Follow the leader

Follow the leader

Strong leaders inspire and drive change. Effective organisations think carefully about the behaviours their leaders display and ensure their values fit with the culture.

Leadership styles have evolved over time, from command and control to decentralised, empowered approaches, and Agile takes this evolution up another gear. Agile teams are self-organising and empowered. Decision making is devolved. What then, is the role of the Agile leader when teams play such a key role in leading themselves? In an Agile world, leaders manage what is influencing or blocking their people to get the best results. They are fleet-footed and responsive to change.

Year on year, the top blocker for successful Agile programmes is the inability to change company culture (Version One State of Agile Report 2016). If leadership isn’t transformed along with the delivery style, the real power of Agile will be lost.

Too many organisations fail to invest in leadership development, and see the impact part-way through their journey, damaging and slowing their transformation. Here are three areas leaders should focus on to accelerate their Agile approach.

Titles are a thing of the past

Agile promotes flat structures and decentralised decision-making, so encourage and develop highly engaged leaders at all levels. Agile is about finding greater meaning in work, and balancing stakeholder needs – so titles and rank become less relevant. A balance of leaders at different levels ensures that top-down is a thing of the past.

End to end systems thinking, proactivity and a willingness to innovate and explore are key behaviours – there should be no waiting around for managers to set direction from above. Agile leaders need to understand the change and the challenges that Agile delivery will present for their teams, so that they can contribute to the conversations and feedback between the two.

One of our private sector clients used the concept of Agile Product Owners to help reduce middle management in their organisation. Product Owners are decisive, forward-thinking leaders who can influence a team to achieve great results – exactly the people this client wanted leading their organisation!

Lead the leaders

Agile behaviours and values will not always come naturally to those who have risen the ranks of management. So it’s vital to equip your leaders through training sessions – not only on Agile processes and ways of working – but also in the behaviours and skills they’ll need for success. Authenticity is key – genuine buy-in to the adoption of Agile, and a strong commitment that it is the right thing for the organisation is essential.

The transition from planning to responding is a difficult one and leaders will need support and encouragement – particularly when the behaviours are new and may go against the grain. Use real scenarios and practical examples of how they can work differently to help them make the shift. They’ll need to be confident to survive the early challenges, so back up the training with facts and ensure there is enough senior buy-in for junior leaders to flourish.

At a leading asset management company, we used the principles of comedy improvisation to help change leaders identify, acknowledge and adopt Agile behaviours. This helped them to recognise important skills required for being responsive to changing dynamics. We are also working with them to develop and roll out a leadership curriculum to target leadership styles to help move the business forward into Agile ways of working.

Tackle the front line

When it comes to the crunch, first line managers will make or break the success of a transformation programme. They understand in detail the work of the team and their advocacy for the change will inspire the team and drive the discretionary effort that is often needed to make change happen. Iterative deliveries will need them to be on side, particularly if things don’t go to plan.

In the run up to delivery, first line managers need to promote a culture that allows Change Champions to play an effective role as bottom-up leaders. Then closer to delivery, brief managers in person, ensure they have the training they need and listen to their concerns and feedback. Their focus will be different to other users, so cater to this. Spend time getting them on board as their attitudes will rub off on their teams.

At a government client running a large scale Agile programme we ran online meetings for first line managers, who were responsible for large numbers of operational staff. The briefing sessions demonstrated new technology and business processes to the managers, gave them the opportunity to ask questions or express concerns and allowed them to feel like extended members of the delivery team.

Agile is an approach and philosophy based on the Agile Manifesto – a set of values and principles. The right culture for success and empowered, decisive leadership are essential ingredients. It’s all too easy to underestimate how different the Agile behaviours required are from today’s norm – particularly in more traditional, hierarchical organisations. Taking the time to upskill leaders and induct them into new ways of working will pay off in almost every element – from design to delivery. It will be a key differentiating factor in the success of your Agile delivery.

Read more about Agile change management:

Accelerating your Agile ambitions

The new rules of engagement

For more information contact


Tara Jones is a director in PA Consulting’s London office, where Dennis Layton is a principal.

The authors would like to thank Andrea Alexander, Mauricio Arnau, Lori Dobeus, Kirill Dushkin, Lauren Miller, and Katie Smith for their contributions to this report.

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