Strategic Alignment

What Is Agile Leadership, and Why Does It Matter?

By Betterworks
October 11, 2021
5 minute read

The concept of “agile” work processes originated in the realization that far too often middle management was doing more to hold employees back than facilitate their success. 

The concept has since moved beyond scrum masters and the world of software development, to help employees in an array of professions and industries become more efficient, effective, and productive. 

But what exactly is agile leadership? How does it show up in your organization? And what does it look like in practice?

Here’s how to identify the qualities of agile leadership and implement its principles at your company.

How Does Agile Leadership Benefit Your Business?

Agile leadership is a leadership style that strives to remove roadblocks to success so that employees can be more effective and productive. 

Since agile teams work together better, agile leadership drives better business outcomes with less wasted time and resources. By empowering teams, agile organizations can unleash the full power of their workforce.

Business agility is essential in a constantly evolving world of work. Borrowing concepts from agile methodology enables companies to pivot more quickly in response to external factors. Adopting an agile mindset helps organizations visualize improvement on a granular level by allowing teams to experiment with improved products and processes.

Traditional Organizations vs. Agile Organizations

Traditional organizations are susceptible to bogging down in bureaucracy. Since all important decisions come from the top, they can be slow to respond to change. This can have huge consequences. If a company can’t evolve fast enough (or evolve at all), it risks losing both its relevance and market share.

Agile organizations, on the other hand, rely less on legacy rules and processes and more on updating and optimizing processes to facilitate better work. They decentralize power and recognize the value companies derive from listening to employees on the frontlines. When change occurs around them, agile organizations react quickly.

Not every project that teams implement will prove a success, but even disappointments can help the organization learn something. Taking an iterative approach allows groups of people across the organization to experiment with change to see what adjustments can produce the best results.

Leadership in Agile Organizations

Before you can implement agile transformation across your workforce, you have to identify the qualities that define an agile leader. 

Traditionally, leadership candidates have been selected because they’re high performers in their roles. But high performers in other positions don’t necessarily possess the qualities you need in an agile leader. Instead, seek to identify leadership candidates who are capable of adapting quickly to change, display curiosity, are open to innovation, and can communicate effectively with their teams. 

You can help individuals with potential become agile leaders. You’ve located candidates with the right leadership qualities, now provide the support to foster those traits. HR can work alongside learning and development teams to create training programs for agile leaders. 

One of the best ways to develop agile leaders is by giving them time to learn on the job. Shadowing agile leaders in cross-functional training can help leadership candidates observe agile behaviors in action, which they can then put into practice themselves.

The Principles of Agile Leadership

Agile leaders prioritize creating strong teams over rewarding dominant individuals. They understand the strengths of their team members and know how to facilitate the work to play to those strengths. They know how to nurture high-performance teams to keep them performing at the top of their game. When an employee misses their performance targets, agile leaders know how to create a performance improvement plan to get them back on track.

Just as they avoid placing the individual above the group, agile leaders don’t put themselves above the team. They work in the background to facilitate processes more than they stand in the spotlight. They’re not trying to be heroes or micromanagers: They just strive to produce desired outcomes for the business. 

This is not to suggest agile leaders aren’t capable of bold action. Agile leadership recognizes there are times when the system itself may not be working and rewards those willing to take a step back to address it. Agile leaders don’t just accept the status quo: If there’s a more efficient way to work, a culture of agile leadership will find a way to optimize those processes. Agile leaders also recognize others are capable of important innovations, which is why they listen when employees bring forward ideas.

Agile teams operate with high levels of self-organization. Agile leadership shifts the balance of power from its central location in leadership to being spread more equitably across the organization. As a result, employees in agile organizations are empowered to take control over their work and schedules. A culture of agility always seeks better ways of working, which often involves employees and teams being able to organize (and optimize) their own workflows.

With leadership dispersed throughout an organization, it becomes even more essential that everyone relies on accurate data. (If every leader relied on their own hunches and hearsay, a company would be thrown into chaos.) Agile leaders focus on facts and measurable outcomes. Agile leaders are analytical, so quantitative data drives their decision-making processes. If a new process or initiative isn’t working, for example, they don’t throw blame around: They look at the data to see why it didn’t work and use what they learn from it to course correct.

Agile development also empowers people to make decisions based on their own knowledge. Under an agile leadership model, employees are encouraged to share ideas and experiment. Communication is transparent, so employees have the information they need to make quick decisions with confidence. This minimizes the bureaucratic processes that stifle creativity.

Agile leadership requires developing a strategy and referring to it on a regular basis. In an agile organization, a well-thought-out, frequently reviewed strategy is the company’s true north. It directs employee priorities, from the top to the frontlines. Transparency is key: Each individual contributor should understand the company’s basic strategy, and how their individual work intersects with it.

By now, a central challenge of agile leadership should be clear. Since agile leadership thrives on experimenting and iterating continuous improvement, there’s invariably an element of chaos. While it can’t be eliminated, it can be controlled. Using a clear experimentation process, maintaining documentation, and reviewing the data to reveal clear results can help ensure there is structure even amid the evolution.

Examples of Agile Leadership Styles & Personalities

Many of the biggest companies are thriving under agile leadership. 

Mark Harrison, president, and CEO at Intermountain Healthcare has implemented 15-minute huddles to keep each of the 23 hospitals in the system aligned. These huddles empower employees to communicate from the bottom-up since concerns or ideas they raise in their huddles can easily be escalated to upper management.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos prioritizes the customer first and welcomes innovation from across the organization to help give customers what they need. His “multiple paths to yes” approach fosters a robust internal idea-sharing process. Every employee has the opportunity to pitch their idea to company leaders.

3 Key Techniques of Agile Leadership

Agile leaders communicate openly and transparently with their team members. Their priority is removing roadblocks so that team members can achieve their priorities each day. By communicating effectively, agile supervisors can anticipate and remove barriers to success. 

Agile leaders are always listening and observing. When team members address an issue or leaders observe one that arises frequently, they gather input from stakeholders to innovate better processes. Listening to employees on the frontlines is key to agile leadership. Agile leaders understand that practical process solutions are most likely to come from the people most intimately familiar with them.

Agile leaders observe external forces, too: they understand how changes in the market, the economy, or public health can impact the workplace. They constantly refer back to strategic priorities for guidance, and regularly reassess them for relevance. Agile leaders are prepared to act nimbly to stay focused on customer and workforce needs. 

The result is that companies with truly agile leadership can adapt along with the world, even as more traditional organizations turn obsolete. Discover more ways to improve employee performance.

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