Leadership sometimes wants to get things done with unrealistic speed — they’re pressured to make things happen quickly. They have deadlines from their board of directors, the stock market, competition, and customers. As a result, leadership sometimes struggles with agile software development because in agile they have to shift the focus from serving the shareholder to serving the customer. The top leadership has stringent deadlines and milestones for releasing products, even as they deal with decreasing budgets. Due to the above pressures, they often get into a command and control mindset which forces them to push things. The challenges leadership often faces is the fear of failure. What if agile doesn’t work out? What if the stock price drops? Leadership worries they will take the blame. They don’t want to try new things and fail in front of everyone.
Agile development teams that are trying to build new software, on the other hand, are often unable to fulfill the expectations of leadership because they face many challenges. These teams are supposedly self-managing, self-organizing and empowered to make their own decisions. They like to explore, experiment, learn and create the best products and services they can. To build innovative products, you need peace, collaboration, research and investments in time and money.
In real life, the teams get delayed because of many factors — the foremost being attrition, a lack of motivation that impacts team performance. The ‘skill-set syndrome’ is another issue, as people like to dominate and excel in a single area of expertise — developer, tester, designer, database, etc. — even though agile stresses “T-shaped” generalist skills. Teams often get stuck because they have dependencies on other teams and business units and have to wait for them to deliver. In agile, we want to nurture creativity — haste makes waste. The uncertain requirements and instability of software development, along with new technologies, disrupt the smooth functioning of development teams. When you try new things in agile it is alright to fail. If you have to fail, fail fast so that you don’t waste money. This does not sit well with an organizational culture where failure is frowned upon and makes your team look weak. All these factors create a constant tug of war between teams and organizational leadership.
How To Fix The ‘Tug Of War’
The conflict between leadership expectations and the ground realities faced by teams has to be decoded. Good leaders solve this riddle by decentralizing decision making. David Marquet, in his best-selling book, Turn The Ship Around, says that about 95% of the time, he lets his team make decisions. True leaders are willing to learn and adapt their styles by building consensus. Some victorious companies have been able to take advantage of this successful marriage between leadership and teams, and they’re a good example for others to follow, including SalesForce, Spotify, SAP, and Microsoft.
Different Kinds Of Leadership
There are some good individual leaders such as Tony Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe and clothing shop Zappos, who started the concept of holocracyin his company instead of adopting a bureaucracy. At Zappos, everyone is equal and there is little hierarchical structure. Management literature on leadership theory talks about different styles of leadership that exist — one style is a transformational leadership style where the leader transforms his entire organization to excel and stand out. There are fortunately some exceptional leaders from the political and social services arena that stand out as the epitome of the transformational leadership model. For example, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, who had millions following them even when their leadership did not have the power to offer any tangible benefit to receivers. In agile development, there’s something similar — servant leadership, which was introduced by Robert Greenleaf and is popular and helping companies. Greenleaf, in his book, enumerates a leaderless situation where the leader is just a servant helping, assisting and facilitating team members to learn, excel and evolve. It appears some successful companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are applying a lot of these agile concepts similar to servant leadership and holocracy and benefitting from it.
Create An Agile Mindset
Agile projects are unique. In waterfall projects, we know the requirements well, but agile requirements, technology, and customer need all keep changing. If the leadership does not know what will eventually emerge and our understanding of products and services is intended to evolve as the project develops, we have no choice but to adapt and listen to agile teams that build new systems. We can maximize customer interaction and conduct more customer surveys to continuously obtain feedback from the customer or user of what they want. At the same time, we need to build teams that provide “bottoms-up” thinking and mindset. Leadership has to be comfortable with it. We have to be agile instead of simply doing agile. Being agile is a mindset shift that starts from the top.
If the knowledge worker knows more than the leader, we should let him lead. In modern times, where disruptions are changing product designs rapidly, we need to change how to engage our employees. We have to respect team empowerment and move human beings from the expense side of the profit and loss statement to the asset side on the balance sheet. Human beings are not just meager resources like chairs, tables, and laptops. The solution lies in tapping the potential of our vast human intellect to maximize returns to an enterprise and its leadership.