08.09.2023 | Susanne Bauer

Agile Leadership Part 1: Setting the Base

  • Agile Leadership
  • Agile Organisation

Agile Leadership is an approach to leadership based on the principles and values of the Agile Manifesto and Agile Methods. The goal of Agile Leadership is to help companies and teams succeed in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. But what does that mean in concrete terms? In this series of articles, you will read which development steps lead to Agile Leadership. We start with the foundations and take a first look through the Agile Leadership lens.

Today, many terms are buzzing around in the social media universe, in consultancy circles, at conferences and in articles on leadership, all more or less trying to describe what Agile Leadership actually means. Terms such as "New Work", "Servant Leadership", "Adaptive Leadership" or "Transformational Leadership" are often used synonymously, to name but a few. The diversity of terms does not, of course, help to provide a clearer picture.

Establishing a universally accepted definition of "agile leadership" is a difficult undertaking. However, as a guide, I am happy to describe what we at KEGON mean by Agile Leadership and what it can be used for. In a nutshell: Agile Leadership, as we understand it, is designed to create the best possible framework conditions in a complex environment that will make the company successful in the market in the long term. It aims to promote adaptability, flexibility and continuous improvement.

We see the following topics as cornerstones for Agile Leadership: distinguishing complex from complicated, working with principles and values, understanding systems, setting focus with the help of omission and cessation, and psychological safety. 

Complex challenges are not helped by complicated solutions

Unfortunately, the terms "complex" and "complicated" are often used interchangeably. However, there are significant differences that have a very important impact on the consequences.

"Complicated" describes something that is difficult to understand or manage because it involves a high number of details, difficulties or subtleties. For example, technical challenges are complicated, such as building a production line, performing a surgical procedure, calculating the landing manoeuvre of a rocket on the moon, assembling a large Lego model or developing software code.

"Complex", on the other hand, is something that can not only have a variety of influencing factors, but furthermore means that these elements can change, interact and influence each other. New elements can be added or some can be dropped. The cause-effect relationships can no longer be traced. The whole is more than just a sum of the individual parts. Complex challenges are, for example, stopping climate change, containing the Covid pandemic, successful business on the stock market, happy family life, calculating the fastest route during rush hour through a city or creating equal opportunities on the education market.

If you now think that as a manager you only have complicated challenges because your employees are programming software anyway, then I have to disappoint you. All social systems are complex, regardless of whether it's a family, a work team, an association or your company. And as a manager, you don't lead software programmes, but teams or parts of the company. Each employee comes to the workplace with his or her own package of learning experiences, world views, ideas and perceptions, and together they are supposed to create value. As an agile leader, you set the framework for this.

Principles instead of rules

In many companies, however, this is unfortunately not the case. Techniques from the complicated world are applied to the complex one. Tools to solve complicated problems are, for example, checklists, rules and regulations, instructions or long-term roadmaps and plans. However, you cannot solve a team conflict with these tools, just as you cannot solve a lack of trust, a lack of responsibility or a lack of willingness to innovate. If you come along as a leader with approaches to solving complicated problems, you are doomed to failure. How nice it would be to have a checklist for taking responsibility, a ban on conflicts, or a step-by-step guide for trust! In my leadership coaching sessions, I often hear statements like, "I've told my team/employee how to do it a hundred times now." A typical example of a complicated solution (instruction) to a complex problem that unfortunately does not work that way.

This fact alone indicates that we need new leadership answers. Instructions, bureaucracy and orders do not show the desired changes, or only in the short term. After all, hand on heart, who wants to take responsibility in an over-bureaucratised environment where leaders rule with command and control?

One of these leadership answers is not to impose more rules, but to set guard rails. An example that probably most people know is the travel expenses policy. Here it is meticulously laid down at which hierarchical level which travel conditions may be booked. This means not only a lot of effort for the travellers in obtaining information, but also a lot of effort for the administration in updating and controlling. A principle-based approach could be: optimisation of travel costs, taking into account efficiency and reasonable comfort, with full transparency about the travel decision. Such an approach allows employees to act autonomously and make their travel cost decisions based on common principles.

Manage the system, not the people

When you manage people, you are always dealing with complex social systems. A common misconception is that social systems can be improved by improving their parts - in this case the people. This conceals two serious errors:

First, a system is more than the sum of its parts. If you think of a football team and buy the best players in the world for a perfect team, it does not automatically become the best football team. On the contrary, each of the players would strive to advance his own career and act mainly in his own sense. What the team would need would be in the background. Therefore, to improve a social system, one has to work on the whole system and define a clear goal for improvement.

And secondly, the crucial individual parts of a system are not the people themselves, but their relationships with each other. This means the interactions and communication. If the system structure inhibits these, e.g. through departmental silos, meeting structures, bonus programmes, etc., then improving relationships will not work if individuals are put into communication training. Rather, attention must be paid to how communication and cooperation flow and where they falter. This is where starting points for improvement can be found, and not in the communication behaviour of individuals.

Omission and cessation as a prerequisite

A variety of actions can now be derived from the basics of agile leadership described above. The agile transformation of your organisation also presents you with plenty of technical challenges. New working methods, artefacts and events challenge not only you, but also your teams and bring unrest into the daily work routine. The mental strain added by a transformation is enormous, not to mention the strain that was already there before.  

Therefore, it is your task as an agile leader to decide what needs to be left out - in other words, what to focus on and direct the entire work force towards - and what needs to be stopped when something new is started. As a rule of thumb, for every new meeting or artefact that is introduced, an old one is discontinued. 

Nothing works without psychological safety

The most important task of an agile leader, however, is to promote psychological safety in their teams. According to the definition by Amy Edmondson (Harvard Business School professor and author of the book "The Fear-Free Organisation"), psychological safety is the belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for expressing your ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It can also be described as a perceived permission to be open.

As an agile leader, it is your job to lead by example. For example, you can establish trust through reliability and congruence, which is the basis for psychological safety. Through your handling of mistakes, uncertainties and dependencies, you set the guardrails and expectations in the team. When you yourself admit weaknesses or admit that you don't know or can't assess something, it shows your openness to others. When someone else does this and you show appreciation and gratitude (as opposed to embarrassing, denouncing, badmouthing - whether verbally or non-verbally), it encourages you to continue to speak openly.

In the next part of the Agile Leadership series, read more about Psychological Safety and other psychological factors that are elementary for Agile Leaders.

Agile Leadership Part 2: Psychological Aspects

If you are passionate about the topic of Agile Leadership, or if you simply want to know more about the aspects mentioned in this article: We cover these topics comprehensively in our workshops and spotlight trainings, leaving plenty of room for practice and discussion. I would be happy to meet you there.

Overview of our trainings on Agile Leadership