2014.12.10 Agile Leadership

One of my friends, a Danish former consultant from PA International, asked me if I wanted to join her at a "go home" meeting on agile leadership.

Agile is the new hot concept in software development, so I thought it would be smart to know what people are all raving about. My friend has been implementing this concept for years in her job; the appeal to her was to hear the case story from a big US corporation.

From the dictionary we have this definition of "agile":

agile (ˈajəl)
able to move quickly and easily : Ruth was as agile as a monkey / figurative his vague manner concealed an agile mind.

From the reactions to the presentation ("best one I have seen so far", "...exceeded expectations") it was obvious that a lot of people liked the message very much. So why did my friend and I feel that we had been shortchanged by what we experienced?

First: The message
Agile was presented as you should trust your employees more, don't micromanage, give them the resources they need to do their job, train them how to use the tools, stop forced ranking evaluations, look at the results, remove their fears, empower them.

There is nothing not to like about this message. Except that it evidently is necessary to tell anybody.

Ever since Jan Carlzon "pulled down the pyramids" in the early '80s, this has been the norm in Scandinavian management style. So we felt shortchanged because we didn't learn anything new.

Second: The form
90 min of slogan-powerpoint slides with beautiful sunsets and ironic picture-word plays.

There was no doubt that the speakers knew how to promote and facilitate organizational change. They had done it successfully in this big company and that big company and had reduced process time by 50% and failure rates and all the usual KPIs for good process management.

But there was no meat on the presentation. There were no small anecdotes of "we had an employee who did this and as a consequence we did that" or "this problem was predominant in all the groups and we did this to solve it" or "in retrospect we would have done this differently because of...".

We felt shortchanged because it was too sleek. We are cultural skeptics, my friend and I. We are like Dorothy who want to look behind the curtain to demystify the Wizard of Oz. "Don't tell me, show me."

I wrote about conflicting presentation styles in this previous blog, and last night was a beautiful example of this problem at work.

One of the reasons big companies are interested in understanding agile is that employees don't want to put up with regulations and bureaucracy any more. The easy access to knowledge online and the easy access to people online has changed the power dynamics. Particularly in high education sectors of industry, it takes something else than "command and control" to motivate the employees.

Startups are gaining ground all over the world. Startups are nimble. They can't afford not to be focused on their main product. They can't afford to move marked introduction two years further out. They can't be bothered with "the perfect product" if there are customers willing to pay for the "50% or the problem solved product". You ship - or you are dead.

Do I need to say that Scandinavian managers with an intimate knowledge of relating this way to employees should have a competitive advantage?

The rest of the world is relearning how to trust - their employees, their peers, their management - and themselves.

Bring down the pyramids, there is work to be done.