July 18, 2021

Agile Leadership: How to Close the Knowing-Doing Gap

Agile Leadership: How to Close the Knowing-Doing Gap

Almost all organisations we help are looking for faster, smarter ways to deliver their mission critical programmes and/or recovering programmes that have stalled or even failed to deliver. The majority of these firms have used classical approaches to delivery which we know don’t work well in a complex working environment.

Smart leaders send their management teams on Agile training courses and leadership courses only to find that the learning doesn’t translate into action and therefore improvement. The training spend is wasted and the organisation doesn’t improve.

Looking back, it’s interesting to note that nearly one in five (17%) of respondents involved in last year’s 14th annual State Of Agile Report worked in the financial services industry.

At Fractal we know the impact capable leadership has on programme productivity, risk control and change management. When it comes to using Agile to accelerate or recover a programme leaders must lead from the front. And one of the things we often find is that, while asset managers understand the value of Agile leadership and Decentralised command and decision-making, when it comes down to actually doing it, two things stand in the way; remembering how to do it and remembering *to* do it.

By far the best way that we have found to both accelerate results and overcome this is primarily with player-coaches embedded.

We use the term ‘player-coach’ for two reasons:

1) As delivery agents, we work as part of the client’s team, helping move their goals forward at pace

2) As skilled coaches, we mentor, guide and reinforce key concepts in real time whilst accelerating delivery  

This means we can deliver the right coaching/mentoring or guidance at just the right time – thereby embedding the learning and skill in the muscle of teams and leaders we guide. So, for example, when senior leaders are trying to decentralise command, but are new at it, what they tend to end up doing is giving command-and-control type instruction.

Structure communication and collaboration intentionally

When faced with this situation (which is very common) what we coach leaders in the financial services sector to do is to structure their communication in an objective, outcome orientated  way.

So instead of them telling a team, “I want you to do X, Y and Z and stepwise follow this plan and these 1, 2, 3, 4 steps”, we encourage them to say: “the outcome of what we are trying to do is this, the reason why we are doing it is this and what good looks like is that.”

Coaching leaders to be able to do that and operate in this way, practically, helps them to realise and really get the skill into the muscle. That’s because reading about and cognitively understanding Agile leadership and management is one thing. But bridging the gap and knowing how to do the ‘how’ is another thing entirely. And that’s where we really add value.

We all hear about how collaboration is important, and we agree that as an abstract principle, it’s good. The questions are how and when and how often and what should we collaborate over? The other important thing we do is that we materially help leaders to organise and structure their collaboration events answering those questions in a concrete way. We enable senior leadership teams to figure out how to operate as one team.

We help leaders to figure out what they need to say, how to say it, we coach them in the conversations that they are going to have before they have them. And then we are in the conversation when it happens, so that we can they offer advice and steer the group in real time. Which is how we ensure that decentralised command happens.

Don’t create ‘learned helplessness’

Again, with the servant leadership model, we do something similar. We help leaders to understand what servant leadership is and IS NOT. For example, one of the things that it is not is creating ‘learned helplessness’.

When many senior leaders first learn about servant leadership, they tend to go too much into serving their teams, such that the teams can then do nothing without them!

Instead, leaders need to learn to only do those things that their teams cannot do themselves, that is outside of their remit. We train and guide senior managers in how to coach, mentor and guide teams to grow the team’s skills.

The critical balance here is how you do this without looking like a ‘Teflon shouldered’ manager that doesn’t take on any work. (Which is the other, equally unproductive extreme from the command-and-control style of management).

One of the most obvious benefits of putting all of this into place and something that we’ve seen on multiple occasions – particularly when it comes to working with financial services companies and asset management firms – when leadership teams start to operate as teams, you have scenarios now where because they trust each other they begin to share resources and break down silos.

Speed, productivity and happiness gains

Which means you start to see situations in which managers who would previously jealously guard their people resources suddenly starting to hire resources to give to other teammates – a great example of something that happens when you create the one team, breaking-down-silos approach at the senior leadership level.

The bottom line is that all of us want to show success through delivery and we feel safety through control. And often, with command-and-control style managers, they tend to feel that the decentralised command and servant leadership piece is all about giving up control. But it’s not. You still retain your controls you just do it in a way that is different. And you quickly discover that teams operate much faster, and productivity goes up.

When our player-coaches help to put all of these Agile learnings into practice, we consistently see teams get quicker and faster, and they become braver and safer. Not only that, their happiness index and levels of employee engagement goes up, often within a very short timeframe of a few months. 

That’s exactly why we’ve seen, in some of the asset management teams that we’ve taught this to, speed gains in the region of 50 to 60 per cent, and productivity gains of 25 to 30 per cent, easily.

 

Jay is co-founder of Fractal Systems Consulting, an agile consultancy run by a group of Professional Scrum Trainers, change agents and agile delivery coaches who have deep experience and know-how in creating behavioural change, come and find us at Fractal Systems

Additionally, if you’re interested in learning in a fun application rich environment that focuses on real world applied approaches, come along to one our training sessions – Agile Scrum Training.