Agile demands a leadership boot camp

The digital 'in crowd' speaks a language of its own so when they talk of 'agile' it's not just about getting out of the beanbags in their idea garages. Agile is a way to structure and manage projects and to its proponents – I'm one of them – it promises more successful results. Faster.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

As with any new approach there is much to be learned and many traps for new players. There are evangelists to navigate, overly enthusiastic lingo and a perception going agile equals authorising chaos.

" Always insist on a measure of output and track how the team is going against that. "
Claire Rogers, Head of Digital Strategy & Business Performance at ANZ

But agile is not just a popular fad nor is it about swapping out one delivery process for another. If you accept agile is critical to your organisation's digital future - and I do - the crucial question becomes what kind of leader do I need to be to enable the transformation and to get the best out of agile teams?

Here are the six qualities I believe this kind of leader needs.

Don't look for standardisation of process. Most organisations have well-developed project delivery 'waterfalls' and might be inclined to turn around and replace these processes with 'agile' artefacts.

It's tempting to try to standardise because teams come together with different brands or experiences of agile. At ANZ, my team became distracted trying to embed common agile processes in seeking consistency and standard ways of working. This didn't add value or leverage the strength of agile, which is to solve problems rather than follow process.

A common library of options and techniques was sufficient, supported by training. Now our teams come together and agree on the processes they are going to use at the start of a project regardless of heritage. It's hard to do but we let the teams choose their path.

Your only governance should be output count. I've been told agile lacks discipline. One of the first agile projects I became involved with at ANZ had no measurement of output and no firm view of duration of the work needed to get to market. Not even a deadline.

In contrast, another of my teams came to me after six iterations (one to two week development and testing cycles) wanting one more - I gave them three iterations to cover the work they had left at their production rate and we had a delivery date they met.

Always insist on a measure of output and track how the team is going against that. Everything else can be left to the team to sort out.

Be present. Many agile projects get into trouble when key stakeholders don't attend stand-ups or showcases. Attending a stand up one day for one of my projects I discovered a decision I had just made regarding a security method added new scope - cards to the wall.

Before putting the story together, I asked a number of my Twitter followers for their thoughts on agile leadership. Below is a selection of the best responses.

You can follow me at @ClaireSRogers

James Pierce ‏(@jamespierce )
#1 Be Open Minded #2 Genuinely Empower People/Teams #3 Be Physically Involved. #hardin140chars

James Pierce (‏@jamespierce 
Part 2 - Be incredibly focused on WHY … Leave WHAT and HOW to people who are closer to problems and know more.

Em Campbell-Pretty ‏(@PrettyAgile)
Trust the team. Be vulnerable. Go to the Gemba. Change the system. Invest time in learning, innovation & fun!

Rob Findlay ‏(@robfindlay  )
Backing a decisive team; preparing stakeholders for less polish; staying humble and true to the idea & end customer

Angus Hervey (@angushervey)
Optimism (it's infectious) integrity (do what you say you're going to do) vulnerability (admit mistakes)

Since I'd been so slow to make the decision they'd chosen one way to build it and we'd landed somewhere else for all the right reasons. But rework was required. Fortunately as the team was working agile this was a much smaller impact than in a waterfall project - but my slow decision making impacted delivery.

Agile is powerful in making blockages and challenges visible, a big enabler for moving at speed. I've learnt to be present as often as possible to make sure my team can move nimbly at all times. Or if I can't they have an option of pressuring me until I've sorted it out (public shaming motivates people!).

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Photo credit: EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images.

Always ask to see working software. Another project I worked with was in deep trouble, arguing over the features they thought they could not go to market without. Taking the decision makers through the working customer experience as a whole showed them it was near market ready and lifted excitement.

The unimportant features fell away and people focussed on the ones genuinely needed – getting it into the hands of customers sooner. We are visual people - why would words on a page ever give us a true sense of a customer experience unless our teams are full of gifted authors!?

Shut up and listen. Recently we built an experience for our mobile lenders here at ANZ called Your HomeLoan 360°TM. We made a few mobile lenders working with us on the design the kings and queens of the showcase. When I or other folks in the team thought the solution should go in a particular direction it was always able to be tested with the 'users'.

These folks regularly came up with ideas simpler and much more valuable than ours. On launch we achieved rapid take-up amongst the lenders. As leaders the best thing we can do is listen to those kings and queens and let go of our personal views.

Bring work to the people not people to the work. Mobilising teams for projects is incredibly inefficient – most companies spend weeks in work estimation, sourcing allocations from specialist resource pools or protracted contract negotiations with vendors.

At ANZ my job has been to create permanent teams with specific experiences to establish an operating rhythm, build competency, creativity and speed. Not to mention you can be lighter on governance, measuring success with a simple target such as sales growth.

Fundamentally, agile is a culture not a process. A few simple actions from leaders can encourage or discourage agility.

I've learnt I don't need to worry about what process the team use to get the job done but to simply make sure I am tracking output. I've become a better listener, prioritising the contribution of those closest to the customer, and I've learnt the importance of clearing the way for stable teams to be given delivery authority.

These are my six principles for leadership that encourage agility. What else do you think is required?

Claire Rogers is Head of Digital Strategy & Business Performance at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

14 May 2015

How good leaders make hard decisions

Zeger Degraeve | Dean, University Melbourne Business School

For 11 consecutive years, a high profile American investor achieved 12 per cent return annually for his clients. His reputation attracted investors from all over the world. Year after year, the returns outperformed the market. In 2009, this leading business figure was jailed for 150 years. His name is Bernie Madoff.

25 Sep 2015

Your leadership strategy needs to change

Martin Reeves | Senior Partner, The Boston Consulting Group & Director, Bruce Henderson Institute

It's no secret the pace of change today is head-spinningly fast. The stakes are higher than ever: one third of US public corporations will not survive the next five years. In the declining number of industries that remain stable and predictable, the classical approach to strategy and leadership taught in business schools still applies.

14 Oct 2015

'Gut feel' leadership is dead

Amanda Gome | Former head of digital and social media, ANZ

Recently one of the smartest executives I know, who is always ahead of trend curves, looked at me bewildered. “I can't keep up anymore," he said. “I don't know how."