Agile Leadership Domain
An introduction to Agile Project Leadership – Part 2

An introduction to Agile Project Leadership – Part 1

Pmi_apln_logosOn Thursday 25th I will be presenting on “Agile Project Leadership” at the PMI Southern Alberta Chapter. These sessions normally attract a diverse group of project managers from a variety of industries. I am looking forward to the opportunity to spread the word about agile leadership and plug our local Calgary APLN chapter.

Not everyone will be familiar with agile methods so I will quickly run through the W5 (what, why, when, who, where) of agile and then hopefully spend the bulk of my time on the leadership portion of the talk. On trying to create a 5 slide overview of Agile, I stumbled across a nice value proposition summary on the VersionOne web site.


I have seen all the graphs individually previously (Rational have been using the Risk graph for > 8 years), but I was drawn in by the symmetry and clarity of information transmitted by just a few curved lines. I think it is a great summary, looking like bowls and nuts.

After the introduction to Agile, the basic storyline for my presentation goes like this...

  1. Many of today’s software projects are difficult to manage because of the challenges brought by changing requirements, evolving technologies, and accelerating rates of business change. This creates problems for traditional management as familiar tools such as WBS and detailed Gantt charts become brittle, too slow to update, and quickly detached from the project reality.
  2. Since work is less predictable, the team members are better placed to undertake short term planning because they are closer to the technical details and in doing so we also reap the productivity benefits of empowered teams.
  3. So given the fickle requirements of the sponsor, and a high number of late breaking changes, how do we mange such projects?
  4. The short answer is that we do not, instead we lead them.

Of course this is an over simplification, we still employ the mechanistic management tools of scoping, planning, estimation, risk management, tracking, etc, yet we change the emphasis, and instead rely more on the soft skill focussed tools of leadership than we might on a more defined, predictable project. We do not abandon traditional project management approaches, but rely more on the team for local planning and play a servant leadership role to support their efforts.

I think the big “ah-ha” realization that agile project management is actually about leadership, not management, tends to sway the balance point too far sometimes. We over stress the significance of leadership and perhaps give the impression that all is required is a big work room and group-hugs. This does not serve our audience well who are looking to adopt more agile approaches, they will fail if they adopt agile at the total expense of traditional management. I believe what is required is a switch of emphasis from mechanistic approaches to people based ones, but we still need the basics in place to manage a complex project. What we expose to the public changes, I prefer to see task boards and cumulative flow diagrams displayed over Work Breakdown Structures and tracking Gantt charts, but internal to the project, I expect the rigorous scoping, risk management, and reporting that goes on with any good project.

However, given the challenges of traditional detailed upfront planning we switch to more leadership approaches. In my mind leadership is the next logical step beyond management and there are parallels from personal development to management development. Stephen Covey talks about “Levels of Maturity” in his book “The 8th Habit”.


Covey says that as individuals we start life a Dependant; dependent upon our parents for food, shelter, and money. Then as we get older we move out, get jobs and become Independent, now we can take care of our selves. Covey asserts that many people never move beyond the Independent stage, but others realize that to be truly effective they must become Interdependent forming cooperative relations with other to overcome the limitations of an individual. People who can create and build productive relationship in their work (and home) life will be orders of magnitude more effective than those who rely solely upon their own skills.

I see a parallel to leadership. Management is concerned with mastering the mechanical knowledge and skills of how to run a project. Leadership builds on these skills to add the people based skills to increase the chance of the project team wanting to make the project successful.


Management is like acquiring the skills to be independent, but then to be truly effective we must also learn how to successfully engage the efforts of others, and this is where the soft skills of leadership come in. As Warren Bennis said “Management is getting people to do what needs to be done. Leadership is getting people to want to do what needs to be done.”

While management focuses on tasks and things, leadership focuses on people and empowerment. Some key differences are summarized below:


So, if leadership requires a people based focus what exactly are we to do? Especially since our industry seems to have a habit of self-selecting the socially challenged!

"...our industry seems to have a habit of self-selecting the socially challenged! "

Fortunately we have some great leadership guidance at our disposal, complete with step-by-step suggestions for even the most awkward of folks to follow. Follow these guides and your projects will be more successful. They do not replace project management, but build upon it to create that environment where people “want to do what needs to be done”.

The Leadership Practices are these:
1. Modeling desired behaviour
2. Creating and communicating a vision
3. Enable others to act
4. Willingness to challenge the status quo
5. Encouraging each other

1) Modelling the desired behaviour – people will not willingly follow those they do not respect. This is because emotion precedes action; it has to feel right for people to commit to it. Modelling the desired behaviour is a critical first step to leading. So what are the values we look for in a leader? As it happens, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, (authors of The Leadership Challenge) have been undertaking a 10 year study asking over 75,000 people just that question. From a possible list of 20 values:


Kouzes and Posner asked people to choose the top 5 values, the most important values they look for. The interesting thing is that from the 75,000 people spread across multiple industries and different continents the same characteristics emerged repeatedly.



The most highly valued leader characteristic is Honesty – essentially making sure you do what you said you would do. No one wants to be lied to or misled. In fact, following a dishonest leader causes a loss of respect for our selves as we begin to question our own ethics and integrity.

Forward looking – Leaders must know where they are going if they expect others to join the journey. We are not talking about magical vision or predicting the future, but instead a down to earth view towards a desirable destination. Kouzes and Posner describe it like this “Leaders need to reveal a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course.

Competent – Leaders do not have to be super efficient, technical geniuses. Instead they just need to be competent enough to guide us. A track record for getting things done is more important than domain expertise as the other team members can fill in any gaps.

Inspiring – People want their leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic and positive about the future. After all, if a leader shows no passion for a cause, why should anyone else? The fact is that emotions are contagious and so if the leader can generate some enthusiasm for the goal, hopefully this will spread to the other team members. No one is suggesting being artificially optimistic (this goes against the honesty), but leaders who can inspire contribution are preferred over dull or pessimistic thinkers.

2) Creating and communicating a vision. – linked to the Forward Looking desired value, leaders must help create and communicate the project vision.

Consider what it is like driving in fog.


Without a clear vision we slow down, uncertain of where to head towards. Vision brings clarity and direction that allows for focussed effort and speed. It unites and concentrates our effort and helps replace personal agendas with a common project agenda. To be effective a vision should be both worthwhile (some better state) and a stretch (but possible).

Don Reinertsen describes the “Design the brochure description” exercise in his book “Managing the Design factory” and Jim Highsmith outlines the “Design the product Box” exercise in his book “Agile Project Management”. Both are excellent vision building exercises that engage the team, customers, and sponsors in imagining what the box would look like for the completed project outcome.


When conducting this exercise I split the kick-off meeting participants into two or three mixed teams (some developers and customers) and ask each group to imagine we were to sell the completed successful project outcome. Their job for the next 20 minutes is to design the box the product will ship in following some simple rules. On the front of the box they must have the product name, optionally a logo, and the top three features. Not four or five, just the three most important features for the project/product to deliver. Then on the back they can list the next 10-15 most important features.

After the 20 minutes is up each of the teams present their product boxes and explain why they thought their three items were the most important. The dialog that ensues as executives and customers who were split between teams debate the merits of their top three list compared to others is incredibly valuable. Kick-off meetings can otherwise be limp, introduction focussed sessions, but by using the product box exercise we quickly drive out the key project issues. Then as a group the final product box is created (sometimes with executive tie-breaking) and a strong sense of purpose and vision is created.

This exercise is useful as it embodies the five principles of a good project vision:
1) Ideal – it represents some future preferred state
2) Unique – it is not generic (like statements such as “happy stakeholders”, “conforms to requirements”) but a product of a specific team addressing a definite problem
3) Visual/Image – Images are important because they connect the right and the left sides of the brain enabling us to better understand the preferred end state.
4) Future Oriented – providing a target to aim for in the future
5) Common Purpose – provides a common goal that stakeholders who have different skills can all work towards.

We must also frequently re-communicate this project vision. A survey of the most effective executives in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” reveals that the best leaders spend > 50% of their time communicating the project/corporate vision – it is almost impossible to over-communicate vision. Employing a variety of analogies and metaphors is a very effective means to help communicate vision.

<Check back tomorrow for Part 2, an explanation of the remaining three principles:
3. Enable others to act
4. Willingness to challenge the status quo
5. Encouraging each other


Eric Brown

Great post on mixing Agile, PM and Leadership. Good points about Leading a project instead of Managing a project.

Paul Browne - Technology in Plain English

Very good post. Another excellent resource on Agile Projects is linked to in this blogpost: You know nothing about project management -

Larry Hurwitz

Excellent article. Thank you

Larry Hurwitz

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