Guest Post from Dr. Simon Hayward. Who is CEO of Cirrus and author of new book, The Agile Leader, published by Kogan Page.

The Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world and the pace of technology are pushing us towards more agile ways of working. Technology, and what we do with it, is changing the way we behave. It has altered the way managers collaborate and communicate with our colleagues and customers. The explosion of internet connectivity also raises questions about who, or what, is in control. For business leaders, many of whom want to feel ‘in control’, this can be quite a challenge. We need to create new ways of working that reflect the changing world outside and inside our organizations, and enable us to respond to unexpected opportunities or challenges with speed and accuracy.

Agile working

Agile is of course widely understood and widely adopted across the tech industry. However, many organizations who have very effective agile teams in areas such as development and project management, still struggle to create a wider culture of agility. Agile leaders can develop agile teams that in turn create agile businesses, able to adapt quickly to the ever-changing competitive conditions in our VUCA world. Agile businesses tend to be more innovative, better at meeting customer needs, and more productive.

Becoming a coach

Consider the role of a scrum master in a typical agile development team. An effective scrum master acts as a coach and facilitator. He or she encourages focus on key priorities, removes barriers, and enables the team to self-organize so that change can be achieved quickly.

Many of the attributes of the scrum master can be applied to managers across the organization to help them become more effective coaches and to develop a more agile culture.
Building agile teams

At the heart of agile ways of working is the team. One of the central principles of agile organizations is that teams get on with it and self-manage. In a truly agile set-up, the team is a multi-skilled, collaborative unit of production. Teams also need freedom. When managers adopt the principles of coaching, they empower team members to decide how they will achieve their goals, in line with overall organizational strategy. Team members work together to deliver what customers want, quickly and effectively. Many managers find it difficult to make this shift and to cede control to others, especially if they’re trying to drive change. However, when they can devolve decision-making and responsibility more widely, it empowers others to achieve results.

Trust experts

One of the classic issues I see when working with managers is their lack of confidence in experts who work for them. They are too ready to take decisions that would really be better made by the expert they have employed to understand the domain in question. Letting go of this control is an essential step for managers if they are to embrace agile ways of working effectively. Trust the expert, and if they are not experienced enough to make sound decisions, then it is your responsibility as a manager to coach them to be competent to make sound decisions.

Devolve decision-making

My rule of thumb is simple: make only those decisions that only you can make. It is worth listing out all the decisions that you and your team take over the course of a month. Some of these decisions will be as part of your normal management activity, some will be delegated up to you by people who work for you, and some may be because of your desire to control too many aspects of how your business operates. If you have any in the latter two categories, these are not decisions only you can make – so stop making them! And with the first category, it is still worth testing each one against this criterion – if others could make these decisions, and often are more qualified to make them based on their expertise, you should delegate them as soon as you can.

Of course, with delegation comes responsibility for ensuring that the person or team to whom you have delegated the authority to make decisions and deliver specific outcomes has the requisite skill, experience, and information. So, the job of the manager really does become the job of a coach, helping others to determine the right course of action, based on sound management information, and ensuring they have the capability to execute the decision with confidence. If any of these are missing, you are not fulfilling your role as manager effectively, and the delegation is unlikely to work in practice.

Transforming leaders to transform organizations

Developing coaching as a key agile leadership capability is an important step, but the more the ability to read and respond quickly is permeated throughout your organization, the more the whole enterprise can move in a balanced and coordinated way. The coordination then does not need to come from the top, as this will slow you down. It is better when it comes from the self-organizing teams across the organization, each responding intelligently to those around them and in line with the organization’s long-term vision and short-term priorities.


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