"Agile Mindset for Leadership"
10 Nov 2020
‘Agile’ as per dictionary means being ‘Nimble’ and ability to move quickly and easily. An Agile organization is the one that is able to sense and respond to external changes faster than the competition. Such organizations have shown the capacity to adapt rapidly to a ‘quickly shifting marketplace’ and are highly customer centric in terms of value delivery and ‘time to market’ for their products and services. People in an agile organization form super productive teams that are collaborative and have good understanding of the business impact of their work and the difference they are able to make through their work apart from having high happiness index at work.
But does leadership of an agile organization have to be any different from that of a traditional one from mindset or characteristics perspectives? The answer has to be ‘Yes’! Let us see the kind of impact leadership mindset has on promoting or preventing business agility.
Organization vision, strategic decisions and directions originate from the management and the leaders who typically achieve their position by virtue of their experience, expertise, and skills. Traditionally run organization’s bureaucratic mindset strategy gets set at the top. Power trickles top-down hierarchy with multiple layers and divisions. Maintaining the pyramid of layers and divisions (who may be working in silos) is seen as the only way to have an org structure.
Because many leaders have risen in a traditional hierarchy, they will have a natural tendency to exhibit same traditional management practices and mindset that have made them successful in the past. This includes the way decisions are made through a classic, bureaucratic, multi-level hierarchy, the way failures are dealt with a blame game, the way tasks are assigned in line with rules, roles and criteria and an org culture of siloed departments and where individuals within a team would compete with each other for compensation. Decisions made at top are to be implemented by middle level managers who may want to play safe for fear of failure and resist innovative ideas and new perspectives. Primary goal is making money for the company and its shareholders. It is not that those with a bureaucratic mindset would not care about the customer; It is just that making money for the company and its shareholders is always the key focus area. It is not that leaders with bureaucratic or ‘Command and Control’ style of leadership are bad leaders. However, many of these leaders find it harder than others to adapt hard to adapt to a world in massive rapid change because of their mindset. A bureaucratic mindset, when shared by tens of thousands of staff, tends to create a radically different—and less adaptable organization as a whole because the culture flows from the top.
Most leaders strongly believe in embracing Agile approaches within organizations to be more responsive, adaptive and innovative in today’s age of disruption that has rapidly evolving digital and VUCA world. They all wish to see the transformation across the key dimensions of People, Processes and Technology for their organization. However, it is important for the leaders to know that traditional leadership mindset, behaviors and the organization culture could be a hindrance to business agility or making their organizations more responsive to change. They could be creating obstacles and risks instead of enabling agile approaches to developing new products, services, and processes that all businesses need today. Successful transformation would also need leaders transform from traditional mindset, to an ‘Agile Mindset’ which has different leadership traits and promotes building a different organization culture to enable future readiness and business agility.
An Agile organization that is able to constantly adapt to rapidly changing market would have a very different leadership mindset that includes some of the following characteristics.
- Leading from a ‘position of support’ and not ‘position of authority’ and being open to the influence and ideas of others irrespective of their status or position.
- Ensuring Innovation culture is in the organization DNA and not just a one-off initiative because teams are encouraged and empowered to experiment with solutions and learn from mistakes without fear of failure for coming up innovative ideas to solve business problems.
- Believing that great ideas can come from anywhere in the Organization and that usually the best ideas and solutions come from people who are close to the problem.
- Showing confidence in teams ability to make decisions and seeing failure as a learning opportunity rather than a reason to assign blame.
o Creating an organization structure that supports collaboration through interactive network (and not departmental silos) and where the work gets done in small self-organizing and empowered teams.
- Building communities with all that they need to operate efficiently but then to let them function autonomously within their boundaries. This mindset of Decentralized decision-making /empowerment further fosters innovation and motivation with sense of ownership as a team towards common objectives.
o Demonstrating the behaviors themselves that they wish to see in others like Transparency with open communication, high degree of trust on issues, status, solutions and ability to view problems from different angles.
One of the key shifts needed to create Business Agility is a shift in the behaviors of the people in the organization. When an organization thinks about embracing agile, apart from focus on the strategic changes to the organization or specific practices and investment in technical capabilities, importance of investing in people and organization culture cannot be undermined. Organization culture is a key for high performing organization that evolves as an aggregate of the behaviors of its people. When people are adaptive, the organization becomes adaptive.
I am fortunate to have been part of TCS Enterprise Agile transformation as an Agile coach and consultant and I have come across role model executives who would roll up their sleeves and contribute to deliverables along with the team on the ground without any ego. I have observed how strict disciplinarian admin heads with Armed Forces background got transformed into coaches and worked as team members without any ego. I have seen executive meetings with Kanban practice followed to discuss Agenda items demonstrating ‘Agile in Action’ by leadership themselves. All this is truly inspirational to the teams on the ground and sends the right message on the cultural change as part of transformation.
Roadmap towards being an ‘Agile Organization’ calls for sweeping changes in the traditional mindset and deep-rooted ways of working that must start with the leadership. It is the leaders who provide the organization with patterns of expected behaviors through their words and actions and create an organization culture. Needless to say, a lip service from leaders to ‘be agile’ will not work. It needs strong commitment from all the top-level executives who will need to demonstrate agile mindset themselves. Changes are not expected only on how teams work but also on how the management team
By Preeti Kate