In the tech world, Agile methodology is ancient. Created in 2001, seventeen software developers built this practice around the idea that traditional software development was (and, in many cases, still is) fundamentally flawed.
Instead of spending months, or even years, following a long-term, complicated plan for developing new software, Agile encourages minor improvements, incremental developments, and tight feedback cycles. It emphasizes teamwork and collaboration and necessitates flexibility and rapid pivots when new information is available.
The Agile methodology centers around four central tenets:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
When the original masterminds behind Agile wrote their famous “Manifesto for Agile Software Development,” they couldn’t have anticipated how their approach would revolutionize software development. Over 71% of software companies and many organizations outside the tech industry incorporated their methodology into their operations. They could never have predicted that their system would evolve and sprout similar ideas over the years. But that’s what happened, and, amazingly, the core tenets behind Agile are still as relevant as ever.
Adopting Agile, however, is not as easy as it may seem on the surface. The average company takes three years to transition to the system completely, and not every company fully embraces it. Why?
For one, adopting the Agile methodology requires a significant mindset shift. Traditional workplaces are much more hierarchical and top-down. Long-term planning and predictability reign supreme, and task management is a significant focus. In contrast, Agile workplaces empower and embrace self-managed teams. Adaptability and quick corrections are essential, and the system emphasizes collaboration and team accountability. In summary, making the switch to an Agile-centered workplace requires nothing short of mental gymnastics!
This mindset shift can be especially tricky for leaders. The system indoctrinates them to emphasize close management, hierarchical decision-making, and fixed goals. Leadership in most companies looks like this: The team carries out a prescribed task, reports their results, and then leadership decides how to proceed. However, in Agile workplaces, the leader is part of the problem-solving and collaboration, and they do not necessarily make a final judgment call. Instead, they are part of incremental growth, improvement, and experimentation.
That shift can be humbling. It might even make some question whether the Agile work model requires leaders at all!
Believe me, they are.
They need to mitigate risks and navigate conflict. They are essential for observing progress, noting opportunities, and identifying trouble spots. They are also necessary for countless other reasons—balancing their team’s capacity with the workload, providing analytical insights, monitoring team dynamics, and so on.
To adapt, Agile leaders will need to shift their mindsets consciously. How? As an adult, your brain might be less malleable than as a small child (when everything was new and you were still figuring out your world), but that doesn’t mean you cannot carve new pathways and adopt new ways of thinking. It just takes a little more conscious effort.
Neuroscience tells us that it is possible to rewire our brains and carve new pathways, even as an adult. According to neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, to enable these changes, we need to “pass the first gateway of discomfort caused by norepinephrine. Once we start focusing, we enable the brain to secrete acetylcholine. These two neurochemicals then merge to mark the brain for a change.”
In other words, deep focus can trigger neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change. Huberman also explains that actions and experiences can change the brain. You learn by doing, so the best way to change your mindset is to jump in and try making changes rather than simply thinking about the changes you will make.
When it comes to Agile leadership, which mindset shifts need to happen?
HERE ARE THREE:
It’s natural to think, “I need to direct my team and give them specific tasks and responsibilities.”
This type of thinking, however, is the antithesis of Agile leadership. Instead of “direction,” opt for guidance or mentoring. Instead of assigning tasks, trust your team to forge their own paths as they work on achieving a specific outcome.
This process is an exercise in letting go. When you’re nervous about stepping out of the driver’s seat, tell yourself: “I will focus on outcomes instead of processes. The team might choose a different route than I would have, but it’s a win as long as we meet goals and realize outcomes.”
It’s humbling to turn over a good deal of control to your team, but it’s ultimately worth it. Your team is empowered and feels central to the project (which they are!). Now you can focus your energy on other leadership actions, such as identifying risks, pinpointing areas of opportunity, and providing valuable insights that the team might overlook.
In an Agile-centered workplace, leaders are part of the team. At times, you might guide the team’s decision-making, but more often than not, you’re in the trenches with them. You’re a collaborator. When you hold problem-solving sessions, your opinion or perspectives do not outweigh those of the team. Everyone has a voice, and you are simply one among many.
At first, this type of collaborative leadership may be a tough balancing act to master. On the one hand, you are still the leader (or “scrum master” or “product owner”—the title matters little). You are responsible for enabling your team’s success. On the other hand, you are an active participant in your team’s current project. You’re meeting with your team every day (traditionally for 15 minutes), monitoring progress, and strategizing or re-strategizing with them.
In short, you’re invested in your team at every level.
This involvement necessitates a conscious mindset shift. You might worry that your team will not respect you as much if you’re working alongside them. However, that’s usually not the case. Like the generals who go into battle with their soldiers, there is power in participation. Remind yourself of that every day until you believe it.
Rigidity goes against the very idea of making small, iterative developments and engaging in experimentation. When first establishing self-managing teams, mistakes might happen, and things might feel chaotic. Agile leaders need to rise to this challenge and work on stretching beyond their comfort zones every day.
A successful Agile leader needs to abandon mental rigidity and be constantly ready to change and adapt to evolving needs. This process involves a perspective shift: focus on the big picture (outcomes!) instead of getting hung up on project details. An Agile leader needs to be open to last-minute pivots and willing to scrap certain elements that aren’t working.
Since our brains thrive on comfort and familiarity, this can seem a little unnerving. However, the more you face changing circumstances and unknowns, the more comfortable you’ll become with rapid changes and pivots. Eventually, that will become the norm.
As a leader in an Agile-centered workplace, it is essential to foster an environment that empowers your team and allows them the freedom to find their own paths. Even though Agile leadership looks much different than traditional leadership, it is a critical component of a successful Agile-focused workplace. Training your brain to let go, adapt, and become comfortable with change will initially feel daunting. Still, you’ll soon grow comfortable with this fast-paced, collaborative environment with practice, patience, and a willingness to challenge your comfort zone.
If you are a leader and struggling with your adaptation to Agile or are curious about how to get ahead of the game, feel free to reach out – firstname.lastname@example.org.