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Agile Ready Leaders Get Their Start in Kindergarten

By Russ White and Jay Anderson

Recently, Jay and I were discussing our introduction to Agile. “Everything I know about agile leadership, I learned in kindergarten,” he said. Really? Well, the more we talked and I thought about it, yes, really.

Consider the four basic tenets of leading in an agile environment (introduced in our first blog). Software engineer Kent Beck designated three of these as Be Honest, Be Kind, and Work in Small Increments. Jay added the fourth: Be Responsible. It shouldn’t be too surprising that Jay’s early classroom assignments were "small" in nature. Group tasks needed to be wrapped up by snack time, so not to tax the room's collective attention span. Honesty, kindness, and responsibility, on the other hand, were modeled by the teacher and conditioned by often critical feedback from classmates: "Jay's a liar" or "You're mean" or "Jay didn't do what he said." Good grief...and good lessons.

Agile-Ready LeadersOf course, the Agile mindset requires more than a kindergarten degree. Many businesses have tried—and failed—to create an Agile-conducive environment. Too often they focus on tactics or mechanical processes in hopes of inspiring transformation, and they overlook the cultural overhaul required for Agile to take hold. This is where the hard work resides: Agile seems easy until people get involved.

In this blog, we'll explore each of the four "mindset" quadrants through the eyes of a leader hoping to sow the seeds for Agile.

Be honest

Here we define honesty as more than non-fraudulent; it also comprises truth and integrity. For example: An honest man (without deception) would tell you he wronged you (truth—he did it, so he knows it to be fact), although there wasn’t a remote chance you’d find out (integrity—it’s the right thing to do).

Failing to embrace the nuanced differences and relationships between these terms is utterly counterproductive. Organizations and their leaders can’t realize the maximum transformative power of these behaviors when employees are allowed to act honestly, but without truthfulness and integrity. The all-important outcome—trust—will not be achieved. Transformation to Agile requires team members to trust one another. How else can they have meaningful conversations about the causes of below-expectation performance or participate in the robust dialogue required for arriving at the best customer-focused solutions?

And, within the agile context, these types of meaningful conversation enable transparency. Transparency is about telling people that you have a problem, telling them that they could do something to improve the situation, and letting people know how you are feeling about the situation and why. Only teams built on trust will be able to have meaningful discussions on these tough topics.

Members of an Agile team need to be honest with themselves and with their leaders. The transparent and trusting environment is one where team members are not afraid to expose issues and recognize that most things can be fixed if they are known.

The key is to never be deceptive, fraudulent, or passive aggressive. Always search for the truth and be real when you report on that truth. Remember, failure is an option. It is always an option. In fact, it is required before anything can be learned. Get used to failure, get used to letting people know that failure has happened, cherish what has been learned in the process, and make sure not to impact the customer in a negative way.

Be kind

In a highly collaborative Agile world, kindness is about showing respect in every interaction, with every team mate. And, in order to demonstrate kindness and develop the servant leadership style critical to an agile environment, leaders’ character must embody the following virtues:

  • Prudence to make right decisions.
  • Courage to stay the course and resist pressures of all kinds.
  • Self-Control to subordinate passions to the spirit and fulfillment of the mission at hand.
  • Justice to give every individual his due.
  • Magnanimity to strive for great things, to challenge yourself and others.
  • Humility to overcome selfishness and serve others habitually.

These virtues, as stated by Alexandre Havard in his Virtuous Leadership system, are hard to develop. It, therefore, behooves organizations to add these character strengths into selection criteria for new and transitioning leaders.

A framework for interactions can also help teams succeed and afford opportunities to demonstrate respect. One framework that guides efficient (and kind) conversations is based on DDI’s Key Principles. These are important to meeting personal (vs. professional) needs of conversation participants and can be summarized as such:

  • Have the courage to share your thoughts, your feelings, and the rationale behind them.
  • Be humble enough to ask for help; encourage others to be involved in the situation.
  • As a servant leader, provide support—without removing responsibility.
  • Spend more time listening than talking, and always respond with empathy.
  • Build team members’ self-esteem. Constant praise isn’t necessary, but don’t denigrate anyone.

Be responsible

Human beings can choose to act responsibly…or they can become victims of their environment. Being a victim entails waiting and hoping for someone else to do something. An agile leader should never resort to this lack-of-action plan. They need to own problems, find solutions, and put those solutions into place so that their team has a better chance of delivering results. And, once leaders decide what should be done, they have to follow through. Yes, you’ve heard of “walking the talk,” but this is more about character and building trust as a leader. And when leaders fall down on the trust job, they must then admit fault. This is the other side of the “trust” conversation. Leaders must allow their teams to see that they make mistakes and have failures just like everybody else.

Equally important, leaders need to promote accountability among peers. Peer-to-Peer accountability is an essential component of an agile environment and an “accountable” environment starts with the leader being responsible, fixing problems, and not blaming others for the failure. Leading from a position of “I’m responsible” makes for a safe environment where teams can thrive knowing that failure is the first step in learning. The most important information is the WHY of failure; the WHO is only needed to discover the truth about the WHY.

Work in small increments

It seems intuitive that it is easier to deliver smaller items than bigger ones. We find it easier to work on projects that we can focus on and complete in the short term rather than on ethereal tasks that come to fruition a year from now. If I asked what your grocery list is for the third week in May three years from now, it is doubtful that any of us would have anything resembling a complete list. On the other hand, most of us could rattle off a relatively complete list for this weekend. The same goes with our work in the business world. We are much better at estimating and conceiving what we can do next week than we are at predicting a product delivery months or years into the future. While we can target long-term goals, we are much more accurate with short-term ones.

Aside from the accuracy and predictability of our outputs, working in smaller increments allows the business to react to changes in the business environment. If our world changes today and we’ve only committed to two weeks’ worth of work, then a maximum of two weeks is all we lose. If, however, we are nine months into a commitment of 18 months of development and our world changes, we stand to lose much more.

In an agile environment, we must focus on constantly completing items that represent value and seeking feedback from our customers. It is this consistency—the predictable delivery of value that builds customer trust—and the ability to work in small increments that allows this constant predictability. Increments can be up to four weeks in duration (and are usually longest early on to allow teams to familiarize themselves with the new environment). Shortening the increment to two weeks, as the teams become comfortable, enables a more rapid flow of feedback and value delivery.

In conclusion

Operationalizing the four tenets of Agile—being honest, kind, and responsible, and working in small increments—will increase the speed at which clients get meaningful value. However, the experienced agile leader also realizes that building this environment will provide benefits far more valuable to his or her organization than simply being fast at getting work done. This culture will be engaging for employees, it will be a sustainable environment, it will be a respectful environment, and it will be one where people will want to work. All of these will reduce the costs associated with employee dissatisfaction.

Implementing a flourishing Agile culture is not a task for the faint-at-heart. This will require a true servant leader—an individual with courage, confidence, and the unwavering support of his or her organization.

Are you ready to become an Agile Ready LeaderSM? Join the discussion at #AgileReadyLeaders. And stay tuned for our upcoming blogs.

This is the second blog in a series on Agile leadership. Read more from the series:
Part 1: Becoming Agile Ready Leaders.

Part 3: Hairballs and HiPPOs - Agile's Biggest Derailers
Part 4: Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Vehicle
Part 5: Agile Leadership: This is Going to Hurt

Russ WhiteRuss White is Vice President of Technology Strategy in DDI’s Global Technology Group. He and his team are experts at applying Agile management techniques to a wide range of business environments beyond software development.


Jay AndersonJay Anderson is passionate about helping people work in teams that solve complex problems. Over the past five years, he has been leading the transformation of the technology department at DDI through the application of multiple agile methods.


Posted: 02 Dec, 2016,
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