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Zuzana Šochová on Becoming an Agile Leader

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership is a state of mind; you don’t need to have any positional power to become an agile leader
  • Having a critical mass of agile leadership is crucial for any agile environment
  • Agile leaders see an organization as a living organism, leveraging the power of influence
  • Agile leaders need to be able to create an environment where teams can design their own goals towards the organizational purpose
  • Working with teams and organizations requires you to step back and gain insight, to feel the system

The book The Agile Leader by Zuzana Šochová explains the need for agile leaders and explores what agile leadership looks like. It describes the skills of agile leaders, practices that they use, and provides exercises and assessments that can be used to become an agile leader. 

InfoQ readers can download an extract of The Agile Leader and they can buy The Agile Leader on Informit using the 35% off coupon code SOCHOVA.

InfoQ interviewed Zuzana Šochová about agile leadership and becoming an agile leader.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Zuzana Šochová: Writing a book is a long process. It usually starts at the classes where I’m talking about the different aspects, concepts, and crystalizing the message. I have been delivering the CAL – Certified Agile Leadership program for a couple years now and the feedback from my students has been critically important to the book. I needed to practice, learn what stories resonated most, and discover how to tell them in the most appealing way. And the more I was enthusiastically talking about agile organization and the need for agile leaders, the more people asked if they could read about it more, and I was struggling with coming up with a book to recommend. There were hundreds of great books, but none summarized it all in a simple way. I wrote some fragments in my blogs, but blog posts get lost in time, and people needed a coherent message. That was the moment when I knew I had to do it again: start drawing illustrations and write yet another book. There was a gap I needed to close to help people embrace agility at a higher level. Leaders need to change first; the organization will follow. The more people understand agility at this level, the more organizations can be successful on their agile journey. It was worth the effort. 

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Zuzana Šochová: The book is for anyone who is ready to challenge the status quo and start building an agile organization, who has the courage to change traditional organizational design and become an agile leader. It’s not about any agile frameworks, scaling method, nor product delivery practices. You most likely know all of that already. It’s going deeper into organizational values and culture, organizational design, and leadership. It’s for managers, directors, executives, entrepreneurs, and anyone who is willing to take on responsibility and ownership and become a leader. Leadership is a state of mind; you don’t need to have any positional power to become an agile leader.

InfoQ: How would you define agile leadership?

Zuzana Šochová: Leaders have courage to take responsibility and ownership, to speak up and start the initiative they are passionate about. Agile leaders have one thing on top of that - enthusiasm for agility. They understand the essence of agility beyond the practices, frameworks, and tools. They are enthusiastic about the purpose, and they do whatever it takes to achieve it. They collaborate and are highly receptive to new ideas from inside and outside. They often take very creative approaches that few have tried before. They have courage, focus, respect, openness, and commitment. They are not just doing agile practices, but they are living agile values. Agile leaders don’t need positional power to achieve their goals; they are leveraging the power of influence. 

InfoQ: Why do organizations need agile leaders?

Zuzana Šochová: Maybe the question before this is, why do organizations need agile in the first place? Agile is a response to new business realities and new challenges. It brings flexible business models and allows organizations to succeed in today’s constantly changing world. Most of the modern management and organizational design traces its roots back to the early 1900s, when the problems organizations were solving were very different. If you look at how business has changed in just the past twenty years and how many originally successful organizations failed to keep up and consequently went out of business, you cannot doubt that organizational change is a requirement for success.

Agile at the organizational level is changing the DNA of organizations; it brings higher autonomy of creative, innovative, and collaborative teams that are better designed to deal with complexity and the unpredictability of the VUCA challenges. It needs flexibility and quick responses to change. It breaks all fundamental beliefs that classical management was built on top of, and creates a strong need for changing leadership. Dynamic structures with no fixed design are hard to manage the traditional way, and growth of emergent leadership is inevitable. 

Agile leaders are catalyst and servant leaders; they are role models of a new way of working. They coach, mentor, and encourage others to become agile leaders as well. Being an agile leader is a journey, and agile leaders need to focus on helping other leaders around them grow to make agility as a whole sustainable. Having a critical mass of agile leadership is crucial for any agile environment; without it, we are only creating another process and adding terminology, and all we get is “fake agile,” not business results. Leaders need to change first. The organization will follow.

InfoQ: What does an agile organization look like?

Zuzana Šochová: An agile organization is a collaborative, creative, and adaptive network of self-organizing teams. You can come up with many different metaphors—a colony of ants, a bloom of jellyfish, a chameleon. Or you can simply see the organization as a living organism that, no matter how diverse the different parts of the systems are and how they are distributed, has one goal about which no one has any doubts at all. It experiments and learns from failures, and safety and transparency are hardcoded into the system’s DNA. The culture in an agile organization values collaboration and trust, which brings about a higher number of innovative and creative ideas than the traditional hierarchical structures.

There is no specific framework needed to make an organization agile; all you need is to practice agility at all organizational levels. Experiment, and through frequent feedback, find your own way of doing things. You can never be finished in that effort, as there is always a better way of doing things. It’s like a star on the horizon. You can never touch it, but step by step, in short iterations, you can get closer.

InfoQ: What are the core competencies that leaders should develop? Why these competencies?

Zuzana Šochová: Great agile leaders have four core competencies: they can create a vision, enhance motivation, get feedback, and implement change. They also need to have the supporting competencies of decision-making, collaboration, facilitation, and coaching. 

I’ll start from the last one. Why coaching? Because in a complex system, there is no right or wrong answer; there are just different approaches and perspectives. Very likely there is no ideal solution. It’s far from the world of the best practices people are used to. Leaders are not promoted because they are experts and know better, but because they can help other people to find their own way of doing things. In such a space, coaching is a critical skill; specifically, coaching of (human) systems – teams, groups, and organizations- so they find their own way of working and doing things. 

Facilitation goes hand-in-hand with coaching. The more collaboration, the more the need for facilitation. Agile organizations encourage collaboration with customers, teams form networks to co-create products together, and agile leaders are expected to support that process. Large-scale facilitation techniques like open space and world café are quite useful. Agile leaders also will need to balance making a decision themselves versus collaborating and empowering others to take responsibility and ownership.

The core competencies to create a vision, enhance motivation, get feedback, and implement change are directly connected to the effectiveness of agile leaders. Vision is the driving engine. It’s not necessarily related to the product and business, but the organization itself. Without a vision, higher autonomy only creates chaos where every team is going in different directions. Agile leaders need to understand the nature of motivation, and be familiar with the power of intrinsic motivation of autonomy and purpose to build great self-organizing teams. Feedback is crucial for agile organizations; it makes a team and product feedback part of their DNA, it becomes an integral part of their culture. The same for agile leaders: regular feedback from the system is key to their success. 

The last piece is the ability to implement change. For agile leaders, change happens at three levels. First, there is a change in myself, my own beliefs, reactions, the way I work, and becoming a role-model. Second, there is the ability to influence others; make them part of my team, get supporters who will help me to lead the change. Finally, the third element of change is at the system level, the whole organization level; the ability to influence culture and work on values. 

The mentioned competencies are equally important as they support each other; every agile leader needs to have the competences at a certain level to be an effective leader in agile organization. 

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that agile leadership effort should be focused on how to work with systems, teams, and the relationships among people. Can you elaborate why this is, and how this can be done?

Zuzana Šochová: In every organization there are three structures - the value creation structure, the power structure, and the social structure. Traditional organizations believe that the power structure is key and value creation is happening as a result of a well-functioning hierarchy and management. In agile organizations, where hierarchy becomes less important and we rely on autonomy, self-organization, and transparency, the social structure becomes much more important. Relationships matter. Agile leaders leverage the power of influence, holding the space and taking care of the human systems in organizations, our culture and values. We believe that value is created as a result of a well-functioning environment and good collaborative culture which enhances creativity and innovations, and allows us to deal better with the complexity, unpredictability and VUCA challenges. We see organizations shifting their cultures from controlling and competing, to creating and collaborative environments. Collaboration is fundamentally changing the world of work. It requires a higher level of trust, and a willingness to voice disagreement and discuss different opinions. The stronger the relationships, the more efficient the collaboration. In agile organizations, we do it together, moving towards the same purpose. But at the same time, we rely on a decentralized way of working. Creativity and a variety of ideas is key to success in a complex environment. 

InfoQ: How can we apply agile at the executive level?

Zuzana Šochová: As I already described, agile is about changing the way we work to be more collaborative and team-oriented. It requires a different mindset, but the shift is not any different at the executive level. The same shift is required from everyone in the organization. Every manager is part of two teams: one they are responsible for, and one with their peers. Traditional organizations make the team you are responsible for more important, relying on individual responsibility and as a result often creating silos. Agile organizations are focusing on collaboration, and quite naturally make a team of peers significantly more important to the leaders than the one they are managing. Of course, you still are a leader there, but being a team member of the executive team needs to be more important to everyone. They need to collaborate, help each other, and have one goal together. Once that is true, the part of the organization they are responsible for is not competing with other parts of the organization, but creates a collaborative network of self-organizing teams, going in the same direction together. 

To get that experience of team collaboration, executives can use Scrum, as it will help them to understand the dynamics of short iterations, delivering value every Sprint, raising the level of transparency, getting feedback, and learning from failures. In other words, welcome changes, inspect and adapt. It’s hard to say what the hardest part would be, but very often it’s the level of transparency which is scary at first. Therefore, the relationship is key. There is no team that exists without a high level of trust, and there is no agile without team collaboration either. 

InfoQ: How does radical transparency enable agility?

Zuzana Šochová: Radical transparency is scary at first, but at the same time critical to collaboration at any level. Without it, self-organization is almost impossible. Lack of transparency creates silos, and prevents ad-hoc collaboration towards the same goal as people are only focused on partial steps designed by someone else. We need a central point to go to for everything. Hierarchical structures dislike the radical transparency of “If I’m the only one who has the information, no one can jeopardize my position, and I’m safe being manager… All I need to do to be promoted is wait and make sure that no big mistake happens.”  Sound familiar? In the agile space, leaders are creating more autonomy by making one goal, the organizational purpose, transparent together with all other information. Their dream is not to be a central decision-maker, but instead to step back and create an environment where teams can design their own goals towards the organizational purpose and make their own decisions.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to make a shift from leading individuals to leading teams?

Zuzana Šochová: Teams are the smallest systems in an organization. They are unpredictable complex structures. The first step for agile leaders in dealing with this level of complexity is to start focusing on what happens between people. Feel the social connectedness, sense the energy level, feel the frustrations and listen to the voices of the system. In my book, I describe the Agile Leadership model which describes this shift in more detail. 

To give you a quick overview, the first step is to “Get Awareness”: awareness of the current reality, an understanding of what’s happening around us, to be mindful of our surroundings. An organization is a system which is constantly sending signals. All we have to do is be aware of them, notice them, and listen to them. The second step is “Embrace It”. This helps us to accept whatever is happening in the system without the urge to evaluate. Who knows what is good and what is bad? Our self-power comes from our ability to gain enough clarity so that trust is built in the whole system. The third step is “Act Upon”, which uses the power gained in the previous step to influence things and change the system behavior. It’s a never-ending process, as the system is always unpredictable. Working with teams requires you to step back and gain insight, to feel the system. Let go of the tangible and dive into the social structure. 

About the Book Author 

Zuzana Šochová works as an agile coach and trainer for both large and small organizations. She is a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) by Scrum Alliance. She has over 15 years of commercial experience in IT.  She is the author of the book The Great ScrumMaster: #ScrumMasterWay (Addison- Wesley, 2017). She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Scrum Alliance.

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