Crossing the #agile borders

Agile is here to stay

(There is also a Dutch version of this blog)

At one time agile working was a trend, but no more, it is now a fact. What started as a revolution is now the result of that upheaval. A different way of working, initially in IT, but now gradually being adopted, or at least thought about, by every industry. With everyone embracing of this new paradigm, in which for the sake of convenience, I also include lean and self-steering organisations, I now dare to say that agile has become traditional, and therefore we need new agile leaders!

When something like this happens, we become involved in a new collection of challenges. In the project management world, we have also seen this when we embraced PRINCE2, when everyone was using it. After the honeymoon period had ended and love was put to the test, it appeared that the ideal and reality were much further removed from each other than we thought. The same is now going on with agile: it is fantastic, but there is still a gnawing concern.

The limits of agile have been reached

By which I don’t mean that agile has had its day. On the contrary, I am convinced that we are going to take major steps forward. But how? When an approach reaches its limits, agile leaders can do one of two things: take a step back to the source, or a step forwards and try to bridge the gap between the real and the ideal.

When a choice is made to go back to the source, people point to how something has come into existence and state that you have to aim towards this over and over again. Many agile opinion leaders have chosen this strategy, and we see references to the agile manifesto. The frameworks, which must not be called methods, are provided with values and principles. Everyone reminds everyone else of it all the time, whether it is relevant or not.

This, dear reader, leads to professional sectarianism.

The agile mindset lies in the future

The reference to the past is understandable. The authors of the agile manifesto had a future in mind. The founding leaders of this movement, of which many are still active, want to provide this future with substance and, in this way, remain as close as possible to that ideal. Some of those trailblazers have become disappointed and quit, due to the direction agile is taking, which does not match with their desired ideal. An attitude, which in my opinion bears witness to a narrow-minded frame of reference.

Agile has become traditional, and has moved many years on from what was originally conceived. The leaders from the past should now receive more respect for what they initiated rather than a sympathetic ear for what they now have to say. Just as the ideas a grandfather has on, in his opinion, the ‘disastrous’ consequences of modern technology, the past leaders do not have much more to tell us about the present and future of agile working. They are the historical heroes, and that is about the most that can be said.

We need new leaders, and I challenge you to become such a leader.

The new agile leader

What do we see happening now? Organisations want to become, or are already, agile, but at the ‘boundaries’ of the ‘tribe’ or ‘release train’ there is an environment that although in a state of flux, is certainly not working agile. Think about a sect, which thinks that everyone has to think and become the same as them! When you demand that senior management also has to have the agile mindset, you are becoming one too. Perhaps, with the danger of group blindness, it succeeds, but often or mostly in fact, only in a limited way. Suppliers do not want to, or cannot as legislation gets in the way and prohibits certain things. Often we have to accept these impediments. Time and again, the agile leader sees a discrepancy with the harsh truth, which he or she has to reconcile.

And also in the team some gaps need to be bridged. Self-management is not to everyone’s liking, not everyone is intrinsically motivated and not everyone is waiting for a ‘why’ or a ‘wow’. A lot of people work for the money they can use for the things they really find important. There are limits to the motivation and the readiness to embrace the agile mindset. It is the new agile leader who has to bridge this gap.

The gap is as wide as you imagine it to be

When you have a strong conviction, for example that of agile working, your mindset is everything but agile. What I mean to say, in plain English, is that someone with a strong conviction (often) has an uncompromising and inflexible mindset. The leaders we now need have to be versatile in order to manoeuvre between paradigms.

Each time we have to bridge a gap, we look for a compromise, which is what leaders do. They work with what is available and understand how to get the best out of people imprisoned in their own systems. In all of this, they deliver value which is what agile leadership means. That is not something that lies in the past, in the roots of the agile philosophy, but on the contrary it lies in the future, that vague spot on the horizon called ‘valuable outcome’. The journey they make follows a road on which, without doubt, they will have to build many bridges and at the end, at the horizon, there will be a new horizon. And so it goes on, and endless journey of innovative steps.

Do you, together with me, want to be such a leader?