when you consider agile leadership at a macro level across organisations or projects. To address this challenge, I focused on a model of key elements built around a structured foundation that drives leadership behaviours (Figure 1).
The key element at the nucleus of “The Agile Leadership Model” methodology is the need for structure. Structure forms the foundation on which the agile team can function and ensure there is a level of normality and control. The structure provides the boundaries but also provides commonality – allowing for minimisation of complexity and to focus on achieving the purpose through delivering solutions.
A structured environment can be an asset when it comes to applying agile leadership if a leader can utilise the structure to the benefit of the organisation. The leader is at the core of the model, not as the controller or the governor but as a facilitator and orchestrator who embodies the right behaviours and embraces the four agile leadership elements demonstrated through servant leadership.
By providing a clear structure a leader is able to define an environment the enables agility through fostering autonomy, responsibility, learning and decision making. Structure provides the foundation and should incorporate the following:
- Standards. By setting standards there is a common method for interaction and working. This approach reduces the friction between teams and provides for concentration on core activities.
- Process. Clearly defined and articulated processes for repetitive tasks help reduce distraction. Processes that everyone knows how to follow help to keep the team functioning and adhering to mandatory rules without impeding progress. Keeping the processes as simple as possible allows for adaptation to fit changing requirements.
- Governance. In agile leadership the focus for individuals and teams should be on self-governance. As part of the responsibility and autonomy inherent in the approach is ensuring they understand the rules, processes and standards and adhere accordingly.
Complexity will always exist particular in large organisations or highly regulated industries, in which case an agile leader is responsible to ensure the structure is well understood and remove as much friction and restriction as possible. This point was highlighted during one of my discussions: “Leaders should give the team more external-facing, more strategic guidance attuned to the corporate direction. Leaders embrace the structure, but it is incumbent on the whole team to utilise the structure as its intended foundation.”
What is the team direction? What is the culture? What is defined as the “north star” that the team will focus on achieving? These are all important questions to be answered to be sure the organisation has a purpose. By having a clear purpose, the end goal will always be the focus. When defining the purpose a number of aspects that should be considered:
- Clear vision. The vision provides insight into your priorities as a leader and succinctly outlines the direction you wish to proceed. When defining the vision it is important that is clear and well understood. To have the right impact a vision should also be compelling to create engagement (Rice, 2020). The vision ultimately identifies the path whilst enabling flexibility to define the journey.
- Culture. The right culture will be based on a growth mindset. By having the right culture in place actions and behaviours follow suit.
- Customer focus. Ultimately, having a purpose is about execution and delivering results. By focusing on the customer as the ultimate beneficiary of the work ensures a clear sense of direction. A commonly held conviction from a number of interviewees: “Customer success is our north star that must be the focus of our endeavours or else risk distraction by internal issues. I believe if we make customer satisfaction our priority it removes confusion on what are the right activities for the team to focus on.”
There are a number of perspectives on the elements at the foundation of my research. Given this diversity of thought, it is important to provide definitions as a basis of my research.
Agile – “able to move quickly and easily” (Oxford Learning Dictionaries, n.d.). This gets to the essence of my research. What stands out in this definition is “easily”. At times moving can seem to be done “quickly” without realising the effort required. If the amount of effort required impacts the timing, it also impacts the effectiveness of the move. Both aspects of pace and ease need to be present for agility to exist. In the context of business, the following definition is applicable “… the time and place of work, and the roles that people carry out, can all be changed according to need, and the focus is on the goals to be achieved, rather than the exact methods used.” (Oxford Learning Dictionaries, n.d.).
Agile Leadership is the ability to create an environment that encourages innovation through fostering decentralised decision making, experimentation, iterative success and variation to achieved target outcomes and results. Forbes defines it as “emphasize searching out opportunities, finding solutions through rapid experimentation, and achieving agility through decisiveness. By drawing on the full talents of those doing the work, firms generate continuous new value for customers, thus creating a virtuous circle of value creation” (Denning, 2018).
Agile Management tends to focus on the tools, techniques and processes that make up agile software development methodologies. Defined by the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” (Beck, et al., 2001) and the 12 principles, it is less about the qualities of the individuals or the teams, but focuses on what form management takes to be considered agile. Given it focuses on individuals, results, the customer and adaptability to change, it is consistent with the attributes of agile leadership.
Agile Organisation – McKinsey defines five trademarks that are consistent with agile organisations (Aghina, et al., 2017):
- North star embodied across the organisation. Focus on the customer whilst creating value for full array of stakeholders. Important to focus on a continuous value-creation process that is built around a shared purpose and vision forming the “North Star” of the organisation.
- Network of empowered teams. Important to have a stable top-level structure to provide direction but flatten the rest of the hierarchy into a “flexible, scalable network of teams”. This must be supported by ensuring the teams “operate with high standards of alignment, accountability, expertise, transparency, and collaboration”.
- Rapid decision and learning cycles. Agile organisations focus on fast iteration and a high level of experimentation with the capacity to review and plan between iterative cycles. This is facilitated by deploying standards consistently across the organisation. As a result, performance is the key measure of success.
- Dynamic People model that ignites passion. An agile organisation focuses on people’s success through empowerment and engagement.
- Next-generation enabling technology. Use of technology as a method for simplifying cross functional engagement, ensuring continuous collaboration and supporting on going innovation.
Growth Mindset is the ability to develop one’s skills and capabilities beyond a base line through application and education. As defined by Dweck “basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, 2006, p. 7).
Fixed Mindset is the attitude of believing you are essentially born with is what you get and that it is not possible to change or to grow beyond a set of predefined characteristics, capabilities and aptitude. As defined by Dweck “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone” which “creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over” (Dweck, 2006, pp. 5-6).
Agile Mindset – There are a number of definitions on what constitutes an agile mindset. Two that I subscribe to are the following:
- “Preoccupied—and sometimes obsessed—with innovating and delivering steadily more customer value, with getting work done in small self-organizing teams, and with collaborating together in an interactive network.” (Denning, 2019).
- “Set of attitudes supporting an agile working environment. These include respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary to cultivate high-performing teams, who in turn deliver amazing value for their customers.” (McIntosh, 2016)
I believe that an agile mindset is a willingness to change, an openness to all possibilities and the capacity to seek help to achieve a desired outcome. Through an openness of thought and deed it is possible to navigate the best path to achieving any purpose. It is also not about suppressing negativity and only focusing on the positive. To have to an agile mindset you need to look at and analyse all situations from all angles. Understanding the negative aspects of the situation is also important so long as it is done constructively with a view on how best to address issues.
Engagement is all about the people and ensuring they are active participants. Participation promotes inclusivity which creates value. A key aspect of positive engagement is the concept of providing a safe environment that fosters an agile approach: “If people are asked to take a risk but they don’t really have the confidence they will be supported, you never got the chance to succeed before you get going. Whereas if you’ve got the freedom to take the risk, within the framework, knowing the results will not hang on it.”
The following areas of focus are important in an agile environment:
- Empowerment. The team and individuals need to have the authority and freedom to make their own decisions with confidence. The team must feel they have the ability to take risks with the right level of support.
- Autonomy. With empowerment comes responsibility and autonomy which provides the opportunity for people to “shine”. Autonomy allows for faster and quick decisions leading to increased adaptability.
- Collaboration. Working together creates cohesion which builds a culture of supporting each other and working together for a common objective. In the experience of one of the interviews just getting people to work together on special projects had add-on benefits: “By working with people that they didn’t know they started learning about each other’s roles and then started collaborating more – on stuff they should have always collaborated on but they never did. It created a culture of cohesion and support.” Another interviewee shared the view that moving to agile would take change management but fostering that change would positively impact collaboration.
- Mobility. Growth is important as is, as part of servant leadership, working with team members to develop their abilities and careers. An instrumental component of this is understanding and working with individuals on what their next role or challenge might be. This is also fundamental in building a growth mindset and fostering the creation of ideas by ensuring people continue to grow and develop whilst at the same time providing necessary employment security.
- Roles and Responsibility. For people to be focused on the purpose it is important they understand what their role is. Having well-defined roles further clarifies the structure and scope of people’s activities. This enables people to know what they should be engaged on and clearly identifies who is responsible for other components that assists in the collaboration.
At the core, adaptation is about learning fast and making timely informed decisions. The ability to adapt is also incorporating “situational leadership” as an interviewee stressed: “Agile leadership is about situational leadership, when to apply pressure, when to trust, when to learn to let go.” It is built around three key elements:
- Continuous learning. For example, an often-stated element of agile leadership is the concept of “fail fast, fail forward” (McGrath, 2011). “Never been a subscriber to fail fast. Has negative connotations. Prefer to learn fast and adapt accordingly.” Always be inquiring and always trying to understand, questioning whether there is a better way or a better solution. Then assess, qualify and make decisions – creating a cycle that accelerates adaptation.
- Timely decision making. The ability to act on the information available. The longer it takes to make a decision the less ability the team has to adapt.
- Flexibility. To be adaptable is to be open to other ideas. This requires a degree of flexibility in thinking. Structure and the boundaries which structure provides also determine the level of flexibility. An agile leader will provide the overall structure in which a team should operate and then define where is the ability to be flexible.
Ultimately results count; to meet the stated purpose and serve the needs of the customer, it is fundamental to provide output and deliver a solution. The solution should be based on an outcome that fits the intended purpose and that is in line with the customer’s requirements:
- Outcome. The output needs to deliver a useful and workable solution that provides a defined benefit based on agreed criteria.
- Meeting the purpose. The solution should always be measured against meeting the stated purpose and in line with the customer expectations. This allows an agile leader to ensure the team is always clear on what the solution should be and creates a guiding principle for the direction and necessary decisions.
In this model the leader is not one who needs to control or govern. Distributed autonomy and responsibility for all individuals requires self-control and self-governance. Leadership is about two things:
- Behaviours. It the behaviours of the team that determine their success. A leader needs to embody and ensure the right behaviours through being the example of agility. The right behaviours then set the right culture, foster a growth mindset and build resilience as the cornerstone to agility.
- Servant Leadership. A leader who is only focused on their own success is less likely to be successful as an agile leader (Shea & Srivastava, 2019). An agile leader should be the advocate of the vision and the culture and embody the purpose. Supporting the team and focusing on an individual’s achievements, goals and development is important to developing capable, empowered team members.
Leadership comes in many guises and can take many forms. Leadership is not something we are born with and a certain set of personality traits does not define who will be a good and effective leader. It takes work and practice to develop leadership capabilities. Agile leadership provides an approach that can be tailored to meet different scenarios. By putting the key elements into practice, built around a structured foundation and with a servant leader at the core to orchestrate and drive the right behaviours, agile leadership can be practically applied.
“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” – John Wooden
There is a lot of emphasis on the need to have a growth mindset, the importance of culture and the benefits of agile leadership and management in the corporate world (Denning S., 2018). This is supported by extensive research and literature to connect the theory of agile leadership to the applicability for successful business performance (Goldstein, 2019).
For a team or organisation to be agile it takes a leader who embraces agile leadership. The foundation of which is having and fostering a growth mindset, embracing servant leadership and believing in the benefits of a culture that incorporates learning, adaptability, collaboration and the success of the customer. Putting that into practice is difficult and often the source for the criticism of agile leadership (Denning S., Why Do Managers Hate Agile? 2015).
There is still a lot of apprehension, uncertainty and cynicism when it comes to the practice of agile leadership (Denning S., 2015). My view is the cynicism and resistance are an issue of perception of the difficulty and one’s readiness to adopt agile leadership. A significant proportion of what agile leadership is advocating is not different from other leadership styles. There is a commonality to what leaders, who maybe resistant or cynical, are already doing in practice.
The intent of The Agile Leadership Model outlined above is to focus on behaviours that can be practiced to more readily pursue agile leadership. Agile versus hierarchy/matrix-organisation structures are not a zero-sum scenario. Leaders can incorporate a structured foundation that enables agility: autonomy, the ability to make decisions, empowered and capable teams working towards a common objective, and the satisfaction of effectively serving customers and stakeholders. This is the crux of agile leadership with the concentration on purpose, engagement, adaptation and solution to define the behaviours of effective leaders.
My view is that by following the core principles of agile leadership most people can embrace a model that allows them to be effective whilst also be individualistic in their leadership style. Through ensuring goals and objectives are clearly set and by focusing on the output aligned to the customers’ benefit an agile leader defines a purpose and provides direction.
Having the team focused on their individual and collective achievement as a true measure of success will foster a culture of inclusion and support. Encourage the team to interact with others and build a broader community to foster and share knowledge thereby strengthening the capability of the entire organisation. Providing an environment where ideas matter and offering the psychological safety where experimentation is encouraged promotes the ability to try ideas, test their effectiveness and deliver innovation.
In such an environment a leader is able to be the compass that provides direction. Individuals in the team can contribute in a manner that best suits their experience and ability. This encourages everyone to embrace being a leader through their ideas, their execution and their results. Leadership is not then determined based on the number of subordinates or how effectively they manage to get others to work but based on their contribution individually and collectively.
What is evident is that the tenets of agile leadership, whether they are recognised by the textbook definitions or not, are widely adopted in practice. Nor are they new. In the 13th century the Mongol Genghis Khan, in the space of 25 years, crafted one of the largest empires in history. His success was built on a number of aspects of his military leadership that can be considered agile (Nurwibowo, 2019):
- Rapid effective communication with orders composed of easily memorised rhymes for efficient exchange by word of mouth.
- Small self-contained cross-functional teams with each member having a clearly defined tasks and role.
- Alignment to a vision. Conquered foes were integrated into the Mongolian empire through a meritocracy system with a consistent set of rules for all.
- Self-managing and self-organising teams that enabled independent self-sufficient armies that were still focused on the purpose to expand and conquer.
My conclusion is it is possible to adopt and practice agile leadership in a traditional and hierarchical structure. Providing structure that defines the boundaries forms a foundation fundamental for agile leaders to be successful whilst encouraging agility.
For an organisation to move to agile it is imperative that leaders start embracing and adopting the core principles of agile in the way they lead. One team being agile will encourage another to do the same which will further encourage others.
It certainly helps if the core principles are embraced by senior leadership who sponsor the move to agile. Without individual leaders embracing agile and incorporating it into their approach, whilst managing the necessary change elements, there will be no change and the status quo will continue.
Status quo is the antithesis of growth and the surest path to systemic failure. The concept of active inertia (Sull, 1999) describes where companies continue to follow the same practices and behavioural patterns whilst their environment changes and competition moves past them. Embracing agile leadership is embracing a growth mindset, harnessing the leadership potential of all people in the organisation and building a culture of continuous improvement and success.
Adopting agile leadership is possible. A structured and matrix organisation is not a limitation and can be embraced as the foundation for agility. As leaders it is our responsibility to embrace that requirement, effect the change and practice the right behaviours to set a growth mindset culture. As stated by one of the interviewees as part of my research, “Agile is important but must have a construct. People need a level of foundation and certainty. You need the cement. If everything is agile then everything is fluid and humans don’t deal well with completely fluid. The goal is to be able to have the balance of a structure and then the ability to add agility.”
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