Servant Leadership and Agile Culture from the Inside: what does it entail?
A couple of weeks ago, I shared some thoughts, tips & tricks around Agile podcasts. This first experience in writing and publishing an article with the support of a community encouraged me to continue writing and sharing.
In parallel, I was asking myself a lot of questions about what leadership means, how it has evolved and how it makes sense in an agile context. After some readings, my personal experience, and a lot of interesting feedback from my colleagues, I decided to start a special conversation series about Servant Leadership and Agility.
So, on a regular basis, I will share inside conversations with leaders who have embraced agility. They will share their views on Agile and Leadership, and how it transformed their company and themselves.
Each conversation/article will also be supported by a visual / illustration that I will have drawn (something else that I discovered this year and which is changing my life).
In this first article, I will introduce some basic concepts and some differences between a traditional leadership style and a new way of leading while being Agile.
Traditional leadership style – Command and Control
This is the style most of us have grown up with: a top-down approach, leader-follower (as explained by David Marquet in his best seller “Turn the ship around”) with strong leader figures being superheroes like in blockbuster Hollywood movies, telling their people what to do. And people execute the orders and everybody lives happily ever after… Or not?
In this world, hierarchy and control are 2 important factors. There are many managers: first-line managers, middle managers, project managers, program managers, senior managers, product managers, portfolio managers, and so on … And at the top, a couple of individuals deciding on the priorities and giving the vision, “The Plan”.
This way of working fits well with waterfall “Planning” approach for projects: long phase of requirements gathering, then functional analysis, followed by technical analysis and development, followed by testing and ending with a big release (if there is still some money left). And during all steps, teams are reporting to managers so that they feel they are in control.
I’ve been there, and practiced that for many years, it is quite painful… and it has been hard for me to recover from this.
Company Culture – Doing Agile and Being Agile
More and more companies are now embracing Agile, creating Agile teams, very often using the Scrum framework. Those teams are very rapidly executing Scrum artifacts and delivering in an iterative and incremental approach. But “are” those teams Agile?
In a Scrum framework, the Product Owner provides the vision, the Scrum Master is a servant leader, and the team delivers stories and features. But who are they all reporting to? What is the role of their managers and managers’ managers? In other words, is the team able to make decisions for themselves?
Why is it important for a team to be in control and make decisions? Consider this question: when are you least or most motivated? When you are told what to do or when you have the capacity to take initiatives?
This is the difference between “doing Agile” and “being Agile”, between applying rituals and applying the principles.
What I’ve witnessed myself on several occasions is that a pre-requisite for “being” Agile is the right culture, a new mindset with strong values where team is more important than the individual, where everyone is responsible and helping each other, where we are able to grow, to make mistakes in a safe environment, where we share, care for each other, and where coaching is the root for helping the teams to reach their full potential.
Servant Leadership in Agile is the concern of everyone
To make a servant leadership-based transition to Agile successful, we need to address the culture rather sooner than later. That culture will include the elements mentioned above and bans leader-follower command and control-ism.
Otherwise, what’s going to happen? Yes, teams will execute Agile, most probably choose for Scrum (and SAFe) and they will all hit a wall, all being caught up with existing leadership style and existing management practices.
An example comes from higher management where decisions are delegated to lower levels and focus shift from controlling to coaching and growing. John C. Maxwell describes this very well in his book “5 levels of leadership”: Level 1 being the leadership by position, Level 2 by permission (the leader focuses on the relationship with his/her team), level 3 by production (the leader creates momentum and delivers with the team), level 4 by development (the leader make people grow into leaders) and extreme level 5 where leader has created a culture and a legacy.
Agility with the right culture and mindset also means that in the end, teams embrace customer’s feedback. Because bottom line, who’s making decisions? The customer ! That’s also why teams should also seek feedback data to support the decision making (in other words: stop planning and start measuring).
What comes next…
In this article, I’ve provided some basic elements about traditional leadership (which is more like management) and the benefits of moving away from those practices, change the culture and become Agile.
In the next one, we met Jean-Christophe and Filip, 2 leaders who shared their thoughts about culture, servant leadership and how Agility changed their way of working.
Inspiring conversations to come!
Endnote: and already a special thanks to the reviewer’s dream team (Artur, Caroline, JC, Manaëlle, Nathalie, Olivier)