Agile is hip; many organizations have truly embraced this way of working. However: it does not always create the expected flexibility. ‘Agile working means: even more meetings in my schedule!’, managers in The Netherland’s corporate world are complaining. At the other end of the spectrum, employees are not experiencing enough involvement from their managers. What’s going wrong?

Many of the organizations experiencing frustration with the Agile work methods have one thing in common: they are ‘fake-Agile’ working. Whilst teams work in short sprints, direction and management don’t adjust their own work methods. They continue to initiate large projects with changing one-team setups, only to guide them based on budgets, micromanagement and deadlines.

It’s a pity, because if Agile is truly embraced and thoroughly implemented, it has many advantages compared to the traditional (‘waterfall’) working method. Because finished products are frequently validated, this method ensures a quicker time to market as well as increased flexibility. Teams also experience more work enjoyment.

The role of leadership is crucial

Because there is a lack of a communal way of working between leadership and delivery teams, the teams are still being guided following the old method. All this despite the Agile philosophy’s requirement of a different style of leadership. This creates irritation and the frustration experienced on both sides is simply a logical consequence of this.

If an organization wishes to truly work Agile, the leadership must also adjust their behaviour and leadership style.

Five tips from practical experience for more Agile leadership:

  1. Choose consciously and link it to the most important priority

    The choice to work Agile is a transformation which requires behavioural change from everyone, at every level. Are you truly prepared to take this route and make the sacrifice of temporarily working less efficiently before experiencing increased flexibility? Follow and thoroughly live following the method and link it to the most important priority of the organization to show that there is no way back.

  2. Allow yourself help and stick with it

    Transforming is complex and at the moment that it becomes nerve-racking, one tends to fall back into old habits. Change can be unruly and comes with setbacks. Stick with it at times when others may have given up. Where Agile coaching in delivery teams is becoming more common, leaders, on the other hand, are becoming less agile. Leading Agile teams is really different than regular waterfall line management. It’s extremely difficult to unlearn years of trained and performed waterfall management. This is why you should allow yourself a coach!

  3. Make teams successful

    In an Agile organization, multidisciplinary delivery teams are the success factor when realizing flexibility. Therefore, the most important task of leaders is to make their teams successful. Give teams guidelines (guidance) within which they can act autonomously. Develop the teams with regards to independent choice-making. Challenge them with regards to the realization of outcome rather than output. Moreover, it is important to show involvement by being present in sprint reviews. These are the moment to get a feeling for the delivery and to relay new insights to teams.

  4. Stimulate experimenting and client validation

    In many corporates, there is an overwhelming aversion to risk and ‘first time right’ is so engrained that innovation and new functionalities are only released when they’re 100% ready. This is at odds with the Agile philosophy and this old way of thinking frustrates delivery teams as well as hampering flexibility. Therefore, one should stimulate experimenting and the validation of new functionalities with users.

  5. Be brave

    Dare to make mistakes; be brave. Differing ways of working within the same organization- waterfall in the case of leadership and Agile in the case of delivery teams- must stop. Leadership must take the first step towards this. They will need to communicate with one another and their direct-reports in order to show different behaviour, both top down and bottom up.


  6. Partially thanks to technological developments, the speed with which organizations will need to adjust internally to new market situations is only going to increase. Change is the only constant, Agile is here to stay and going back to waterfall is unlikely. Leaders who are inflexible will be overtaken. It’s about time that they become Agile.

    Written by: Johan Makkinga (Manager Organizational Transformation), Myrthe van Stralen (Consultant Organizational Transformation) 

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