Developers Adopt Agile, Executives Struggle

The trend by technology-related businesses and internal technology departments to adopt the Agile framework has seen a surge in the engagement of leadership educators to up-skill their managers with a more facilitative style.  The top-down, traditional way of managing people is getting in the way of fully embracing this new way of doing business. The successful implementation of the Agile framework promises CEOs quicker speed to market of the right product, higher revenues and reduction of costs. With this much return on investment at stake CEO’s and HR business partners are getting a lot more serious about leadership development.

Recently I spoke with a senior project delivery director of a successful on-line business. Belinda shared her insights from her journey so far, eighteen months after her business first introduced the Agile framework.  Her first comment; “It’s easy to implement some practices such as the weekly standing meetings but to do Agile properly is difficult.” She makes a point of saying that; “You can’t just choose the bits you want to do. For it to work properly, everyone has to adopt it.”

And when she says, “everyone,” she means a top-down approach.  Adopting the Agile framework means the CEO needs to champion it and the executive and management team must use a vastly different management approach to communicate their requirements to the development team.  This is where Belinda believes that implementing Agile can be difficult.  Traditionally, senior managers have used one of two styles to communicate their requirements to the development team.  The first style is what is sometimes known as the ‘seagull management approach’.  This is when the leader drops off a ‘three word brief’, spends no time discussing outcomes and whines when the product is not to their liking. The other style is commonly known as the ‘micro-management approach’. This type of manager maps out a detailed solution and leaves no leeway for the development team to contribute creatively, which has and does contribute to sub-standard product development.

Belinda remarks that “Agile forces senior management to meet these two styles somewhere in the middle by specifying the expected outcomes and not the detailed solutions. This allows contributions from all stakeholders to shape the development of the product. Under the Agile framework, the developers are not just doing tasks.  They understand the outcomes and can contribute to the solution.” And the developers like this new way of working. They feel empowered to be creative with their solutions and work together as a team to decide how tasks are distributed.  This often means that people are doing what they like and what they are good at.  It also means sharing the tasks that are less appealing.  Belinda emphasised, “With Agile, no one is at the top of the hierarchy. Everyone works together to meet the outcomes.  There is no competing with one another and this brings more transparency and collaboration.”

Herein lies part of the difficulty in getting it right.  Executives and senior management are used to competing for resources and working in silos to get their priorities met. Belinda reflects on her extensive experience working with technology teams and remarks, “The average executive talks strongly about teamwork but tends to take credit for that genius solution that will improve the businesses’ position in the market.”  She further relays a comment she heard recently from a developer, “Agile is very Zen.”, then she adds, “It’s not for show-offs.”

According to Agile guidelines, executives and senior management are not supposed to interfere with development and delivery priorities unless the criticality is high, but as Belinda reveals, “They can, they do and they shouldn’t.” Technology team insiders have told me that this is a contributing factor to why many organisations fail to realise the full potential of the Agile framework.  If the organisation’s hierarchy still operates the same way it always has with executives and senior management competing for resources rather than working together, then it makes sense that the Agile framework will clash with an embedded culture of internal competition.

Whilst there are executives struggling to adapt to this new paradigm, there are many others who are embracing it and it’s the CEO’s who are championing it.  One such humble CEO told me that “it’s a rewarding experience being part of an Agile transformation journey, but only once we realised it was a journey with bumps along the road. The first and most critical awakening occurred when we, as an executive team, realised that we were operating with a silo mentality. Our first priority was to break this down. We learned early on that the potential rewards of Agile would not be realised until we were functioning as one team, able to work through competing priorities with each other first.”

He further added, “We cannot call ourselves an Agile business yet, but it’s hard not to notice how energised our workforce is and how this has led to products that are far superior to those we’ve produced in the past. Agile forces all stakeholders in a room to contribute to the solution without fear of retribution. It’s like lifting the lid off the most extraordinary talent pool which was there all along!”

After a decade of educating middle and senior managers in the facilitative leadership approach, I sit here with a smile, comforted that the evolution of technology is forcing a leadership transformation all the way to the top of the hierarchy. Besides bringing shareholders a decent return on investment, great leadership provides the inspiration to unleash our creative potential towards something greater than ourselves. Now that’s worth being a part of.

Kristyn Haywood is the Founding Director of People for Success.  Kristyn has work with hundreds of leaders across Australia, Asia Pacific and the Americas in diverse industries including engineering, military, technology, and retail. People for Success helps build inspiring, high-performance workplaces by developing leadership capability and strong values-based cultures.

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