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Leadership in an Agile Environment

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We would like agile leaders to stop being in the fire fighting mode. They should be there to help and empower, instead of taking over, argued Leonoor Koomen at Experience Agile 2019. She suggested replacing traffic light reporting with Obeya and showed leaders how they can focus on the deltas instead of covering and wanting to know everything.

Koomen stated that she genuinely believes we are all born with an agile mindset:

Put a bunch of three olds together, take away half of their toys... they come up with a new plan to play with. They do not ask for a complaint form.

However, said Koomen, most of the leaders were placed in the senior position as a reward for past behavior that she considers less agile, and more command and control. We should invite them to give things up, like telling people what to work on and how to do it, and stop acting as if they are the in-depth expert in detailed processes. They might have been like that one day somewhat long ago, said Koomen, but now their capabilities are requested on a more strategic level

Koomen mentioned that agile leaders should be making data-driven decisions instead of acting on gut feeling or outdated experience, reprioritizing clearly, instead of pushing people to take on yet another task, and reacting on impediments in a way that makes it feel safe for employees to keep raising them in the future.

The role of leaders changes when an organization adopts agile ways of working. Koomen mentioned that she sees a common thread with leaders in pharmaceuticals, oil, energy, beauty, electronics, and banks; they have loved the reporting with the green traffic lights in large projects. "It made them feel like things were under control," said Koomen, "even though whenever I check with them, most of these green light reports did not reflect the quality of the projects at all."

"When we take those reports out, we have to give them something in return," Koomen said. To help with their need to see how things are going in the organization, she suggested to use Toyota’s Obeya and teach leaders how to behave in these environments, as head of impediments instead of head of tasks.

Koomen suggested staying away from meetings where leadership spends a half-day or even full days regularly on updating each other on things that are not on a need-to-know level. "If we update on everything, our information stays to generic," she said, "if we choose to update within a leadership team on deltas that matter, a clearer decision-making process is possible."

Leonoor Koomen, lead agile enterprise coach at ING and owner of actagile, spoke about leadership in a scaling agile environment at Experience Agile 2019. InfoQ interviewed her about the challenges that leaders have to deal with and coaching leaders.

InfoQ: What are the challenges that the leaders at ING had to deal with? How did they deal with them?

Leonoor Koomen: I think most leaders in all branches face the same challenge; trusting their experts to know HOW things can be done, sharing with them a compelling WHY. And the biggest challenge, having CLEAR focus.

Most planning in companies was done annually, carved in stone, set in strict KPI’s and covering full world peace ambitions. We have to slice that, choose carefully. This over that. This now, that later, this never.

Adjusting to this is a journey, leaders have to decide on what they are willing to give up. No detailed reports anymore, but a swift impediment process, only escalating to C-level in case that is truly needed, trusting the ability of the full organization to deal with issues itself.

InfoQ: How can we coach leaders who are involved in an agile transformation?

Koomen: We coach leaders just like we coach any other person who is part of change: by showing our respect, mirroring kindly the behavior that we observe. By challenging them to look into value/impact instead of output ( or even worse input), and establishing rhythm and routine in all events. In a gentle but not too gentle pace, because there is a price for pushing too hard (disengagement) but also a price for being too slow.

InfoQ: What have you learned from coaching leaders?

Koomen: Haha, well for one... that I am glad I do not have their job. It is exhausting and it makes you give up things that are of value to you as an individual for the good of the company as a whole.

And also, I think over the past years I have learned from them to get off my high agile horse and be a bit more pragmatic. I am a big fan and see the huge value of experimenting. I love the failing fast part of agile. But in some branches, you have to limit your experiments, specifically when there are lives ( of employees or clients) at stake in a company.

And in some cases, companies still reward individual bonuses and I am a firm believer in Daniel Pink’s work. I think individual bonuses can compromise good team dynamics and do not stimulate employees helping each other. But in some situations or countries, these bonuses allow for families to make ends meet. Taking that away abruptly will definitely not be fair or grow engagement. So in some cases, we need more time to come up with a good and fair alternative.

Besides, I still think we cannot predict the future, but when the company is stock listed.. something needs to be said about the (expected future) effectiveness of change initiatives in companies. As long as we do not promise scope, time AND budget, but take two out of three.

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