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Leadership Principles for Agile Organizations


Selena Delesie gave a keynote at the Agile Testing Days 2015 about leadership principles that she sees in successful agile companies; principles which are giving those companies a competitive edge.

InfoQ interviewed Selena Delesie about how leadership principles from Sir Richard Branson are related to the foundations of agile and asked her to explain principles that help organizations to gain a competitive edge and how companies can deploy agile to become more competitive.

InfoQ: What in your opinion makes leadership so important for agile? Why does it matter?

Delesie: Individuals and teams who are unable or unwilling to embrace leadership traits rarely see dramatic improvements that Agile is touted to provide. Agile adoptions struggle and fail when culture, mindset and behaviours do not shift to help people to be their best self. While coaching agile transitions, I see personal transformations in high performing teams. Success follows when teams adopt the core agile values of people first, collaboration, taking action to create working software, and adaptability. These folks stop waiting for others to take the lead, and start leading from within their teams. They start BEING agile, rather than just DOING agile. Everyone steps up to be the best they can be for themselves and their teammates. They have a growth mindset, take courageous action, find joy in their daily work, connect with people, help others, and flow through change. These people are leaders. Agile or not, teams filled with true leaders like this are highly engaged, happy, and successful.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate about how leadership principles from Sir Richard Branson are related to the foundations of agile.

Delesie: Sir Richard Branson has long been an inspiration for me- not only in how to build successful businesses, but also in how to be a great leader. His life and his businesses have been built on the foundations of agile, because that is who he is. Richard Branson embodies the underlying principles that enable agile organizations to flourish: openness, respect, focus, commitment, and courage. He is known for talking about these leadership principles in his books, interviews, and articles. Better yet, Richard embodies these traits himself. He is passionate, cares deeply about people, is focused on service and collaboration, is flexible and adaptable, and constantly experiments to deliver awesome experiences for customers and employees alike.

InfoQ: In your talk you explored seven specific principles which give companies a competitive edge. Can you share on of them with our readers and explain how that principle can make a difference?

Delesie: The seven specific principles that I highlighted in my talk are to: listen deeply, focus on people, be addicted to learning, be of service, flow through change, move through fear, and follow joy.

Let’s look at moving through fear. Fear is a big block for many people, whether in an agile organization or not, and in people’s lives. Fear limits people from being at their best, for example they may not:

  • Speak up about something they are not happy about
  • Ask questions when they are unsure about something
  • Try a new activity or practice
  • Share new ideas for improvements
  • Pair up with a team member to accomplish a task
  • Ask for help
  • Talk directly to someone they are struggling to have a good relationship with
  • Speak openly at retrospectives
  • Say no to a request that can’t be accomplished, or accomplished in a sustainable manner

When these fears are active, people are not able to fully and authentically contribute to a team and it’s success. We are not able to get the best from people if they do not feel safe to move through fear. Fear holds us back from taking risks, trying new things, being authentic, and moving forward to be at our best as individuals, as a team, and as an organization.

Fear doesn’t ever really go away though. High performing groups still feel fear, but to lesser degrees as they practice moving through fears. Fear comes up, and they say "hi fear, thanks for coming out… I’m going to go do this thing I’m scared of anyway." That is how we expand to become better versions of ourselves. That is how the most successful people and organizations became successful. That is one way companies gain a competitive edge — create an environment where people feel safe to move through fears.

InfoQ: If a company want to deploy agile to gain a competitive edge, which advice can you give to them?

Delesie: My advice is to stop emphasizing the process frameworks and start focusing on the company culture and mindsets. Get clear on the values you want to operate under and actually embody those values in every area of the company. Create an environment that is fun to work in, allows for learning, and provides a safe space for people to be real, to experiment, and create awesome solutions. Focus on people first and really demonstrate deep care for them — employees, customers, and all stakeholders. It’s surprisingly simple. Success follows because people feel safe, cared for, valued, heard and happy.

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