Agile for Managers

The term “Agile” has made the leap from the software industry into management jargon – why? what do we mean by it? and what do Agile Managers do?

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The hierarchical organisational structure developed by many large organisations is said to be based on military principles of roles and responsibilities defined by seniority, with functions organised into separate departments. Successful for perhaps a century, this model is common in large bureaucracies and public bodies. But it’s strengths are suited to stable conditions, where the organisation can control, more than respond to, gradual changes in the environment. Building a large business, employing thousands of people, with £billions in buildings and assets takes decades. This model may be on its way out.

The rapid, revolutionary change and ubiquitous nature of what we used to think of as a support function – IT, has not only led to new ways of organising work, but to entirely new types of business. Amazon, Uber and Giff-Gaff, are well known examples of doing things differently, and the new, weird and wonderful seem to spring up from nowhere! challenging our assumptions, changing customer expectations, and stealing our market share. So we’re all talking about “being agile” – innovating and discarding ideas quickly, without the need for elaborate organisational infrastructure; challenging established attitudes to risk, decision-making and the roles of the manager, team leader and team member.

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Adopting principles of systems-thinking, lean enterprise and the Toyota Kata, agile organisations recognise that innovation, process improvement and decision-making have to take place ‘in the work’, not in the Boardroom; that what we think of as management is in fact a diffuse range of functions, contributed to by many, not concentrated in the few; and, that the most successful leaders create the conditions for success, motivating their people through “autonomy, mastery and purpose” rather than directing them through command and control.

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Central to the Agile philosophy is experimentation, based on incremental, iterative change: a continuous development cycle of trying new things, measuring if they work, and moving on if they don’t; innovating and responding to change through bite-sized initiatives; taking many small steps towards your goal rather than setting up grand process reviews and long-term project plans. The change cycle is short (daily, weekly, maybe even hourly), feedback is immediate and outcomes are evidenced. Decisions are made at the front-end, close to the customer, based on real-time measures. Team members have first-hand knowledge and ownership of their performance data and know what their goals are (even if they keep changing) and believe they have the ability, responsibility and power to achieve them. Everyone is engaged – they learn, improve process, develop skills and enjoy their work.

So, what does this mean for the manager then? If it’s not your job to tell people what to do, oversee action plans, collate monthly KPIs and challenge poor performance? If 121s, management meetings and quarterly performance updates (as we currently know them) are redundant?

The Agile Manager will:

  • facilitate and coach their teams
  • be present to show and ask and resist the temptation to tell
  • share ideas, listen and observe
  • encourage people to try new things, and accept the risks
  • test on a small scale and quickly discard what doesn’t work
  • establish a culture of measurement and use of data
  • match workload to team capacity
  • ensure everyone knows the current state of play and what to aim for next
  • sell the vision and purpose – make it meaningful and personal
  • inspire through motivation, recognition and celebration
Could you be more agile?
“Try something new” and use the Continuous Development Cycle to start making incremental changes to the way you work, and encourage your teams to do the same…

CD Kata copyright


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