Agile leadership: Start supporting, stop 'Dilbert-izing'

So much focus is put on teamwork in Agile development that leadership has been belittled, resulting in a leadership gap in many Agile organizations, said Agile consultant Bob Galen. This lack of leadership has created confusion about what Agile is and resulted in some failed Agile projects. "It's going to be the Achilles' heel of agility if we continue to create this us-and-them marginalization," he said.

Galen, Agile coach for RGalen Consulting Group LLC in N.C., sees the Agile leadership gap widening. "We haven't cared for and fed leadership," he said. "In Agile, I'm sorry to say, we've been Dilbert-izing, or laughing at, leaders."

After seeing

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leadership training get short shrift at Agile conference agendas the past couple of years, he's created a training tutorial for the STARWEST event in Anaheim called "Team Leadership: Telling Your Testing Stories." Galen is also Agile solutions director for Zenergy Technologies Inc. in N.C. and author of Scrum Product Ownership–Balancing Value from the Inside Out, a book on Agile product management.

Three Agile leadership scenarios are the most common in organizations Galen has encountered: a traditional top-down leader who does not change with Agile; a leader who gets Agile education and is engaged; or a leader who is unsure of his or her job description.

Nontraditional Agile

Sticking to the traditional top-down development management hierarchy is at odds with the concept of Agile development. "Confusion happens when companies try to fit Agile into the traditional development methodology model," said Galen.

Other methodologies, like Rational Unified Process, are technology-focused and can be "wrapped" into an IT organization or an engineering R&D organization. Agile, however, is more of an organizational development play, requiring cultural and process change.

Agile is a team-based game, but teams still need leaders, Galen said. He ascribes to a three-tier leadership approach: the self-organizing team, the middle-tier team leader and senior leader levels. In Agile adoption scenarios, he mostly sees either senior leaders or development team leaders driving development. The middle tier is often neglected. "Connect the dots across all three tiers of the leadership pyramid for the best results," he said.

Most training is provided for development team leaders and senior-level, the latter being leaders who are overall strategists and guide multiple projects toward the company's goals. Meanwhile, the middle-tier manager plays the primary project leadership role, working with teams on a day-to-day basis.

Middle-tier leaders can be most helpful when dealing with organizational issues. "This is where a lot of situational coaching takes place," said Galen. "This is where most of my coaching work is done."

Avoiding an Agile pileup

On the flip side, middle-tier managers who do not understand Agile or their job descriptions can derail projects by doing too little or by not buying into Agile. Galen has seen project failures occur because middle-tier managers undermined a project subtly or not so subtly. They don't understand Agile and either feel threatened by it or do nothing. "Not knowing what to do, they freeze and don't provide a lot of leadership or guidance," he said. "They go with this notion of self-directed teams, and the leaderless teams sometimes run amok."

Hands-on middle-tier Agile leaders attend sprint meetings and keep the lines of communication open between cross-functional team members. A good middle-tier leader:

  • knows when to get engaged and when to stand back;
  • Is inquisitive and asks appropriate questions;
  • understands how to expose the nature of a project to the team so the team can take its own actions;
  • uses meaningful metrics; and
  • thinks like a coach, not a manager.

Knowing when to be a hands-off leader is of utmost importance, said Galen. Active involvement in sprint meetings shows the leader is there to help if needed. On the other hand, by not attending sprint retrospectives, the leader shows trust in the team.

Galen recommends that Agile practitioners and organizations get involved with groups like The Agile Leadership Network, which has local chapters, and push for more training opportunities at conferences.

"I don't see us sustaining agility, particularly in large-scale environments, without bringing in much more leadership training," he said. 

This was first published in September 2012

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