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INSIGHTS / Media Coverage

Leadership and not management in an Agile team

 12 Jun 2012 
INSIGHTS / Media Coverage

Leadership and not management in an Agile team

 12 Jun 2012 

Core to Agile is the Agile manifesto. The first value is “Individuals and interaction over process and tools”. That is not to say that process and tools are to be ignored, but that they are less critical than the individuals that make up the team, how they interact within that team and with their stakeholders. For most individuals to interact effectively they need to feel that they are being listened to, their opinion is valued and that once collectively agreed on a course of action that all will contribute to achieve completion of the task.

When I was thinking about this subject of leadership, not management, I thought that it would be good to get a definition of both, but when I started to do some investigation there are so many out there. Some of which I agree with and others not. So I thought that I would start with one common view and then share with you my view.

From Wikipedia: Management is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively. Management comprises planning, organising, staffing, leading or directing, and controlling an organisation (a group of one or more people or entities) or effort for the purpose of accomplishing a goal.

From Wikipedia: Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”.

Reading these two definitions immediately leads me to believe that the most aligned with the Agile manifesto is leadership. To me it has the key words of “enlist the aid”, “support of others” and “accomplishment of a common task” these, in my view, strongly voice the Agile paradigm.

The Agile Team

An Agile team is self-managed, that is to say that jointly, they decide as a group how they are going to work. After the initial agreement with the Product Owner (Business Stakeholder) as to which user stories are going to be delivered for that particular iteration or work in progress items (which of course is in some way influenced by the team velocity and the team estimates they give for each story), it is up to the team to decide who is going to take responsibility and accountability for each of the tasks and actions, maybe even deciding to undertake some activities in pairs. After all, the team are the best judge of who has the right skills or competencies to complete the work, or if someone wants to put up their hand to volunteer to tackle something that may be outside their comfort zone or current experience in order to learn, they know they have the full support of the team around them.

There is leadership within the team certainly, but that leadership can move to anyone within the team, dependant on the activities that are progressing within any given time. It may be the person(s) who are having the most issues that directs the conversation and effort to work out a solution, or some-one with the most knowledge in a particular area where the team is focused at the moment. The important fact is that the team are all pulling together to drive to accomplish a common goal, a goal that the whole team understands and has committed to, which brings us back to the definition of leadership.

It is crucial to consider the motivational drive of the team members. There are two types of motivation – extrinsic (which arise from outside the individual) and intrinsic (from within). Intrinsic motivation is much stronger than extrinsic motivation. David McClelland identified three motivators that drive our behaviour, regardless of our gender, age or culture.

  1. Achievement
  2. Affiliation
  3. Power

Within an Agile team you want the majority of motivational influence to come from achievement and affiliation rather than the behaviour driven by power

Achievers have a strong need to accomplish challenging goals and receive regular feedback on their progress and achievements; Affiliation types want to belong to the group and favour collaboration over competition and Power orientated individuals want to control and influence others and likes to win arguments. This goes against one of the other Agile values of collaboration.

It is important to know that you can fail and learn without finger pointing, that the team provides the safe environment in which new things can be tried. The retrospective allows the group to gain feedback that will still be fresh and relevant and then decide the course of action which will be best in their particular context. There is no controlling force from an external manager who may not know all of the facts. Empowering the team to make the decisions will result in a higher level of commitment to the end result. If you, as a leader, are not providing prompt feedback to your team mates in a constructive manner, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to improve their performance and ultimately deliver.

Everyone has different skills levels and competencies that they are good at. The best multifunctioning teams are a mixture of personalities. Where not only do the skill sets complement and enhance each other, but the personalities and soft skills build relationships.

If, for example, you have a Test Analyst within a team that has had little opportunity to formulate a Test Strategy or Test Plan, or does not feel confident articulating test estimates to be fed into the overall team estimates, then this needs to be recognised within the team and maybe a mentor or coach sits with them the first few times and leads them. There needs to be an open forum for communication where team members feel they will be listened to and feel comfortable to put up their hand and enlist the aid of others.

Management vs. Leadership

Having talked primarily about the definition of leadership, the contrast is management. This article generalises about managers. I have worked with managers that I have considered good, however they were not leaders in my view. There are very few good leaders, in the true sense, and this is what I believe we should be aspiring to become. Most of the positive aspects in a manager you find in a leader, but not the negative traits, such as too controlling or micro management. Leaders, additionally, have other qualities that draw people to want to work with them.

Back to the definition and what I see too often in managers, that can be destructive to a team and often make them less efficient and effective. The first example being “using available resources”, the team is not recognised as individuals with different capabilities, but as a resource similar to a Test Environment to be used to get the job done, rather than nurtured and challenged to give their best; almost like a master-slave relationship. Another example is the manager often has information that he does not pass onto the team, as he sees it as giving away his power, but how can the team understand and reach a common goal if they do not know what it is. Without shared information, collaboratively, an agile environment will not thrive!

Linked to this is the control aspect where the manager gives orders on what the team needs to do, sometimes on a daily basis and who likes to be micromanaged? This style breaks down the trust within the team; they do not buy into the vision and there is limited opportunity to put forward suggestions to improve as they are doing their job with incomplete information.

Of course a leader plans and organises but with the support of the team. Often team members volunteer for a task before being asked. People in the team are seen as a positive contributor by a leader, with all that entails, as opposed to being moved around as the manager sees fit. How can an individual produce their best work if they are confined within certain parameters? When people don’t have clear goals, they muddle through their day. They can’t be as productive if they have no idea what they’re working for, or what their work means. They also can’t prioritise their workload effectively, meaning that projects and tasks potentially get completed in the wrong order.

I would much rather work for a leader who inspires me and others and wants to get the best out of the team. A collaborator, who shares the vision, providing leadership and an environment so that we are all marching shoulder to shoulder towards a common goal which we have bought into and are committed to achieving. Someone who is willing to ask for suggestions, as let’s face it no one has all of the answers all of the time and is able to listen and acknowledge good suggestions, acting on them as appropriate. A genuine leader will want to avoid micromanagement. They’ll openly detest it! However, going to the opposite extreme (with a totally hand-offs management style) isn’t a good idea either – you need to get the balance right.

To characterise, a leader is a person that is respected by their team, their peers, the people that they report to and all those that they come into contact with. Truly someone to aspire to become.

As a leader, you need to be a role model to those you collaborate and interact with. This means that if the team needs to stay late, you should also stay late to help them. Your attitude – if you’re always positive in the face of huge challenges at times, then the team are likely to reflect this. So remember, your team is watching you all the time. If you want to shape their behaviour, start with your own and they’ll follow suit.

Collaboration, not control and a collective drive to achieving the common goals as understood by the team is the essence of a successful environment, be it agile or any other. The team needs to feel that their views are represented and listened to whilst creating an environment to grow through adaptation; learning through team feedback and being engaged within a safe place to fail, as well as experience success. Teams need to be empowered to manage themselves, using the best people for the tasks specified through joint discussion. In summary Agile does not need managers in the team, but leaders.

Leanne Howard

Business Agility Practice Director

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