The Importance of Leadership and Management In Agile

August 24, 2015 — Posted by Al Shalloway

Leadership and management have often been given short shrift in the Agile world. Management isn’t mentioned once in the Agile Manifesto and the Scrum community has characterized management as uncommitted for years fortunately the chickens and pigs story has been mostly abandoned. While Scrum is not equal to “Agile” it seems to have set the tone for management in the Agile space. At Net Objectives we believe that both leadership and management are not only important, but are essential. Attending to leadership and management is a part of the backbone of our approach when we are working at more than just getting a team up on Scrum. It is possible to ignore leadership and management when one is just working at the team level. But if one wants to truly change an organization, one has to have effective leadership and management.

Saying “anyone can lead” sidesteps the issue. While undoubtedly true, not anyone can change the structure or culture of an organization. The role of leadership and management is not limited to removing the impediments of the team. This is just another way of lessening their importance - that is, have their purpose be subservient to the teams. This blog discusses the roles of leadership and management within organizations from a pragmatic view.

In The One Thing You Should Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success, Marcus Buckingham suggests that leadership is about vision while management is about implementation of that vision. We have found this useful. When one analyzes leadership and management one discovers that it is a many faceted issue. There is not one type of leadership and/or management. We’ve identified at least five different aspects of leadership and management that are important. These are illustrated in Figure 1. There are also at least four different dimensions that need to be managed. These are illustrated in Figure 2.

Facets of Leadership and Management

Figure 1. The many facets of Leadership and Management

What you need to manage

Figure 2.What you need to manage

We could even make a case for technical and team leadership. However, we think those types of leadership can be described in terms of combinations of the above. For example, team leadership can be thought of as a combination of “leadership / vision”, “manager as coach” and “transition management?” for a team. That is, team leaders guide, coach and transition teams while using adaptive management and creating a vision for the team. The way the team collaborates sets the culture for the team.

Types of Leadership and Management

Leadership as Visionary. A leader’s role is often one of visionary, the helmsman of the organization, so to speak. Helping people understand the big why is very useful in overcoming resistance. The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results, by Stephen Bungay, discusses the challenges of manifesting strategy.

Adaptive Management. When we talk about changing an organization we often mean changing what the organization does. This is referred to as technical change. But this usually requires us to think differently about what we're doing and therefore requires a change in values and beliefs as well as behaviors. Without this adaptive change, technical change either won't take root or will revert back to where it started from. However, the two - technical and adaptive change - are not distinct. They interact with each other and changing one requires changing the other.

For more, see Net Objectives Adaptive Management page.

Lean Management – Creating a Lean Culture. In Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions, David Mann eloquently expresses the relationship between management and culture.

Should a company target its culture in its efforts to transform its production processes and all the [roles] associated with it? It is tempting to answer: Yes! But that would be a mistake.

Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change. Culture is an idea arising from experience.

Our idea of the culture of a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way, a company’s culture is a result of its management system. … Culture is critical, and to change it, you have to change your management system.

Focus on the management system, on targets you can see: leaders’ behavior, specific expectations, tools, routine practices.

Lean production systems make this easier, because they emphasize explicitly defined processes and use visual controls.

The power of Lean-Management is that it eliminates the need for command and control by basing management on the science of finding the best way to do things. Standard work is ever changing while representing the best known way at the moment to get the job done. It becomes the baseline for improvement, for change. This is true for both managers and for the people doing the work.

Lean-Management also concerns itself with the eco-system within which people work. Changing the workflow across teams or how teams are formed is usually always beyond the capabilities of the teams themselves.

Manager as Coach. When we consider managers as committed to command and control it is hard to imagine them as effective coaches. But we need to create a new intention for managers. They need to assist their charges to being more effective. Toyota introduced the notion of management coaching their direct reports via small step-wise Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycles (PDCA).

The PDCA cycle of Lean is quite different from the inspect and adapt of Agile. In inspect and adapt, we see what happened, discuss how to improve our methods and adjust (adapt) accordingly. There is no attempt at building a model that explains what is happening. Lean, however, is based on flow and there are many laws that can be taken advantage of. PDCA means to:

   1) Make a plan based on the science of flow
   2) Do the plan
   3) Check what happened against what you expected to happen.
   4) Adjust your understanding of what is happening

PDCA follows the scientific method:

   P) make an hypothesis and a plan based on it
   D) run the experiment
   C) check the results of the experiment against the hypothesis
   A) adjust the hypothesis

This is the core of Lean-Management - attend to the nature of the problem and have management and those doing the work cooperate to discover better methods. Managers work on the eco-system within which the teams work (and over which they have little control) while the teams work on improving their own methods.

Leader – Leader. One way of growing people is to prepare them for their next level of responsibilities. In Turn the Ship Around: Turning Followers into Leaders, David Marquet suggests that the best way to grow people is to interact with them as if they had the responsibility that who they report to has. He doesn’t mean just trust them to do it, but to see what they need to do the job and focus on helping them get there.

They All Work Together

It is important to realize that all of these aspects of leadership and management work together. Although we can think of adaptive management as to how we change people's behavior, it is easier to change behavior when we have been teaching Lean-Science via Lean-Management methods. In other words, it is easier to change a person's being-ness when they understand the need for change and are not responding in fear. In reality, the thought processes listed separately in Figure 1 are not distinct concepts. They are all interrelated. Doing one aspect of management affects the others. Ignoring some of these typically results in the others being attended to being more difficult to achieve quality results.

What to Manage

In Figure 2, you might notice right away that managing people is not on the list. If you have to manage people there is something wrong. The essence of Lean-Management is to manage the workflow. This ties in nicely with the idea of Scrum having management remove impediments to value delivery. While not the same, they do complement each other.

Workflow Management

One of the core concepts of Lean is to manage the workflow, not people. Managing the workflow means managing both how things flow through the value stream’s eco-system and the structure of the eco-system itself. Given Lean’s mandate to “optimize the whole,” it is virtually impossible for people doing the work to see how this reorganization should take place. Although they must give input into the overall’s eco-system’s structure, if every team were to optimize locally, it is extremely unlikely that an optimal global organization will take place.

Product Management

The start of the value stream – what will be worked on – is the most important part of the value stream. Not only to ensure the right items are being implemented and delivered, but because the level of intake items has a significant, often dramatic, effect on the rest of the value stream. As Eli Goldratt, creator of Theory of Constraints said - "Often reducing batch size is all it takes to bring a system back into control". Agile should be about the incremental delivery of business value quickly, predictably, sustainably and with high quality. This requires strong product management of identifying, selecting, sequencing and properly sizing the work to be done. Balancing the workload with the capacity can result in huge benefits all on its own.

Technical Management

Managing the quality of the architecture, design, code and tests is incredibly important for sustainability. How to learn new methods and collaborate together often requires more than an organic approach.

Transition Management

As we move from where we are to where we want to be it is often important to have someone, or even a group, attend to the transition. Transition often brings chaos, misunderstandings and even fear. With no one attending to adverse side effects, resistance to learning may become endemic. Opportunities for quick change also become more likely to be implemented if someone is looking for them. We have found that implementing a new approach is not as effective as transitioning to becoming a learning organization. Implementations can get quick gains but often stagnate when the pain motivating the implementations is alleviated. We often hear people saying “we’re going to Agile” or “we’re adopting Scrum” or “we’re implementing SAFe.” The challenge with this is twofold. Taking an implementation mindset ignores the reality that people don’t go from “A” to “B” but rather fall into a neutral zone of “going from A to B.” The second challenge is that these types of statements make it sound as if you have a destination. That once you’ve learned how to be, adopt or implement it, you are done. This often leads to stagnation once the implementation is completed.

In Summation

Leadership and management are not only important, they are essential. When organizations attempt to improve their methods, many types of management are in play. Attend to them all because they are all interrelated. Essentially, we must consider the different aspects of organizational development.

Leadership / management Aspect Relates to
Leadership / Vision Business Strategy
Adaptive Management Human psychology
Lean-Management Managing our work and the eco-system within which it takes place
Management as Coach The science of learning (PDCA)
Leader - Leader How to grow people for the future

When one considers the column on the right, it is clear we need the leadership / management on the left.


Books in the article above:

The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results, by Stephen Bungay

Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions. by David Mann

The One Thing You Should Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success, by Marcus Buckingham

Turn the Ship Around: Turning Followers into Leaders, by David Marquet

Other books of interest:

Joy, Inc: How We Built a Workplace People Love. by Richard Sheridan. Brilliant book on how a leader’s vision can create a great culture. Also, the best book on XP we know.

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, by Ronald Heifetz and marty Linsky. Great introduction to adaptive management and the difficulties it entails.

Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. by William Bridges

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. by Marty Linsky

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. by Chip and Dan Heath

Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. by Mike Rother


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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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