3 Ways to Apply Agile at the Executive Level

Hey guys!  This post originally was posted at the MATRIX Professional Services Blog.

“As an Agile coach, I would like to find materials that truly educate and inspire me so that I can continue to learn about better ways to help organizations deliver to their customers.”

Easy task, right? Honestly, no! Trying to be an avid reader (well, actually more of a listener these days – Audible is my latest obsession because I live in Atlanta and spend half of my day in the car!), there are times when I read a book and it educates, but doesn’t seem to apply to the situations or challenges being faced. Then there are books that can inspire and make you feel like you can help the world, but their substance is lacking.

A while ago, I read a book and a short white paper that fit both of my user story needs. The first was about how leadership can apply agility at the executive leadership level. The second was about how we must change to get the right talent in our current Agile environment. Both brought up key Holistic Agile concepts that I constantly attempt to apply in Agile adoptions and transformations at MATRIX. When it happens successfully, the initiative seems to “take a turn” for the better as the organization (not just IT) “gets it.” When these practices are not applied to senior leadership, there is a chasm that drags Agile transformations to a halt. Without Holistic Agility, organizational change will fail. These practices and principles are building teams, being responsive, and self-management.

“Wow Josh, thanks for the mind-blowing ideas…I wish I had thought of these innovative, no revelatory, concepts.”

Did you pick up on the sarcasm? I know, I know, not earth-shattering ideas, right? However, it’s not about the idea, but the application of these ideas.

Building Teams

I think Agile coaching hinges on building teams. We know that in order to get to “done” with higher quality and speed, we need to have the right people on the right team. We also know that this provides faster feedback on how we work and builds trust across business and IT. So why do we silo the rest of our organization? Why is finance pushed to the back room and HR left out of key team building unless someone breaks a policy? And let’s not forget how, as Brian Robertson talked about in his ground-breaking book Holacracy, the further up the organizational chart you grow, the less you know what the true problems are in your organization and people trust you to fix them! Teams should not just be built in IT; any value stream or problem that exists in your organization should have a group of the right people that cross boundaries to be responsible for the solution!

If we want our organization and those that work for us to do what is right and to be transformed, we must be willing to model this behavior. Way too many times we have demanded teamwork from people when we are, ourselves, are silos. We as Senior Leaders can even find ourselves requiring transparency, collaboration and timeliness, yet we fall short and find ourselves not communicating, trying to do everything ourselves, and being late to every meeting. What should we do? Embrace those who surround us, embed ourselves on working teams, stop being silos, and become a team member!

Being Responsive

Our Agile forefathers thought so highly of responsiveness that it is listed as one of the top four principles, including it in the manifesto – Responding to change over following a plan. But for most companies, policies and procedures, strategic themes, company visions, and even our products are rigid constructs. Agility recognizes that in order to be successful, organizations must shift based on the market and be themselves driven by responsiveness!

As leaders, we must be willing to be responsive to those we lead. I heard a great man once say that if you wanted to improve the way your teams work, just ask them for their ideas! Ask them what process or policy gets in the way of them getting work done and get rid of it. Be responsive to the needs of people. On the flip side, Toyota is an example of how being responsive to a changing market, society, and even politics, could have sunk a global corporation, but didn’t. Want to know why? Because they were responsive to the market and made sure that the teams that did the work daily could be responsive, too. Toyota actually started out as a loom manufacturer, but through understanding markets, customers, and more, became one of the largest car manufacturers in the world. In addition, their consistent and constant responsiveness makes them a model of how we can do work better – even paving the way for some of our modern IT practices. What shocks me most is that Sr. Leaders still say they have a long way to go and need to be more responsive to change.

Self-Management

Usually when we talk about self-management, we use it in the construct of the development, system, or work team. Generally, we think that Sr. Leaders already live in a realm of self-management – they are our leaders, right? Over the years, I have found that some of the most trapped people when it comes to autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the leadership. For some reason we have gotten pulled into believing that our job was to make everything safe, predictable, and peaceful. And to do that we must not only command and control our people, but ourselves. I believe that self-management is all about finding the right amount of risk to take as a leader.

Risk is something that we have become so averse to that we forget that in order to lead, we must take risks! A mentor of mine, who is completely outside of the world of technology, stated that we must run ourselves like two systems – a manufacturing system which delivers consistently and an R&D department that breeds innovation. The only way we can breed innovation is through risk! We have to be willing to model a system of self-management where we know how to lead and take risks as well as just churn out good products that work. Self-management must embolden those around us take the right risks and take them often!

And…

Application of these concepts as well as many others could break through the roadblocks of transformation. But at the base, being willing to holistically apply concepts of agility throughout the leadership in the organization will be that keystone which solidifies the success of the organization.

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