Agile transformation can be a powerful tool for businesses looking to improve efficiency, productivity, and flexibility. However, the success of an agile transformation is often tied to management buy-in. As I've written in my previous post, in many cases, the motivation for an agile transformation comes from believing that the current organizational structure is misaligned and that agile will be a cure-all solution. Management may also have unrealistic expectations of the transformation process.
In reality, management must play an active role in the transformation process, working collaboratively with teams to identify and solve problems. This requires a willingness to hear bad news, make difficult decisions, and address structural and systematic issues that may be inhibiting agility, such as overly complex organizational hierarchies, rigid technologies, and inflexible approval processes. Without this buy-in and active participation, agile transformations can become nothing more than a superficial change with little real impact on efficiency or productivity.
Definition of management and leadership
There are multiple definitions of what management actually is. Let me cite the two classical ones:
Harold Koontz: Management is an art of getting things done through and with the people in formally organized groups. It is an art of creating an environment in which people can perform and individuals and can co-operate towards attainment of group goals.
F.W. Taylor: Management is an art of knowing what to do, when to do and see that it is done in the best and cheapest way.
So basically, when it comes to transitioning to an agile approach, there are two key takeaways managers need to keep in mind: first, they're responsible for creating an environment where people can be productive, and second, they need to figure out what to do when others are uncertain.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that although there is an overlap between the skills and qualities of a manager and a leader, they are not the same. A manager oversees and directs a team or organization to achieve its goals and objectives, while a leader inspires and motivates people to work towards a shared vision or goal. Although it is ideal for a manager to also possess strong leadership skills, it is not always necessary for a manager to be a leader as they can still effectively manage a team without necessarily inspiring or motivating them. However, in many cases, having strong leadership skills can enhance a manager's ability to manage their team effectively.
How does this apply in the context of an agile transformation?
Top-down approach to agile transition
From what I've seen, a few key attributes are critical for a successful top-down approach to agile transition. Managers must be willing to hear "bad news" and make active decisions in the business's best interests. The average employee in the company needs to be encouraged by managers to identify obstacles and suggest both workarounds and proper solutions.
To ensure smooth and effective work, managers must make their visions and expectations clear to team members. Although structural changes may hinder progress, it's important to recognize that some changes take time. A shared vision can motivate team members to find workarounds in the interim, while also fostering the belief that higher-level management is actively working towards a long-term solution.
Having clear orientation, vision, and understanding of context on a higher level can greatly improve motivation, productivity, and the relevance of solutions during an agile transformation. It can lead to more efficient and effective solutions as they are developed with the bigger picture in mind. A sense of direction and a clear vision can be a powerful motivator for people to persevere through challenging times. Like seeing the horizon during turbulent waters, it provides a sense of stability and purpose that can help individuals stay focused and productive. It's the leader's responsibility to ensure such a vision exists and is understood by others.
Don't take it personally
Managers who resist hearing strategic-level criticisms can hinder the progress of agile transformation. It's important not to take it personally. The broader the problem, the more difficult it is to resolve. Attempting to fix it carries both risk and reward, which is why the agile transformation was initiated in the first place.
When managers view criticism or obstacles as a cover for employee incompetence or failures, it can create a lack of trust that hinders effective management. This can lead to a tendency to micromanage and excessively monitor employees, which can ultimately undermine all the transformation efforts. Eventually, a lack of trust can lead employees to keep their ideas to themselves to avoid potential conflicts or arguments with their managers. This can hinder creativity and innovation and create a toxic work environment where open communication and collaboration are discouraged.
It's crucial for managers to actively participate and collaborate with their teams, facilitating problem-solving and decision-making instead of expecting the teams to sort everything out themselves. Some obstacles are outside the control of individual teams and require higher-level interventions or support from the organization.
Make decisions - that's what leaders are supposed to do
Decision-making in a business context involves a shared responsibility between managers and lower-level colleagues. Effective managers take responsibility for their decisions, even in the face of uncertainty. They actively seek out the information they need to make informed decisions and recognize that some situations may not have enough information, yet still require a decision. In contrast, some managers may try to shift responsibility elsewhere rather than taking ownership and accepting accountability for their decisions in such situations out of fear of failure. It is essential for managers to understand that managing uncertainty is a critical part of decision-making and to accept this responsibility. Lower-level colleagues play a crucial role in facilitating decisions by providing valid, precise, complete, and most importantly honest information.
To handle critical decisions, organizations can foster a culture of experimentation and testing or establish a structured approach to collect and analyze data for making informed decisions. By exploring various scenarios of potential outcomes, measuring their impacts, and proactively engaging with such models, organizations can break free from this pattern.
Effective managers approach decision-making with a healthy dose of skepticism, validating and cross-checking data before making any commitments. This also applies to creating plans and commitments during the sales process. It's important to note that the criticism and ideas for improvement from individual teams may not just involve structural and technical aspects but also target plans. A common pitfall is when experts are not involved in the sales and planning process, resulting in unrealistic plans. In such cases, the team should not be held accountable for being unable to adhere to an unrealistic plan. Creating such a plan is a decision that involves risk, which managers are responsible for evaluating, managing, and accepting. Agile transition might painfully expose such naive plans.
Delegating competence and responsibility is an essential aspect of effective management. However, it's important to note that managers should also be willing to accept the consequences of delegation.
Overcoming fear and lack of trust
The fear of change can often hinder the agile transformation process, and many managers may be hesitant to make changes due to various fears that are common to any human being. These fears include fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of losing control, fear of job security, fear of being exposed as incompetent, fear of losing status or power, fear of conflict or opposition, and fear of the extensive changes required by the agile transformation process. However, effective managers and organizations are able to recognize and manage these fears, while still moving forward with the necessary changes to improve outcomes. It is important not to take these fears personally, but instead to approach them with a solution-focused mindset - because paralysis may be the other option.
Fear and lack of trust can be significant barriers to organizational success, particularly during a transformation toward an agile culture. Although these feelings are valid and may have justifiable reasons, they can ultimately hinder progress. For an organization to move forward and become more effective, it is essential to foster trust, delegate competencies and responsibilities, and empower employees to make decisions. Most individuals are naturally motivated by changes that save time and effort, and a culture of trust and collaboration can facilitate this motivation toward achieving organizational goals.
By fostering a culture of trust and collaboration, organizations can overcome fears and barriers to agile transformation and empower employees to take actions that save time and effort.