Leadership in Agile: 6 Things to Get Right

Leadership in Agile: 6 Things to Get Right

Kevin O'Shaughnessy, Anna Skylakaki

Agile has promised to make organisations better able to cope with a  constantly changing environment, and transform employee engagement, financial results and organisational longevity – but like all change, it needs committed leadership to succeed.

The agile silver bullet

Agile has been around for almost 20 years and has been touted as a panacea for those organisations that “get it right”.

Agile Silver Bullet
Forbes Insights: THE ELUSIVE AGILE ENTERPRISE: How the Right Leadership Mindset, Workforce and Culture Can Transform Your Organization

It’s not surprising that 91%2 of our Digital Survey’s respondents have considered or implemented enterprise agility to some degree.

Mind the leadership gap: expectation versus reality

A lot of money and effort is invested in making teams and organisations more agile, yet the results are not always those envisaged at the outset.

One reason that agile transformations fail to deliver is that they are often technology-led and technology-focussed. Effecting change in an area of a leader’s direct control is more straightforward at the outset, but it tends to inhibit benefit realisation, which is dependent on other areas of the organisation coming along on the journey. The use of technical agile terminology and technology-driven benefits can easily lead to “business” disengagement. Instead, it is imperative to have senior sponsorship and build a wide coalition within the organisation around clear commercial priorities.

Another easy trap to walk into is adopting agile ceremonies and processes, without investing in the cultural shift required to move to an agile mindset. The latter is harder to measure, and indeed harder to do. But to move to a truly agile enterprise and reap the benefits, it is imperative to change the behaviour of all those who participate in it.

Alpha Digital Survey Graphic
Alpha Digital Survey 2019

Success requires persistent leadership focus and the buy-in of a diverse range of stakeholders, many of whom may not think the disruption will pay off. This is especially true for service functions, where a key aim of adopting agile is to improve often fractious relationships with internal customers, as well as foster stronger collaboration and productivity. Yet when it comes to designing and implementing agile ways of working it can be tempting to be introspective and solve for that function’s problems, rather than reaching out and creating allies and advocates across the organisation.

Building meaningful buy-in for enterprise agility

In order to achieve meaningful engagement and reap the benefits agile can offer, it’s important to get senior leadership on board, take a holistic view of stakeholders, be outcome focussed, and be willing to practice what you preach.

1. Start at the top

Before embarking on an agile transformation it is crucial to be honest with senior leaders in the organisation about both the pain on the journey and the eventual gain. Unless they are consciously supportive from the start, issues will take longer to resolve, or, worse, they may withdraw their support down the line.

2. Lead by example

As a fundamentally cultural transformation, moving to agile ways of working requires personal vulnerability and willingness to change from leaders in that function and organisation, especially where many of the desired behaviours are not prevalent at the outset. Walking the talk by empowering the impacted teams, being transparent, and supporting effective decision making is crucial to building credibility and making agile a success.

3. Do it for the right reasons

Moving to agile should be beneficial for all parties involved in the medium term through greater accountability, transparency and continued improvement. Each organisation has its own unique challenges to address; if introducing agile is not solving an important problem, it may not be worth the investment.

4. Trust your team

A core principle in any form of agile is empowerment of the team and effective delegation of accountability. This is often a struggle for most leaders, and at a minimum feels uncomfortable. More hierarchical leaders, or those who like to retain a high degree of decision-making authority, will naturally frustrate moving to an agile culture in practice.

5. Bridge the gap between “business” and “technology”

Agile leaders need to be commercially minded and be able to articulate the value of agile in terms of organisational goals and strategy, in order to get the right engagement outside of Technology. At the same time, they need to also understand technology and technologists, as an understanding of technical concepts to some degree is crucial in motivating those teams.

6. Reach out across the organisation

It’s important to have a clear view of whose buy in and support is needed – not just (internal) customers, but also your team, internal partners and external partners – and engage them early on. Allowing the main impacted parties to shape the way in which agile is applied to the organisation ensures both focus on the right outcomes and the buy-in of stakeholders who are now invested in its success.

Alpha's Enterprise Agility Framework
Alpha's Enterprise Agility Framework

Building consensus for enterprise agility from the outset does require time investment – but the returns are worth it. When senior leaders are bought in from the outset, issues are much quicker to resolve when they arise. When internal customers are the ones preaching change, as opposed to function heads, it is a much more powerful and motivating message for the impacted teams who are there to support them. When internal and external partners see the benefit for them, they move from being bottlenecks to enablers. And when leaders lead by example, their teams and partners respond in kind.

Where are you on your agile journey? Do you have the right leadership to reap the benefits of moving to agile? To share your thoughts on leadership in agile and the challenges faced by your organisation, please contact Kevin O’Shaughnessy or Anna Skylakaki

About the Authors

Kevin O'Shaugnessy
Kevin O'Shaughnessy

Kevin is a Director at Alpha and leads our Digital & Agile practice. He has over 20 years of experience of driving digital transformation across the Financial Services Sector and in particular in the Wealth and Asset Management space. His experience covers the full range of digital topics which he has deployed across a mix of channels including Direct to Consumer, Intermediated and platforms.

Anna Skylakaki
Anna Skylakaki
Senior Manager

Anna is a Senior Manager at Alpha with over five years’ experience within consulting for Financial Services firms. She has helped clients deliver cultural and agile transformations, across design, implementation and embedding, and is active in Alpha's Digital & Agile and People & Culture propositions.