5 Things Every Leader Needs to Understand About Agile Business

Let’s start with the good news. Business agility has been gaining traction over the past 2-3 years, so adopting it still has the potential to put you ahead of the competition. The prospect of improving nimbleness, efficiency, and focus on delivering value for stakeholders is understandably appealing.

However, it’s inevitable that when so many new organizations try to become Agile businesses, mistakes will be made. Agile has always required customization to meet specific team and organizational needs. The trick is knowing what to freely change and what not to.

That’s why, to help you unlock the full potential of business agility, we’ve harnessed our 10+ years of Agile business experience to share some key things every prospective Agile business leader needs to understand. 

1. Planning Is Vital for Agile Business

Perhaps the single biggest misconception about Agile we hear about is that the methodology doesn’t require planning. True, Agile does mean abandoning the traditional way most teams plan: creating large detailed, and complex plans reaching months or years into the future. This kind of planning generally prevents teams from adjusting as they go and introduces huge amounts of process waste.

So what does Agile planning look like in practice?

Instead of laying out everything that will be done in minute detail, Agile business planning is about aligning the goals and needs of the whole organization with what an individual team intends to do. It should be focused and small. For example, many teams break up their work into two week sprints, finishing each period with a retrospective and planning for the coming two weeks.

In other words, you can have quarterly or even annual goals, but it’s critical that Agile teams be able to adjust how they plan to achieve those goals as they go. Often, this means you actually plan more upfront, but that planning is more about deliberately selecting activities based on their impact, not just their output.

So Agile planning isn’t really about more or less planning, it’s about smarter, more deliberate, and more flexible planning.

2. Agile Businesses Live and Die on Mindset

Far too many people who get interested in Agile focus almost entirely on the practices. While yes, the standups, boards, etc. are all important, at the end of the day they’re just tools. True agility is built on mindset.

This is why, while you can adjust Agile practices to fit your needs, what you can’t adjust or abandon is the Agile mindset. We’ve seen this in action plenty of times, with teams using a Kanban board and assuming this means they’re Agile.

This is like thinking the sudden increase in people wearing surgical masks meant there was a sudden increase in the number of surgeons walking around.

For managers and leaders in an Agile business, the importance of mindset lies in the need to emphasize this above practice. So when they provide Agile training or even just work to create a company culture, Agile mindset should be top of mind.

3. Shift Your Own Perspective Before Asking Your Teams to Do So

Leadership buy-in and properly trained Agile champions are two essential prerequisites for a successful transition to full business agility. The emphasis here is on the “pre” in prerequisite because you need both before you start trying to implement Agile on the team level.

For leadership, the reason is that Agile transformations take time. In our experience, 12-18 months is normal. Trying to make the investments and changes needed for such a transformation without the full support of senior leadership is dangerous. It leaves you open to getting halfway there before someone at the top decides to ax the entire process.

Then there’s the question of individual team leaders. Any Agile transformation is going to require some degree of adjustment to match your individual team and organization’s needs. But knowing what changes are okay and which may be damaging requires some Agile experience.

This is why you also want to ensure that team leaders have at least some Agile training and that you have an Agile Champion to help guide the process.

4. Teams Will Need to Connect With You Early and Often

After the assumptions about planning, the next most common one for us is that Agile organizations are flatter so managers become redundant. The problem is, this just isn’t true. In fact, managers in an Agile business will need to connect with senior leadership early and often to ensure their teams are aligned with broader organizational goals.

Otherwise, you can easily have incredibly effective self-managing Agile teams working hard to achieve the complete wrong things.

Another important difference to point out is that this kind of feedback in an Agile business needs to go both ways. Team leaders and managers need to feed their on the ground insights up to senior leadership as those leaders feed their priorities down. This helps ensure that the entire organization is aligned and that the goals set at the top correspond to the realities on the ground.

Ultimately, teams being self-managed teams doesn't automatically mean managers become redundant. Instead, managers have a different and more valuable role to play giving insights into strategy, resolving process problems that are holding your teams back, and ensuring that two-way communication keeps happening.

5. You Define the What, Your Teams Define the How

This lesson pulls from many of those we’ve already covered. The idea is that for a business to achieve real agility, its leaders have to let go of harmful micromanagement and give their teams the space to experiment, discover, and sometimes fail.

Business agility is all about being nimble, trying things out, and ultimately coming up with better ways to deliver stakeholder value. But teams can’t do any of that if they aren’t given the space they need.

That said, the role of leaders to define broad goals and directions for that experimentation is just as important. It’s a symbiotic relationship where the input of each side makes the other more effective. Leaders learn about what’s possible and are better able to gather real world insights while teams benefit from the big picture that leadership provides.

Get the Training You Need to Become a True Agile Business

Because being an effective Agile business relies on an understanding of both Agile principles and practices, training is a key foundation for success. That’s why we put together our Introduction to Business Agility Course. It’s specifically designed to help leaders like you get a foundational understanding of what it takes to be an Agile business.

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