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Update from the Agile Business Conference

Agile_business_conference_london This week I’m at the Agile Business Conference in London. Today was the Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN)’s “Leadership Summit” day and the two day Agile Business Conference starts tomorrow. The Leadership summit featured some great talks on Agile Leadership by Todd Little, Pollyanna Pixton and Neil Nickolaisen.

The day started with a Leadership Think Tank session. In pairs we discussed the “issues that keep us up at night as Leaders”. I was fortunate to be sat next to Diana Larsen who is a bit of an expert on team leadership and we spent some time chatting about the problems associated with the term “Leadership”. Leadership has this connection with lofty, remote, strategic thinkers (see my 5 Myths of Leadership post) yet it is really the role of each team member. On an empowered team anyone can (indeed everyone should) step forward and lead in someway as the circumstances dictate. If a developer sees a problem with the build process and steps forward to fix it, rallying support and consensus, (s)he is employing situational leadership; and it should be encouraged.

I have been trying to develop this serving role of a PM to create an environment for opportunistic situational leadership. However, people are put off by the term “leadership” thinking it does not apply to teams and then Diana introduced the term “Shared Leadership”. This is exactly the concept I had been looking for. It describes the role of leadership in the context I mean it and has a simple, intuitive name. From now on I will use the term Shared Leadership to better describe this collective role.

Pollyanna Pixton’s “How to be an Agile Leader” talk was entertaining. I think she deliberately tries to needle people with ideas close to the edge of their comfort zones to provoke a reaction and start some dialogue. Today it was the suggestion of immediately firing team members who fail to deliver work to their own estimates. When pushed, she elaborated that it is OK for team members to make mistakes or report that it will not be ready as soon as they had stated (fast failures are good and should not be punished). However, repeatedly reporting that things are fine, or on track, and then failing to deliver is not excusable. When pressed again with labour laws that may prevent dismissal on these grounds, she suggested sidelining these people with filing or other extremely mundane work until they quit. I do not share these views, I think a leaders energy can be better focussed on positive reinforcement activities, but the presentation meant that the after lunch, zombie zone was one of the liveliest sessions of the day.

A couple of gems coming from the remainder of her talk were suggestions for agile leaders.
These were to focus on:

1. Ensuring everyone has what they need – make sure the tools, training and right people are available to be successful.

2. Creating a place people want to be – a good work environment where people are valued and slackers are not carried enhances productivity and innovation (just meet those deadlines!)

3. Leaving time for creativity – Innovative companies like Semco, 3M, and Google realize that knowledge workers should be given some percentage of their time to be creative and explore new ideas. It is during this time many of the best products and ideas are conceived.

Tomorrow, promises to be a good day at the conference. Scott Ambler, Rachel Davies and Todd Little are presenting. I will be presenting on Agile Project Management and taking part on the panel discussion. I’ll write up some notes of topics that relate to leadership and project management and post them here. Meanwhile I’m off out to reacquaint myself with London, after 6 years of living in Calgary.


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