In the Media 

Establishing Agile Leadership Practices


Many of our clients are in different phases of implementing Agile ways of working, running and leading their businesses. This is driven by a growing acknowledgement that traditional ways of managing, defining strategies, and developing innovative solutions are not meeting the demands of a world where uncertainty and continuous change are the new normal.

Leaders are having to adapt their approach and paradigms, rethinking how they engage people, plan, delegate, and shape their organisations for the future. In our experience, it is key that a fundamental “unlearning” takes place around in how work is executed, and how new ways of working are adopted. Having a new strategy is not sufficient to shape the organisation of the future. Leaders have to go beyond this and fundamentally change the way they do things in order to have a meaningful impact on the direction and performance of their business and its people.

Agile ways of working”, as a term, has entered many of our client’s organisational lexicons. It is, in part, influenced by the growing role that technology is playing in shaping the future of organisations based on the exponential acceleration into a digital economy. It is the ability to understand and adapt “Agile” principles, rather than attempt to adopt an “Agile” methodology that is key for leaders in shaping new ways of working for themselves and their teams.

Building shared purpose

The significant shift for many leaders is that they require cross-functional teams, in often complex matrix structures, to develop solutions for their business challenges as well as for their customers. In traditional structures individuals would reference their functional goals and priorities, whereas a team now needs to rapidly form around a customer need, opportunity or business challenge. Decision making in these cross-functional teams is flatter and more dynamic. At the same time, team roles have evolved, and are less defined, as they are now shaped around the team’s purpose. This challenges traditional goals and objective setting logic, which articulates each team member’s area of accountability, and aims to build a shared sense of ownership for the teams’ purpose, for example to make the on-boarding process faster and easier for our customers.

A key skill, therefore, is for the team leader to be able to build a sense of shared purpose that provides clarity on why the team is doing this, who they are solving this for and what they need to deliver.

Orientating towards business results

Linked to the sense of shared purpose, leaders need to spend more time integrating the activities of their teams to drive specific business results, rather than focusing on their deliverables. In large organisations individuals will be orientated towards their deliverables, for instance launching a new customer retention campaign, rather than focussing on the bigger picture, such as improving the CSAT (Customer Satisfaction Score). Another example is where teams will focus on developing a new customer application, rather reducing the cost to serve. This shift in orientation requires a very strong mindset around continuous improvement versus launching a once off initiative to solve the problem. The orientation towards results should shape the mindset of the leader and those they lead towards continuously looking for ways to improve their results, rather than outsourcing the ownership of this to a specific initiative or area within the business.

A key ability for this is to make strong links to the activities of individuals and how they ultimately need to, should, or are impacting a key business result.

 Shaping collaborative journeys

Leaders are challenged to shape delivery and solutions across a broader value chain, and ultimately to drive the right result or experience for an end user or customer. Understanding the journey that a process or customer takes through an organisation is key to ensuring that all of the people and functions that impact the final result are represented. Traditionally, the approach has been to break the journey into functional components, where each area attempts to solve their challenges independently. This is a function of how teams are organised, and how performance metrics are defined in an attempt to drive efficiency. Unfortunately, with this traditional process the sense of a shared purpose and a clearly aligned ownership for the end result is lost. Instead, the journey discussion should start to develop a sense of connectedness and shared purpose, while at the same time changing the narrative to better describe the experience of those that the process is meant to serve as well as those that have to serve within the process.  This discussion introduces “empathy”, a fundamental requirement in collaboration, and a core component of emotional intelligence.

It is key for leaders to foster this empathy and model the ability to articulate their journey, by truly listening to the experience of all those involved in the process.

Delivering and learning in multi-skilled teams

One of the key challenges that people face in a world that is constantly changing and that requires increased collaboration, is the demand for continuous learning. It has been long recognised that the future workforce will need to be multi-skilled and able to adapt their skills and knowledge to match the constant change. A fundamental error is to look, or aim to find, these “super” workers that are able to morph and flex from a position of deep expertise into one of broad generalists, able to shape innovative solutions. The real shift is creating team environments that are built on the first 3 principles of Shared purpose, business results, and collaborative journeys with the recognition and conscious constellation of skills, deep expertise and contextual knowledge. In the initial phase these teams need to learn how to develop solutions together and leverage the collective knowledge, skills and experience of the team. Over time, however, these teams become the incubators for learning, as “team learning” allows those that participate in these multi-skilled teams to learn from the knowledge and skills of others, and build their experience in developing solutions through doing this repeatedly.

It is important for leaders to create the space and provide the coaching to encourage and facilitate the right thinking, listening, and mutual appreciation between team members to learn from each other and solution together.

Evolving through experimentation

Perhaps the most fundamental shift for leaders is recognising that they need to be continuously focused on evolving in terms of how things are done in order to improve results. Traditionally, planning and implementation for leaders tended to be an annual process with, at best, quarterly reviews. In this evolved process, the shift comes in creating a component of the plan that is linked to continuous improvement, where prototyping and testing new ideas and approaches is not just the remit of an innovation team, but embedded in OPEX budgets and ongoing reviews. Design thinking, a top 10 trend recognised in 2016, reflects this requirement, where leaders are creating regular time and space to focus on working on their business and learning through experimentation. This experimentation also recognises that you cannot review progress and direction annually but rather it is something that needs to be continuously managed and reviewed.

Key to this is a shift towards an action learning orientation, and the ability to develop and test prototypes to drive continuous improvement. Most importantly, perhaps, is the discipline to quickly recognise and let go of things that are not working, and to answer the question around what you, as a leader and a business need to unlearn in order to create the desired space for new thinking and new approaches.

Trevor Jamieson (Associate Director MAC Consulting)

John Brodie (Director MAC Consulting)