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6 Tips for Leaders Realising Agile's Potential

Posted by Rachel Niven on 06/11/2019 11:41am

“Agility is a pre-requisite to stay competitive in the long run, it is not optional.” Joerg Erlemeier, COO, Nokia

Since the 1990s, Agile methods have turned the IT industry on its head. Bringing new values, principles, practices and benefits, Agile represents a paradigm shift away from the command-and-control style of management, toward a customer-centric style. It is now influencing a very wide range of industries.

Would you like to know how to apply Agile methods in a non-IT organisation?

Are you concerned to maintain customer loyalty?

Would you like to achieve alignment of your organisation’s strategic priorities across your business?

Would you like to have a more engaged workforce?

Are you interested in the C-suite’s influence of agility across the organisation?

If so, here are 6 steps you can take to guide you toward agility.

But first a bit of background…

The 20th century saw the rise to dominance of a rigid, machine-like form of corporate organisation, in which decisions flow vertically through silos in a command-and-control manner. 1  In these ‘traditional’ corporations, a powerful governance body sits atop a rigidly hierarchical structure. The planning cycle is linear, and is geared solely toward creating value for shareholders. This typically results in slow responsiveness to change.

Agile organisations, in contrast, can be thought of as organisms, or as open systems. 2  They are characterised by a flatter structure of networked teams, that collaboratively and rapidly deliver value to all stakeholders. Fast feedback loops enable the organisation to respond to changes in the marketplace. An agile organisation has a people-centred culture, and is animated by a common purpose shared throughout the organisation. In contrast to a traditional organisation, it can rapidly adapt its strategy, structure, processes, people and technology in ways that add value for its customers. This creates competitive advantage, and permits the organisation to operate effectively in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments.

Research shows that becoming an Agile organisation, and reaping the benefits of the transition, takes patience, determination, and – on the part of the senior team – unwavering commitment.

Agile is here to stay (at least until the next paradigm shift emerges), as seen in the results of year-on-year reporting by research companies like Forbes and Gartner.

Recognising that organisational agility is now a standard strategic objective, the Project Management Institute (PMI), in their 2019 Pulse of the Profession survey, report that more than 55% of surveyed practitioners are using Agile to deliver projects.

In 2018, the agile marketing companies Agile Sherpas and Kapost launched a State of Agile Marketing report. In the second year of reporting, results showed that over 50% of traditional marketers plan to start down the Agile path within a year.

Here are 6 steps towards using Agile in your organisation. 3

1. Understand what Agile is and isn’t

A number of myths surround Agile. One is that it introduces an environment of chaos, where everyone does what they want. Another is that it means abandonment of planning, structure, and documentation. There is also the fanciful belief that merely declaring an organisation to be Agile will make it so.

Agile is neither cure-all, nor fairy wand. ‘Agile’ is in fact an umbrella term denoting a broad methodological framework under which is found multiple specific methods or ways of working. All of these entail a high level of organisation, not chaos; and dedicated and sustained endeavour, not merely change-by-decree. These methods include:

  • Scrum. According to co-founder Jeff Sutherland, Scrum: “. . . is a framework within which you can employ various processes and techniques. Scrum makes clear the relative efficacy of your product management and work techniques so that you can continuously improve the product, the team, and the working environment.” 4
  • Lean development. This focuses on continual elimination of waste, famously exemplified in Toyota’s reform of manufacturing processes. 5
  • Kanban. This is a Japanese term meaning sign or placard. It has been used to manage just-in-time manufacturing. In an Agile context, Kanban is used to reducelead times, and limit the amount of work in progress. 6

When compared to traditional management approaches, Agile offers a number of significant and well documented benefits. Version One (a project management software-development company) has been tracking Agile adoption and its benefits since 2007. Their 2018 findings show that for over 1,300 global respondents, the top five benefits accruing to companies from adoption of Agile have been: 7

  1. increased ability to manage changing priorities
  2. improved project visibility
  3. closer business/IT alignment
  4. raised team morale
  5. faster delivery speed/time to market.

2. Evaluate your environment

It is well documented that Agile works effectively in an IT environment where close collaboration with customers is practicable, the problem to be solved is complex, solutions are initially unknown, product requirements change, and work can be modularised. In a context that fulfils these criteria, cross-functional and creative teams typically out-perform command-and-control silos. 8

The interest displayed by other parts of businesses in adoption of Agile has become the subject of active research by organisations that include the Agile Alliance, Forbes, Forresters, Gartner, and McKinsey & Co, to name a few. Agile adoption has taken root in marketing departments, human resources, procurement, and manufacturing processes. In business contexts, conditions comparable to those commonly found in IT often exist in other domains of activity, such as marketing projects, recruitment strategies, production, procurement, and, at a leadership level, strategic-planning activities.

3. Start with a pilot to demonstrate value

Leaders often ask how they should start their Agile transformation. It depends on the context, strategy, and culture of the organisation.

Proponents of Agile assert that implementation of Agile is both a commercial and a cultural imperative. Furthermore, agility as a quality of leadership is increasingly recognised as of importance globally. The two notions are intertwined, without agility on the part of leadership, there is little chance of successful Agile adoption.

How then is a leader to respond? One way to approach Agile transformation is to start with a small cross-functional group of enthusiasts to pilot Agile. 9 In my experience, this has worked most effectively where there is a complex problem to solve in one part of the business, which cannot be solved by traditional methods. As soon as tangible value is delivered to the customer, other parts of the business take notice and begin to show interest in how their respective areas might also benefit from agile ways of working. Confidence is quickly developed, and within a short period of time, the results in turn speak for themselves. A virtuous cycle is set in motion.

Perhaps the most potent catalyst for an organisation-wide Agile transformation is impending disruption or loss of market share. Whether or not you are in that situation, I would recommend that you consider these important markers of organisational readiness for Agile transformation:

  • The organisation’s vision and core purpose are clear.
  • The executive leadership team is aligned with this vision and purpose, and willing to be ambassadors and role models of agile behaviours and practices across the organisation.
  • The objectives and key results have been identified, so that the rest of the company can align with them.
  • The executive leadership team has the courage, energy and enthusiasm to fine-tune their own habits and behaviours.

 4. Understand why management support is critical and how to change it

Since 2006, a consistent finding in Version One’s State of Agile Survey 10 is that the major impediments to Agile adoption are inability to change organisational culture; general resistance to change; and lack of management support and sponsorship.

Each of these barriers to Agile adoption lies within the control of the leadership team. The third barrier is the most significant. For an organisation to reap the rewards of Agile, there must be senior leadership sponsorship, buy-in, and support. Why does this matter? When teams see that leaders don’t support the initiative, this is often interpreted as: “This change isn’t important, therefore I don’t need to change, either myself, or the way I work. If (leadership) doesn’t see the importance of adopting Agile, what’s the point?” In my experience, this response is most pronounced when teams are under pressure to “deliver more with less”, a directive commonly echoed throughout organisations. Under that pressure, teams revert to familiar ways of working to relieve the stress.

5. Adopt and role-model an Agile mindset

To navigate the VUCA world of today, leaders must themselves ‘be agile’. Senior leaders are in the unique position of having a helicopter view of their organisation, and are the greatest influencers of change. It follows that leaders need to role-model an Agile mindset.

Ongoing research into the success factors of Agile implementation shows that ‘doing Agile’is different from ‘being Agile’. Over the last decade there has been a greater emphasis among Agile coaches on helping leaders and their teams to be agile by developing an Agile mindset. It isn’t easy. The transition hinges on leaders being willing to reflect on how their behaviour and habits help or hinder those around them. Leadership 360 instruments provide insights into behaviours and habits, and are helpful in showing leaders where and how to grow their strengths in ways that practically empower them to be agile.

The tasks for which senior leaders are responsible are weighty. Some of these tasks are ideally suited to Agile methods, eg shaping the direction of the organisation through strategy development, establishing the company culture, and improving collaboration across business units. Senior leaders also influence breakthrough innovations; think of Steve Jobs’ development of the iPhone.

An effective way to achieve immediate results is to start by forming your senior leadership team as an Agile team. Think of your enterprise initiatives as a backlog. Prioritise the backlog based on importance, then focus on getting these initiatives completed. Reprioritise the backlog as new initiatives emerge. This approach helps to maintain focus, because the senior leadership team aligns with the ‘highest-priority, highest-value initiatives first’ approach. 11

It is critical that the entire organisation understand what the highest priorities are, and why you have selected them. Communicate that story, so that everyone can get behind the ‘why’. This empowers teams to say ‘no’ to less important initiatives, and creates the synergy necessary to focus the whole organisation on the same goals.

To emphasise the importance of prioritisation in the face of a multitude of good ideas, think about this piece of sage advice, again from Steve Jobs:

“I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things [we] have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully.”

Another effective Agile practice is to have a daily 15-20 minute stand-up to discuss what executive team members achieved the day before, what they will do that day, and what is blocking them or their teams.

These activities are likely to improve productivity and morale. They also help the senior leadership team to speak the same language as the teams that they are empowering.

When the senior leadership team adopts an agile mindset, leaders gain not only immediate personal and team benefits, such as boosted morale and increased synergy, but also competitive advantage. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between leadership effectiveness and performance. 12 Senior leaders who are agile influence the success of Agile adoption across the organisation.

6. Remove barriers to Agile behaviours

Research by Scrum Alliance (an independent non-profit organisation with more than 400,000 members) found that over 70% of Agile practitioners report tension between their teams and the rest of the organisation. Why? Because they have different priorities and are working at different speeds.

Here are three ways to remove barriers to Agile:

1. Ensure everyone in the organisation is on the same page

This is a responsibility of the senior leadership team. Accomplishing it begins with aligning teams with enterprise priorities, regardless of which parts of the business are doing the work. It encourages collaboration and an enterprise approach to delivery, rather than siloisation with handing-off from one silo to another in a sequential manner.

2. Create multi-disciplinary teams

Encourage collaboration by grouping together those team members who have the skills needed to complete the work. This facilitates faster decision cycles, and eliminates waste by removing the need for formal meetings. If co-location isn’t feasible, use online tools like Slack, Zoom or Skype to facilitate sharing of ideas, and to keep abreast of the work.

3. Adopt a leader-as-coach approach

Rather than tell people how to do something, leaders in agile organisations adopt a coaching approach by asking questions, eg: “What assumptions are we making for an idea to work?” “How can we test these ideas across different cultures?” Have we thought through the end to end workflow?” “What are the risks?” “What do you recommend?” “How would you approach it?”

Teams want you to trust them to deliver amazing results, and tapping into the expertise within your teams will help stimulate innovation and encourage buy-in. Besides, it is often those closest to the customer who know what is likely to add real value. 

These six steps can help ready your organisation for the move toward Agile.

With a visionary and engaged senior leadership team, an organisation is well positioned to begin reaping the benefits enjoyed by so many other agile organisations.

Authored by Rachel Niven, our Agile specialist.


  1. Morgan, G. 2006. Images of Organization, United States: Sage. P12. 
  2. Morgan, G. 2006. Images of Organization, United States: Sage. P12. 
  3. The article draws on my own experience but also extensively on: Rigby, D. K., Sutherland, J., & Takeuchi, H. (2016). Embracing Agile: How to master the process that's transforming management. Harvard Business Review, 94(5), 40-50. This is recognised as watershed publication in the business management literature. One of its authors is an originator of the Agile manifesto. I strongly recommend it as a very readable lead-in to the now extensive literature on agile management.
  5. Holweg, Matthias (2007). "The genealogy of lean production". Journal of Operations Management. 25 (2): 420–437.
  6. Ohno, T. 1988 Toyota seisan hoshiki. (Ed. & Trans.), The Toyota Production System, (pp 29-42). Retrieved from (Original work published 1978).
  7. VersionOne, 2018. 13th State of Agile Survey. Retrieved from  
  8. Rigby, D. K., Sutherland, J., & Takeuchi, H. (2016). Embracing Agile: How to master the process that's transforming management. Harvard Business Review, 94(5), 40-50.
  9. Rigby, D. K., Sutherland, J., & Takeuchi, H. (2016). Embracing Agile: How to master the process that's transforming management. Harvard Business Review, 94(5), 40-50.
  10. The 13th annual State of Agile report. (2019, May 7).
  11. Rigby, D. K., Sutherland, J., & Takeuchi, H. (2016). Embracing Agile: How to master the process that's transforming management. Harvard Business Review, 94(5), 40-50.
  12. Zickar, M.J.  et al. (2008). Psychometric properties and validation of the Leadership Circle Profile. Bowling Green State University. Ohio, USA. Retrieved from

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