Being an Agile Leader

The article was originally published by Emergence Journal (Sep 2021). 

Four times a year, Emergence Journal brings together a curated selection of exclusive stories by great thinkers and practitioners from around the globe about business agility.

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References

Zuzana Sochova (2021) The Agile Leader: Leveraging the Power of Influence

Over the past two decades the world has become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – in other words, unpredictable and sort of ugly. The time where organizations could pretend change wasn’t necessary and that all they needed to do was improve their planning process is over. Once businesses accept that they are dealing with VUCA challenges, they realize that Agility at the organizational level is necessary to succeed in such an environment.

“Don’t DO agile, BE agile.”

Such organizations have reached a point on their agile journey far beyond team level frameworks and scaling approaches. Those are well described, and not that hard to apply when there is a strong sense of urgency and desire for change. The real challenge lies in embracing business agility and changing how the organization is structured and designed. People need to stop seeing agile as just another project management practice, and reconnect to the fundamental agile values and principles. It’s not about “doing agile” but “being agile”.

“Trust is a prerequisite for agility, transparency is an enabler, but purpose is the true driving force of agile”

Agile organizations are formed as a network of small autonomous teams. When an organization is not ready for such a level of agility and autonomy, changing processes and structures to build these new autonomous networks only creates chaos. Having the right culture and mindset is essential.

The first step towards an agile mindset is to build trust. It looks simple, but takes time. People need to invest time into building relationships with each other. They must come to know their colleagues outside the work tasks, and see others as people, not just roles. To form team spirit, team members need to experience something significant together.

How can this be achieved? First, start small and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Create a space where team members can share interesting moments from their history, or unusual (but not uncomfortable) facts about themselves. Later, once they are comfortable being open or even exposed, they can discuss their failures, weaknesses, and fears. Eventually they’ll be able to share embarrassing moments, which creates vulnerability.

Second, invest in diverse and accessible forms of teambuilding. There are no limits. Be flexible. Some teambuilding activities can be as simple as lunch together or a videocall. Other times, teams can go out together for a beer, go on a hiking trip, go bowling or boating, join a cooking class, and so on. Be creative when it comes to choosing teambuilding activities. The more diverse activities you do, the more you get to know each other.

Team members should also take some time to reflect on what they know about their colleagues. What are they great at? What are they passionate about? What are their hobbies? How do they behave outside their jobs? And so on. On the other side, team members should ask what people around them are afraid of and how they can help their colleagues feel more self-confident. Great teams are not afraid of conflicts. Once they reach the vulnerability trust level it becomes clear that conflicts are healthy, and that disagreement is a natural element of interaction. This is all useful for achieving productive dialogue, rich with varying perspectives and constructive arguments.

The second ingredient for creating an agile mindset is transparency. Being transparent about what needs to be done, what success looks like, and what to avoid is crucial for any environment, but in agile spaces we often go one step further. Great agile teams create radical transparency where everything is visible to everyone.

It’s true that radical transparency is scary at first. For some people, transparency is a threat as they have built their power and authority around hiding information. Lack of transparency is a weapon which can eventually kill agility as it makes collaboration and self-organization almost impossible. It’s a great friend of hierarchical structures supported by fear and politics. “If I’m the only one who has the information, no one can jeopardize my position.”

In addition, transparency creates anxiety for many people. Naturally, they’ll try to avoid it by brainstorming all the possible reasons why radical transparency is a bad idea. “People will feel overwhelmed by that much information! They don’t need to know everything!” they say.

To start with transparency, people must first have the courage to discuss their situations honestly, be prepared for difficult feedback, and trust that people will help them. People learn by doing, and team members must understand that perfection is not required. Instead, agile is about learning from small failures. Failure is a good thing as it allows people to improve. As such, creating a safe-to-fail environment is critical for agile organizations.

The third ingredient in the mix is purpose. Autonomy without a guiding purpose only creates chaos. The higher the autonomy, the stronger the purpose needs to be to glue it together. This gives everyone the same goal, belonging, identity, the reason for why they are there and where they are heading to.

 “Being an Agile leader is not about positional power, but your ability to leverage the power of influence.”

On their agile journey, organizations inevitably realize that to change the culture, change in leadership is also essential. Agile organizations are collaborative, creative, and adaptive networks. They are like living organisms, operating on different principles. They naturally flatten the hierarchical structure, rendering the hierarchical org chart unimportant. They are based on autonomy, self-organization, and empowerment, leveraging the power of self-organization. Instead of hierarchical leadership, they rely on emergent leadership which is not tied to any position but can emerge from different situations and needs on the fly. In Agile organizations, everyone is a leader. Everyone can step up and lead an initiative. If that initiative gains the interest of others, they form a team and support it. Being an Agile leader is not about positional power, but your ability to leverage the power of influence.

“Excellent Agile Leaders have four core competencies: Ability to define the vision, motivate, gain feedback, and ability to influence through themselves, others, and systems.”

Agile leaders are guides for the organization on its agile journey. Everything starts with a dream. Having a passion for something helps create energy. The ability to clearly formulate an appealing vision is the engine of change. The vision is not necessarily linked to a product or business but should be focused on the organization and its purpose.

Before chasing a vision and upending the status quo through organizational change, people should ask: what do we need to achieve? Why is it important? What major differences would it make if we achieved the change? These questions can help determine whether the vision is strong enough to leverage the discomfort caused by changing the status quo. As a test of whether team members are truly invested in the vision, they might ask: if I won the lottery tomorrow, would I still turn up at work to help my team make this vision into a reality? The stronger the vision, the higher the chance of achieving success.

You are a leader, no matter what official position you have right now. Leadership is a state of mind. Share a vision of how different your organization needs to be, and why it is important. Create a sense of urgency. Without it, no change will ever happen.

Agile Leader WheelThe second competency is the ability to motivate and give energy, which is closely related to the vision. If your team has a good vision, they will likely be self-motivated. The ‘carrot and stick’ model doesn’t work in complex environments. Instead, agile leadership builds on intrinsic motivation.

Agile leaders need to create an environment full of joy, where people can grow, and have enough autonomy to influence things. This allows them to co-create something they believe in and can be proud of. Doing something meaningful is the best motivation you can get.

The third competency of great Agile leaders is feedback – both giving and receiving. While many leaders understand how to give feedback which people can understand and use to improve themselves, great leaders are also open to hearing system-level feedback and learning from it. Giving feedback is hard, but receiving feedback is even harder. How many times have you rejected feedback from your peers, or disqualified their opinions by saying things like: “they don’t understand it”, “They don’t know all the details“, “I know better”. It’s easier that way, isn’t it?

In a VUCA world, where most of the problems involve volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, we need to build different skills. Individuals often struggle to deal with complexity or react to unpredictable and unstable business environments. To solve these issues, we need a higher level of creativity and the sorts of innovative solutions that only a team can accomplish. That’s where the ability to listen to feedback and learn from it is crucial.

The last competency is the art of influencing complex environments: specifically, to change systems, habits, support and consolidate culture. Agile leadership begins with a change of self, your judgments, values, behaviors, and style of work. Great leaders start with themselves as a role model. They change the way they show up, how they interact with others, and how they can inspire people around them to collaborate, create a team spirit, and become leaders. They can work with the entire system and influence the whole organization and its culture.

They are catalysts, creating an engaging environment with high transparency, trust and autonomy. They are good at forming teams and collaborative networks, not just working with individuals. They are efficient when dealing with complex situations and seek out different perspectives from diverse employee demographics when in search of solutions. They create inclusive environments that enhance innovations and creativity. They build trust, are not afraid to be vulnerable, and create safe-to-fail environments. Along their journey they make sure to invest in system coaching, large group facilitation skills, and agile leadership development. They help others to grow.

On top of the four competencies, Agile leaders must balance collaboration with decision-making. Even in an agile world you sometimes need to make a decision. While that’s not surprising to most managers, it’s often something which agile coaches struggle with. On the other hand, managers often struggle to collaborate and participate, while agile coaches are usually much better at it.

In an agile environment you need both decision-making and collaboration. Making decisions isn’t hard once you have a clear vision and purpose. Without that clear vision, leaders can become paralyzed by having too many options to choose from. The nature of a complex world makes many of those options look appealing. In truth, they’re all okay, but it’s impossible to know which option is the correct one without trying, inspecting, and adapting.

Again, the ability to hear feedback and learn from it is critically needed as in a VUCA world we can’t know which option is right for our team without experimenting and learning from failures. Agile leaders are also relying on two soft-skills: coaching and facilitation. Both require practice as well as the readiness and humility to step back and accept the fact that you are not an all-knowing expert. Instead, humble leaders use coaching and facilitation to help other people reflect, discuss, and decide what to do. In a complex world, a team is always faster at figuring things out, and coaching and facilitation skills will boost vital team collaboration.

In summary, leadership is a state of mind. All a leader needs to initiate a change in their organization is to have a vision. Positional power isn’t necessary because agile leaders are leveraging the power of influence. They enhance collaboration and build environments full of trust and transparency. They are catalysts. They are good at working with teams and networks, and they encourage people to take responsibility and ownership and become leaders.

When it comes to change, leaders need to change first. In time, the organization will follow.

Collaborative Environment

Speaking of creating the right environment – even in the agile world you sometimes need to make a decision. While that’s not surprising to most managers, it’s often something that agile coaches struggle with. On the other hand, managers often struggle to collaborate and participate, while agile coaches are usually much better at it. All over in an agile environment, you need them both. Decision-making and collaboration.

Agile Leader Wheel

Decision-making is not that hard once you have a clear purpose of what you like to achieve. But without a clear vision, there are so many options to choose from and the nature of the complex world makes many of them looking good, they all are ok, but it’s impossible to know which one of the right ones, without trying, inspecting, and adapting. And again, the ability to hear feedback and learn from it is critically needed. As in a VUCA world we can’t know which option is the right one, all we can do about it is to experiment and learn from failures. Fail fast, learn fast. There are environments where people react well to what I’ve just said. They understand that it’s better to know you are not going in the right direction sooner than later, they work in short iterations, experiments and get open and honest feedback regularly. They know it’s better to return after a week than when the entire delivery is done in a year from now. Those environments are already agile, they have high trust and are neither afraid of transparency nor failure.

But there are environments where people react with frustration on my sentence. “What do you mean by failing?” they ask. “We can’t fail here!” they say and you can sense the fear and stress growing in the space. “We would be fired if we fail.”.  And I’m not surprised. They are living in a different mindset, where they still believe the world is predictable and the business problems can be analyzed, planned, and solutions delivered accordingly. They try to pretend that unpredictability doesn’t exist and that the world is not complex. Just analyze, plan, and do it. That’s it. And all the difficulty is in how to manage it. That’s a traditional mindset and if you like to change it, and increase the agility in a space, you need to start with increasing trust and transparency. Without it there is no real collaboration happening.

In collaborative environments, there are two soft skills needed – coaching and facilitation. You might never be as good at them as professional coaches and professional facilitators are, but be able to use them and help people to raise their awareness about the situation and have an effective conversation and collaborate better is always useful.

Finally agile is a change. Change of the way of working, change of culture and mindset. You can address it at three different levels – changing yourself, through your own behaviors and habits. Becoming a role model. In my mind, this is the most powerful change. Leaders need to change first, the organization will follow. Secondly, you can change the way we work by implementing different frameworks and practices. Thirdly, you can influence the organization and the system level and change the culture and social system.

Agile Leader

Over the last two decades, agile shifted from software teams to organizations. We talk about different cultures, agile organization, agile leadership, agile HR, agile finance, all over business agility. Simply the ability to embrace agile values and principles at the organizational level and change the way organizations run their business. It’s a fundamental change that is more than just implementing some framework.

“Business agility creates an organization best able to serve its customer, no matter what the future brings.”

I found this definition fascinating. In today’s complex, fast-changing, and unpredictable world, agile organizations are good at responding to the nowadays challenges. Agile brings flexibility, allows you to respond to changes fast, learn through the iterations, inspect and adapt. In order to be successful, organizations need to serve its customer, no matter what the future brings. Fixed plans are failing as the business environment is not stable enough. All that matters is creativity and flexibility.

In my second English book published by Addison Wesley – The Agile Leader: Leveraging the Power of Influence I’m looking at organizational agility and focusing on the shift required from the leaders and organizations. Through practical exercises and assessments, you learn how to unleash your potential, become a better catalyst and community builder, sensibly apply transparency, improve functions from HR to finance, and guide entire organizations towards greater agility. Agility at this level is not about practices, nor frameworks. Though those are good at the beginning, as they are helpful in creating an environment with high transparency, autonomy, and collaboration, the real impact we need to create goes way beyond that. Creating a culture that supports innovations and creative solutions is a pre-requisite for real organizational change.

So how does agile start at the organizational level? You can say it starts with a management decision or training, but I would say it all starts with a dream. Is that dream strong enough to leverage the discomfort caused by changing the way we work? Is it strong enough for you? Or let me ask you this: If you won a lottery, would you be still going to work trying to make it happen? Or would you better give up and take a rest? And I’m not speaking about having a vacation to relax for a while, but is the vision important enough for you to hang around even if you don’t need to get paid? No change is smooth and agile brings a fundamental shift of values and culture, so you better have a strong reason for the change.

Being an agile leader is a journey. It always starts with you. You need to change first, the others will follow. Agile leaders need to have a vision that will motivate people to join their effort and work together to achieve it. They need to create a collaborative environment, with high trust, and transparency where the feedback is natural. They need to motivate people by giving them purpose, autonomy, and a learning environment.

Top 5 Books You Have To Read Building Agile Organization

People are always asking me what to read. I created the three lists recommending books ScrumMasters shall read, books Product Owners shall read, and books agile leaders shall read. And recently I got some great books from my friends, so I thought I will write one update page referring to them. This list is intended to help people on their agile journey who want to deepen their understanding of what Agile organizations are about and how leadership needs to change.

top 5 books Agile organization

#1: Johanna Rothman – Modern Management Made Easy

The first recommendation is a trilogy Modern Management Made Easy from Johanna Rothman. The books are full of stories and practical examples. Here are few quotes from the three books so you can choose which one is the most interesting for you.

1. Practical Ways to Manage Yourself is focusing on you as a leader. Modern management requires we first manage ourselves—and that might be the most challenging part of management.

“When we exercise our personal integrity, it’s true, we might lose our job or a specific role. However, even I have never immediately lost a job. Very few managers lose their jobs if they say, ‘No,’ to a management request that lacks integrity.”

2. Practical Ways to Lead and Serve (Manage) Others is looking on how to work with other people. Great managers create an environment where people can do their best work.

“Many first-line managers see themselves as the expert, as the sole source of knowledge for their group. You may have started as the expert. However, as soon as you become a manager, start moving out of that expert’s seat. You can’t be the expert for the team.”

3. and finally the Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization are looking at organization as a whole. Learn to create an environment where people can innovate.

“Great managers solve culture problems. And, culture problems are big, messy, systemic problems. You’ll address something over here and something over there will break. You’ll never run out of problems to solve. Maintaining a culture of integrity might be the most challenging job a manager can do.”

All over, the three books bring a nice overview of modern management practices, are easy to read, and give practical examples of how to change your leadership style. Each book covers several myths which help you to reflect on your current practices and change the way you work.

#2: Michael Spayd, Michele Madore – Agile Transformation

Another book I recently got is Agile Transformation: Using the Integral Agile Transformation Framework™ to Think and Lead Differently. It’s looking at agile transformation

“Becoming a transformational leader challenges us to make room for our own deep passion for change, coming up against the personal limitations in us that prevent this change from occurring through us.”

In the world we live in, which is complex and unpredictable, we need to re-think how we are thinking about organizations, leadership, and transformation. How can you work with other leaders, what kind of leadership is required to successfully lead transformational change, and what is realistically required for agile transformation?

#3: Zuzi Sochova – Agile Leader

The third on the recommendation list is my new book The Agile Leader: Leveraging the Power of Influence. It continues where the Great ScrumMaster book finished and is focusing on how to change the organizations and leadership in the agile space. It will help you to unleash your agile leadership potential and guide your entire organization toward agility. It’s a great overview of concepts for managers, directors, executives, and entrepreneurs―anyone, regardless of position, who’s ready to take ownership, challenge the status quo, and become a true agile leader.

“Having a critical mass of agile leaders is the key factor to organizational success in the VUCA world. Supporting agile leadership and growing agile leaders is one of the most important tasks on your agile journey.”

#4: Heidi Helfand – Dynamic Reteaming

The fourth recommended book is looking at evolutions of teams. Dynamic Reteaming: The Art and Wisdom of Changing Teams got recently it’s second edition and it’s a great book for all people interested in the team dynamic.

“Whether you like it or not, your teams are going to change. People will join your team and people will leave your team. You can grow your organization with dynamic reteaming in mind so that you have a resilient and flexible structure, or you can adjust your existing organizations to enable dynamic reteaming.”

#5: 97 Things Every Scrum Practitioner Should Know: Collective Wisdom from the Experts

Finally, there is a fifth recommendation for a very interesting book collected and edited by Gunther Verheyen. This book is a collection of short essays from 97 thought leaders (97 Things Every Scrum Practitioner Should Know: Collective Wisdom from the Experts) who share their insights from their agile journey about transformation, product value delivery, collaboration, people, development practices, ScrumMastery, organizational design, and Scrum.

“Bring the agile values to the organizational level. Address the system in its whole complexity and turn it into a self-organizing network of great teams. At this stage, you can see your organization as a living organism. Being a ScrumMaster is a never-ending journey. The #ScrumMasterWay concept can guide them.”

Emergent Leadership

Agile organizations are collaborative, creative, and adaptive networks. They are like living organisms, operating on different principles. They naturally flatten the hierarchical structure, making the Org chart quite unimportant. They are based on autonomy, self-organization, and empowerment, leveraging the power of self-organization and instead of hierarchical leadership, they rely on emergent leadership which is not tight to any position but can emerge from different situations and needs on the fly. In Agile organization everyone is a leader. Everyone can take a step and take over an initiative. If that initiative gains the interest of others, they form a team and support it. The radical transparency takes care of feedback and corrects any ideas which are not supporting the overall purpose we are all trying to achieve.

And here is the reason why traditional organizations are generally afraid of loosening the fixed positional power structures and giving teams autonomy. They are often scared of emergent leadership and I’m not surprised by that. In order to make it work you need to have a collaborative culture with high trust, transparency and safety, and strong evolutionary purpose which creates alignment among different parts of your organization so they are heading towards the same direction. Without a clear purpose, everything might look like a good idea worth of trying and higher autonomy usually only creates chaos, while strong purpose helps people to test their ideas by asking a simple question “If we do that, how does it going to help to get closer to the desired state defined by the purpose?” and if it doesn’t we don’t do it and figure out something else which will help us to get there. Radical transparency will allow any initiative to be tested by the crowd and filter weak ideas already before they start. The safe to fail environment encourages people to take over the responsibility and come up with their own ideas. Finally, the collaborative environment will support good ideas. In an agile organization, nothing is fixed. Sometimes I came up with an idea and others form a team around it, next time I join the initiative as a team member. Leadership is emergent and structure liquid.

Now, do you need it? That’s up to you to decide. It all depends on the overall business environment and the challenges you need to work on. Are they predictable and repetitive? A fixed structure will help you to be faster. Are they unpredictable and hard to plan? Are you regularly facing the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) challenges? Then more flexible structures with emergent leadership will be necessary to crack the challenges and be successful in nowadays constantly changing world.

ScrumMaster Mind

Great ScrumMasters are patient, can give space and dedicate their time to help other people grow. They are servant leaders and Catalysts. It sounds simple and not conflicting at first look, however, the real disconnect people feel at first, when they came across the role, is often about their ability to let things go. As a ScrumMaster, you are not responsible for the delivery. As a ScrumMaster, you need to let them fail. As a ScrumMaster, you can’t make a decision for them. “But I need to make sure they deliver the Sprint!” people often say with fear in their eyes. “I need to make sure they are efficient!”, “I need to tell them … ”.  Not that quite. Being a ScrumMaster is a very different role than being a Project Manager. They actually can’t be more different from each other. Project Managers are responsible for delivery, they shall manage, make decisions. ScrumMasters are coaches, they help other people to grow. They are facilitators, help the conversation to flow, but don’t interfere with the content. The team is responsible for delivery, the team is responsible for organizing themselves, and the team is also responsible for improving their way of working. ScrumMaster can help them, but not push them. The ultimate goal of the ScrumMaster is to do nothing – or if you wish to build great self-organizing teams.

ScrumMaster builds self-organizing teams

For example, imagine a team, which is super confident that they are going to finish all the parts they planned for that Sprint. In the middle of the Sprint, you can see from the board that they are not in the middle of the work, not even close. They started many items but didn’t finish much. It seems to you that they are not well organized, abandoning problematic tasks and not collaborating. What are you going to do? When I ask this question at the classes, most people feel a strong need to guide the team, tell them how they shall organize, and when we talk about the fact that as a ScrumMasters they have no power to decide for them, they are very uncomfortable. “But I have to make sure they deliver it”, they say. “I can’t let it go, what my manager would think?”.  And it’s very hard for them to accept the fact they can’t push them. They can try their best to coach the team and show them what can possibly happen, but if they are still confident and don’t see that as a risk, eventually you need to let it go and let them fail. Failing one Sprint is not a problem. At the end of each sprint, there is a Retrospective and that’s the time where you can help them reflect on what just happened and come up with action steps on what are we going to the differently next time, so this will never happen again. ScrumMasters are not responsible for Sprint delivery (the team is), ScrumMasters are not responsible for the product delivery (that’s Product Owners job), but they are responsible for making the team self-organized and improving. It’s not that hard as it looks. Try to let things go next time, failure is a good thing. Fail fast, learn fast.

Starting the Agile Journey

Understand Scrum is simple. If you don’t know what Scrum is and is not, there is a 17-page definition called Scrum Guide. If you like to know what is agile, go to the four values and 12 principles of Agile Manifesto. The agile community mostly agrees on both. As large products increase the complexity, there is no common agreement on how to apply agile and scrum to multiple teams and organization as a whole. The good news is that there are many options to choose from and many organizations can serve as inspiration on jour journey – Menlo Innovations, Zappos, Valve, Odde, ScrumAlliance, and I can continue. The first two are even often organizing visits to see how they work.

Agile Journey

In agile we love options and know, there is no one way how to do things. Some options are easier to apply, some harder, some less agile, some more. But remember Agile is not your goal, it’s just the way how to achieve your strategic goals so at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. The less agile ways are not necessarily bad options for given circumstances. Some companies go faster, some slower on their agile journey. Your organization needs to be internally ready for the higher level of agility and without direct experience with self-organization at the team level (across the organization at product teams but also at the executive teams and boards), it’s hard to go forward towards the organizational agility, Agile HR, Agile finance, and last but not least Agile leadership. I started this article by referring to the Agile and Scrum definitions. Would the definition of an Agile Organization be useful? It may look that way however I don’t think it’s needed. The Agile organization is not about practices, processes, not frameworks. It’s about being agile. It’s about agility hardcoded in the organizational DNA and culture. It’s about living the values. Be courageous to change the status quo, be open to feedback, respect different opinions, and have focus and commitment to deliver value not only to the customers and shareholders but also employees. So if you want to check your readiness to apply agile principles at the organizational level, start with the values. Do you like them? Do you live them? Or do you think they are not important?

5 Reasons Why to Attend AgilePrague Conference 2019

#1: World-class Program

Several years in a row we managed to achieve high-quality program while keeping it affordable to the people in the Czech Republic. This year you can be looking forward to awesome speakers, for example, Samantha Laing, Pete Behrens, Heidi Helfand, Stephen Parry, and Marsha Shenk. Register soon, the conference is always sold out.

Agile Prague Conference 2019

#2: Agile Journey Focus

The theme of this year is the Agile Journey. Agile is more than an IT process. We are going to talk about Agile transformations, leadership, scaling, the new ways of running your products and businesses, collaborative culture and great teams. See the program.

#3: Coaches Clinic

You can discuss any area you are interested in and get free help from experienced coaches at our Coaches Clinic. It is a unique and free service designed to help you with specific challenges you’ve encountered on your way to a more Agile way of working. The Coaches Clinic is prepared and organized by Certified Agile Coaches – Certified Team Coaches (CTC), Certified Enterprise Coaches (CEC), Certified Scrum Trainers (CST) and other experienced Agile coaches.

#4: Open Space

AgilePrague Conference is not just about listening. We want you to participate and come up with your own session. Every mid-day there is an open space where you have an opportunity to share ideas, discuss topics with each other and join a deep dive conversation with our speakers. Open space is an opportunity to create your own program and bring your own topics to the conference. 

#5: Visit Prague 

Prague is an awesome city, so why not combine the sightseeing & conference? Have a beer, wander through old town & narrow streets, enjoy one of the greatest historical cities 🙂 

Looking forward to seeing you on Sep 16-17, 2019 at AgilePrague Conference!

Do we need CEO in Agile Organization?

Agile at the organizational level changes everything. I wrote here already about Agile HR, Agile Board of Directors, and Agile at the Executive Team Level. Let’s have a look at the top of the organization. Should it remain the same? Or shall we go one step further and change it as well?

Searching for an “agile mindset CEO” is frankly a nightmare. Everyone who tried it can confirm that. There are not many CEOs with enough Agile experience yet in the world and those few who has it are not likely looking for a job as they are usually quite happy in their current organization. So, no matter which executive search firm you choose, or what you write to the position description, the search firms are no real help here. Unless you already spent effort up front on growing the talent internally, you need huge luck to get someone who understands agile more than a basic theory. No matter how desperate you are searching for a CEO, this is still just a small obstacle, not the real reason for a structural change.

The real need for top-level change starts when most of the organization is having an agile mindset. The Agile transformation is about being agile. How many times you’ve heard this request: “How about if our management give us more support on your Agile journey?”, “How about if our executive team is Agile and don’t just push it to us?”, “How about if they practice the same way we work as well?”Would that make it a difference? Maybe. So why don’t we go one more step ahead and change from the top and become a role model for the entire organization? As the organization has changed and Agile is not solely the domain of the IT anymore, but the business agility got into every department, the need for a change at the top level is inevitable. Why do we need a CEO in the first place? Just because that’s how organizations always been? Shouldn’t we ‘eat our own lunch’ and change the way we work entirely? Shouldn’t we apply the same principles the team do? Sounds simple, right.

And as usually it is simple to understand, hard to do as it needs courage. Courage to say “We are going to be different.” We will have Organizational ScrumMaster and Organizational Product Owner instead of a CEO because it will be closer to the way we work at this organization, fits our values, and last but not least we believe it will help us to be more flexible and adaptive at the organizational level. And that’s worth of trying.

The Organizational ScrumMaster would be focusing on the right culture, mindset and structure, so we become high-performing innovative organizations which embraced agility, and Organizational Product Owner would be focusing externally to the business, vision a purpose to we know where are we heading and why and are value driven. Both roles need to respect each other and be open with each other, the same way as it is in a single Scrum team, as together they will be part of the Organizational Leadership Team, and the network structure of self-organizational teams. There are two roles in Scrum by a reason instead of one. When you ask people if they would suggest to combine them, no one feels it is a good idea. And at the top organizational level, we would still do it? The similar reasons are valid at this level as well. When you think about it, it fits the way we work much better, then a single CEO – supports the right organizational mindset, transparency, and collaboration, it is consistent with who we are.

From a legal perspective, it is perfectly possible, and it’s not that much work either. You might need to change the bylaws a little, but there is no reason why you can’t do it. From a hiring perspective, it’s much simpler, as you are not looking for that ‘superhero’ personality who would be great with both internal and external sides. Try it. As I said already, all you need is courage. And that’s one of the Scrum values anyway. Experiment, and from that stage inspect and adapt. Now, do I believe that this SM-CEO or PO-CEO will eventually make themselves out of job? No, I don’t. It’s the same as the team level. Even if the team is self-organized and knows the business well, there is still work for ScrumMaster and Product Owner. Similarly, at the organizational level, there is still a need for Organizational ScrumMaster and Organizational Product Owner even when the network of collaborative teams got self-organized, business value-driven, and customer-centric. The Organizational ScrumMaster and Organizational Product Owner would use Leader – Leader style to build other leaders around them, and if they are successful, the organization will become purpose driven where leadership will be emergent and structure liquid. The same way as it is in the Scrum team, the Organizational ScrumMaster and Organizational Product Owner will move from those who explain, tell and share, to those who coach, facilitate, and keep the system spinning. And that’s what is the Agile Leadership about.

Five books every Agile leader should read before they start Agile transformation

To continue my with my book recommendations (check Five books every ScrumMaster should read and Five books every Product Owner should read), I have several books here, I would recommend every Agile Leader and manager in Agile Organization to read before they start Agile transformation. It’s a mix which will help you to understand Agile Leadership, Agile Organization, it’s structure, design, and culture and allow you to adapt to the different leadership style. Enjoy reading 🙂

  1. Niels Pflaeging – Organize for Complexity: How to Get Life Back Into Work to Build the High-Performance Organization is about complexity and work – and about how to deal productively with both. A condensed introduction to the theory and practice of organizational high performance. A manifesto for contemporary leadership and profound transformation in organizations of all kinds. It is “practically theoretic”, featuring cutting-edge insight. It proposes new language and thinking for a new way of work and organizations.
  2. Frederic Laloux – Reinventing Organizations is a must. The way we manage organizations seems increasingly out of date. Survey after survey shows that a majority of employees feel disengaged from their companies. The epidemic of organizational disillusionment goes way beyond Corporate America-teachers, doctors, and nurses are leaving their professions in record numbers because the way we run schools and hospitals kills their vocation. Government agencies and nonprofits have a noble purpose, but working for these entities often feels soulless and lifeless just the same. All these organizations suffer from power games played at the top and powerlessness at lower levels, from infighting and bureaucracy, from endless meetings and a seemingly never-ending succession of change and cost-cutting programs.
  3. Large-Scale Scrum: More with LeSS is looking at the organizational design from a different perspective. Rather than asking, “How can we do agile at scale in our big complex organization?” a different and deeper question is, “How can we have the same simple structure that Scrum offers for the organization, and be agile at scale rather than do agile?” This profound insight is at the heart of LeSS. In Large-Scale Scrum: More with LeSS, Craig Larman and Bas Vodde have distilled over a decade of experience in large-scale LeSS adoptions towards a simpler organization that delivers more flexibility with less complexity, more value with less waste, and more purpose with less prescription.
  4. The Responsibility Process: Unlocking Your Natural Ability to Live and Lead with Power is about FREEDOM, POWER, and CHOICE. Leadership is innate. The Responsibility Process proves it. The Responsibility Process is a natural mental pattern that helps you process thoughts about taking or avoiding responsibility. How you navigate it determines whether you are leading toward meaningful results or just marking time. This book gives you precision tools, practices, and leadership truths to navigate The Responsibility Process and lead yourself and others to freedom, power, and choice.
  5. Leadership and Self Deceptions shows how most personal and organizational problems are the result of a little-known problem called self-deception. Through an entertaining and highly instructive story, Leadership and Self-Deception shows what self-deception is, how people get trapped in it, how it undermines personal achievement and organizational performance, and- most importantly the surprising way to solve it.

BONUS:

Finally, there is a bonus book which I wrote a few years after this blogpost 🙂 The Agile Leader: Leveraging the Power of Influence Book published in December 2020 will help you to unleash your agile leadership potential and guide your entire organization toward agility. It’s a great overview of concepts for managers, directors, executives, and entrepreneurs―anyone, regardless of position, who’s ready to take ownership, challenge the status quo, and become a true agile leader. See more at https://greatagileleader.com.