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The Professional Agile Leader - part 1

October 12, 2022

In this episode of the Community podcast, Kurt Bittner, PST Ron Eringa and PST Laurens Bonnema join host Dave West for a discussion on some of the topics in the new book, The Professional Agile Leader: The Leader's Journey Toward  Growing Mature Agile Teams and Organizations, including:

- The difference between traditional leadership and agile leadership
- Self-managing teams
- Leadership styles
- The notion of giving control to the people who work with you
- Ideas around trust
- More!



Dave West: 0:04

Hi, and welcome to the community podcast. I'm your host, Dave West. And this is the podcast from the home of Scrum. And we normally feature you know, Professional Scrum Trainers, customers that are using professional Scrum. And today we're very fortunate to have with us two Professional Scrum Trainers and one member of the team to talk about a new book that they've written called the Professional Agile Leader. So I'm, I'm excited to learn a little bit about this book from the from the authors and share some of those observations with you all because leadership is it's hard, right, so. So I'd like to welcome Kurt Bittner. Welcome to the podcast, Kurt. And Laurens Bonnema. Welcome to the podcast. And then Ron Eringa. Great people. We've got people from Colorado and the Netherlands. It's going to be an international podcast all around. Gentleman, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. You're welcome. Thanks. I appreciate it. Yeah, great. Great. Now, as you can hear, there's a few of us on this on this podcast. So sometimes we may speak over each other. Just, you know what it's like, even though we've had three years of using Zoom continuously, practice makes perfect. Right? So the first question and Ron, I'll, I'll hit you up on this, because just just because, and hopefully everybody will vote in and provide some interesting perspective on this. But professional agile leadership. In a nutshell, what is it? That's the name of the book? But what is it?

Ron Eringa: 1:53

Yeah, that's a great question, actually. And I think kind of would be the summary of of the book, right away in this question is that I think it would start with why organizations are adopting agility in the first place, which is, a lot of the reasons are improving time to market dealing with changing priorities, increasing productivity, that kind of stuff, right? So that's, that's the reasons why many organizations started adopting agility. So if you talk about the professional agile leader, I think it's all the people that are helping organizations to accomplish these results. What is the leadership style that you need to accomplish that and I think everything is ingrained in the fact that organizations are trying to set up an organization that is more team based, that is more based on decision making, within teams that you can actually use that that team based decision making to improve this time to market to to deal with these changing priorities faster, because I think the decisions need to be taking there where you know, most of the knowledge is, which is inside the teams that are developing the product or the service that many organizations build nowadays. So I think it's the ability of the leader to understand how to build teams that are really capable of self managing, right, we use that term in the scrum guide as well. self managing teams is it's a concept that, you know, many organizations talk about, but if you look at that capabilities of really self managing, I think that's where the leader comes in, how do you facilitate an environment where teams can really self manage? And I think that's what Agile leadership is all about to me. Does that make sense?

Dave West: 3:30

Yeah, no, I mean, I think, you know, the people centric element, the self management, the bottom up intelligence, you know, all of those things are a little different, are quite a lot different. So I guess what, talking about differences, because I think that's a really nice way to position something, what's different? And maybe Lyons, you can talk about this answer. There's what's difference between traditional leadership and agile leadership? You know, what, what, what would be the juxtaposition, you know, that you could see, like, Oh, that one's red. And that one's green? What, what is the difference?

Laurens Bonnema: 4:09

If you look at the ends of that spectrum, right, so from a really classical, more dominant style leader, that would be on the one end of that journey that we described in the book as well, that one of the managers actually multiple of those leaders there take it's an environment where it's normal to essentially tell people what to do. Also, where that's not frowned upon at all right? It's, it's actually a good thing. It's a system that's optimized for that type of leadership behavior as well. That's what that's why those leaders act that way. And if you want to create teams that are more self managing and and take on a lot more responsibility, that also means that they need to grow and you need to grow either with them or little, little bit in front of them even you need to realize that you need to take the same journey. And so a leader cannot get stuck in the past. decision that I just described, they need to also take the team on that journey as they take the journey themselves, and then guide them towards a more autonomous style of acting, that requires letting go servant leadership, I'd like to call it more supportive leadership than servant servant leadership, because it's, it's really that you're nurturing the team to a situation where you can effectively just let go, and only need to step in when when something's going sideways or something, you don't really need to do a lot of dominant, telling them what to do anymore. And of course, if people are used to that, they also deserve a leader that comes with them on the path, so to speak. That's what we describe in the book as well. So the whole journey, not just being there, not just who you need to become, and then magically, you become that, but it's really going from that one end to a more supportive style of leadership.

Dave West: 5:58

That sounds super difficult. Because, you know, I'm instantly struck with the idea that you, you start doing, you know, you start, you say, Okay, we want everybody to be servant leader, you know, you want to introduce servant leadership, we want to basically be self managed, oh, hang on a minute, I'm going to tell you to be self managed, you know, which is actually the opposite of servant leadership. Oh, hang on. So I'm going to be a servant leadership. So I'm gonna allow you to do it. But you don't want to be self manage. It's how do you even go about this? I don't know. Kurt, I, you've got lots of experience. I'm not saying you're old. That's always awful to say it like that. But you've had lots of experience doing that. How do you do it? Well, it's not doing it while it's doing it. Where do you begin? I guess is that simple question?

Kurt Bittner: 6:48

Well, I think that the, the really key thing to understand is that it's not, you don't go through like a complete state change overnight. That this is a journey that, as Lauren said, that, that the leaders are on, and the teams are on. And so, you know, in the sense that the worst thing you could do, as a leader would be to just go to a team and say, Okay, today, you know, yesterday, you were traditionally managed today, you're self managed, and good luck. And so it's really a sense of the leader has the responsibility to help that team grow their self management. And that might start very small, with, with essentially small decisions. And that is they gain confidence, and they gain expertise in making those decisions. And they, and they learn how to, to be more transparent with each other and the rest of the organization, then, then, you know, they take on more responsibility and more responsibility. So so it's a gradual transition from a state of, you know, essentially, we're not, we're not self managed to, we're becoming more self managed to, eventually perhaps were completely self managed. And there's a series of levels. And you can think of it as a series of levels of sort of maturity. I don't really like that word, maturity. But but there's that in this case, I think what really works is that, you know, they have to mature their own capabilities, and is the leader, who and we actually talk at one point in the book about a catalytic leader is the leader who acts as a catalyst for helping the team to learn how to do those things. And that's, that's really the key, it really is a journey. And each team has to be on that journey themselves. You can't just like, all of a sudden turn it on for everybody. So every team has a different starting point, a different ending point. And, you know, one of the first things that the leader can do is help the team form itself. Instead of assigning people to the team, let the team choose its own members. It's all of this the most fundamental decision that the team can make. And yet if you don't let the team do that you really cripple them from from being able to mature later on. So there's lots of talk about this. But anyway, that's the thing. It's a it's, it's a learning journey for everyone. And, and the leader is really kind of a catalyst.

Dave West: 9:18

I think what struck me from the book, and I was fortunate enough to read it when it was still being developed. So I could I'd write the foreword, and it's, it's an awesome book. It's got some awesome diagrams. It's just it's a great but Well, one thing that's that stat that stood out to me was this journey element and user stories and to really illustrate this and to make it many of the books on leadership that I read very much talk about it as a state. And what you said, I think really sums it up. It's not a flipped switch, which is very hard to say. It isn't a flip switch. It is a gradual set of rules. realizations and muscle memory development that has to happen. And I think that's incredibly hard, but also incredibly rewarding. But how do you ensure you're going? And this is, you know, Ron, maybe I know we're sort of doing a bit of a round robin here. And I apologize. If you don't want to answer this right? On You don't have to. But how do you know you're going in the right direction, as you go through it, you talk a little bit about and it's in the book, and you have some signposts and stuff and metrics and talked about, but maybe our listeners would be really interesting. You know, you've started that process that either through self organize that you've got a team, you're starting, how do you know you're going in the right direction? What are those signposts on the journey? That mean, you haven't got lost?

Ron Eringa: 10:52

Yeah, that's a very interesting question, actually, maybe to answer the question would be to well not use the story from the book itself, because that, of course, I will take away all the reading fun for people. But just to dig into the to to one of my own experiences. So how do you know that we're moving forward with this is when well, I've seen situations, for example, in the COVID, period, when I was a manager, myself, and in that period, where I was working from home, right, and there's a lot of problems that team needed to fix. Being their manager, I could only stand there and look at the sideline and what they were doing. And the moment that you see teams take that responsibility, we gain the trust that they might have lost in the past, because that's what I see a lot, right? Many organizations tell me, the reason why they're doing Agile also is because business and our team needs to work together. And I think that moment where teams, you know, pay, take that responsibility, go to their business departments go to their other departments in the organization, and involve everyone to actually build real valuable products, when they take that responsibility and actually deliver. That's the moment where, you know, that's, that's where the fun begins, right. And as a leader, I've seen many, many leaders peers, in the past that, you know, when moments got tough, they stepped in, and they started to move everything around and started to manage everything. But at the moment that team member start doing that. Even before you could even think of taking action. I think that's that's the moment where things become magical, I think. So that for me would be the right moment.

Dave West: 12:27

It's funny, you said this, and I, as as a leader, I have said a phrase, I don't like surprises. I've really learned that I've got to forget that. Because actually, I do like surprises, good ones. When my teammates have. Now you could argue what's good and what's bad and Augs prizes are good. You just have to inspect and adapt and improve the next surprise, right. But the when I had teammates, you know, people that I've worked with that have done things that I'm like, Oh, my God, I didn't think you would should do that. Wow. And you've done that. That's when that's a great signpost. But it means that you have to sort of like, and I think, Lawrence, you said this, right? You have to sort of give up control? What can be uncomfortable. And the book talks quite a lot about this. There's sort of like that thread throughout that uncomfortableness. It's what do you think about giving up control and being uncomfortable, I don't like being uncomfortable. Yeah, and

Laurens Bonnema: 13:33

that's actually, even though of course, you can even go harsh about this. And a lot of leadership books actually do this, you're not supposed to feel comfortable at all really grow. And so therefore embrace it, embrace that discomfort. And in a sense, that is true, however, also, the notion of losing that control, that doesn't mean that control then ends right so that there's no control anymore. And that's what people fear. And leaders, of course, we tend to forget this, but leaders are also people and when they fear the loss of control, because they don't know that they're going to get lots more in return, then then then you tend to, to hold on to it. And the thing is, you're not losing control, you're giving control to the people that work with you. And that's a concept from David Marquis book on, on leadership. But I really liked that notion, because that's in essence, what we do as agile leaders, you give control to other people. So control is not lost. Right? So right there, no fear, especially if you do it, right. So if you make sure that people know So within these boundaries within this bounded environment for action, you get you have full control, and I trust you to make the right decisions. And if you don't, that's the nasty surprise, of course, right that you mentioned. Then let's figure out how to make better decisions, but probably I would have made the same mistake as a leader. Now having that actually gives you as a leader much more control Because now everybody's thinking about making the right decisions, not just you. So the net result of this is way better decisions being taken much faster. And that in the end, to my mind is what Agile leadership is really about.

Kurt Bittner: 15:14

Because there's one addition to that. So when when we use vocabulary, like losing control, it's a very kind of negative reinforcement. And I think one of the keys for agile leaders is to realize that in giving up control, they amplify their influence, and amplify their ability to, to get the things done what they want to get done. And so the more the agile leader can empower that team, and help them grow, to take on new things, as you, as you mentioned, you good surprises you, you see how creative someone that could be about solving a particular problem or achieving something? Well, you get everybody's creativity sort of leveraged in that and the agile leader has great influence over helping the team achieve those great results much greater than the team could have achieved at the agile leader at the leader progression, had to direct everybody in what they were doing. So I think it's that that, you know, the the agile leader, and once they realized that their influence is amplified by this team self management, that it really is liberating. But you have to, you have to first it's like swimming, you have to learn to let go of the size of the pool, in order to sort of achieve that greater thing that you want to do. And so that amplification influences maybe the it's the carrot, you know that losing control is the stick perhaps. And the carrot is the stamp of fundamentalism, and that I think is really powerful for people once they grasp, I think,

Dave West: 17:03

I think and basically, it's the position that you start with with respect to trust. I think that, you know, I think you've even said this in the book you assume trust rather than assume not, rather than earn trust, that phrase, earning trust, I think is, is is totally anathema against a lot of the principles, I trust my people, and I care about them, and I want to help them and I and when things go wrong, we go it's sort of going wrong together, which we can learn from, and then maybe not do it again. I think that that was a theme, I saw that sort of modern leadership around trust, which the industrial paradigm is the exact opposite. We don't trust anybody, we break down work to the smallest unit, we ensure we assume that everybody's lazy, I think is even a phrase that one of those whether it's Gantt or one of those Taylor used, right? Don't trust anybody that will lazy. And that is not the case. And I think that agile leadership, you know, leans into that with with, with a lot of energy. So we're coming to the end of we'd like to keep these podcasts short, and we could talk for hours. And I'm hoping that we'll have another one that maybe drills into maybe some of the characteristics that of an agile leader, some of the sort of more detailed things, but but today, I wanted to keep it very much focused on the overview of what Agile leadership is. So if you were, you know, the list of the listeners, if you were gonna say, one thing that you can take from this book that would be useful for you one thing, what would that thing be? What would that thing is that you that you would you would share with our with our listeners today, you know, who wants to start about Lawrence? What do you think the one thing that you could leave our leader readers with listeners with?

Laurens Bonnema: 19:13

I would say, as everything, it's a journey and give yourself the gift of allowing yourself to learn, right? So instead of wanting to do leadership perfectly.

Dave West: 19:26

Yeah, it's an admission that you're not perfect, and you will learn and that vulnerability, just to quote Brene Brown, obviously, she loves a bit of vulnerability, but is actually a really useful characteristic that you can they can actually serve you in purpose. And obviously the book reinforces and talks about that. Kurt, what would what would you be your sort of agile leadership that one thing?

Kurt Bittner: 19:56

I think so. The A challenge for agile leaders is that they have to recognize that they are embedded. They're currently embedded in the system, which reinforces and rewards them for traditional behaviors. And that is so ingrained in their, probably some contents that that to be open to, let's say, I wouldn't use the word mistake. But basically, I love this phrase that one of my former managers, Gibson said the facts are friendly. So there's no such thing as bad information. It's just information. So to be open to say, oh, yeah, okay, that wasn't what I expected. But let's, you know, what can we learn from this? We can say that all we want, but it's, you know, it's been conditioned into, you know, traditional organization leaders that, you know, that's about lack of predictability. It's about things. So I think that, you know, like Lauren said, they have to give themselves in a sense permission to be open to working in a new way. And when they recognize that Oh, and that makes me more discomfort, uncomfortable, that they sort of push through that and say, Okay, well, you know, this is an opportunity to learn. So I think that it's a related thing. It's a journey. But it's also something you have to recognize that almost everything you've been taught is leading you in a different direction. And you have to consciously try to work around that.

Dave West: 21:35

As I think the realization that from Scott from kindergarten onwards, we're being conditioned to work in an industrial system and an industrial paradigm. And to accept that there is something a little different, and to challenge some of those status quo ideas. Is, is I think, very liberating, and and really empowering. Now, Ron, you've been left with a short straw here. Sorry, Ron, the last one, you've got some awesome ideas and from Lawrence, and Kurt, or anything to add to that?

Ron Eringa: 22:14

Um, yeah. So I was thinking about that. That's the good thing. You know, you asked a question. So I had most time to think about it. If you asked me why I wanted to write this book in the first place, is because I see many of the organizations out there so much focused on structure only, like, you know, what is our backlog? What is our portfolio? What is the structure that we need? What's the HR system, all that kind of cool stuff, you know, we often refer to zombie Scrum, that kind of practices. But a lot of organizations are focusing on structure. And I think an Agile transformation can only be successful when structure and culture go hand in hand. So what we've done in the book, is we took a deep dive into also, how do you change your leadership behavior, your mindset? How do you influence mindset in an organization? So how do you deal with the cultural changes that you will bounce into when you go into an Agile transformation? So besides the structure stuff, obviously, we should also mention, like, you know, how do you transfer the structure in your organization? How do you change the culture alongside because they go hand in hand, right? You notice this, this statement from Peter Drucker culture eats strategy for breakfast. That's basically what we talk about in the book as well. And the case study in our book describes all the difficulties that you will bounce into, especially if we talk about culture, when you try to introduce new structures in your organization. So yeah, that's, that's basically the reason why we wanted to write the book is to break through this structure only focused at many of the large corporates have when they tried to introduce Agile to their organization. So yeah, I think that would be my takeaway for it.

Dave West: 23:55

Awesome. Gentleman, thank you for taking the time today. It's a great book. For our listeners, I recommend it, just go past the foreword, which was obviously written by myself but and then go into the real book, which is brilliant. I think that the narrative style, the story of the case, study, the examples that you use, the way in which you then step back and look at it is is quite refreshing in terms of style. And I learned a lot from it. Now, I'm not sure I'm able to always execute some of those things, but I'm trying every day is an opportunity, right? So thank you for that. So I appreciate that, for helping me get better in my job. And thank you for taking the time. So this is Dave West here, the host of the community podcast. Thank you for listening. I think this will warrant another conversation we're talking to Kurt Bittner, Laurens Bonnema and Ron Eringa, about a new fabulous book from a professional scrum series called The Professional Agile Leader. Please get this from your local bookstores now or if you want on Amazon and other media outlets as well. So thank you, everybody for listening for tuning in today. And thank you for for Ron, Laurens and Kurt bye bye everybody.

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