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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

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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.

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