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What Managers Can Do To Support Agile Transformation

Agile isn’t just reserved for the IT industry anymore. In fact, more and more human resource professionals are recognising the positive impact that taking an Agile approach in the personnel office can have. It changes the focus of the HR department to one that drives initiatives of collaboration, speed and versatility.

Employee engagement places a critical role in the overall organisational shift from traditional project management methods to more nimble, Agile ones. Without an engaged workforce that is willing to collaborate and make quick changes, it becomes more difficult to ensure Agile is implemented properly.

Rapid decision-making processes lead to a leaner organisation, which translates into improved business outcomes and a higher return.

Because HR is responsible for business performance optimisation, Agile has begun to find its place everywhere in the organisation, including in the personnel department.

Agile Culture

An Agile environment contains seven distinct elements that every organisation and its leaders exhibit:

  • a collaborative leadership style
  • an ability to embrace change
  • an iterative approach to product development and testing
  • a people-driven focus (versus process-driven)
  • a concentration on features instead of systems
  • project managers that are facilitators, not controllers
  • project simplicity

While Agile is a buzzword today, not many people outside of IT really understand its application within the enterprise. There is indeed a softer side to Agile, which can serve to guide professionals in how to implement Agile best practices no matter where they are in the organisation. In a phrase, Agile practices rely on building a collaborative culture. That means the HR department needs to create appropriate teams for the projects at hand, implement fluid systems of engagement versus the more stolid, rigid structures that used to serve organisations well and foster an environment that supports continuous learning at all levels of the enterprise.

According to the Agile Manifesto, customer collaboration is placed over contract negotiation with a strong focus on a highly skilled, motivated team in constant interaction with the product and the customer at every phase of the project. As a result of this collaborative, customer-centric view, Agile requires more than the technical expertise needed to gather requirements, and develop and test new product lines. It requires soft skills, leadership competencies and an understanding of how to apply those skills in a more malleable, people-focused setting. Imagine a technically brilliant yet social inept manager who cannot communicate his or her ideas effectively. It would be a nightmare for any project team. As practitioners know, collaboration brings its own set of challenges. With the Agile approach, project managers are called upon to team up with customers in a constant stakeholder dialogue.

Constant customer collaboration provides great opportunities to measure project success by gauging the level of customer satisfaction throughout each life cycle of the project. It creates the framework for faster time-to-market and a more nimble process to deliver successful project outcomes. When it comes to successful agile project delivery, collaboration also is key for the integrated project team.

Creating a collaborative culture is essential for Agile to work effectively.

How does effective collaboration work?

To begin to understand, we should first take a look at a few principles behind the Agile Manifesto. These principles, which are the building blocks of Agile, identify three areas that lend themselves to successful collaboration. These principles are as follows:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Projects need to be built around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. Based on the above three principles, successful collaboration among the team relies heavily on three key factors:
    1. Feedback
    2. Communication
    3. Motivation


Managers can assist in Agile transformation by understanding the power of feedback and by examining how it works specifically in their team environment.

Remember that feedback during the iterative development work of an Agile project must increase awareness and insight as well as foster innovation, yielding positive alternatives. Having the business as part of the core Agile project team creates the environment for continuous feedback and an opportunity to take positive risks in doing things differently, which is the very nature of why the project is being done in an Agile setting. Within the iteration work, it is essential to provide feedback that:

  • Contains a clear purpose
  • Is specific and descriptive
  • Offers positive alternatives

For all members of the Agile project team, it is important to identify what to start, stop and continue doing when it comes to iteration work. This is where managers can apply effective feedback most often. They can easily integrate these practices into their daily stand up meetings to prepare for the day’s work. In addition, continuous feedback ensures managers are kept apprised of any potential setbacks in the project itself. There is a fineline, however, between regular feedback and micromanaging.


What makes effective communication? When it comes to communication, it is important to deliver information in a manner that is understood by the receiver, which means that we need to get past the receiver’s filters and ensure that the individual understood the intended message. Managers can fall into the micromanagement trap quickly if they are checking up on workers, instead of checking in with them. To get past those filters, we, as the sender of this message, have a responsibility to understand how our receiver takes in information. Does he communicate in a direct manner? Is she considerate in her messaging? Understanding your receiver’s communication style will help you provide feedback that enables effective dialogue. Consider also the type of information delivery system each team member prefers. Some may respond best to instant messaging while others prefer email or face-to-face contact. Managers that apply an Agile approach to their workflow will be perceptive about how to maximise the tools available to them to communicate quickly and effectively.


When you combine productive feedback with effective communication, the foundation for motivation has been established. Motivation is built on encouragement, partnership and compromise without making concessions that damage trust. Working together to ensure that barriers, impediments and unrealistic expectations do not derail the creative impulses of the team brings about team unity. When the Agile PM delegates to team members the authority and responsibility to complete features to which they’ve committed, the Agile PM has created an environment of trust, partnership and self-directedness. By creating this environment, the team can discover their patterns of working, comfort zones and creative space, which ultimately lead to high-performing, self-motivated teams. The soft side of Agile is just as important as the technical side of Agile. Both sets of skills are required and dependent upon each other for success in the Agile environment.

Attributes of an Agile Project Manager

More than ever, project managers have evolved from managers to leaders that impact more than just the details of a project. Now they are more responsible for ensuring their team members have the parameters they need to complete the actual job. Instead of being task masters, they have transitioned to be more like champions of the work their teams need to complete.

Project managers’ main focus has become how they can remove challenges and barriers to their teams instead of merely following the schedule. Traditionally, a project manager has been considered a type of ‘babysitter’ who has to be on top of the work and hold their team members accountable for any missteps. In an Agile environment, team members are given a great deal more ownership and accountability as they are brought into the fold from the beginning. What an Agile team requires is a manager who removes obstacles and barriers to do the work. One of the most important skill sets an Agile project manager requires is interpersonal skills.

An Agile project manager no longer needs to be monitoring the schedule as much as they have had to in the past. According to the traditional Waterfall approach, a project manager spends 80 percent of the time minding the schedule. In an Agile setting, 20 percent is spent on managing schedule or the work and 80 percent on removing barriers so the others can set their minds on the tasks themselves.

In the Agile setting, focus is on leading verses managing; we see that project managers are now being called project leaders. Since 80 percent of the work is on removing barriers and empowering the team to be self-directed and organising, the project leader is concentrating more on servant leadership activities than on the micro-management of schedules and deliverables.

At its core, servant leadership is a natural feeling that one wants to serve first than be served. This instinct to serve first leads to a conscious choice to want to lead rather than the need to lead because of a power drive. In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote an essay called “The Servant as Leader”, says:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

Greenleaf continues by suggesting: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

The principles of servant leadership are found in Agile practices because Agile is concerned about ensuring that the highest priority needs are being served. Agile’s iterative delivery of workable, usable features ensures that the highest value driven needs are being served first. Part of Agile’s success is dependent upon the team’s ability to be self-organising and self-motivated, the project leader must create an environment in which these team attributes can flourish. As the project leader is removing barriers and impediments that could impact the team’s project performance, the project leader is serving the team through servant leadership, which allows the team to be “wiser, freer, more autonomous” in the project work.

As you consider the attributes of a project leader verses project manager in Agile, consider that the success of Agile is about transforming not only how we deliver project work, but also how we work together as a collaborative team. At the center of the team’s transformation is the project leader. Do your current project managers have the capacity to be project servant leaders? Successful servant leadership and self-organising teams relies on the 10 core principles of servant leadership:

  • Awareness
  • Building Community
  • Empathy
  • Foresight
  • Improvement Healing
  • Listening
  • Mentoring
  • Persuasion
  • Stewardship
  • Visioning

Depending on the type of project as well as the team’s and project leaders’ competencies, not all projects or people are suited for Agile.

Savvy HR managers will be able to identify where Agile is best applied in their day-to-day operations. It may not be appropriate to undertake an Agile approach to every aspect of the organisation; but since rapid and continuous change has become the new normal, the ability to make quick decisions has become imperative too.

About the Author

Nancy Nee, PMP, CBAP, CSM, Vice President, Global Product Strategy, ESI International, guides clients in the development and implementation of learning programmes customised to their specific needs. Her solutions reflect the insight of almost two decades of PM and BA experience in healthcare, information technology, financial services and energy.

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