Tag Archives: Agile Leadership Style

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.

Agile Leadership

Leadership Stereotypes

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 “Agile” and “Waterfall”. They see them 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. Sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

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.

Agile Leadership – 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

Comparison of Different Environments

The table below shows some important differences between a traditional plan-driven environment and an Agile environment. The table shows the characteristics in each environment that might have some impact on the overall leadership approach.

General Characteristics and Problem-Solving Approach

<
AreaPlan-driven EnvironmentAgile Environment
General Characteristics 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.

Projects that have a higher level of uncertainty typically require a more flexible and adaptive approach to arrive at the solution as the project is in progress.>

In an Agile project, both the solution and the process for finding the solution might evolve as the project is in progress.

Problem-Solving 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. An Agile 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 and Leadership Approach

AreaPlan-driven EnvironmentAgile Environment
Management Objective Predictability is normally important. Achieving predictability requires a well-defined plan and conformance to the plan and some level of emphasis on control are also important. 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 Approach The style of leadership 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. A different leadership style is typically called for. 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.

Polarized Viewpoints

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. It not as 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.

Overall Summary

Here’s a summary of some key points:

  • 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. It is not totally separate and mutually-exclusive with other leadership styles. However, it significantly expands our definition of what “leadership” is.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader?

Was Steve Jobs an effective Agile leader? I watched the movie “Jobs” this weekend about the life of Steve Jobs and his career at Apple and it was very thought-provoking. 

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader?

Steve Jobs was absolutely brilliant, embodied a lot of Agile values, and he was enormously successful in developing some very innovative products in a relatively short amount of time that made Apple very successful;  but he was ruthless, tyrannical, and very insensitive in his relationships with people. 

I was thinking – is that style of leadership really consistent with Agile and is it an effective style of leadership for an Agile environment?

  • Much of the thinking behind Agile is based on the idea of empowered and self-organizing teams where the product definition bubbles up rather than being driven down from above,  Steve Jobs’ leadership style doesn’t seem to be very consistent with that model, but he was very successful in getting things done.
  • Another thing that seems to be not entirely consistent with Agile is that Agile is based on the idea of teams working at a “sustainable pace” and it was apparent that many of the teams that worked under Steve’s direction at Apple worked incredible hours to get things done but they were very passionate and dedicated to their work.

Here are some quotes from Steve Jobs that indicate his values that are related to Agile:

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader? – Higher-level Values

Area>Quote
Focus and Simplicity“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things… “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Leadership Style“It’s not about charisma and personality, it’s about results and products and those very bedrock things that are why people at Apple and outside of Apple are getting more excited about the company and what Apple stands for and what its potential is to contribute to the industry…The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”
Planning“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Seeing the “Big Picture”“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have…To turn really interesting ideas and fledgling technologies into a company that can continue to innovate for years, it requires a lot of disciplines.”

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader? Project-level Values

Area>Quote
Requirements and Customer Needs“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”
Innovation“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”
Quality“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
Continuous Improvement“I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why. Because they’re harder. They’re much more stressful emotionally. And you usually go through a period where everybody tells you that you’ve completely failed.”
Tools“It’s not the tools that you have faith in – tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.”

And one of his most famous quotes that really sums up his values is “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. 

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader? Overall Summary

My thoughts on this are that:

  • Steve Jobs definitely had some “rough edges” in his relationships with people but he embodies many of the characteristics of an effective Agile leader
  • There probably isn’t one leadership style that is effective in all situations and some “out of the box” thinking is definitely worthwhile rather than implementing some kind of “textbook” Agile approach in all situations

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.