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Agile leadership is becoming increasingly important in the world of business and technology. As
businesses shift towards agile working practices, leaders need to be equipped with the knowledge
and skills required for successful agile transformation.

One continuing problem we see with many of today’s business leaders is that they rarely adopt Agile
leadership principles. At the leadership level, things remain firmly based on command and control.
Leaders execute using old-style carrot-and-stick approaches that don’t work in the modern workplace.
It’s not that they are resistant to the idea of creating an Agile organisation. Most understand the value
of agility at the level of the project/delivery teams, that’s obvious. But all too often they don’t see how it
applies to them or feel that they are exempt.

For those who do recognise a need to change, tend to perceive Agile leadership as a set of tools
that is limited to personal changes to their style of management. Instead, Leaders should be grasping
the real value of transforming loose groups of directors and executive managers into dynamic,
collaborative teams. But what exactly does it mean to lead an agile team? How does this differ from
traditional approaches? What makes an Agile Leader and what are the key behaviours that make
them successful?

Table of Contents

 

What is Agile Leadership?

Agile Leadership is defined by a management style that focuses on the rapid and flexible delivery of
value. At Fractal Systems we describe it as the art and science of creating an environment where
teams thrive through close collaboration and are focused on rapid learning and consistent, valuable
delivery.
It emphasises collaboration, continuous learning, adaptation to change, and an iterative approach to
problem-solving. When bringing agility to business leaders, we get them to focus on the value of
incrementally applying Agile principles and practices as a collaborative team at the most senior level
of the organisation.

Successful Agile leadership is not just as a siloed individual (or a group of individuals) issuing one-
way commands downwards to a project team (or to groups of project teams) elsewhere in the
business, it is a collaborative and iterative process.

At the very top level of an organisation, we create an open environment where senior leaders work as
a team and can raise problems and any potential business vulnerabilities with their peers,
based on high levels of trust in each other and commitment to the same shared goals.

 

What is Agile Leadership

As one might expect, the fundamentals of Agile Leadership are closely aligned with the Agile
methodology, centred around sprints. Agile Leadership ultimately enables teams to solve problems
and deliver value in a collaborative and crucially, an expedited manner.

Successful leadership can result in shorter and more product project cycles, reduced risks, more
autonomous and flexible teams that deliver higher value and an ability to adapt to changing market
environments. Through improved and transparent communication between stakeholders and the
empowerment of team members, projects are ultimately more successful.

 

Challenges of Agile Leadership

Incorporating Agile and subsequent leadership principles into an organisation does not happen
overnight. In some respects, it challenges more traditional leadership frameworks by encouraging
more open dialogue and problem-solving. As such, it often requires additional training and guidance
from Agile professionals.
In addition, Agile leadership operates within the Agile framework. As such, to facilitate successful
leadership, there needs to be adequate adoption and buy-in of a comprehensive Agile approach.

Key Takeaway: Agile Leadership is a modern management style that emphasises collaboration,
continuous learning, adaptation to change and an iterative approach. Benefits include increased
productivity, improved team morale, greater flexibility and reduced costs. Challenges include the need
for strong leadership skills and effective communication among stakeholders.

How is Agile Leadership Different from Traditional Leadership?

Agile leadership is a relatively new approach to leading teams and organisations that emphasises
collaboration, flexibility, and continuous improvement. It differs from traditional leadership in several
key ways.

Core Principles of Agile Leadership:

At the heart of agile leadership are four core principles:
customer focus, people-centricity, iterative development, and continuous learning. These principles
emphasise the importance of listening to customers’ needs and feedback; valuing team members’
ideas; developing solutions incrementally; and constantly adapting based on data or customer
feedback.

Differences in Approach & Mindset:

Traditional leaders often have a top-down management style
with clear hierarchies between managers and employees. In contrast, agile leaders foster an
environment where everyone can contribute their ideas without fear of criticism or retribution as has
been explored in our Sprint Retrospectives article. They also embrace change as part of the process
rather than viewing it as something to be avoided at all costs. This encourages innovation by allowing
for experimentation without risk aversion getting in the way.
The adoption of agile leadership has been demonstrated to enhance organisational culture by
creating an atmosphere where everyone is respected regardless of their rank or title within the
organisation. This collaborative approach is central to not only Agile leadership but the Agile
methodology in general. Employees feel empowered to take initiative when they observe that their
ideas are taken seriously by their superiors, while still having support if needed throughout the
process. This leads to increased motivation among staff which translates into better results for
businesses overall due to improved morale among workers as well as more efficient processes
resulting from rapid iteration cycles enabled by agile methodology adoption.

“Agile leadership isn’t just about having the top-down approach. It’s about fostering an environment
where everyone can contribute and be respected, no matter their rank or title. #agileleadership
#collaboration #flexibility
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How to Adopt Agile Leadership

Adopting Agile and its leadership principles is an iterative process. Our incremental approach involves
bringing in those events that make the most sense, both for the organisation and for that team at that
particular time. Then, as they resolve each other’s problems, keep each other’s promises, measurably
and meaningfully help each other, we see engagement and trust rise.
The real value, in our experience, of shifting the leadership culture in this way, and gradually,
pragmatically promoting structured team collaboration at the top level, is that it successfully enables
leaders to overcome organisation-wide problems or impediments in a matter of hours, as opposed to
weeks or months.

For our executive teams, collaboration means being able to identify risks faster, aggressively manage
them and mitigate them. Nothing gets forgotten. Everything is on a visible backlog, all the work is
transparent, and teams manage risks, maintain transparency and – most importantly – support each
other during difficult times.

Creating a Team of Teams

We all know that collaboration is key in organisations. In turn, this often raises the question: why
weren’t leaders collaborating in this way previously? If collaboration is proven to deliver higher value,
why isn’t it central to all operations? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. We need to answer key
questions: how do we incorporate/encourage collaboration? When? What are team members
supposed to do when they do collaborate?
We use agile frameworks to answer these questions, structure collaboration and generate
momentum.
By becoming team players, they magnify each other’s resources, support each other and the entire
team (including leaders) begin to grow together. They become force-multipliers because when they
eliminate impediments, they fix problems that affect many teams. When a problem surfaces at the top
level, the issue is usually something that is causing an impediment to multiple teams and numerous
members of staff. An Agile team rapidly resolving organisational problems and working collaboratively
makes the entire business a fast and flexible learning organisation. This approach results in teams
being better at managing risks along the way. They can amplify things that are working, and they can
dampen the problems that are affecting the wider organisation.

The power of structured collaboration for leaders

Collaboration doesn’t just happen by getting a team of directors and managers in the same room at
the same time. That’s why we carefully structure collaboration using techniques we teach at our
interactive scrum master courses. We ensure that it is deliberate, intentional and purposeful.
The real work of change in today’s organisations happens not through isolated heroic acts but within
teams of people who each have a critical contribution to make.
In our experience, to encourage senior leaders within large asset management firms to properly start
to engage as an agile team we teach them that every collaboration event is really a risk management
event.
In this way, they understand that they are coming together to manage risk. And when we put it in
these terms, senior leaders not only understand the critical contribution they each have to make, they
also understand the value of being involved in those events.
Gone are the days when large firms beat smaller firms. Now, success goes to the faster firms: it’s
about special forces, not dad’s army! Fast, collaborative top teams create speed, embody pragmatic
risk management and lead from the front. These leadership teams go first and inspire action from the
delivery teams that see them collaborate every day for the good of their clients, their people and their
firm.

Through helping, supporting, being mindful and owning both their own problems and their teammates’
problems, they are able to catch risks, manage issues and even share their budgets to help their
teammates.

Top 5 Behaviours of Great Agile Leaders

Agile leaders are a new breed of leadership that have emerged in the modern workplace. They
possess certain behaviours and traits that set them apart from traditional leaders, enabling them to be
more effective in leading teams and achieving results. Great Agile Leaders will adopt and incorporate
these key behaviours:

Embrace Change and Adaptability

Agile leaders understand that change is inevitable and necessary for growth…. they embrace it with
open arms. They don’t shy away from challenges but instead use them as an opportunity to learn,
grow, and innovate. Great agile leaders also recognise the importance of adapting quickly when
needed – adjusting their approach or finding creative solutions for problems.

Foster Collaboration and Teamwork

Agile leaders know how important collaboration is for successful projects. In turn, they foster an
environment where team members can work together effectively. They focus on building relationships
between team members by creating trust-based environments where everyone feels comfortable
sharing ideas without fear of criticism or judgement. Additionally, great agile leaders create
opportunities for cross-functional collaboration which helps break down silos within organisations
while encouraging innovation across departments.

 

Encourage Continuous Learning and Improvement

A key principle of Agile leadership is the empowerment of team members. There is an understanding
that team members need purpose and that comes through collaboration, understanding and
continuous improvement. Agile leaders need to encourage constant learning, alongside collaboration.
They need to communicate goals and objectives effectively, as well as understanding what drives
team members.

 

Recognise failure is a part of learning

Agile leaders recognise failure is an essential component of growth, learning, and innovation,
recognising that it is intrinsic to the agile mindset. Failure is an invaluable teacher and a pathway to
innovation, learning, and adaptation. It is not about celebrating failure for its own sake but about
recognising the opportunities that arise from it and leveraging them for continuous improvement and
growth. Feedback is an essential component of this learning process and as such, leaders should
encourage open feedback throughout project teams.

 

Create a Psychologically Safe Culture

A psychologically safe culture is an environment within a workplace or team where individuals feel
respected, accepted, and comfortable being themselves. In such a culture, people feel secure
expressing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fearing negative consequences like ridicule,
rejection, or retaliation.

By fostering a psychologically safe culture, agile leaders create environments where teams can thrive,
innovate, and adapt to change effectively, all of which are essential for the success of agile
methodologies. Safe cultures are imperative for agile leaders as they catalyse innovation, facilitate
continuous learning, enhance communication, and build trust. These environments are conducive to
employee engagement, rapid decision-making, adaptability, and focus on customer needs. Moreover,
they are pivotal in attracting talent and ensuring diversity and inclusion. This establishes a solid
foundation for teams to thrive in dynamic and challenging settings.

Great agile leadership requires a combination of these five behaviours working together to achieve
success. However, each behaviour alone has its own unique value when implemented correctly within
an organisation’s culture – making agility not only possible but sustainable over time as well.
Key Takeaway: Agile leadership requires embracing change, fostering collaboration and teamwork,
and encouraging continuous learning and improvement. Great agile leaders must be able to adapt
quickly, build relationships between team members, stay up-to-date on industry trends and implement
best practices for workflow management.

 

Agile Leadership Mistakes

 

Not Understanding the Core Principles of Agility:

One of the most common mistakes that people
make, especially when learning about agile leadership, is not understanding the core principles. Agile
is a set of values and principles that guide teams in how they approach their work. It emphasises
collaboration, flexibility, continuous improvement, and customer focus. Without an understanding of
these core principles, it can be difficult to effectively lead an agile team or organisation.

Failing to Adapt to the Changing Environment:

The world today moves quickly and organisations
must be able to keep up with changes in order to remain competitive. Agile leaders must embrace
change and have the ability to pivot quickly as needed while still maintaining alignment with
organisational goals and objectives.

Blocking Autonomy:

We have spoken about collaboration, though team members also need autonomy
within their roles. If leaders block this type of autonomy, it can create feelings of frustration among
team members who feel like they are being micromanaged instead of empowered by their leader’s
guidance and direction. Great agile leaders understand how important it is for teams to have some
level of autonomy so they can innovate without feeling stifled by too much oversight from
management or other stakeholders.

Key Takeaway: 

“Agile leadership isn’t just about understanding the core principles – it’s also about adapting to a
changing environment and giving teams autonomy. Don’t make the mistake of stifling innovation –
empower your team to be agile.”

 

Summarising Behaviours and Mistakes

Agile Leaders recognise that traditional methods of managing are no longer effective in today’s rapidly
changing environment and must embrace new ways of working. It is important for aspiring agile
leaders to understand how this style differs from traditional approaches in order to make informed
decisions about how best to manage projects and deliverables. By embracing change through
adaptation as well as fostering collaboration amongst team members while providing clear direction
with achievable goals will help ensure successful outcomes every time.

The core principles and behaviours of agile leadership enable leaders to be more adaptive when
responding to market or customer needs changes while still delivering high quality results. They
require an ability to embrace change, to adapt and mitigate risk, foster collaboration and provide clear
direction with achievable goals. Leaders also need to remain open to feedback from all stakeholders;
have a clear vision for success. By exhibiting these behaviours consistently throughout their
organisation, agile leaders can create an environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute
ideas without fear of failure or criticism.

Key Takeaway: 

Agile Leaders must embrace change, foster collaboration, encourage continuous
learning and improvement, provide clear direction with achievable goals, remain open to feedback
from all stakeholders and have a clear vision for success in order to achieve successful outcomes.

Are you looking to drive innovation and accelerate the delivery of projects? Look no further than
Fractal Systems Ltd. Our Agile Leadership training, consulting and programme delivery services are
designed to help teams become more agile in their processes while achieving successful project
turnarounds quickly. Take control of your organisation’s success today with our experienced
professionals guiding you through every step of the way!

FAQs in Relation to What is Agile Leadership?

 

What do we mean by agile leadership?

Agile leadership is a style of management that focuses on creating an environment where teams can
collaborate and work together to achieve desired outcomes. It encourages continuous improvement,
innovation, and flexibility in order to adapt quickly to changing conditions. Agile leaders foster trust
among team members by emphasising communication, collaboration, feedback loops, and
accountability. They also provide clear direction while allowing teams the autonomy they need to be

successful. Ultimately, agile leadership seeks to empower individuals so that they can take ownership
of their own development and success.

What is an example of agile leadership?

An example of agile leadership is the ability to adapt and respond to changing conditions quickly.
Agile leaders have a clear vision for their team, understand how to motivate them, and are able to
break down complex tasks into smaller achievable goals. They also create an environment that
encourages collaboration and feedback from all members of the team. Agile leaders focus on results
rather than processes while continuously monitoring progress towards objectives. They recognise
when it’s time to pivot or make adjustments to ensure success. Finally, they are open-minded
and embrace change as part of their culture, allowing them to stay ahead of the competition in today’s
rapidly evolving world.

What are the three traits of an agile leader?

1. Visionary: An agile leader must have a clear vision of the desired outcome and be able to
communicate it effectively to their team. They should also be able to adapt quickly when
circumstances change or unexpected obstacles arise.
2. Collaborative: Agile leaders foster collaboration between teams, encouraging open communication
and shared decision-making processes that result in better outcomes for everyone involved.
3. Empowering: Agile leaders empower their teams by providing them with the tools they need to
succeed, while allowing them autonomy over how they approach tasks and projects. This encourages
creativity and innovation within the team, resulting in more efficient solutions that benefit all
stakeholders involved.

How is agile leadership different?

Agile leadership is a style of management that focuses on continuous improvement, collaboration,
and flexibility. It emphasises the importance of people over processes and encourages open
communication between team members to create a culture of trust and transparency. Agile leaders
are able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances while still keeping the project’s goals in mind.
They understand that failure is part of learning and use it as an opportunity for growth rather than
punishment. Agile leaders also focus on developing relationships with their teams by providing clear
direction, feedback, and support so they can work together towards common objectives.

 

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