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Q&A on the Book Agile Leadership Toolkit


Key Takeaways

  • Agile leadership is the craft of creating the right environment for self-managing teams.
  • Agile teams thrive in an environment where the direction is clear, they can take. ownership and where they learn fast from users.
  • An agile leader has to learn to balance between chaos (too little structure and too much freedom) and imprisonment (too little freedom and too much structure).
  • Becoming a professional agile leader takes years of practice.
  • Culture can't be changed directly, only indirectly. With the right tools, culture can become an agile culture quicker.

The book Agile Leadership Toolkit by Peter Koning is a practical book that supports existing agile managers and leaders in growing their agile teams and creating the right environment for them.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of Agile Leadership Toolkit.

InfoQ interviewed Peter Koning, senior leadership consultant at Prowareness and professional Scrum trainer at, about agile leadership and the toolkit for agile leaders.  

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Peter Koning: I’ve been a manager of agile teams for years. I struggled with this new kind of team. What do they need? How can I best help them? What should I and shouldn’t I do? When I joined Prowareness as a senior agile coach, I saw that many managers struggled with the same questions. Some people said that managers were "useless" in agile and that they could sit on their hands or go home. But I’ve never seen this successful; it has always resulted in chaotic working environments. What I did observe is that many managers wanted to give autonomy and trust in their teams, but when they wanted to step in or intervene, they only had traditional tools and practices.

Four years ago, I started a journey of exploring and searching for tools that managers could use to speed up and accelerate the agile movement and transformation. This toolkit book is the result of this search. It was hard, I stumbled and failed frequently, but luckily also discovered several awesome tools that helped in creating the right environment for self-managing teams.

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

Koning: This book is intended for leaders in an agile environment who have recently become or already are responsible for people in agile teams, for several agile teams, complete agile departments, or even agile companies.

These leaders are already convinced of the benefits and necessity of agile and are searching for ways to improve. They are globally familiar with Scrum and other frameworks. In addition, they already have experience with managing teams in general, and now they are looking for practical tools, handy metrics, and new methods to create an inspiring environment for their self-managing teams. Last but not least, their company is active in a competitive market. This means customer satisfaction, innovation, digitization, and quality are king.

InfoQ: How do you define agile leadership?

Koning: Agile leadership is the art and craft of creating the right environment for self-managing teams, just like a farmer who doesn’t grow his crops by yelling and pulling at them; they create the perfect environment for them so they grow and thrive! And when the crops aren’t growing (properly), they don’t blame the crops; they see this as feedback on the environment that they feel responsible for.

Agile leaders create an environment where:

  1. Teams can take ownership. Teams that take ownership are different; they are pro-active, proud, have a can-do mindset, and help other teams to excel. A leader can’t force teams into this ownership-mode. They can only create the context.
  2. Teams know what they need to achieve because the desired outcome and value is clear. A leader doesn’t tell them how to do their job; they just create clarity on what is "winning the match".
  3. Teams can learn faster, mostly because they get quick feedback on their actions and decisions, but also because a leader promotes learning, creates an environment where it’s safe to fail, and stimulates a culture of sharing knowledge and sharing mistakes candidly.
  4. The culture is also agile. Culture can’t be influenced or manipulated directly, because culture and things like trust, relationships, experience and Rome can’t be built in a day. It’s built by daily, consistently and repeatedly demonstrating the right behavior. By changing the structure, the culture can be influenced.

By constantly improving the above four parts, an agile leader creates the right environment.

InfoQ: What does your toolkit for agile leaders look like?

Koning: The book is divided into four parts. Each part can be read separately and in different order. Each part consists of two tools and one skill. The tools are very practical and can be used immediately and independently. Each part starts with a short real-life story that briefly explains and illustrates the situation, necessity and benefits of that specific part. The parts describe the practical tasks of an agile leader:

  1. Co-create goals – create clarity on what teams have to achieve.
  2. Facilitate ownership – create the right freedom so teams can be proactive, proud, take initiative and help other teams.
  3. Learn faster – remove impediments that block quick and accurate feedback from users and customers.
  4. Design healthy habits – habits are the cornerstone of culture. Changing and improving the habits of a leader him/herself is crucial to creating the right agile culture.

InfoQ: How does the Key Value Indicator work?

Koning: KVI stands for Key Value Indicator and it’s the (preferably one) metric that indicates whether teams have delivered value. It gives direction and supports fast-decision making in teams.

A soccer match isn’t won by the team that has the most ball-possession or successful passes; it’s of course won by the team that scored the most (in the opponent’s goal). And during the match, the players on the field know the score without looking at the board. I’ve visited a few companies that have implemented metrics this same way. In one of these companies, it worked awesome. In the morning when people entered the building, they asked, "How is the DAU doing?" (Later I found out that DAU stands for Daily Active Users). Everybody immediately knew the latest score and how the actions of the last week influenced the DAU. The leaders didn’t tell the people what they had to do, they only created clarity on the overall objective: make sure that more people use the app on a daily basis. Employees brainstormed on new ideas, and studied data and trendlines. This assured that they weren’t focused on velocity or planning accuracy; they were focused on the outcome and the actual value they delivered.

InfoQ: How can leaders reward and sustain ownership in teams?

Koning: Ownership is a common term in modern management. But for agile teams, it’s crucial. Teams can only be truly self-managing teams when they can take ownership of their work. Ownership can’t be influenced or managed directly, only indirectly. Teams that get infinite autonomy or freedom don’t necessarily take ownership. Only teams that get freedom which matches their maturity can take it.

One of the key things needed in order to reward and sustain ownership is simply to spend time on it and showing commitment. Successful agile leaders spend several hours a week seeing how their teams are doing. For example, every Monday morning between 9 and 11 is reserved for a specific team to talk about ownership. A common tool which can be used is the Ownership Model, which is described in my book. Leaders ask a team to share how they feel regarding the freedom and clarity they get. By spending time, quickly following-up on actions, and showing that he/she cares, a leader builds trust and actually rewards teams for taking ownership.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to help teams in self-assessing their maturity?

Koning: Leaders can do two things. First of all, facilitate clarity on what we expect from high mature teams. Do they just deliver high quality, or do they also need to have happy stakeholders? Or do they even measurably have (more) satisfied users? A high mature team not only measures their uptime and performance, but also the user satisfaction after contact. A team that just started will still be working on team dynamics and understanding the product and stakeholders.

The second thing is all about the improvement rhythm. Successful leaders make sure that teams regularly and frequently self-assess their maturity and that improvements can actually be made. The leader has to prevent the team from getting fatigued or drained, as improvements will become impossible or drained by bureaucracy. It’s important to frequently assess whether teams still want to improve and grow.

InfoQ: How does the Freedom Matrix compare to the Delegation Board from Management 3.0?

Koning: There is not a big difference. The Delegation Board from Management 3.0 is good. The addition that the Freedom Matrix brings is that teams really get the freedom they need with their level of maturity. Next, it creates a common language and a candid conversation on how much autonomy and freedom the team needs according to their specific maturity.

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that a shorter time to learn (T2L) increases agility. How can you measure and apply T2L in practice?

Koning: The common way to use T2L in practice is using it in big ideas, themes or epics. When decisions have to be made on which next big thing to start, things like risk, cost, expected revenue and competitive advantage are commonly considered. Adding in T2L gives a nice indication on when we will know if our customers actually liked it. Building it might take 9 to 12 months, but how can we actually release it incrementally ? When will we have enough feedback from actual customers on whether they like it or not? After two or four months? The forecasted T2L will provide the answer.

The other practice is to indicate how agile we are. Looking back at the latest functionality or features we deployed, how agile were we in responding to user feedback? Could we respond to user feedback within four weeks? Even though we might deploy daily, that doesn’t mean that feedback from users is handled within a day. The T2L metric tracks the delay between prioritizing an idea, building it, shipping it to users, studying the user data and feedback, and learning whether it actually improved or not.

InfoQ: What's your view on what an agile culture looks like?

Koning: The most important values of an agile culture are collaboration, uncertainty and professionalism.

  • Collaboration – the results of the teams are valued more than individual achievements. There is a belief that the team has to work together to really satisfy the users and conquer the competitors. They believe that they have to share experiences, knowledge and together face the challenges and set high standards. When you take a photo of the teams, you should see several people working together behind a screen or whiteboard and exchanging ideas, thoughts or experiences.
  • Uncertainty – the certainty and accuracy of plans and forecasts are seen as low. Only certainty and facts can be found outside the building; only assumptions and ideas are found inside. Next, the world is becoming more and more complex and therefore can’t be predicted or known completely. There is a belief that we can only know a fraction upfront; the only way to know more is to go forward and start. Project plans, business cases and strategic plans are seen as sketches of what might happen and need to constantly be improved by user feedback and usage statistics. When you listen to your people, you should hear words like "we assume …", "we run these experiments to validate …", "we expect between … and … is realistic".
  • Professionalism – the employees of the company are seen as professionals who don’t need to be told what to do. Next, we treat each other as professionals; that means we expect each other to be proud, show courage, show commitment, and act like owners of a problem or ambition. That means we don’t complain without solving the issue, we don’t find excuses, we don’t blame others for our own mistakes, and we respect others. This is also described in the Scrum Values.

When I ask a manager how they run their department, I ask, "Tell me how it feels to walk around your floor?" Successful managers will tell you about the vibe or energy they sense. They especially look their people in the eyes; do these eyes shine and have a spark, or do they look like fish-eyes? If the latter, the leader doesn’t blame the people. The leader has to change their own behavior and improve the environment!

InfoQ: What should leaders focus on when they want to improve culture?

Koning: Culture can’t be manipulated or altered directly, only indirectly. Things like trust, relationship, Rome and culture need time to grow and improve, and they can’t be built in a day. Successful leaders create the right structure so the culture can grow. Agile leaders give their teams a lot of freedom, space, trust, and inspiration for their daily work to increase their customer impact.

Agile leaders focus on two important things to improve the culture: habits and informal leaders. The habits of a leader really influence the culture. Take for example when something goes wrong; what is the routine of the leader? Do they appoint firefighters to solely fix the important issue, or do they let the product owner decide how to solve it with the whole team? If the leader appoints firefighters, they probably will never achieve a culture of teamwork and collaboration.

Another important thing to focus on is the informal leader. Every team has this role, and this person heavily influences the values – and therefore the local culture – of the team. If this informal leader is – for example – the most successful sales person, but doesn’t collaborate and sometimes cheats or lies, the agile culture is threatened ! The agile leader can’t rely on the team to fix this; self-managing teams can’t influence an informal leader. A formal leader has to step in! They can coach the informal leader to change their behavior, or - if needed - take more drastic actions.

InfoQ: How can agile leaders develop the skills to become habit architects?

Koning: A leader can do several things, especially write down or illustrate what the culture should look like. What are the core values and principles? How should it feel to walk around the teams? How would customers and users describe the interaction with the teams?

Next, who are contributors and who undermines this culture? What are the habits of these people, and how am I – as a leader – endorsing or promoting this behavior? This already helps a lot in becoming a habit architect.

One of the talents and mindsets successful agile leaders have is a "complex system view". They have a keen eye or antenna for recognizing how behavior in one situation influences the unwritten values and behaviors in another situation. They develop these skills by reading books or participating in a training on agile leadership. Next, they started to observe and ask powerful questions to really understand why their people behave the way they do.

InfoQ: What can teams expect from agile leaders? What should not be expected?

Koning: Teams can expect an agile leader to create the right environment for self-management. This isn’t about absolute autonomy nor an infinite budget. The right environment consists of at least the following four attributes:

  • Direction – It’s clear what the overall objective is. Teams know "when they have won the match". They know what success looks like from the customer’s or user’s perspective.  This is put into one or a few simple metrics called Key Value Indicators (KVI), such as the number of daily users on the app, the user satisfaction or the sales conversion. The teams don’t know yet how they will achieve success, but they know why and how to measure where they currently are. The leader doesn’t sit on his/her hands and wait until the teams know this, nor tells or enforces the overall objective. He/she co-creates these goals with the teams and the stakeholders, assuring that the goals are aligned with the overall strategy of the company.
  • Ownership – Teams should expect a leader to find this very important. A leader should have enough time every two weeks or month to really understand whether the team takes ownership of the goals and the quality of the product, and quickly responding to impediments or energy-drains, and either fix them or motivate the team to solve them themselves.
  • Learn faster – Teams should expect a leader to constantly improve. Not only does a leader improve the learning speed of the team, but also a leader asks for feedback and improvement topics on his/her leadership style. By asking for feedback candidly, a leader creates a culture where it’s okay to fail, make mistakes, and learn from them.
  • Culture – Teams should expect a leader to be clear on the culture he/she envisions. Next, a leader is very keen on improving the existing culture. Next, when a leader has to choose between short-term results versus long-term culture, the team can expect the leader to make the hard decisions – if needed – to preserve and improve the culture.

Teams can’t expect a leader to pamper and spoil them and solve all the small impediments. Next, a leader doesn’t prescribe how a team should do their work, nor does he/she overrule the product owner in setting different priorities.

About the Book Author

Peter Koning has been a leader of agile teams for many years. He now consults, trains and coaches leaders and leadership teams of larger organizations. Koning is happily married to Marieke and has two kids. He loves to play board games, speed-cycle and is a Formula-1 race fan.

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