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Leading within: Evolving into Agility

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Sep 12, 2018. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes |

Adaptive organizations rely on horizontal leadership where awareness is a fundamental quality for leadership. When we are able to really listen with curiosity, empathy and courage, then our listening changes our perceptions, our relationships and, therefore our environment.

Andrea Provaglio, agile enterprise coach, will speak about leading within and evolving into agility at Agile Business Day 2018. This conference will be held on September 15 in Venice, Italy.

The 2018 conference theme is "Growing into Agility":

We will focus on all kinds of approaches — technical, humanistic and business-related — that can help an organization to better understand itself and the domain in which it operates, to progress along its own personal path towards real agility.

InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Provaglio about leadership in adaptive and agile organizations.

InfoQ: How does leadership look in adaptive organizations?

Andrea Provaglio: I need to take one step back before I can answer. Adaptive and agile organizations need of course to be able to respond and adapt quickly to changes in their environment. However, if we consider this simple stock statement carefully, it implies a number of things.

One is that the organization must be able to detect changes. Not when it’s too late and that change is now catastrophical or critical. They need to detect change timely, by reading weak signals and identifying meaningful or potentially interesting change.

Then, the organization must be able to interpret that change and decide rapidly if any adaptation is required, as well as which that might be.

Finally, they need to actually adapt and change at the operational level.

All these activities can be performed more efficiently and more intelligently when we have a network of connected people, or even multiple interconnected networks, rather then a hierarchical decisional structure where information slowly flows up the chain, degrades, reaches a point where a late decision is made, and then, the decision needs to flow down the chain, usually degrading along the process, to be finally interpreted and, hopefully, transformed in operational change.

In other words, adaptive organizations rely much more on the decentralization of some decisional processes and on horizontal leadership manifested by an intelligent network of interconnected individuals, rather than on top-down, centralized, vertical leadership.

InfoQ: What makes horizontal leadership work?

Provaglio: In horizontal leadership, we have more connection lines in-between the individuals and communication is bi-directional. In other words, each person is interconnected with many other people, and groups of people may be interconnected with other groups. In vertical leadership (think of a traditional organizational chart) the connection lines are less and communication is bi-directional, but only to a certain point (information goes up, decisions come down).

What are, therefore, the character qualities, the human traits, the "soft skills" that enable horizontal leadership? One is awareness, because good decisions come from sensing before adapting — and I’m talking about both personal self-awareness and situational (or systemic) awareness as well. Then, we need those qualities that allow people to really communicate.

In my talk I point to awareness as a fundamental quality for leadership — a very underrated one — and also as a way to improve communication in the network (which some authors call "Dialogue", with a capital D) and, therefore, system awareness.

The kind of listening that I refer to, described in the work of Otto Scharmer, is one that shows curiosity (a sincere, non-judgemental desire to understand the facts), empathy (the capacity of putting ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and sensing the situation from that perspective) and courage (the courage, for instance, to let go of something, including our own views, to make space for something new).

When we are able to really listen with curiosity, empathy and courage, then our listening changes our perceptions, our relationships, and therefore, our environment. And changing the world around us is, no doubt, a leadership quality.

InfoQ: How does leadership work when applied to agility?

Provaglio: There are a couple of things to take into account. Let’s start with the assumption that Agile or agility is something that organizations want to improve, adopt or try out. Lots of words have been spent on how Agile should be, starting from the Agile Manifesto; and lots of models have been developed around that, the most widely known being Scrum.

The first comment I’d like to make is that, if you’ve noticed, I’ve talked about leadership, but I never mentioned leaders. That’s because leaders are individual persons, frequently associated to an organizational role which also gives them authority. But leadership, the way I see it, is a force for change. It’s what brings you "from here to there" and it’s not necessarily associated to single individuals.

One conundrum that traditional organizations face when it comes to rethinking leadership is that we are largely talking about leadership without leaders, which is an unusual concept. I’m not saying that in organizations we don’t have roles, authority and responsibilities (I don’t believe in flat organizations, for instance). Neither am I saying that different people in organizations don’t have different skills, expertise and seniority. However, that doesn’t necessarily means that leadership should be in the hands of a few specific individuals all the time.

That’s one thing about leadership in agility; it’s not entirely and fixedly mapped to specific points in the structure of the organization.

Another thing is that agility cannot come from processes, practices and policies alone. Those are what Edgar Schein calls some of the "artifacts" in an organizations, its visible or tangible elements. But artifacts are a manifestation of the underlying paradigms by which the organization operates and we need to change those as well if we want our agility to have solid roots, even if it takes time and effort.

When we don’t, our agility is frail and, at the first breath of wind, it’s blown away and the organization reverts back to its traditional way of working.

Interestingly, the Agile thinkers pointed out that agility requires living a specific set of values. It’s just that the majority of organizations have a tendency to forget about that and focus, instead, only on the process (something that we’ve inherited from the mindset of the industrial revolution). Look at Scrum, for instance. Scrum says that it’s based on five values: Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect and Courage. If you look at an even more technical model such as Extreme Programming, you’ll still find very similar values: Simplicity, Feedback, Communication, Respect and Courage.

It should be easy to notice how Communication, Courage, Respect and Openness are all related to creating an intelligent network of people, aren’t they? Too bad that most organizations forget about that and, as a consequence, they don’t reap the benefits of agility.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to support the kind of leadership that will let them thrive in a complex, adaptive world?

Provaglio: Promote deep listening as a practice at all levels in the organization; embody the Agile values and not only apply the Agile processes; support people as they learn to become more autonomous and to take more responsibility; move away from blaming cultures; and ask for external, qualified help when change is done on a large scale (not consultants who will try to offer them their solution, but coaches who will assist the organization as it takes charge of its own change).

These are just of the few things that come to mind right now and they are, I believe, all very relevant to creating adaptive organizations.

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