Not long ago I posted a series of myths and realities about Agile on my LinkedIn account. While many in the business world talk about Agile ways of working, how accurate is the information we think we know? Are you confusing an Agile myth with reality? In June, I shared an article on the Agile Mindset and what a person needs to truly be agile. I would like to follow up by sharing my top 6 Agile myths:
agile myths debunked
 

MYTH #1: AGILE IS A SET OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORKS

REALITY: Agile is primarily a culture, a way of thinking and acting.

  • The biggest and most common mistake and the reason that many fail at implementing Agile in organizations comes from focusing on the DOING Agile without working on the BEING Agile.
  • Implementing Scrum, Design Thinking, Hackathons, Lean, Kanban and other Agile frameworks will not be sufficient to be Agile.

 

MYTH #2: LEADERS ARE NOT NEEDED IN AGILE

REALITY: True…and false.

  • Agile needs leaders, but not where they might usually spend their time and energy.
  • Their role is to drive and foster the appropriate ecosystem and culture. They must genuinely inspire themselves first and then their people with a compelling Purpose, Vision, and Strategy that can guide decisions and actions. This is not a minor role. An Agile organization could not exist without these leaders.
  • In Agile, coaching leaders to empower their people by decentralizing decisions, control, and accountability to the point closest to action.
  • To put it in other terms, leaders move from the pilot seat to the co-pilot one.
  • Top management is often unconsciously the main barrier or intentionally the key enabler of BEING Agile more than being directly involved in Agile projects.

 

Myth #3: AGILE IS BETTER AND FASTER. Its role is to increase the speed of decisions and actions.

REALITY: Speed of decision and action is part of a predefined daily and weekly planning but is not a goal. Value delivery to customers comes before timing.
 

Myth #4: AGILE IS ABOUT PRODUCING MORE, QUICKER, AND CHEAPER

REALITY: Big mistake. Agile optimizes value delivery and customer satisfaction first, not just productivity and efficiency.
 

Myth #5: AGILE IS PERMANENT INSTABILITY MANAGEMENT

REALITY: Agile’s pre-defined cadence and framework are highly predictable. You know in real-time how the team is tracking against objectives with daily baby steps, one at a time, with clear objectives. This approach makes manageable permanent changes and instability with iterative adaptations, learning and improving from mistakes/successes with clear metrics from customer feedback.
 

Myth #6:  WE DON’T NEED AGILE COACHES. Agile Coach = Scrum Master

REALITY: Agile is about people before processes and the Agile Coach is here to help the team adopt effective mindsets and behaviors individually and as a team: Agile is a way of thinking, acting, and interacting.

  • The functions of a Scrum Master are to carry out all those projects that use a Scrum methodology from the elaboration of the product backlog, sprint backlog, the sprint itself, and the burndown of the tasks carried out and everything that remains pending.

 

Conclusion

Agile does not have to be a buzzword. It is what you need it to be. don’t copy/paste what others do. Find what works in your organization. BE the agility you want to see in your organization: Agile is not a destination it is a mindset and a way of working together.

For most executives we know, embarking on a transformation journey at the helm of an organization is thrilling. It’s nothing short of an adrenaline rush, like the climbing expedition we’ve been comparing it to over the last few weeks. However, journeys come to an end, and life -as well as business- goes on. Business as usual, they say. At the foot of the mountain, the heroes of the hike blend with ordinary folks and continue onward. That part of the story typically gets left out of the books because… who wants to hear about the ‘normal’? We revive that story here, in the final article of the series, The Next Normal of a New CEO.
In the first article, we laid out a roadmap for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from that appointment (from A to B in the illustration above). We continued with a second article where we explained the focus of the team’s next 100 days in its safe descent back to base camp (from B to C). We finish the series with the ‘next normal’ of this team (‘new normal’ sounds too definitive for a VUCA world).
The Next Normal of a New CEOBeginnings, or new beginnings, are exciting. They create momentum, but it’s a hard job to keep the flame alive. If the leadership team does an excellent job with the four D’s mentioned in article two, there’s a higher chance that the flame will last longer. However, they will need a sustainable fuel source for that flame because eventually, it will die out. No matter how well-intended the leaders are, their behaviors are not enough to consolidate an evolving or transforming culture. Culture needs to be hinged on systems to endure.
 

Systems and Symbols

What are systems? For us, systems are to the organization what behaviors are to individuals. They are the workflows, procedures, policies, practices (you name it) that shape collective actions. As such, they can be powerful symbols of what the company values, regardless of the words on their posters.
An example of the power of systems and symbols is how top leadership deals with ‘airtime’. What they spend time on, or whom they spend time with, sends a loud message to the organization. Take one of our clients. They decided to end their hierarchical, command-and-control leadership style because their business strategy called for swifter moves that they believed would happen with more autonomous, empowered, and customer-centric teams.
Their leadership manifesto called for them to be ‘servant leaders’. Some took on the challenge of transforming their mindsets and behaviors to become that type of leader. However, their meeting protocols remained unchanged. Front-line employees were still called to provide status updates to top leadership, which meant taking an elevator to the ‘noble’ floor, projecting the same lifeless PPTs as always, as if they were making a case in front of a tribunal waiting for the verdict.
The culture only started shifting when the executives brought the change to another level. No more status updates at the top of the high-rise corporate headquarters. They systematically took the same elevator down, attended the forums where teams did the actual work and asked questions when their turn came. Their leadership manifesto got grounded in their collective rituals, which had a compounding effect on their behaviors.
 

The Road Ahead

Other systems and symbols in an organization are how the budget is allocated (what do they spend their money on?), whom they hire, who gets promoted, what gets celebrated and punished, and how they reward and discipline. These are the infrastructure on which the leaders keep traveling when they return from their climbing expedition. They arrive eager to reach milestones on their ongoing journey toward long-term, sustainable success in the form of robust business results, healthy relationships, and personal fulfillment. Excellent leadership teams realize that:

    1. The road ahead is full of curves. They will arrive at crossroads where the tools they gathered on their way to the peak will come in handy. The good news is that, after a climb, a curvy road pales in comparison.
    2. They can’t let their guard down. Continuing to measure how the team is doing on their levels of trust, conflict management, commitment, accountability, and results is paramount for them to keep working out where they are weaker. No matter how well they’re doing, they know that the moment they quit going to the gym, they’ll get out of shape. Staying at the top of their game is a life-long sport.
    3. They need to get rid of the inappropriate infrastructure that slows their momentum, sometimes to a halt.
    4. They found their fuel – a healthy fuel that keeps the fire (the one they kindled at the fireside chat at base camp) burning and lighting the way. Holding on to their purpose, their true North, they move not for themselves, but for something that transcends them.
    5. There is a legacy to leave behind, and they have decided what they want that to be.

We hope you enjoyed the journey alongside this new CEO and leadership team. Let us know in the comments which part of the journey you found most helpful for your own!

Have you ever lived a glorious leadership offsite, where you felt in your bones the newly forged bond with your peers, your mission as a company, and your dreams about the constructive culture you were going to lead by example? How long did that euphoria last? How far did that momentum take you and your team before the friction of ‘business as usual’ slowly and painfully eroded enthusiasm and brought you back to the grind? Were your commitments to each other strong enough to endure the first breakdowns post-summit? In this second article of a 3 part series, we explain the focus of the next 100 days of the new leadership team in its safe descent back to base camp.
In the first article of this series, we laid out what we believe makes a clear roadmap to success for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from the appointment. We shared the lessons gleaned from accompanying team members through five stages, along individual and collective tracks, all the way from base camp to the peak. We find the metaphor of a climbing expedition a fair reflection of the effort it takes to build trust, manage conflict, reach commitments, uphold accountability and focus on collective results. Good expeditions reach the summit and celebrate that feat, for sure. However, great expeditions believe that reaching the peak is but another step in the journey.
Given the importance of the next steps and inspired by Fred Kofman’s Four D’s, which he described in his book “The Meaning Revolution”, we work to ensure that teams return to business as usual in a masterful way.
 

DEFINE the standards of behavior

next 100 days of the new leadership teamOne of the first outcomes of the leadership team journey described in the first article is that participants can clearly articulate who they want to be and what they are going to do differently. How would they achieve better results if they simply continued to do the same old, same old? The norms about how people are expected to behave at an organization are what we call their desired culture. Therefore, explicitly stating how everyone is expected to act could be considered their cultural manifesto.
 
How are leaders expected to lead in this culture? The honest, specific response to this question by the top leaders defines their so-called leadership manifesto. These are just two examples of how a leadership team can explain the standards, so their aspirations become something they can measure, discuss, and disseminate. These need to be more than just posters on a wall.
 

DEMONSTRATE the standards of behavior

The shadow of the leader is long; therefore, the leadership team needs to walk the talk. Declaring how they expect to act is one thing, while actually doing what they declare is another. Paraphrasing Gandhi, the team that reached the peak needs to become the change they wished to see when they defined the behavioral standards for the company. They must be willing to share their struggles and their accomplishments as they learn to live and embody the defined standards. To this day, we found nothing more powerful than leading by example.
 

DEMAND the standards of behavior

The standards that the leaders defined are of no use if every single member of the team does not uphold them. As standards usually express an aspiration, there is typically a gap between where they are and where they want to be. That is OK if they show curiosity about the impact that having that gap has on others. It becomes part of the learning process as long as they explicitly link their actions to their attempts at bridging that gap. Holding people accountable shows that they are serious about their manifestos. They can do this by discussing breakdowns to learn from struggles and actively catching people doing the right thing.
 

DELEGATE accountability for the standards

When everybody holds everyone else (including the leaders) accountable for behaving according to the set standards, there is an intentional ripple effect. Leaders who take this return to base camp seriously grant everyone permission to call them out if they do not behave according to their leadership manifesto. There are no double standards. The culture manifesto naturally becomes ‘the way we do things around here’ without a second guess. The expected behaviors become the norm. Aspired culture becomes the actual, current culture. Another way of calling this D is “Disseminate”, as it empowers more leaders to be culture carriers and scales up the new leadership standards. It means facilitating an environment where others can empower themselves to shape the culture and become responsible for propagating it by repeatedly demonstrating, demanding, and delegating accountability in a virtuous cycle.
 
These four D’s are a simple-to-understand, challenging-to-execute process for establishing or revamping culture norms at your company. Stay tuned for this series’ third and last article to learn what happens to this new CEO and leadership team in their Next Normal. See you there!

Making the decision to become Agile is not an easy one. It requires getting your people out of their comfort zones. You have to ask yourself if you REALLY want to work on it. To do things that differently? To get your people and organization out of their comfort and stable zones while already dealing with so many other challenges? If the answer is yes, one of the key things you will need moving forward is to adopt the Agile mindset.
There are two notions of Agile: The Organization/Team and the personal/individual. In each, there are two dimensions: DOING Agile (use of tools/framework) and BEING Agile (mindsets & behaviors). They are all closely embedded, but first, it’s important to embrace an Agile mindset and way of thinking.
 

What is an Agile mindset?

  • The Agile MindsetIt is about PROACTIVELY CREATING change in uncertain and disruptive environments. Different from resilience, it is about REACTIVELY RESPONDING to change in a constructive way.
  • It is about analyzing how to understand what’s going on, identifying what uncertainty you are or will be facing, and figuring out how to create new opportunities as you go along.
  • Rather than merely responding to change, Agile employees anticipate the future and proactively create change.
  • Organizational agility is the capacity to spot and exploit opportunities in fast-changing environments.
  • Research shows that employees who create change are 43% more effective than employees who merely respond to change. They also have greater career satisfaction and an enhanced sense of personal power and influence.

So, how do you adopt an Agile mindset? Here are some concrete examples of how to become an Agile thinker every day:

  • Become aware of your thinking patterns.
  • Choose to shift your thinking patterns…yes, this is possible!
  • Regularly take the time to just stop doing and think.
  • Adopt the Victim vs Player and the Knower vs Learner
  • Essentialism: Cut through unnecessary thinking/work and focus on essential things (don’t waste what you learned from the current crisis about focus).
  • Remain calm under stress and pressure…Easier said than done? The more you practice this, the easier it will be.
  • Move away from any tendency to use a Command & Control leadership style and adopt the Coaching Leadership strategy. Delegate decisions and control to the closest point of action. Foster collective intelligence and empowerment with accountability and purpose. Make impeccable requests, which demand impeccable commitments.
  • Practice authentic communication skills and techniques. Speak your truth and allow your people to do so as well by creating a psychologically safe environment.
  • Accepting change is not comfortable but it is safe.
  • Think customer and outcome.

 

Being Agile

There are many reasons why a company might want to invest in Agile. They may want to be a more efficient learning organization that quickly and effectively adapts to change, as well as generates new opportunities in a VUCA World. It may stem from a need to support “Customer Centricity” as a part of the core business strategy or culture. Or perhaps they want to make their people stronger and more comfortable with change and uncertainty with minimum stress and maximum efficiency for their mental and physical energy/health.
Whatever the reason, adopting an Agile mindset is a key part of setting out on the Agile journey. BE the agility you want to see in your organization. Agile is not a destination, it is a mindset and a way of working together.

Innovation sounds good, looks good, but it doesn’t always feel good. Why? Because making innovation happen in a large organization is an arduous process. The story we usually hear about this topic is like a mediocre superhero movie. It shows a character that finds a superpower, struggles just a little bit, and then is victorious. By the end of the film, we know we didn’t like it, but we don’t understand why. There were endless fighting scenes and the hero was too tough. What is the problem with this? It doesn’t feel real. We need to see the pain, the characters’ real suffering to believe their journey and value their victories. Embedding innovation into an organization is a lot like this. I used to think that being an innovator was a matter of toughness or inventiveness, but it is not.
 

How is innovation like a flat tire?

 
Bear with me while I share a personal anecdote. The other day, I had a flat tire. I remember getting out of my car, seeing the flat tire and thinking: “Why today?! I can’t get a break”. I was tired. I knew I have insurance to help me to change the tire, but my macho ego was telling me:
– Can’t you change a simple tire? You have to change it with no help –
So, I hung up the call to the insurance company, grabbed the tools, and started to change the tire myself. But I couldn’t catch a break because the nuts wouldn’t loosen, so I got angry. I wanted to throw the tools and start crying. You may wonder: What are you making such a big deal out of a simple flat tire? Indeed, it was not a big deal. What was the problem?
The problem was not the tire. The problem was not that I could not find a solution. My problem was the meaning I was giving to my lack of ability to loosen up a nut. The problem was I was feeling weak and inadequate for this simple task. After my short crisis, I called the insurance company again and asked for their help. I remember telling myself: “A guy will come and laugh at me because of my poor handyman skills.” I was even thinking of creative answers to defend myself from his attacks. In other words, I was mad at someone I had not even met.
He arrived 30 minutes later. I had loosened up two nuts, but I had three remaining and a broken ego. I saw this man in his mid-50s approaching my car with no judgment. He tried to loosen them and he couldn’t. I had mixed feelings at that moment (I was kinda happy). He was very considerate and explained the nuts were hard to remove because they were old. Luckily, he had some tools to solve the issue. He took out another lug wrench, a hammer, and a long pipe and used it as a lever to remove the nuts, and voila. All that I needed was some tools and a simple lever.
 

Embedding innovation in your organization

 
Embedding innovationThis is precisely how innovation in a corporation works. It is a hard job, with multiple tasks and things to do. You might be working on designing a new solution, defining the precise value proposition, and trying to get the buy-in from different stakeholders. Suddenly, an apparently simple problem is holding things up, and you might feel like it is the end of the world. You feel shame. You question your value, your capabilities, your management skills, or even your work.
The problem might seem simple from the outside. Again, it is about the meaning we assign to why we are struggling and feeling like there is a massive wall in our way. In these moments, I have learned that the key to moving forward is to master my emotions and be aware of the mindset that I am using to see the problem. For example, being trapped in a knower mindset makes the issue personal. The dialogue in my head is: “I should know this.” Then everything starts to escalate, and things get out of control. This makes things worse because a knower mindset demands control.
But instead, I can choose a different path: The learner mindset. This requires a humble approach that recognizes that I do not have to know everything. That I can ask for help because there might be a skill or a tool that I am missing to solve the problem. That the person from the other department is not going to laugh at me, and instead, they want the opportunity to help me.
In the end, this is the better superhero movie, with a scared character who is brave enough to keep walking in the darkness of vulnerable moments. As an innovation leader, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You do not have to have all the skills to make innovation happen. I believe that is impossible. The nuts in this story may represent an outdated process, a risk-averse mindset, misaligned incentives, or a frustrated team.
If you are developing a new product and feel stuck, don’t panic. Accept vulnerability and ask for help. You might find a person with the perfect innovative lever to loosen up the nuts fixated on an old way of doing things.
 

We expect leaders to move quickly and decisively, demonstrating agility when responding to challenging situations and emerging opportunities. At the same time, they are expected to collaborate effectively across boundaries, actively solicit ideas from others before making decisions, and foster a team culture where every person feels valued, included, and connected. How can we manage the balance between agility and inclusion?

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

This may seem like an impossible ask. Can we invest the time to learn each person’s unique opinions and ideas and meet pressing deadlines? Can we genuinely foster an environment where everyone feels included and valued while moving at lightning speed?This apparent dilemma may have deepened during the global pandemic. Organizations realized that they could move faster, be nimbler, and get things done quicker than they ever thought possible. However, some of this newly found agility and speed was the outcome of crisis management, inadvertently creating insider/outsider dynamics. As we move from crisis management to a more sustainable approach, we should take the time to discuss how to manage the balance between agility and inclusion.
Balance Between Agility and Inclusion
The first step is to acknowledge that there is a natural tension between speed and inclusion. In some instances, a more collaborative, inclusive approach can take longer than the situation will tolerate. However, speed and agility do not have to come at the expense of inclusion. A conscious leader can consider trade-offs and be intentional on the best approach to get things done.
If you are looking to manage the speed and inclusion balance for your team, here are some ideas you can consider:
 

Start by defining your intention

In conscious business, we believe that our actions respond to our mindsets, and our mindsets are shaped by our values and intentions. Being an inclusive leader requires working at the “being” level, as well as the “doing” level. Start by reflecting on what inclusion means to you. How do you want to be perceived as a leader and how your actions are reflecting that intention? Also consider how other values, such as fulfilling commitments and achievement, may be in alignment or in conflict. Check the story you are telling yourself about the situation. Are you creating a false dichotomy between getting things done quickly and being inclusive? Are you inadvertently asking others to choose agility over inclusion instead of finding a balance?
 

Tap into the wisdom of the team

Often, it’s not inclusive behaviors that slow down decisions and actions, but the ways we make decisions and collaborate. Organizational sluggishness is often the result of a lack of clarity around goals and roles in participation and passive-defensive cultural norms where people are expected to agree, gain approval, and be liked by others. If this is the case, the best way to drive change is to call out the problem, bring awareness to the situation, and ask your team and peers for ideas to balance speed and inclusion. Employees understand the need for agility and making decisions quickly. They also value a workplace where people feel that they belong and where their opinions and ideas matter. Ask them for feedback on how well the team is managing the balance and ideas on what can be done to foster more inclusive and agile collaboration.
 

Embed new habits

Identify small, but impactful habits that drive both inclusion and agility and make them part of your ways of working. For example:

  • Conduct check-ins and check-outs in meetings. It makes meetings more productive by aligning participants’ expectations, understanding context, and creating meaningful connections, even in virtual settings.
  • Be intentional about who weighs in on decisions and has the opportunity to participate. You may be inadvertently relying on the same ‘selected few’ because you trust them or like them more, instead of leveraging the talents and experience of every member of the team.
  • Make it a habit to challenge yourself and the team when making decisions. Questions like these can help you do a quick check and foster constructive debate:
    What points of view have we not considered yet?
    Who needs to be involved to get the best possible outcome in the least amount of time?
    How can we simplify or shave off time?
    What are the trade-offs?
  • When launching a new initiative, ensure that there is a project charter meeting and regular check-ins where the team can discuss the following:
    What is the best way to move quickly while keeping everyone in the loop?
    How can we create a safe space for team members to share their thoughts and feelings, even if they are dissenting?
    How will we discuss learnings and share them with others outside the team?

 
To become more agile, many established organizations have adopted the mantra “move fast and break things quickly” from the start-up world. Similarly, the key to finding more inclusive and agile ways of working is approaching the process with intention and a learner mindset. Experiment, learn from it, do it better next time, and foster a safe space for others to do the same.
 

In the first article of this series, we shared the specific challenges we witnessed when launching an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. In the second article, we shared our thinking around the principles that informed our approach. Now in this third and last article of the series, we share the top lessons we learned alongside the participants and sponsors of this journey.
 

What we would keep doing

    1. Preserve the spirit of wholehearted co-creation. As a consulting firm, we have our proven methods and tools. However, we chose to be highly vigilant and not drink our own Kool-Aid. Show me practitioners who have only a handful of red lines and are willing to adjust everything else on their book, and I will show you professionals who truly put clients first.
    2. When working with top leadership, there is a weight attached to their positions – conscious or unconscious. We genuinely strive to connect from human to human, scrapping all titles. Now we insist more often that leadership journeys begin with coach and coachee sharing a virtual coffee, free from agenda, simply for the sake of connecting.
    3. We will continue to act on feedback as if our lives depended on it. This is no minor task. The distinction between integrating feedback and accepting to do everything your client asks for is not commonly understood. It takes serious preparation.
    4. We will always honor the past AND look forward with curiosity.

Is Agile Shaping Your Culture by Accident or by DesignAllow me to emphasize this fourth lesson for a moment. Agile is often presented as the remedy that will heal all corporate ailments. This is overly simplistic, and some may even consider it an insult to their intelligence. However, the natural tendency of this person is to sway to the other end of the pendulum and negate any benefit of the new way of working. This, too, is foolish.
Many leaders feel trapped in a false dilemma because they think they are facing an either-or choice when we present the gap ‘From-To’. Either we are pro-command and control OR anti-command and control. When we introduced polarity thinking, this subliminal tension dissipated. We honor where we are coming from AND (not OR) acknowledge that moving forward, we need to do some things differently. In Dr. Marshall Goldsmith’s words, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It was no longer a problem with a single solution (agile or bust) but rather a polarity to manage. For leaders, that meant they needed to maximize the time spent on the benefits of agile and the benefits of what preceded it, instead of viewing agile as a new, unquestionable dogma.
 

If we could take a Mulligan…

If you’re not familiar with golf, the term Mulligan means a ‘do-over’. It’s a second try given to a player, without penalty, after a first stroke that did not go well. So, if we were granted a Mulligan, there are some things we wouldn’t have done or that we would have done less.
 

What we would do differently

  1. We are executive coaches, so we didn’t think it was necessary to connect with the agile coaches in the organization. We figured that our work was different. In hindsight, this was a missed opportunity to join forces. In future assignments, we would make it a point to connect the ‘do-agile’ and ‘be-agile’ parties.
  2. We took the sponsor’s brief for granted. Our prototyping, co-creating approach saved the day in the end, as it allowed us to pivot from the original learning journey design. Nevertheless, in the future, we would push for an if-then scenario planning. If the brief is accurate, we will deploy plan A; if it isn’t, we will go with plan B.
  3. We used an in-house feedback tool. We knew it was not ideal and we wouldn’t compromise on it again. A robust feedback tool provides participants excellent traction for change. It is paramount to select it with care.
  4. The preliminary design allowed several weeks between group workshops, and only two individual coaching sessions per participant seemed sufficient. Experience tells us that it is far more effective to shorten the time between team sessions to keep the cohorts focused and on-task. It would also be wise to dedicate a higher number of individual coaching sessions than we had initially planned.

 
These are the lessons we learned behind the scenes of one of the boldest adoptions of agile in a non-tech industry. Are there any lessons that you would like to share around leadership development in an agile context? Have you had similar experiences or were they entirely different? Let us know in the comments! We would love to have a mutual learning conversation with you.

In the first article of this series, we shared the specific challenges we witnessed when launching an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. At Axialent, we deliberately expose and analyze ‘the gap’ before we intervene. We call it the ‘From-To’. It helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem and empathize with our clients as we embark on co-designing the solution with them. In this second article, we share our thinking around the principles that informed our approach to this Agile leadership journey.

The Journey

Following is an illustration of the Agile leadership journey:
 

It consisted of three collective workshops, each a few weeks apart, and individual coaching sessions in between them. During these 1:1 encounters, the coach and participant worked on the coachee’s commitment to experimenting with his/her behavioral change. Full disclosure: this structure was presented to us as a suggestion based on successful deployment at the Executive level with another business partner. We took it on to adapt, test, and learn further with the remaining top-200 leaders (executives included).
 

The Participants

 
The first aspect of this program was defining the target audience. Traditionally, our client would offer leadership development programs at their corporate university campus, as the location where they ‘built culture’. They liked to mingle leaders from around their geographical footprint, resulting in diverse cohorts that did not necessarily work together daily. This had its pros. However, we wanted to test a new approach: we directed this program at intact teams, meaning leadership teams that worked together every day. We believed that this would allow them to have more earnest conversations around real-life challenges that affected them all directly. The most significant plus for us was that they could make commitments that genuinely mattered to their shared agenda. Participants would be primed for mutual accountability.
 

Cadence

 
agile team workingThe second aspect that made this program different was that it was not designed as the typical immersive, residential, intensive x-day workshop. Instead, we scheduled shorter interventions several weeks apart. This design was deployed before the pandemic, so the sessions were held face-to-face. Nevertheless, this concept has survived to this day as a valid structure for most of our hybrid or purely online leadership development journeys.
 

Test & Learn

 
Another principle we followed was a prototyping approach of sorts. We ran pilots for each group intervention and led retrospectives where feedback was gathered from participants as if our lives depended on it. We moved past the typical satisfaction survey and got extremely curious about the participants’ experiences. Which were their ‘a-ha’ moments and pain points? When did they flow? With whom did they connect? What did they learn? This provided a wealth of feedback that we integrated into the last legs of the journey.
 

Shared Accountability

Lastly, we took a shared responsibility approach to facilitation. Both coaches and participants were responsible for the best use of the group’s time together. This is not a new concept, but it gained even more traction as we added elements to the program that emphasized this approach: each program milestone ended in commitments, draft experiments, individual and collective action plans, and a learning buddy system for participants to hold each other accountable for their learning goals. The burden was not on the facilitator; we equally distributed it among all involved. And in teams where circumstances changed mid-journey, both leaders and their facilitators jointly decided how they would shape the agenda differently moving forward.
 
As you can imagine, some things worked, and some things did not click at first. Far from disappointing us, we confirmed that the approach was valid: prototype, test, gather feedback, integrate it, learn, and share the responsibility to improve iteratively and incrementally. This was an agile learning journey after all. We would not have it any other way. Or would we? In the next and last article of this series, we will share the top lessons we learned alongside our clients as we deployed this leadership journey.
 
We look forward to exchanging points of view and continuing to learn together if you’d like to comment below!
 

Doing agile is challenging but being agile is transformative. Where is the right place to start? There is no one right answer. But first things first. What is the difference between doing agile and being agile?

Doing Agile

Agile is not a methodology; it is a mindset you can apply in your life and your way of doing business. Agile is common in the software development industry, but any industry can use and benefit from the agile mindset. For me, doing agile is about implementing specific behaviors or ways of doing business based on four values and twelve principles (the Agile Manifesto). Therefore, a way to do agile is to implement frameworks or methods that are very powerful to organize, collaborate and prioritize tasks and workflows in a team such as Scrum or Kanban.
Most teams try this approach. I don’t think it is wrong, but I do think it is incomplete. When teams focus just on using SCRUM, they forget why they are implementing agile. In other words, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Agile is not about speed. It is about producing better outcomes for the business in a rapidly changing world. For example, a team measures the number of new features (outputs), rather than new subscribers (outcomes). It is okay to have deliverables, but new features do not guarantee business results.

Being Agile

Being agile, on the other hand, is about transforming your mindset. It has to do with how you understand the world. It encourages a new way of leading teams, developing a product, or testing ideas. Being agile is transformative because it forces us to put the customer first and focus on developing the things that matter.

Why Being Agile is So Hard

Being Agile is common sense, but not common practice. It goes back to the Waterfall Project Management framework. This way of managing was created during the industrial revolution. The goal was to find the best way to optimize a production line. Things are different now because the speed of change is so high that companies need to adapt every day. And what is tricky about change is that it’s not so fun. Change means constantly learning and coping with uncertainty. And learning with the wrong mindset means failing, which touches our insecurities.
doing agile vs being agile
I remember coaching a Product Manager to include an experimentation mindset in their agile sprints. In order to do this, she had to coordinate experiments with a team of UX designers and developers. The team was struggling because everyone wanted to have everything perfect. It’s okay to pursue doing things right. The problem is when perfection is a way to keep your work within your comfort zone. For example, their focus was on having the perfect design or the perfect line of code. Instead, they should have been trying to understand the impact their new features would have on their customer. But they preferred to focus on what was less scary for them: the technical output.
Everyone had a reason for this. The PM was new to the role, so she did not want to measure outcomes because, for her, that meant she did not understand the customer well enough, and she was not ready for the role. The developer did not want to measure outcomes either because his job was to make a button work and get that perfect algorithm. He did not see himself as having to change the customer behavior. The UX designers did not want to test with mockups. Instead, they had to do things properly and follow their internal procedures as good design mandates.
This makes sense because it is harder to commit to impact customer behavior (outcome) than to produce an output. It is hard because apparently, the former is not under the team’s control. And this is true if you look through perfectionist lenses, but it is not the only way.

The Simple Solution

Sorry, there is no simple solution. But there is a solution. I will summarize some key points, but I also want to anticipate that agile means implementing a profound cultural transformation and that is a complex process that takes time.
As a manager, you need to accept the impact of working under agile. You cannot ask teams to use Kanban but have a two-year roadmap of features that the team needs to develop. Instead, it would be best if you adopt a learner mindset. As Jeff Gothelf says, you are creating an infinite product. A product that is constantly evolving with the market, and you can’t know what the market will want in two years. A learner mindset implies testing and learning (failing) repeatedly.
Second, test and learn is tough if you don’t create psychological safety for your team to explore the unknown. This is a new way of leading in which leaders need to be capable of having crucial conversations to understand what failure means for each individual on his/her team. The best way to incentivize this is to stop appraising faster outputs, but faster learning cycles. Retrospectives or reflections are crucial but do not focus only on technical issues. Explore the individual dimension. This can start with a simple question: How did you feel during the experiment?
Finally, as a leader, you need to create a shared vision where everyone understands that a line of code impacts the company’s ROI. You need to be consistent and aligned with the results you demand. It is okay to have clear objectives and key results (OKRs), but they should be centered on changing customer behavior.

Conclusion

To sum up, being agile can sound cool and imperative, especially in these crazy times. Sometimes we want a quick solution — we might think agile can be the vaccine to get everything under control again. But things do not go back to normal with quick fixes. Conscious leadership is more relevant than ever. We need to change our mindsets, being players and learners who take care of each other at every step of the way. That is, for me, the best way to be agile.

At Axialent, we are not experts in Agile. Our expertise lies in helping organizations build the cultures they require, in light of their business strategy, and develop their leaders to be living proxies of that culture. In the last two decades, agile has emerged as an unstoppable practice among organizations, and it is changing their cultures. The question for us is: are you managing the resulting culture change intentionally? Is agile shaping your culture by accident or by design?
agile shaping your cultureAdopting an agile way of working can be fraught with challenges. We experienced this first hand when we launched an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. I’d like to share the lessons we learned behind the scenes of what was probably the most audacious adoption of agile in a non-tech industry. We accompanied the top 200 leaders of this organization, in 24 cohorts, across 11 countries, in a 6-month long journey that combined coaching them individually and as leadership teams. This gave us a privileged vantage point to observe their struggles and the gaps they were trying to bridge.
In this first article of a series, we will focus on the specific challenges we witnessed, because we follow this principle: ‘no gap, no coaching.’ Clarifying the gap before we intervene helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem, empathize with our client, and offer higher chances of finding an adequate solution to prototype, test, and learn.
Here are some of the conclusions we reached after exposing the gap:
 

1. Agile brings about a new leadership paradigm and not just a more effective way of working.

It is hard to imagine companies embarking on an agile transformation and taking it lightly. They aim to become much better in terms of quality, time-to-market, productivity, and, above all, employee engagement. Most believe that adopting agile unleashes talent, makes team members accountable and generates one-team dynamics. Other firms might be driving a similar shift, but they’re not calling it an agile transformation. The name is not what matters. Beyond the rituals and ceremonies they adopt, or the frameworks they embrace, the essence of today’s business transformations lies in changing how leadership is felt, conceived, and performed, in a way that is radically different. This happens in most cultural transformations. The difference that agile brings is the context.

2. From rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership to servant leadership 

In this company’s context, the gap for leaders was shifting from a rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership style to a servant leadership style. This change required the top-most executives to give up being the center of the organization. They were now expected to be at the service of the teams who worked closer to their clients than the leaders ever were. They were supposed to coach those teams, instead of giving them detailed instructions. Leaders’ main focus now had to be on removing any and all obstacles that prevented those teams from delivering value to the customer as quickly and effectively as possible. Even if those obstacles were the leaders themselves.
Can you see how counter-intuitive this could be for an executive who climbed the ranks by being a good soldier, was promoted for being a great soldier, and just as he or she was about to reach the summit of a 2-decade-or-more climb is told ‘sorry, the glory is down there?’

3. From micromanagement to  autonomy, engagement, and empowerment 

For employees, the central gap was shifting from a culture of micromanagement to one where autonomy, engagement and empowerment are expected, exercised, and promoted. The intention was to evolve from being managed and having linear career expectations to self-managing themselves and their own career. Why? Because this company believed that it would help them shift from feeling resignation, skepticism, and fear of feedback to feeling engaged, empowered, and looking at feedback with openness and acceptance. The logic was attractive. However, change was not automatic.
 

From Do Agile to Be Agile

At Axialent we believe that, for any change that truly matters, it must operate first at the Be-level. It’s in that mushy place where thoughts & feelings, values & beliefs, and needs & wants reside (and that top execs seldom look at from so high above) where we have found the most significant leverage. From there, the leaders and those they lead can shift behaviors more effectively at the Do-level. Training people how to do agile was not enough. They needed to dive deeper and actually be agile.
In that deep side of the pool, there is anxiety, tension, and even fear among leaders and team members alike. “What will happen to me and my career in this company?”, “How can I protect my safe haven?” “Will we increase risk by letting go of control?” “What do you mean that control is ‘bad’? We’re a regulated company! Control is not only good – it’s mandatory!” Reconciling these dilemmas was suddenly part of their job description. They looked at their toolkit and realized they needed a different set of tools to deal with this new reality. So, we set off to replenish them from our stock.
Understanding these gaps helped us walk in our clients’ shoes as we embarked on this journey alongside them. In the following two articles of this series, we will explain the design principles we followed and the most prized lessons we have learned and would apply in the next opportunity that comes our way. Come along for the ride!