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How Agile and DevOps leadership empowers the whole team

A dictatorial style of leadership doesn't cut it in Agile and DevOps shops. Here's how managers can ditch bad habits and instead encourage team experimentation and decision-making.

Let's envision a scenario. You are a successful, seasoned manager. You're popular with most of your employees. You might even have been promoted to a director or executive position, due partly to your successful use of the command-and-control style of management, which is often categorized as authoritative or rigid.

Everyone aspires to be at the top, where the power lies, which is why command-and-control management survived for decades. It was the way successful business was done, and it's even helped the software development enterprise thrive.

But now the company wants to adopt Agile and DevOps, which puts you between a rock and a hard place. Agile and DevOps leadership techniques are inclusive and team-centered, enabling team-managed cultures with greater organizational agility than those under hierarchical command. Agile and DevOps leadership aims to get products to market with less waste as well.

Your top-down management style appears old-fashioned and clashes with this new direction. So, what does that mean for you?

When software development teams move to Agile or DevOps, many executives don't understand the actual meaning of the change. Many executives and business leaders associate Agile and DevOps with anything-goes anarchy or going faster at any cost. Some executives feel threatened when their subordinates make decisions, even though they've picked the teams and the leaders. While they want to see an increase in productivity and be able to change quickly as needed, they want to control all changes.

These methodologies are not a mutiny. Think of Agile and DevOps leadership as cultivating all the creativity from all of your team resources to enable production of a far better, far more interesting product.

But leaders must let go of the reins and trust their workers, lest they become impediments to the app dev process.

Rethink project management

With command-and-control leadership, managers decided which projects to prioritize, as well as how they were done, when and by whom. Conversely, Agile and DevOps leadership should inspire team members to share and discuss differing ideas or opinions, experiment with new methods and take chances without worrying about failure. These approaches foster greater employee investment in the business, because they can innovate; they might come up with a new, inventive option you had never considered, which keeps them motivated.

To reap the benefits of Agile and DevOps, managers must learn to encourage team members, turn over some level of control and not stifle their ideas. Such a change is not an easy task for managers accustomed to total control. But these methodologies are not a mutiny. Think of Agile and DevOps leadership as cultivating all the creativity from all of your team resources to enable production of a far better, far more interesting product.

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To start, management must give up on the blame culture that permeates command-and-control leadership. Support experimentation, as it's the only way to convince employees to trust in their ability to problem solve and meet goals.

Managers should learn to mentor and encourage idea development from others. They should coach workers, not make every decision for them. Managers know the strategic goals of the business and have ideas about how to achieve them. They should share them freely but also actively seek out and listen to other ideas. A stream of ideas can go a long way.

Re-envision the manager role

In Agile and DevOps leadership, managers become project managers or team managers. They don't assign work to individuals; they manage the board -- whether Kanban or Scrum -- and jump in as needed to correct issues that get in the way of the team's progress.

Managers are part of the team as well. They can put their experience and skills to use by working with multiple departments or functions, all while keeping the project in scope. Many managers quite naturally fill a Scrum master role or even a development or QA lead position. Either way, these leaders influence and assist in the team's work.

While leadership styles or roles might change, the importance of providing business value remains constant. When the team is productive, it generates income and positive customer experience, both boons to business value. On the flip side, managers that waste time micromanaging individual team member's work detract from business value.

Reinforce team control, product mindset

Under Agile and DevOps approaches to software delivery, a team forms around a project, which means team members change as new projects begin. Instead of reporting to a supervisor, each team member reports back to the group. For example, I report my QA information, status and tasks to my team members, not to a QA or dev manager. The team decides what work is up next and who performs which tasks.

Generally, an Agile or DevOps team includes a product owner, or a similar role, who is responsible for delivering the agreed-upon requirements to customers. Product owners also coordinate team activities, and they work and communicate with external stakeholders, customers, senior executives and managers. Product owners prioritize the team's work as needed and gather the information necessary for design requirements.

However, the team decides when it delivers which requirements -- and in what order. The team alone determines the deadline or estimates the time needed to complete work and produce a viable product.

With Agile or DevOps, upper management might feel like they're looking in from the outside, but it shouldn't be that way. The team's schedule and process are visible to everyone. Management can attend team meetings, talk to members and even assist. The important thing is to support the team's work -- not simply tell them what to do. Over time, teams learn to resolve disagreements from within, rather than continue endless debates or appeal to authority figures for key decisions. Remember, you're there to mentor, advise and discuss -- let the team make the final decisions.

When you relinquish control, it provides the business with the agility to grow and respond quickly in a highly competitive market. When senior leadership embraces and understands leadership advances, company productivity and morale improve, even among executives. Everyone will speak the same language and understand the rules. Work becomes more about innovation and creation, a place to perform meaningful and valuable work.

If you want your business to thrive with Agile or DevOps, all personnel, regardless of title or level, must fully commit to the change.

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