Key Success Factors for Leading Agile Transformations, Pt 1

In this three part series, we consider core ideas that leaders in organizations will need to embrace when leading an Agile Transformation.

  1. Leadership mindset
  2. Investing in organization-wide learning and growth
  3. Organizational redesign: shifting from silos to team-based end to end delivery

Let us know your thoughts!

Part 1: Leadership Mindset

Leading an Agile Transformation is often difficult, in part because it requires a shift in mindset and behaviours from leaders embarking on this journey.

Three significant changes and techniques can be used to achieve those changes:

  1. Create a Clear Vision: Before embarking on an Agile Transformation, it’s crucial to establish a clear vision and communicate it effectively to your team. The vision should outline the goals, benefits, and expected outcomes of the transformation. This helps align everyone’s efforts and sets the direction for the entire organization.
  2. Embrace Host Leadership and Address Old Practices: Overcoming traditional management practices and habits that hinder Agile Transformation is a significant challenge for leaders. It’s crucial to recognize that deeply ingrained routines and management styles may not align with the principles of agility. These practices can include hierarchical decision-making, lack of transparency, micromanagement, and resistance to change. To address these challenges, leaders must reflect on their own behaviours and identify practices that inhibit agility.
  3. Lead by Example: As a leader, your actions and behaviours have a significant impact on the success of the Agile Transformation. Embrace Agile principles yourself and lead by example. Be open to feedback, demonstrate flexibility, and encourage risk-taking. Show your commitment to the transformation by actively participating in Agile events, supporting teams, and removing any organizational barriers that hinder progress.
Link to quiz to discover how resilient and adaptable your organization may be.

Two out of these three points are really about the changes that leaders need to make in how they lead, how they show up, and their behaviours. This is often a surprise to leaders; however, organizations are systems that respond to stimulus.

Leaders have a large influence on what stimulus is considered important so here are some actionable changes leaders can make:

  1. Embrace Host Leadership: Host leadership, inspired by Mark McKergow, entails adopting a host mindset where leaders create an environment where teams can self-organize, collaborate, and thrive. Host leaders provide the conditions for success rather than trying to control every aspect of the process. They focus on creating spaces for meaningful conversations, fostering connections, and facilitating the exchange of knowledge and ideas.
  2. Create a Container: Host leaders establish a container, a safe and supportive space where teams can thrive. They set clear boundaries and guidelines while encouraging autonomy and self-management within those boundaries. By providing this container, host leaders enable teams to take ownership, make decisions, and innovate. They cultivate an atmosphere of trust, psychological safety, and collaboration, allowing teams to experiment, learn, and grow.
    • Thought exercise: How would you define a container that will enable the attributes above? What organizational changes would be required?
  3. Focus on Invitation and Contribution: Host leaders emphasize inviting and encouraging team members to contribute their unique perspectives, skills, and ideas. They resist the temptation to provide all the answers and instead trust the team’s capacity to find creative and effective solutions. They value diversity and recognize that collective intelligence often leads to better outcomes. By fostering a culture of collaboration, host leaders ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and respected. They create opportunities for open dialogue, active participation, and inclusive decision-making.
    • Reflection: What is the difference between knowing the answer and knowing how to find the answer? How can you change how you collaborate to mentor your staff to become better skilled at problem-solving and knowing how to find the answer?
  4. Practice Deep Listening: Effective leaders actively listen to team members and stakeholders. They pay attention to the needs, concerns, and ideas shared by others, creating a space for dialogue and understanding. Deep listening allows leaders to uncover hidden insights, identify potential roadblocks, and co-create solutions. By genuinely hearing and valuing the input of others, leaders build trust and foster a collaborative environment.
    • Behaviour change tactics: It can be tough to shift away from knowing the answer to helping others find the answer. At one large Canadian financial services company, we had Directors experiment with carrying a baseball umpire’s clicker/indicator to meetings. Every time they made a statement, like “We should do X,” they would give themselves a strike. Every time they asked a thought-provoking question, they would give themselves a ball. It was a fun technique, got people talking about the power of questions, and gave tactile visceral feedback in the moment on their behaviour. Three strikes? Perhaps it is time to leave the situation, go get a coffee, come back in 5 (or 20) minutes, reset your counter, and try again.
  5. Encourage Experimentation and Risk-Taking: Host leaders understand the importance of cultivating a safe environment that encourages experimentation and risk-taking. Since most innovation comes from the team, not customers or stakeholders, leaders recognize that innovation arises from taking calculated risks and learning from failures. By embracing failure as a learning opportunity and promoting a blame-free culture, host leaders empower teams to break free from old habits and embrace Agile practices. They actively model and reward innovation and learning, providing support and encouragement for teams to explore new ideas and approaches. Lead through demonstrating your interest: Ask teams to talk about their experiments and what they learned. Focus on the rate of learning, as it is a leading indicator of team performance.

By embracing host leadership, encouraging experimentation and risk-taking, and transparently communicating the purpose behind the transformation, leaders create an environment that supports Agile practices. This fosters collaboration, innovation, and adaptability throughout the organization. These key lessons can serve as a foundation for your journey as a leader.

Read Part 2: Investing in organization-wide learning and growth


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