Why should leaders adopt agile ways of working now more than ever?
This article shows how leaders can transform themselves by adopting an agile leadership mindset, and their teams by implementing agile ways of working.
The current events are a prime example for the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business world we live in. While navigating their companies through the storm and upholding business continuity, leaders also face new challenges in the teams they lead. Forced to work from a distance, many teams are having a hard time ensuring effective coordination, fostering employee engagement, and increasing ownership. In addition, many leaders witness a loss of control, as they cannot fully track time and attendance - still the main measurement of success in traditional businesses. The traditional command-and-control style of leadership is put into question now more than ever.
Thus, this crisis shows the necessity of adopting truly agile ways of working. Practically overnight, the foundation of agile ways of working such as trust, accountability, and transparency have become more crucial. In a world where change is constant, agile teams are more responsive and adaptive to future challenges. The current crisis has created the sense of urgency necessary for a successful change. This article shows how leaders can transform themselves by adopting an agile leadership mindset and their teams by implementing agile ways of working.
What is the difference between flexible and agile ways of working?
The meanings of flexible and agile ways of working are often used interchangeably. Yet, they are not the same. Flexible working aims to improve the way we work individually through flexible work in terms of place and time. This increases our work-life balance, for example by avoiding long commutes or letting us better organise childcare. The current crisis will further increase flexible working: many people who have never worked from home will have positive experiences in terms of work-life balance. And this, in turn, will put pressure on companies to offer flexible working in order to attract and retain talent in the future.
Agile ways of working, on the other hand, include not only the flexibility to work at a different time and place, but also how teams collaborate and what they achieve. Agile is about changing your mindset, about being and behaving differently, not just about working more flexibly. Agile brings people, processes, and technology together to find the most appropriate and productive way of achieving goals. To give you a better understanding of the fundamentals of agile ways of working, we have gathered here a list of the mindsets that can be found in agile-working teams:
- View work as an activity, not a place
- Know what your customers need, don’t just assume
- Make fast decisions, don’t fear failure
- Base your relationships on trust and respect, not hierarchies
- Get feedback and improve constantly, don’t be self-complacent
- Embrace innovation, not bureaucracy
- Take pride in ownership, don’t wait for others to take action
- Empower people, don’t control them
- Focus on performance, not presenteeism
What are the benefits of agile ways of working
The objective of agile ways of working is to create more responsive, innovative, and productive organisations, teams, leaders, and individuals and allow them to meet future challenges. According to McKinsey, agile teams make decisions three times faster and create value five times faster than traditional teams.1
Agile teams are self-organised and take ownership to deliver value fast. This makes them more resilient, which increases their capacity to change in a world characterised by rapid change. In today’s VUCA world, changing customer needs, economic and regulatory circumstances, and technology require constant adjustments. And agile teams also react fast in times of crisis - as shown now during this crisis. In agile organisations, each team is viewed as a business in itself. By giving teams and employees more freedom to make their own decisions and prioritise together, agile teams are much more entrepreneurially-driven and accountable for their actions. They focus on performance and outcomes rather than presenteeism.
As a result, their members are more motivated and engaged as in traditional teams and are less likely to leave the company. With a new generation of workers entering the workforce who value purpose in their jobs much more than previous generations, empowering them with a voice in decision making is crucial.
So, what holds teams back from adopting agile ways working?
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What is the main challenge when adopting agile ways of working?
In our experience, adopting agile ways of working is first and foremost a cultural challenge. Simply buying new technology or changing processes is not enough. We need to change our culture, empower people, and build our relations upon mutual trust and respect. We argue that now is the best time for initiating this cultural change. Why?
First, the current crisis has created a sense of urgency for adopting agile ways of working. Practically overnight, the foundation of agile ways of working such as trust, accountability, and transparency has become crucial to uphold team productivity in the remote working setup. The necessity for change, in this case being more productive as well as becoming more resilient and adaptive to future disruptions, is rather obvious and logical now. This will make it easier to get people’s voluntary buy-in for the transformation.
The second reason is related to leadership. Research shows that leadership is arguably the most important enabler of successful agile transformation. Thus, leaders need to radically change their notion of leadership and adopt an agile mindset. And the timing could not be better: The traditional command-and-control style of leadership is put into question by recent events. When most employees work remotely all of a sudden, it becomes harder for leaders to fully track time and attendance. Micromanagement and control are more difficult to uphold. So changing leadership styles has never been more fundamental.
Leadership is arguably the most important enabler of successful agile transformation.
How can you become a truly agile leader
The role of a leader in agile teams is substantially different than in traditional teams. Therefore, leaders who want to implement these new ways of working in their teams must begin by adopting a truly agile mindset. This mindset will allow them to integrate themselves into the team and effectively promote the change that is about to happen.
In the quest of becoming agile, leaders fundamentally transform their own role in the team from a planner and manager to a coach and visionary. At first glance, this might look like a loss in power. Traditional leaders often get their self-esteem from their hierarchical position. However, as a leader, you do not need to be afraid of losing influence. On the contrary, you can even increase your level of influence by empowering all your team members and reaching goals together.
How can you successfully implement agile ways of working in your team
The essence of agile leadership is creating the right environment for self-managing, high-performing teams. During the transformation process, your role as a leader is fundamental for the change to be successful. This can be overwhelming at first. This is why we prepared a step-by-step guide on how to implement agile ways of working in your team:
1. Make the purpose clear
Why should we adopt agile ways of working? This is the key question you should ask yourself when starting the transformation. Give your team members a clear purpose. Otherwise, agile ways of working are bound to fail from the beginning. Establish, together with your team, a common understanding of what agile working means in the context of your team. This article should help you. Try to identify possible obstacles that could come up along the way and feel the vibe of the team.
2. Get your people’s voluntary buy-in
Getting your people on board is paramount. However, their buy-in has to happen voluntarily. Agile work is fully based on voluntariness, which is, in turn, the premise for subsequent ownership and engagement. Team members who feel obliged to implement agile ways of working will obstruct the team from reaching their goals. To get your people’s buy-in, highlight the benefits of agile without being pushy.
3. Provide your team with the autonomy for self-organisation
Agile work relies on autonomous and self-organised teams. Empower your team to make all important decisions independently, with the agreed-upon mission statement as a guideline. However, this form of self-organisation also means that a team takes responsibility for achieving their goals. Every team member should now know what their role in the team is.
4. Create a sense of psychological safety
Seeing that culture is the most important factor of a successful agile transformation, ensure that your team is empowered to build an agile team culture. Create a sense of psychological safety, where people feel comfortable speaking openly, suggesting ideas, and even admitting when they do not know something. In fact, a team culture based on psychological safety is one of the top characteristics of high-performing agile teams. Agile leaders can help create this environment by encouraging everyone to communicate openly and contribute to joint problem-solving.
5. Encourage your team to focus on customer needs
A focus on customer needs is one of the pillars of agile ways of working. Keep your agile teams focused on the external or internal customer and on creating value for them. This means that your team needs to analyse, understand, and anticipate customer problems and needs. To capture, classify, and process customer needs, agile teams make use of customer-centricity methods such as customer journey mapping, user stories, or the jobs-to-be-done method.2
6. Jointly define your agile processes
In order to become more flexible and responsive as a team, agile ways of working require a lot of discipline in terms of processes. As a leader, you can help put these processes in place. Encourage your team to make fast decisions and ruthlessly prioritise tasks. Define goals and organise a robust monitoring and reporting process to check performance and results. Improvement and learning cycles are also part of agile processes, during which the teams reflect on what can be better. If your team and you need outside help to get better, you can also consider hiring an agile coach. Last but not least, think of how next-generation technology can assist your team in their agile way of working.
7. Facilitate mental agility - be an agile role model
The biggest roadblock for successful agile teams is not the process, but the mindset of your team members. Therefore, you should be a role model and constantly improve your ‘inner agility’. If you lead the way and have the courage to live up to agile values, your team members are most likely to follow your path. And be patient: Many people have got used to traditional ways of working during their professional socialisation. Therefore, it will take time to adopt agile ways of working such as self-organisation, making decisions without asking superiors, taking true ownership, and saying no due to prioritisation.
Leading the way for agile teams
Implementing agile ways of working is tough, and requires agile leaders and a team that embraces change. We argue that now is the best time to kickstart agile. The current crisis has created the sense of urgency necessary to make change management successful. As a leader, start by transforming your own mindset and then lead your team as a role model. By following the seven steps described in this article, leaders will allow their teams to overcome the challenges of our VUCA world and thrive as agile teams.
1 'Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-century organizations', McKinsey, 2019.
2 '6 Ways to Build a Customer-Centric Culture', Harvard Business Review, 2018.