Leadership in human aspects of Agile

The human aspects of scaling agile…

Searching “what is agile?” we find words like “iterative development, software delivery, self-organizing teams, scrum, and sprint”. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with most of these terms, and you may even be thinking about Agile at scale, or “Enterprise Agility”. As we start to scale agile, the human aspects tend to be outweighed by a focus on execution. However in our experience, there are a small number of factors that become critical to truly realising benefits as organisations begin to scale Continuous Delivery, DevOps or Agile principles beyond 1-2 teams, and start looking at a whole function or even an entire organisation….

So what do we mean by human aspects? … It’s anything and everything to do with an organisation and its people, how they work together, and its workforce.

In a series of blog posts, we will explore these critical human aspects by asking the question: “What practical steps can we take to start making a difference?” With the first of the series focusing on Leadership.

Part One – Leadership

We are quite excited to see some really informative research around Agile Leadership emerging. The Puppet + DORA State of DevOps Report examines the idea of transformational leadership, and Deloitte’s 2017 Human Capital Trends which explores  the idea of “hero leader”, and how it can no longer scale, detailing how the US Military has reinvented itself as a network of teams.

As we begin to explore the idea of Leadership in an Agile environment, we are immediately compelled to examine what leadership means alongside (increasingly) autonomous / self-managed teams. What is the role of leadership in these new ways of working? Is a different type of leadership needed? Are leadership roles needed at all?

Our view is that leadership is becoming more diffused across the organisation rather than the traditional approach where it is distilled in discrete roles at the top of an organisation. More and more, leadership is a capability that is integral to all roles, at all levels of the organisation, irrespective of whether a role has direct reports or not. This means there will be far fewer roles that are considered “only leadership”, and even when these discrete leadership roles exist, what they do is changing significantly.

There are some well documented examples of this in practice; LeLoux explores a number of these in his seminal book: Reinventing Organizations. Atlassian’s (the now famous Australian start-up that even AFR now considers the “coolest company in Australia”) focuses their leadership teams almost exclusively on the “sustainability of the eco-system”. Leaders amplify the company’s vision and purpose, develop “the guard-rails” that enable everyone to deliver great customer outcomes, and identifying potential threats by assessing their ongoing competitive position.

And Microsoft who’s transformation from “a battleship to 3000 canoes”, has been underpinned by leaders who focus on translating customer value into outcomes, challenging the norm, and inspiring people.

So if we agree that leadership is changing, what does it mean in practice to be an Agile leader?

One of the key characteristics is authenticity. Authentic leaders communicate their team / organisation’s purpose in a practical way. Their passion for the customer is infectious and creates the oxygen for teams to take meaningful action rather than waiting to be “told what to do”.

This is tightly coupled with coaching. Coaching has become a core tenant of leadership, incorporating  both personal recognition of great work, as well as creating an environment of- and space for- continuous development and collective accountability that encourages personal and collaborative reflection in the absence of blame.

Demonstrate empathy, care and inclusion – taking the time to seek out people’s stories and experiences, encouraging them to be themselves at work, and connecting personal interests to organisational purpose and customer outcomes. These leadership behaviours encouraging engagement and wellness that research is showing drives improved performance.

Research from Bersin by Deloitte found that inclusive leadership is one of the most significant driver of employee engagement. This is because when people feel included they feel safe; safety enables people to suspend self-interest, and it’s only when we can suspend self-interest that it possible for effective teams that are focused on delivering customer outcomes.

So on reflection… authenticity, coaching, empathy, care and inclusion; these are not aspects of leadership that most people would disagree with, but neither are the first words that would come to mind if you asked 100 people from a corporate Family Feud audience.

So what practical steps can you take as a leader to be more Agile?

  • Start with purpose and customer; have your team members spend (more) time with customers, sharing their stories, and demonstrate your personal connection to customer outcomes.
  • Think differently by spending more time conceptualising possibilities, seeking out divergent views, and embracing complexity, and less time formulating specific strategies and plans.
  • Act differently by playing an active role in multiple teams, embracing the Agile tools and ceremonies that your teams are using, and spend more time coaching and less directing.
  • React differently by explicitly tolerating risk and celebrating experimentation, demonstrating resilience when things don’t work perfectly the first time and consciously not laying blame.

So in summary, as a leader and influencer in your organisation the first port of call to scaling Agile is to take conscious control of your own “leadership style”, start thinking, acting and reacting differently, and you’ll begin to see the benefits we’ve discussed above. This can be the case, even when the rest of the organisation around you hasn’t changed. However to take those benefits to the next level and successfully scale even further, the next factor you would likely consider will be organisational structure. We’ll cover this in our next blog in this series.


You can find further Deloitte thinking and resources here. We would recommend the following further reading:


Want to stay up-to-date?

Stay on trend and in the know when you sign up for our latest content

Subscribe