Agile projects grant team members significant latitude to complete project tasks, but teams still need strong leadership from their project and product owners to complete project objectives. Without solid leadership, Agile teams often struggle to remain focused on customer requirements and fail to evolve and develop.
By integrating the following ideas into your leadership practices, you can effectively lead Agile teams to successfully accomplish project goals:
Provide accountability and team guidance
- Maintain a balance between a long-range, strategic approach and short-term tactical decisions leadership. Work with the team to achieve immediate results, but remember also to keep an eye on long-term problem-solving and decision-making issues.
- Help the team arrive at a clear purpose and unmistakable goals. Clearly state the organization’s expectations of the team, and continually reinforce the project’s stated intention and success criteria.
- Don’t evade your responsibility. Empower the team and authorize them to make the decisions that are within their control, but don’t sidestep your duties by transferring total accountability to the team. Don’t leave team members to make decisions where they lack appropriate authority or don’t have the proper context.
Maintain a constant flow of information
- Use story boards and burn charts to keep stakeholders aware of team progress and to relieve the team from constantly having to answer questions. Regularly update status charts and story boards so that the most-recent information is available to everyone at all times.
- Use direct, unambiguous language to present information and to clearly express your thoughts and ideas.
- Encourage participation in the decision-making process. Value the input of others by collecting ideas and opinions before making decisions.
Set project boundaries but allow the boundaries to fluctuate
- Allow practices to evolve but keep them simple. Remove redundancy and waste, and review practices regularly to ensure that they remain efficient and effective.
- Keep the team objectives aligned with project requirements. Continue to prioritize requirements to keep the team focused on satisfying customer needs.
- Enforce a disciplined project approach. Make sure the team follows Agile guidelines and uses Agile practices to meet project goals.
Develop the team
- Make sure team members continue to learn new skills, apply new tools and techniques, and improve individual and team competencies. Provide training opportunities and encourage exploration and continuous improvement.
- Express a belief in your team members’ abilities to solve problems and develop solutions. Encourage autonomy so team members exercise their own judgment, and express trust in team decisions.
Motivate the team
- Establish high expectations for yourself and your team. Expect team members to adopt a belief that they will continue to achieve goals and produce successful outcomes each time they take on new challenges.
- Keep team members engaged. Exhibit enthusiasm and excitement for team progress and celebrate the team’s successes.
Adjust your leadership style as the team matures
- Recognize that command-and-control policies and practices will hamper Agile. Remember that you are providing information and allowing the team to shape processes to achieve results—you are not providing instructions or assigning tasks.
- As Agile processes become part of a team’s daily practice, adjust your leadership style from one that “guides and teaches” to one that “shares and interacts.” When you spend less time incorporating Agile into the team’s work, you can spend more time immersing yourself in the work itself.
- Don’t try to solve the team’s problems. Expose problems and let the team develop solutions as they see fit.
By focusing on supporting and enabling the team, Agile leaders eliminate distractions and provide a framework within which the team can do what they do best—create products that satisfy customers.
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Mini case: Agile Team Leadership
The team had just finished their daily stand-up when Martijn de Haan knocked on Janneke Meijer’s office door. “Can I interrupt you for a minute?” he asks.
Meijer looks up from the file she is working on and says, “Sure. Come on in.”
Meijer has been a product owner at Steenbok Industries, a robotics equipment manufacturer in Rotterdam, for several years. She has had quite a bit of success leading Agile projects for the firm and is currently working on its newest product, a visioning system that automatically inspects manufactured pieces for defects. Steenbok recently opened a new plant on the outskirts of the city so several of Meijer’s team members transferred to the new facility to avoid commuting into the city. The team has recently assimilated several new members, but the team’s velocity has suffered.
de Haan, one of the Agile team members, begins, “It’s about Vos. I’m afraid there are some problems.”
Arne Vos is the Agile project manager for the project. Meijer and Vos had completed their Agile training together and had worked together successfully in the last few years, becoming pretty good friends in the process. Meijer was surprised to hear Vos’ name because Vos had always worked well with teams in the past.
“Since we’ve added the new team members, our progress has slowed down a bit—not a lot, but enough to be noticeable,” de Haan explains. “We’re still trying to merge the skills of the new people into our way of working, so things aren’t moving as fast as they have on other projects. I think the new people are afraid to overstep their boundaries and they’re being overly cautious about stepping on anyone’s toes.”
He pauses for a moment, and then begins again. “To try to help us catch up, Vos has been assigning work to the new people. We’ve regained some speed, but now the new people think that’s how our team works, so they’re waiting to be told what to do next, instead of stepping forward and asserting themselves. That’s slowed us down even further. I didn’t think Vos realized what was happening so I spoke to him about it. He said that he knew what he was doing, but the project was slipping and he was trying to fix it. He said that as soon as the project was over, we could teach the new people the skills they needed and get back to doing things the way we are used to. But in the meantime, he’s affecting how everyone works, and that’s ruining our ability to meet the schedule.”
“Why didn’t you bring this up in today’s meeting?” Meijer asks.
“I didn’t want to embarrass him,” de Haan says.
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What should Meijer do to resolve this issue?
In a period of stress, Arne Vos has slipped back into an old pattern—a “command-and-control” management model—to try to help the team keep pace, but instead, he has made things worse. Planning to deal with the problem after the project is finished only pushes it further out; there is no guarantee that there will be time before the next project starts to complete any necessary training. And a delay in training does nothing to help the current project. As the product manager, Meijer is tasked with tracking the project’s schedule and is ultimately responsible for delivering the product to the customers. Anything that affects that delivery must be dealt with.
Meijer will have to speak to Vos and convince him that his actions may help in the short-term but will only cause additional problems in the long term, as the new team members will have to re-learn how this team works together. Vos will have to remember that, as the Agile project manager, his job is to remove impediments for the team and ensure that they are following Agile practices—a role that, at the present time, he is not performing. This may be difficult for Meijer because she and Vos are friends, but she has to confront him, for the good of the project.
Meijer will also have to remind the team that any impediments to team progress should be aired in the daily stand-up meeting, so problems are handled immediately and everyone will benefit from the knowledge.
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