Agile development and Agile management: Four ways it can change how your business works, forever

Flexible leadership and empowered teams are the hallmarks of Agile management. It's a concept that's increasingly popular - and not just in software development.

Agile management has never been more popular; from blue-chip giants like BP to leading finance firms and onto motorsport teams, CIOs have explained to ZDNet how this flexible management style is changing how teams work.

While Agile won't be applied in ever organisation, the basic principles of the approach that originated in software development – decentralised decision making, cross-organisation teams and cross-team empowerment – are likely to resonate with most tech leaders. What's more, evidence suggests the rest of the business is also keen to make the most of agile management.

So how should business leaders stay open to feedback from their staff on how decisions are made? Four digital leaders give us their best-practice tips for applying Agile management.

1. Focus on the development of cross-functional teams

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Warren Breakstone, managing director and chief product officer for data management solutions at S&P Global Market Intelligence, refers to his organisation as "a scaled Agile shop" and says the methodology is engrained into the way the business works.

"We've been using Agile for many years and we don't view it as just purely a development methodology; it's not just for technology," he says. "The best approach for us is to view Agile as a business practice. So we make sure that we've got all of our teams on the business side – as well as the technology side, and everyone in-between – trained and certified on Agile."

Breakstone says the organisation focuses on the development of cross-functional teams as a core ingredient of business success. He describes Agile as a key supporting practice in helping the organisation's employees to get stuff done.

"And given how quickly our customer needs are evolving and the markets that we serve are changing, the ability to be Agile is not a nice to have, it's a must have. If your markets and your customers are moving faster than you are, time is not on your side," he says.

"So being Agile has very much become a necessity, both in terms of the processes and practices of Agile methodologies. But also the mentality, in that if you're not agile and you're not connected to your clients, then you're going to lose."

2. Provide support for your successful teams

Gary Delooze, CIO at Nationwide, says the concept of Agile leadership resonates strongly with him.

"My own personal style is to try and build the best team that I can, and then get out of their way. The best thing we can do as leaders is to build the teams, to create the environment, and then provide the teams with the air cover, so that they can be successful," he says.

Delooze says his role is about giving teams the space to execute and deliver – and then being there to support them: "For me, it's much more about enabling them to be successful."

His leadership style at Nationwide involves listening to people on the ground as they talk about the challenges they see, and then talking with senior leadership teams about how the business can use technology to solve these challenges.

"That's all about creating an empowered culture where people have the opportunity to stand up and say, 'I think I can do this better. I've got a great idea and I want to try and bring this to life and improve how technology works for our customers'," he says. 

"Those are things that people will do when they feel empowered, when they've got psychological safety, when they don't feel like they're challenging back against a regime, and they feel like they're empowered by leaders."

3. Make sure you're engaged and approachable

While her organisation doesn't use the term Agile leadership, Tarah Lourens, chief product and technology officer at Rightmove, says the executive board at the company "absolutely recognises" the concepts associated with an Agile leadership style.

"From the chief executive down, the management team are very careful about how much we're enabling," she says. "We've worked very hard at that – it's a conscious behavioural trait that we all try and ensure we're doing."

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Lourens says the executive team focuses on employee engagement. Rightmove runs a twice-yearly engagement survey and it uses the results to check-in with its staff and get the overall pulse of the organisation. The C-suite team also focuses on ensuring that it understands the drives and desires of the individuals who work for the company.

"So for instance, I've spent an hour with every single person in my team recently – and I'm now going back around and doing the same thing again. I spend time with everyone and all of the leadership team are very approachable. We do care and get told things that we don't necessarily want to hear, but we're always willing to adapt," says Lourens.

"I think that being open as a leadership team comes down to making sure that you're approachable, and that you talk to people on their level. So this year, rather than people coming up to us and telling us about their work on projects, we're going to them and asking how they're doing. We go and visit them – it's not the other way around."

4. Lead like a coach rather than a manager

Claire Dickson, group CIO at multinational packaging business DS Smith, describes herself as an advocate for Agile management. In fact, in a world where CIOs must achieve speed to market on delivery, she's unsure whether there's any other way of working.

"I think you have to be connected," she says. "I'm quite a believer in servant leadership. It can't be all about the leader. It's got to be about the team and making the team greater than the leader. I think that's about transitioning to more of a DevOps environment, where you're pushing decision making right down into the organisation as more of a flat structure."

Dickson joined DS Smith just over two months ago and inherited an organisation with a relatively flat structure. 

"I believe in being a coach, rather than a manager. And then using data to make sure that we are performing. We're spinning up some Power BI dashboards, so that I can see where we're at on delivery," she says.