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September 2006

Employing Leadership techniques on Agile Projects

Yesterday I posted on the similarities between Leadership and Agile Project Management. Today I wanted to share how the two fields are connected and how Agile project management utilizes leadership best practices. The following ideas are extracted from a larger article I wrote for the Cutter Consortium earlier this year.

When faced with the challenges of running an agile project, leadership techniques provide a great framework for project stewardship.

Jeffery Pinto defines the behaviours of effective leaders as:

  1. Modeling desired behaviour
  2. Creating and communicating a common vision
  3. Willingness to challenge the status quo
  4. Empowering others
  5. Encouraging others

These behaviours have strong correlation with agile project management recommendations.

1. Modeling desired behaviour – agile project managers should demonstrate the behaviours they wish their team to exhibit. Admit your mistakes, promote candid discussion of issues and show humility. Adopt a sharing, abundant mentality to information and focus on communications.

2. Creating and communicating a common vision – Teams need to have a powerful, uniting vision about the project and what the system they are building should do. People need to be pulling in the same direction and a common vision helps align their effort. XP uses the concept of a system metaphor to help create a common vision, Jim Highsmith offers the “Designing the product box” as an alignment and envisioning exercise. Don Reinertson describes the “Designing the brochure description” exercise to create a common vision.

3. Willingness to challenge the status quo – No process is perfect or optimally configured for the unique demands of every project and organization. There needs to be regular reviews to ensure the team and process are on track. In Agile projects, the end of iteration retrospectives where the team is asked, What went well?, What did not go well?, and What can we improve for the next iteration? Is where the status quo is challenged. This is an important leadership concept, never to accept the current process just because it is established. People want to gain better ways of working and so as an effective leader, people will expect that you challenge the process and seek better practices. If this does not occur then ambitious team members will begin to look elsewhere for dynamic and progressive opportunities.

4. Empowering others – great leaders know that people work best when empowered to make local decisions and given the freedom to self organize and think for themselves. Agile teams leverage the benefits of empowered working and gain the benefits of greater commitment and accountability. By allowing team members to self select work and sign up for tasks voluntarily a strong internal commitment to try and deliver that work on time to a high standard is generated. Couple with this the agile practice of holding iteration planning meetings where team members select tasks in the presence of their peers, that declares a social commitment of ownership for a feature and the drive to deliver work on time becomes orders of magnitude higher than for tasks merely handed down from a centralized Gantt chart.

5. Encouraging others – Saying “Thank You” is one of the most cost effective, yet under utilized productivity tools available to leaders. It does not take long to do, but if done appropriately with sincerity it can go a long way towards ensuring continued contribution and motivating team members. Agile projects recognize this tool and use the iteration retrospectives as opportunities to recognize contributions. However, we must be cognisant of people’s reaction to public praise. To some bashful folks having a fuss made of them in public can seem a punishment, not praise. So praise appropriately, for most in public is fine, for others a one-on-one quiet thank you is appreciated more.

What has Leadership got to do with Agile Project Management?

The techniques promoted as Agile Project Management are far closer aligned to Leadership than traditional project management.

Leadership, as defined by authors such as Bennis and Pinto focuses on people not tasks, empowerment not control, effectiveness not efficiency, direction over speed. Leadership experts Kouzes and Posner describe four key leadership practices:

  1. Develop a Shared Vision
  2. Challenge the Process and Adapt
  3. Empower Others to Act
  4. Encourage the Heart

All principles familiar to those managing agile projects.

So, when we talk about effective agile project management I believe we are actually talking more about leadership behaviours than project management behaviours.  Doug DeCarlo summarized it well with the paradoxical phrase: “You lead people by standing behind them” by which he means: supporting them, assisting them, encouraging them.

However, there is a big problem with the word “Leadership”. Many people associate it with “Great Man theory”, i.e. some charismatic, visionary guide. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth; a true leadership role is one of facilitator. As Lao-Tzu (604 BC) is quoted as saying “When the best leader's work is done, the people say, We did it ourselves” - and rightly so.

I think managers of agile projects can gain great insights from leadership best practices. I will be reviewing specific techniques in future posts.

My Background and Goals for this Blog

I am a project manager with Quadrus Development Inc. in Calgary Alberta. I moved to Canada, with my wife Samantha, six years ago from England to be close to the Rocky Mountains as we enjoy hiking, mountain biking and snow boarding. We have a 3 month old son “Jake”, who has provided a diversion to our mountain adventures this summer, and is lots of fun.

In 1994 I was very fortunate to be involved in the creation of the agile method DSDM and have been using agile methods including FDD, Scrum and XP for the last 12 years. I am a board member of the Agile Alliance and the Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN).

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