What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?

I just finished developing some online training on Agile Leadership and What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership? This article is a brief excerpt of that training.

What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?

They’re are lots of stereotypes and myths in this area – here are a few of them:

  • Project Managers only know how to do a “command-and-control” style of management
  • Agile requires a “servant leadership” approach which means that you completely abdicate the leadership role

Those stereotypes generally follow many of the stereotypes that people have about seeing “Agile” and “Waterfall” as binary and mutually-exclusive choices with nothing in the middle of those extremes.  Instead of force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, the right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem and sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

Fitting the Leadership Style to the Nature of the Problem

You can make some similar observations about leadership style:

  • A good leader doesn’t have one well-defined style of leadership that he/she force-fits all situations to.
  • A good leader recognizes that different styles of leadership are needed in different situations – that’s what “situational leadership” is all about

Another important observation is that the leadership style that is most appropriate in a given situation is directly related to the nature of the project and the problem solving approach.  Here’s how I see the relationship:

What's Really Different About Agile Leadership?The nature of the problem shapes the management objective and

  • The management objective shapes the problem solving approach
  • The problem-solving approach  determines the leadership style that may be most appropriate

Real-world Examples

Here’s how that might work out in different environments:

  1. Traditional Plan-driven Project Environment – Projects that have a relatively low level of uncertainty and require some level of predictability might lend themselves to more of a plan-driven approach to project management.  An important characteristic that differentiates this kind of project is that it is assumed to be possible to define the general solution to the problem with some level of certainty prior to the start of the project.
    • Problem-solving Approach – In that approach, a defined problem-solving approach is what is typically used.  The solution to the problem is generally well-defined in advance and the general approach for implementing the solution is also fairly well-defined.
    • Management Objective – If predictability is important, having a well-defined plan and conformance to that plan are also important.  Naturally, that requires some level of emphasis on control.
    • Leadership Approach – That calls for a style of leadership that naturally might be a bit more directive in order to remain on track with the project plan.  You certainly don’t want members of the project team running loose in all different directions without some kind of plan that integrates all of their efforts together that is consistent with the overall plan.
  2. Agile Project Environment – Projects that have a high level of uncertainty generally lend themselves to a more Agile project management approach where the final definition of the solution is expected to evolve as the project is in progress rather than being well-defined upfront prior to the start of the project.
    • Problem-Solving Approach – This type of project uses a empirical process control approach.  The word “empirical” means “based on observation” which means that both the definition of the solution as well as the process to discover the solution will evolve based on observation throughout the project.
    • Management Objective – Arriving at an effective solution is far more important in this kind of project than predictability.  Therefore, innovation and creativity would generally be emphasized more than control.
    • Leadership Style – This type of project obviously calls for a different leadership style.  If you want to encourage creativity and innovation, you don’t want to emphasize control, you want to empower people and give them some flexibility to use their own intelligence and judgement to explore alternatives as necessary to find the best solution.

Overall Summary

There are a lot of very polarized viewpoints in this area that go something like this:

  • Agile is good and
  • Waterfall is bad

Or alternatively:

  • Command-and-control management is bad and
  • Agile Servant Leadership is good

Those polarized points of view tend to over-simplify what is not quite so simple as drawing a black-and-white comparison between two extremes.  There are lots of “shades of gray” in both the problem-solving approach and the leadership style that is most appropriate for a particular situation.  An effective leader should be able to adjust his/her leadership style and problem-solving approach as necessary to fit any given situation.

  • There is not just one leadership style that fits all situations
  • Leadership styles are not necessarily good or bad – saying a particular leadership style is good or bad is like saying “a car is better than a boat”.  Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment you’re in.
  • Agile leadership is not really a radically different style of leadership that is totally separate and mutually-exclusive with other leadership styles; however, it significantly expands our definition of what “leadership” is.

I’ve developed a significant amount of new content for my Advanced Agile Project Management online training course that goes into this in a lot more depth.

One thought on “What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?”

Comments are closed.