March 22, 2017

Change Leadership Will Long Outlast Agile

Having ‘agile expertise’ is in high demand these days – it seems everywhere I turn there are companies and recruiters looking for agile experts. Agile knowledge is important, but the expertise of being an effective change agent is even more important.

An agilist helps the delivery team get up and going, and embody the agile principles. A change agent takes on a wider scope of influence to help the delivery team be successful within a broader environment. Knowing when to do something and why to do something; knowing whether the organization is ready for what you’re trying to put into place or whether there are other foundational steps needed first; realizing it’s a long game and building relationships to get more viewpoints as you go… this is what being a change agent is all about.

In order to help large organizations transform, agile expertise alone won’t get you there. It’s having the empathy, discipline, patience and resilience as a change agent that is so crucial. To be OK to fail, to be OK when something can’t be ‘agile’ right away – because it’s not about being agile, it’s about being effective. 

As I covered in an earlier blog, we don’t embrace agile for the sake of it – we do it to create an environment in which our teams can react & deliver quickly. Audit isn’t purely agile, Risk isn’t, Security isn’t… but how do we help these teams become more fluid to support agile delivery? How do we influence change without using authority? We know that influence is a lot more sustainable than any one methodology. To be a change agent is a master of selling experimentation, and turning failed experiments into learning opportunities that bring others along.

Just because you know scrum doesn’t mean you can successfully drive change in a large organization. It takes much more than that. Here are some of the skills that have best served me in my career leading through change:

  • Investing a disproportionate amount of time and energy on relationship building
  • Having a shared context with the people you are trying to influence, because you’ve been in roles like theirs (in my case, Management, Marketing, Development, QA, etc.) so that you can use their language, not yours
  • Understanding that you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room on every subject. Having decent subject matter expertise AND the ability to identify with & influence other leaders drives change
  • Having the empathy to understand that everyone believes they are doing the right thing, and trying to see things from their perspective. Being empathetic to meet them where they are, and having the patience to walk with them and help them get to where they need to be
  • Being deliberate about timing – knowing when not to push people because they’re not ready
  • Knowing each individual only has a certain ‘horizon’ for acceptance of uncertainty, and that you need to meet them where they are

My ability to be a change agent is going to long outlast my agile mission. Agile is just one tool that I use – where agile stops, change keeps going. So, you need to be constantly evolving and expanding your toolset as a change agent: Learn complimentary frameworks like LEAN and systems thinking, invest in your communication, influencing and coaching skills.

If you’re trying to build strength in leading through change, here are five simple ways to get started:

  1. Get experience leading something so that you can understand what managers have to deal with, and expose yourself to a variety of functions around the organization so you can better understand their point of view
  2. Take a hard look at your calendar – if most of your time is taken up in meetings you aren’t leaving enough time to build relationships
  3. Learn business – at the end of the day you are trying to increase revenue and learning
  4. Change your language to be more positive – for instance, re-framing failure learnings, and communicating how you have applied them.
  5. Step back and think about a problem as if you were the CEO to help you look at the system as a whole.

Change is the one thing that is constant. In order to lead an organization through this change you need to continually change, learn, and evolve. Were will this lead you? To where you need to be.