Talent [R]evolution

Be a better agile coach: How a lack of leadership leads to failings

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If you’re a professional agile coach, scrum master or experienced consultant, the following scenario is likely something you’ve come across before. During transformation processes, leadership aren’t enabling agile principles to effectively permeate the organisation. This is largely because they’re excluding middle management from the transformation process – organisational players who frequently create roadblocks in meaningful transformation.

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This tendency is evidenced by the comments of employees. Frequently, staff will cite second-level leaders as more likely to favour a top-down managerial approach via an order and control framework, displaying resistance to a more open, agile mindset. However, the blame can’t be entirely laid at the feet of these middle managers; often, top management shows little interest in sharing information or showing commitment to the change process in the presence of secondary level management. Thus, the impression that middle management is the clay layer who aren’t willing to adapt.

The real attitude of second-level management to agile transformation

Perhaps the most meaningful insight comes from second-level management themselves. This layer of leadership feels excluded from the process, citing that they’re missing information, not receiving orientation and feel shut out from the decision-making process. From their point of view, top management is lacking attention and commitment to its role as an agile coach. According to middle management, leadership needs to invest more time in managing the change process and how it impacts operational daily work.

Admittedly, frequently second-level management has a sympathetic attitude as to how these conditions arise. They link their perspective to top management’s hectic schedule and their tendency towards distraction in general. From the viewpoint of a professional agile coach, second-level management’s opinion is extremely pertinent to the agile transformation process, as opposed to pretextual arguments that undermine change.

How top management can better implement change

All this said, the reality often is that senior management is often involved in daily business to a great degree. Many experienced consultants observe that members of the executive team are in fact not the masters of the day-to-day schedule, but rather, its slave. In this respect, they are attempting to manage too many different issues at once, and as a result, they don’t fulfil the diverse needs of their subordinates to the standard that they expect.

By and large, this is because of the pervasive attitude that top management is an all-seeing eye. Many employees and middle management assume that the senior management has a comprehensive understanding of everything that happens in “their” organisation, when the reality is, this is simply impossible in such a complex and dynamic environment. This attitude is based on the assumption that the employees and second-level leaders are in some way excluded from this complete overview. 

To get down to the kernel of the problem, the entire organisational hierarchy needs to do away with the notion that C-levels should micromanage the entire organisation. It’s this lack of trust in the wider team that holds them captive within their overwhelming workload. Subsequently, this excessive workload leads to a lack of proper leadership, particularly when it comes to agile transformation and change management. 

Instead, agile principals recommend that organisations “maximise the work not done”, essentially meaning that every player should focus on the most valuable issue first to more effective. Translating this principle into leadership means they should take at least 20% of their time to serve as a multiplier for others, ensuring that the environment supports personnel at their best. In this sense, the goal of the top management has to be to foster talent so they can perform at the highest level.

Taking on the mantle of a better agile coach

In summary, for agile transformation to really work, top-level management needs to focus on their leadership skills above all else. Merely implementing agile principles in a C-level meeting does not make for an agile organisation; instead, they need to carefully consider how these methods will permeate the entire organisation. This means discarding tendencies towards micromanagement and or striving towards an omnipotent view of the business. 

In contrast, they need to take the time to communicate and inform those under them, especially second-level management. These players – who are so often blamed for stymying transformation processes – need to be more fully included in the agile transformation process, so they too can shake tendencies towards micromanagement. After all, the keystones of agile transformation are communication, trust, flexibility and enabling staff to perform. Therefore, leadership need to practice what they preach, cast themselves as an agile coach, and fully embrace agile.  

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My passion is the transformation of enterprises into learning organizations by getting them into the flow of collaboration. I do have a background as consultant in strategy, organizational and personal development for more than the last 10 years. Currently I am working as independent Agile Coach / Scrum Master.

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