What is Agile leadership? How this flexible management style is changing how teams work

Traditional command and control leadership styles are being replaced by Agile management techniques that encourage collaboration and foster accountability.

What is Agile leadership?

Agile leadership is a management style that involves the application of the principles of Agile software development to running teams. Rather than the command-and-control tactics of traditional management techniques, Agile leadership relies on decentralised decision-making, with workers encouraged to take more responsibility.

What are the origins of Agile leadership?

Agile software development itself only has a short history; it emerged in 2001, when a group of developers met in Utah to create the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which is a set of values for developing software in an flexible, iterative manner.

As Agile development took hold in IT departments, so tech chiefs started thinking about how the approach could be used – not just to create software products – but to lead teams and projects more generally. As this happened, CIOs started talking about the importance of Agile leadership.

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Over the past decade, the use of Agile as a technique for leading and completing projects has moved beyond the IT department and across all lines of business. The increased level of collaboration between tech organisations and other functions, particularly marketing and digital, has helped to feed the spread of Agile management.

Why has Agile leadership spread so quickly?

In many ways, it hasn't. CIOs might have been talking about the importance of an Agile leadership approach for more than a decade, but it has been slow to grow. That might be about to change.

Johnson Matthey CIO Paul Coby agrees that CIOs have been talking about the importance of Agile methodologies for the best part of 15 years. But he says agility is now crucial to supporting the business' almost-continual transformation: "They need agile IT, in the best sense of the word, to support that."

The challenges of the coronavirus pandemic have led to the adoption of Agile leadership across IT departments and the wider business. The need for rapid digital transformation in all sectors means projects had to be completed by cross-functional teams quickly – and Agile leadership proved a good fit.

Why is Agile leadership so well-suited to digital transformation projects?

When the lockdown came, workers and their managers went home. However, organisations in all sectors still had a huge to-do list: they had to keep operations running and find innovative ways to deal with their business challenges. 

Many CIOs report that Agile management has been a great fit for the new working normal – and they've adopted leadership approaches to support this shift. Here are some examples:

What are some of the key techniques of Agile leadership?

Although Agile leadership leans heavily on the principles and techniques of Agile software development, such as iteration, standups and retrospectives, it's probably fair to say that it's a management style that involves a general stance rather than a hard-and-fast set of rules.

Mark Evans, managing director of marketing and digital at Direct Line, says the key to effective Agile management is what's known as servant leadership, a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve.

On the other hand, Elke Reichart, chief digital officer at TUI Group, has coined her own philosophy for effective Agile leadership known as management as a service, which is about being available to make decisions rapidly.

What is undoubtedly true is that Agile leaders are nothing like traditional managers. They're open-minded, rather than closed, they encourage their teams to make their own decisions, rather than keeping a tight grip on control, and they enjoy the process of learning and reflection, which means embracing failures and celebrating teams successes.

Consultant McKinsey refers to three sets of capabilities for Agile leaders. First, they must transform themselves to evolve new mindsets and behaviours. Second, they need to transform their teams to work in new ways. Third, they need to build the capabilities to transform the organisation by making agility core to the design and culture of the enterprise.

How do business leaders apply Agile management techniques?

Rich Corbridge, CIO at high-street chemist Boots, reflects on how his firm has applied Agile leadership during the past 12 months and says it involves three big elements. First, it's about how organisations make decisions quicker: "How do we do stuff in small batches and test and learn?"

Second, it's about establishing growth, mindset and collaboration – that's to do with getting people to step up, do new things and then create new leaders. "A set of skills across my team has really being exposed by working in this way that we didn't know existed before," he says.

Finally, Agile leadership is about closer interaction with the rest of the executive body – rather than formal three-hour meetings every week, C-suite execs at Boots chat every day at 8am and 5.30pm.

"We do two half-hour standups; one at the beginning and one at the end of the day. It's been an amazing way of getting to know my colleagues and really value what everybody brings to the table every single day," says Corbridge.

What are the benefits and downsides of Agile leadership?

Agile management produces benefits in two key ways: it gives workers the empowerment that research suggests they crave, and it frees up leaders to focus on higher-level tasks, such as refining strategy and developing new business models.

The obvious drawback of Agile leadership is the potential for a loss of control. As managers empower their teams, so they stop being involved in the minutiae of decision-making processes. Get Agile management wrong and there's the possibility for chaos and anarchy.

Feedback and iteration, therefore, are crucial to a successful Agile leadership style, just as they are to Agile software development. Good Agile managers don't use command-and-control to manage their staff, but they do focus on fostering accountability and creating a careful balance between total freedom and micro-management.

What's the future of Agile leadership techniques?

Agile management is here to stay. First, the technique has proven its value during the COVID-19 crisis – self-empowered teams have produced great solutions to tough business challenges quickly. Second, agile management is a great fit for the future of work, which is likely to involve a blended mix of home- and office-working.