On Leadership and Agile Thinking

Agile

In a March 2013 Forbes article titled “The Five Dimensions of Learning-Agile Leaders,” Kevin Cashman stipulates that:

“To succeed in our volatile, complex, ambiguous world, we have no choice but to master our ability to adapt and learn.” ClickToTweet

5 Dimensions for Agile Leadership

He then goes on to list five dimensions that are necessary for any leaders aspiring to exhibit agile leadership. These five dimensions are:

Mental Agility

Thinking critically to penetrate complex problems and expanding possibilities by making fresh connections.

People Agility

Understanding and relating to other people, as well as tough situations to harness and multiply collective performance.

Change Agility

Enjoying experimentation, being curious and effectively dealing with the discomfort of change.

Results Agility

Delivering results in first-time situations by inspiring teams, and exhibiting a presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.

Self-Awareness

Being reflective and knowing themselves well; understanding their capabilities and their impact on others.

While I agree that all these dimensions/aspects are necessary attributes for prospective leadership in the 21st Century, I see four of them as natural extensions of older leadership theories and not a breakthrough associated with the move into more agile perspective.

The one dimension that, at the very least to me, stands out in the above list is  the ‘Change Agility‘ and this will therefore be the focus of this post.

Creating a Journey

One of the key drivers behind the Agile movement is the realization and mental acceptance of the fact that complexity cannot completely be overdone by extensive planning. While planning is always necessary, its effectiveness is subject to the law of diminishing returns where the extended effort in planning will deliver only marginal decreases in uncertainty.

Furthermore, Agile Thinking suggests that rather than engage in extensive up-front planning it would be more cost-effective to engage in a series of explorations, or experiments, each designed and carried out in an attempt to reduce uncertainty and deal with facts and not assertions.

Risky Business

The process of experimentation, reviewing results, making adjustments (adapting) and continuing with further experimentation is not a trivial one. If accepted it can be perceived as carrying a number of risks, the mot obvious of which are:

  1. Experimentation can be seen, politically and organizationally, as a sign of weakness, lack of direction and hesitation on behalf of the leader.
  2. Experimentation can result in failure. Experiments do not always yield the expected results. Should an experimented approach be seen as a failure that would reflect badly on the leader and further put in question his/her leadership qualities (see more on this here and here).

There are many rationale reasons one can make to combat the above obstacles. I’ll mention but a few:

  1. One of the key attributes expected of a leader is that of courage. Need I say more?
  2. If you are concerned about failure you miss a golden opportunity to teach your organization that failure is not a crime. The fear of failure stifles innovation and subdues participation. If this how you want your organization to conduct itself?
  3. Failure is a sure way to learn on route to success. There are ample examples of start-up companies whose declared mode of operation was based on the premise that initial failures are necessary in order to establish a successful path for the future.

The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise. ~ Tacitus, Roman historian ClickToTweet

Leadership At Its Core

If you are looking for a single example of an organization that adopted adaptive leadership as a core value look no further than Statoil. The company is a pioneering organization in the implementation of Beyond Budgeting, a revolutionary approach, defined by its founders as:

Beyond Budgeting is about rethinking how we manage organizations in a post-industrial world where innovative management models represent the only sustainable competitive advantage. It is also about releasing people from the burdens of stifling bureaucracy and suffocating control systems, trusting them with information and giving them time to think, reflect, share, learn and improve. Above all it is about learning how to change from the many leaders who have built and managed ‘beyond budgeting’ organizations.

Practical and Compelling Leadership

The reason I reference this approach (see further information here) is because it is a specific example of the implementation of agile thinking in a strategic leadership context and it demonstrates that agility is not just about tactical and operational matters but it is a practical concept in the context of leadership as well.

If you don’t apply agility thinking to your leadership style you are robbing your organization of the opportunity to advance beyond its current constraints. Experimentation and learning do not require massive risk taking, all it take is a leap of faith.

Think about it!

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——————–
Shim Marom PMP, MSP, ICAgile ICP
Shim Marom is a Melbourne, Australia based Project Management Consultant
He blogs and engages in Public, Forums and Online Discussions
Email | LinkedIn | TwitterBlog

Image Sources:  blog.mindjet.com

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5 Responses

  1. I rarely leave coments but i think your summary about leadership agility is very accurate Eventhough you don’t read a lot about it. Risk taking is all about experimenting and being agile w a backup plan and solutions, understanding the reason behind a failure and turn it into a success.
    Great article.
    FG

    • Thanks Fadi, your comment is appreciated.

      Cheers, Shim.

  2. Reblogged this on News & Notes on LEADERSHIP for LEARNING.

  3. I’m glad you wrote about experimentation and a leader’s need to show courage in the face of it. Innovation rarely springs from the head of a leader fully formed. Agility also means finding ways to do rapid prototyping and that too requires tolerance for mistakes. The key is to learn from them not avoid them. Good article.

    • Hi Jagoda, thanks for your comment.

      Lack of exploration is a result of fear of failure and this cuts through all levels of the organization. As clearly seen in the attitude adopted by start-up companies, exploration is a per-requisite to innovation, leading ultimately to competitive advantage.

      Thanks again, Shim.

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