Becoming an Effective Leader in an Agile Organization


Most guidance on Agile is directed at team members in such roles as Product Owner, Team Member (including developer, QA engineer, and UI/UX designer), and Scrum Master. This leaves some with the impression that there is no place in Agile for traditional organizational leadership roles with manager or director titles.

On the contrary, people in manager, director, and VP roles are essential to the success of an Agile organization. To be effective, they need to practice discipline, discernment, and discretion.

Discipline – through Lean/Agile Governance principles and practices
IT Governance happens, intentionally or otherwise. Agile leaders should be deliberate in creating a degree of formal governance for their organization that will allow teams to thrive. A recent survey by Scott Ambler and Associates found that Agile Governance has a significant effect on creating conditions that allows Agile teams to thrive.

Discernment – participating in as many team meetings as possible
Scrum Team ceremonies are where a leader can identify patterns and practices that are helping or hindering team success. By silently participating and observing team member interactions in such settings as Daily Standups, Sprint Planning, Backlog Grooming, and Sprint Reviews, a leader can identify opportunities to influence individuals and the team as whole. Throughout team development phases, team members will welcome the guidance of a coach and mentor whose intent is to help them achieve their potential.

Discretion – resisting the urge to use traditional command-and-control techniques
Many of us in leadership roles have formed habits that damage team autonomy and empowerment. We’re too quick to determine and direct, when instead we could foster collaboration and healthy convergence among team members.

Engineering leaders often are in their positions as managers because they were successful as individual contributors and showed aptitude for leadership. Not many have had the training and experience that would allow them to develop the skills needed to coach, build and inspire others. Effective leadership requires you to take deliberate steps to move out of the individual contributor sphere. Lyssa Adkins illustrates the sphere of influence for an Agile leader this way:

The need for effective Agile leaders has never been greater. Recently, there has been a considerable amount of attention drawn to the failings of at least one prominent Silicon Valley “Unicorn” in the area of culture and ethics.

The failure has been exposed at every level in the organization, and is especially noteworthy because of the explicit participation in toxic and demeaning behavior exhibited by some in engineering leadership roles. They assumed, and company executives reinforced the belief, that they needed to encourage and reward aggressive, individualistic patterns and practices, the very things that are anathema to effective, productive Agile teams.

Agile leaders are instrumental in creating a culture that nourishes and gives vitality to the teams that deliver value through their work in technology. My experience has shown that an Agile leader takes the initiative and demonstrates to their peers and others that they’re making a break from the status quo; that they’re going to do different things, not just do things differently.

About the Author

Keith Klundt has close to 20 years managing software development. His roles have included: Product Manager, Scrum Master, Project Manager, Agile Trainer and Coach, as well as leadership roles as a CTO, VP and Director of Engineering and Agile PMO. Keith holds an MBA from Brigham Young University.

Keith is passionate about Agile and Scrum and believes the principles, values, tools and practices they provide are an organization’s best way to achieve high levels of productivity, product quality, and morale.