22.12.2023 | Susanne Bauer

Agile Leadership Part 4: Leading a Team

  • Agile Leadership
  • Agile Organisation

Agile leaders promote self-organisation and self-confidence in teams, away from control, focusing on collective dynamics and holistic team support.

After covering fundamental agile topics in Part 1, exploring psychological aspects of leadership in Part 2, and delving into self-leadership as a prerequisite in Part 3 in the previous articles of the Agile Leadership series, we now arrive at team leadership. When thinking about leadership, the task of team leadership, working with people, usually comes to mind first. For agile leaders, the focus is on promoting team self-organization, self-responsibility, and team confidence.

In team leadership, significant differences between agile and traditional leadership become apparent. It shifts from a command-and-control style to leadership without commands, from an all-determining boss to guiding and supporting teams. Helpful in this context is to move away from considering individual people and instead view the entire team as a system. While agile leadership involves dealing with individuals, the Agile Leader seeks solutions or approaches to change not from individuals but through a systemic perspective.

Making a Team a Team

First and foremost, the agile leader's task is to turn employees into a genuine team. Agile leadership focuses on creating shared elements for the team: identity, purpose, goals, and strategies. Tasks include ensuring that work is not only done on the common identity but also felt. This involves formulating the team's purpose together with the team, for example, by asking questions like "Why does our team exist?" or "What would the company miss if our team no longer existed?" It also includes developing clear common goals and a shared strategy, as well as setting clear guidelines for collaboration (note: not rules, see Article 1). So, do not hesitate to talk about common goals repeatedly with the team. All of these are communication tasks. Leadership is communication work, and yet there are few companies where too much communication is happening.

As an agile leader, you are also the gatekeeper and advocate for the team. This means being responsible for coordinating team boundaries and interfaces. How is the team connected to other teams, customers, or stakeholders, and how is communication handled? How are new team members onboarded so that they quickly become integral parts of the team system? And what information and requirements from higher hierarchies are passed on to the team in a way that doesn't overload the team?

Finally, the agile leader is responsible for maintaining the team's balance between social interaction and task focus. They keep an eye on the social structure, ensuring that neither performance nor relationships within the team are neglected.

Doing the Right Things Right

The success of an agile leader can be measured by whether the team is working on the right tasks that bring the best possible value to customers. Customers are the people who pay for a service or product. In some teams, customers are internal customers who need to work with the results of the team's work. Your task is to ensure alignment with customer value and prevent distracting (perhaps more attractive) activities. For example, a software developer might prefer to implement a technically "fancy" feature, but if that feature does not add value to the customer, as a leader, you must redirect the focus.

Essential to this is ensuring that all team members know why they are working on something, allowing alignment to be ensured. The agile leader is responsible for making work transparent and giving everyone the opportunity to know who is working on what, what the results look like, what acceptance criteria the results must meet, or what results are expected. Probably the most well-known tools for this are Kanban boards. Only through this transparency can problems be identified and solved, ensuring that the results of team work can be used by the customer as quickly as possible.

In a complex environment, one sometimes does not know what is right or how to do it. To find out, experiments and a good learning culture are needed. This requires high team competence as well as the willingness and permission to conduct experiments. And they must deal constructively with mistakes, which demands social competence.

However, the focus on team competencies often falls short. Individual employees are promoted and trained, but the view of the entire team is missing. To address this, you can work with the following questions: What competencies does my team need to the extent necessary to deliver the desired performance today and in the future? And not just professionally, but socially as well. The core task here is to develop or maintain the team's performance. The agile leader must create space for the team and consider whether competencies should be built internally or outsourced.

Not Disturbing the Team While Working

Once the employees have become a team, and you have ensured that they are working on the right things with the right means and competencies, the fostering self-organization comes next. Preconditions that you, as a leader, must create for this include efficient processes and user-friendly tools, transparency about the work to be done, and clear, sustainable prioritization without overruling or ricochets.

Too often, we experience Big Room Plannings or other planning measures that are carried out with great effort, only to be overturned shortly afterward by decisions from the board or management, which disrupt the prioritization. While there may be good reasons for reprioritization at times (which should be communicated transparently to avoid the impression of arbitrariness), often it results from poorly or not coordinated actions by stakeholders, sponsors, or decision-makers. If something like this happens frequently or regularly, the team will lose motivation to take responsibility. As challenging as it may be, as an agile leader, you are responsible for reflecting this approach back to the originators and showing the consequences.

Promoting self-organization also involves not controlling people but accompanying and moderating them. For example, you can question decision structures together with the team in the spirit of Shared Leadership. Decision-making competencies related to operational, strategic, organizational, or personnel issues are discussed and shared with the team. For example, decisions about when a team member can go on vacation are made within the team and entered into calendars for information. Or the performance evaluation discussion for individual team members is conducted by you as a leader, but feedback from other team members is obtained beforehand. Or while technical decisions are made by the team, the team consults you if needed. The distribution of decision-making competencies not only relieves the leader but also leads to better decisions because they are made where the expertise lies. Waiting times are eliminated, as evidenced, for example, by the decreasing occurrence of the point "Waiting for a decision" in the visualization of workflow.

Continuously Improving

If you, as the agile leader, trust your team to deliver good performance and ensure that the team can constantly learn, the team's self-confidence will also increase. Team members learn that their own competencies and strengths equip them for challenging or difficult tasks and situations.

To foster psychological safety in the team, which is essential to be successful, the agile leader can take targeted measures (more details in the article on Agile Leadership - Psychological Aspects). Psychological safety is also the basis for honest and open feedback that team members and the leader must give each other to discover improvement and learning potentials. Team members should be encouraged to provide feedback to their leader when they encounter discrepancies, problems, or mistakes.

Continuous improvement also involves not only planning and implementing measures but also measuring preliminary results intelligently and meaningfully. This allows the team to recognize early if something is heading in the wrong direction and make appropriate adjustments (stop, identify and solve problems, or change the conditions). As an agile leader, you must ensure that tasks are set up in a way that allows measurement, and that relevant findings are accessible.

Finally, agile leaders must establish a learning culture in which all team members are motivated to work on themselves and share their knowledge and experiences. Self-reflection and exchange, also with experts from other teams or departments, are essential for the team's development. Leadership provides the means for this: your own network, time resources and leeway, as well as prioritizing the task of team development.

In short, in the world of agile leadership, success means creating a team that not only works on the right tasks but also acts self-organized, self-responsible, and self-confident. The art lies in accompanying the team on its path to excellent performance, removing obstacles, and laying the foundation for continuous learning and growth. Ultimately, the key to success lies in not only doing the right things but doing them right together—as a team.

 

If you are enthusiastic about the topic of Agile Leadership, or if you simply want to know more about the aspects mentioned in this article: In our workshops and Spotlight Training sessions, we cover these topics comprehensively and leave plenty of room for practice and discussion. I would be delighted to meet you there.

 

Overview of our trainings on Agile Leadership