Agile leadership: Managing the system and leading people

In our cooperation with our customers, on the net and on the bookshelves, we always notice: Agile, Agility, Scrum, Kanban, Less and Co. are on everyone’s mouth. From start-ups to corporations, more and more teams and executives are dealing with these topics. The drivers for this are very different. Sometimes it’s curiosity, sometimes it’s serious problems with product development, sometimes it’s a kind of status symbol according to the motto “Look, we’re also involved. We are agile now.” And yes, sometimes it’s just buzzwords that have been snapped up and now have to make all sorts of (even questionable) decisions and changes. However, looking at processes and structures alone is not enough to bring about a real change in the company.

Agile is more mindset than framework or tool

The reasons why we can no longer organise our work in many areas today in the same way as we did 20, 50 or 100 years ago are manifold. New technologies, globalization and fast-pacedness are just a few of the things that make our world increasingly complex. Often, plans by companies that are forged with a lot of energy, time and money simply do not come to pass. And almost as often agile methods, frameworks such as scrum, colorful post-its, boards and standup meetings are identified as the solution.

The catch: We are all too happy to rush into agile tools and methods. Unfortunately, however, only the visible parts are taken over. And often only in certain areas of the company. And unfortunately, only certain parts that fit into the current processes and structures of the company are often retained. Much is diluted, hollowed out and mutilated. So the “old” system preserves itself.

You only see well with your heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Agile leadership means working on the system

Of course, it makes sense to adapt tools, methods, and frameworks to your own context. We need to answer the question: what is actually to be achieved? Why do we want to be agile? And how can agile methods help? Agility is not an end in itself. It’s just a perspective on the organizational system.

Giving your own employees, teams and the company orientation and creating suitable framework conditions is one of the essential tasks of agile managers. Above all, this also means creating a system that is as consistent as possible, which promotes intentional behaviour. Always oriented towards the customer and the market.

So more effort should be put into changing and developing the organization than in adapting scrum and co. to the existing system.

Challenging the Status Quo

Often the created “organization” system is very good at protecting the existing. However, as change becomes more and more important for the survival of the company, this tendency is rather difficult if it is not made transparent, where contradictions and friction occur.

Yesterday’s success is no guarantee of tomorrow’s success.

Classical fields of tension can be shown, for example, by answering the following questions:

How well do current structures, processes and roles or positions support self-organization and collaboration between people with different expertise? What are the artificial obstacles caused by boundaries, communication rules and egos?

What existing incentive systems ensure true cooperation towards an overarching objective? Which ones are more likely to create competition between individual employees, teams and departments?

What is the current value chain in the company? How and where is a value actually created for the customer? Where not?

How self-organized are employees allowed to decide and act? Which principles and values serve as framework conditions here? What is prioritized and what are hidden agendas? And which control systems are really helpful?

How transparent is the company regarding the all the information and business figures, successes and mistakes? What does this mean for the learning culture in the company? How quickly do grievances become apparent and how quickly can the company react to them and to changes?

There are many aspects of the organisational system that can be illuminated. In organizations, we are dealing with complex structures that are more like a living being than a machine. Using a tool or introducing a new process is more of a simple answer to a complex problem and therefore not enough on its own and more in keeping with the “classic way of thinking”.

The complexity of a system must be appropriate to the complexity of its own environment.

Max Boisot

Difference agile leadership: From management to leadership

Managers in the classical system have often taken care of managing people and professional problems, which was also appropriate and relatively successful at a certain time and in a certain context. It is also fitting that in many organizations, people become managers who are technically good or simply long enough in the company.

If agile methods are the meaningful further development of the product development process, then Agile Leadership is the resulting necessary further development of the classic leadership work.

1. Provide orientation
2. Create a framework for self-organization
3. Developing yourself and helping others develop

In an agile organisation, the focus of leadership work shifts more to understanding and individual leadership of people (e.g. value systems) and creating and adapting framework conditions so that the experts in the company do their work and generate real added value for the customer. In contrast to the classic leader, agile leadership is therefore more of a role than a position. Leadership is more a service for colleagues than operational decision-making and implementation.

Agile leadership methods can be learned

No one is born a perfect leader. Dazzling leaders weren’t just talent. Rather, they have taken a certain attitude in their lives and have dealt intensively with the subject, tried a lot, have sometimes failed and have learned from it.

If a particular form of leadership has been supported by the system so far, we cannot expect our employees to behave in a completely different way from tomorrow and to prevail against the framework conditions of the system.

This is often a great force for companies and aspiring agile executives alike. Together, they must learn agile leadership methods and develop. Time and money must be invested in agile executive development. There may be a more favourable and less favourable framework for this. Ultimately, however, it is above all the will, courage and openness to change that counts and the assumption of responsibility for this.

Agile leadership development with Management 3.0

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