Agile teams are self-organizing, which means they do not need supervisors or any explicit leader—at least in theory. But they do need leaders to create a shared vision of what the product will be. Without that, you will get an inconsistent product, which means low quality. In other words: If you are a quality professional, you need to care about leadership.
Having an agile team means that anyone can step up … including you. An agile leader could be a team member who is getting stories ready to review in the backlog, or the person who is giving a sprint demo and may be showing the work of multiple team members. Anyone on the team may lead for a task, and the very next day, sprint, or month, slip out of leadership and go back to everyday job duties. Team members can both lead and follow. However, the organic agile leader may need to work harder initially to collaborate with team members who are not used to transitioning between leading and following.
But even after adopting agile, most companies retain a traditional managerial hierarchy. A title, role, or other process has determined this person is an agile leader, with authorities and responsibilities they intend to keep until something changes. They have the role now, and unless something changes, they expect to have this leadership role in the future.
Although there are differences between the intended organic leadership for agile teams and assigned leadership, these disparities don’t matter much when it comes to what it takes to be a great leader on an agile team. In this article I will outline seven qualities possessed by great agile leaders of all sorts.
1. Great Agile Leaders Uphold the Agile Manifesto
If you plan to lead an agile team in any way, you should be familiar with the Agile Manifesto and understand how it applies to the work the team must accomplish. It takes more than reading it once. You need to show the example of adapting to the reality of changing plans. As a leader, this may mean giving room for the team to correct their own problems. It may mean coaching. It may mean you have to readjust to the reality of the working software on the ground.
As a leader who has emerged organically, as an assigned leader, or as some combination of both, you may have information and priorities that conflict with following the agile manifesto. Those developing the software may not be aware of larger political issues within the company. They may not understand shareholder concerns or critical dynamics of board meetings. This is an area you may need to navigate using skills that work in areas outside software development. However, you aren’t upholding the Agile Manifesto if you are letting these concerns override the manifesto’s principles without careful consideration.
Ponder the potential cost if you interfere with the core principles of agile. All the research showing positive results from agile transitions is based on following those principles for software development. Managers and leaders are asked to at least not interfere. You may need to make an exception, and that is your choice; following the Agile Manifesto is voluntary. Just be aware that you are leaving what is known about agile behind. It could be a better path, or it could be a mistake. If you interrupt the team’s agile process, what happens afterward cannot be called “agile”—it is instead your own mixture.
2. Great Agile Leaders Amplify the Voice of the Doers
You are not more important because you have a title. We all serve the project, which means whatever the team needs to get the job accomplished, anyone leading at the moment is subservient to. The only power struggle you want to see on an agile team is the struggle to create some great products—the team working against time and technical challenges, not each other.
We either all win and our project is right for the stakeholders, or we fail to deliver working software that is improving iteratively and we need to reflect and adapt. Either way, as an agile leader, the needs of the entire team should be amplified. If someone is blocked from doing critical work, finding the solution is much more important than having plans organized for what is going to happen next. There could be no “next” if we do not complete “now” and do it well.
3. Great Agile Leaders Are Obviously Real People
In the Dilbert comics, the pointy-haired boss isn’t very human. He isn’t useful. He isn’t interesting. Mostly, he is just an unsympathetic character. It should be laughable to think that any real leader would be so one-dimensional, out of touch, and unrelatable.
As a leader on an agile team, when you model transparency and putting individuals and interactions over processes and tools, you become more of a complete person to others on the team. Rather than getting a status from each person repeatedly, you can instead pull useful information from a combination of making the work visible, being present in the workspace, pairing, and watching.
4. Great Agile Leaders Represent the Team Well
For a team to reach full potential, news of their awesome achievements must reach the right audience. But sometimes those who execute great plans aren’t comfortable shouting the good news from the mountaintops.
Ideally, the best word of mouth would come from end-users. But in a fast-moving industry like technology, without advocates for the team, the product may never reach end-users. Add to that the many projects used internally or that are a component of a larger project, and you need leaders you can trust to make your team realistically look its best.
Representing the team well is tricky. You want to share their successes, but you don't want to over-promise on deliverables, embarrass anyone, or criticize others. You also need to be credible; smart people can detect the “eau de balderdash” quickly. Being authentic and trustworthy without going overboard with praise is important.
5. Great Agile Leaders Are Useful
Everyone should know what you do—not because you’ve told them, but because they see it. When team members come to you with problems they can’t solve themselves, you should be able to remove obstacles and impediments. If a team member is struggling, you should take action to help restore them to being fully functional. Great agile leaders are always looking for chances to let new people grow into tasks. They also are aware of their own biases enough to get outside opinions on who might be ready to do more, not simply picking those who are the loudest or whom they like the best.
There are tasks no one wants to do. You need a process to share these dreaded tasks, and you should take part in it as well. To be useful to the team, you can’t be elitist and separate. The success or failure of the whole project is part of your own success or failure.
6. Great Agile Leaders Say No with Tact
It always works in the short term to tell people what they want to hear. The problem comes afterward, when failing to deliver what you promised hurts trust far more than being honest initially would have. An excellent leader considers the long-term cost of saying yes and is willing to either say no flat out or explain an alternative. It is important that they understand and protect the team boundaries.
Your team’s reputation is impacted based on their ability to meet commitments reliably in the short term, and produce working software that has value for the end-user in the long term. It can be difficult to enforce boundaries while remaining open to negotiated compromises that may be of strategic advance to the team. By having a clear set of ethics and standing by those rules, you consider the opportunity for the team to work with better potential clients and partners. When you say no to a losing proposition or a death march, you may be saying yes to success with a sustainable pace.
It can be difficult to say no without alienating others. The best agile leaders can turn down a proposal but still leave the other party feeling like valued allies, rather than rejected or offended. Manners, timing, and tone account for much of the difference.
7. Great Agile Leaders Defend the Team Consistently
The transparency and shared responsibility that agile teams rely on can be difficult to transition to if you are used to working in silos. If your actions as a leader cast doubt on your loyalty to the team and your commitment to the agile adoption, an “us versus them” dynamic is introduced. And when a team isn’t confident they can trust your leadership, the delivery of quality software is less efficient.
The first time blame, criticism, and unfair judgments happen, the ability of the team to remain agile shrinks. When the impediments are transparent, we can fix them. It has to be a safe environment for people to admit when they are struggling with a challenging problem. Comments that denigrate the competency of employees or make it less likely for questions to be asked are counterproductive. Agility includes the ability to recover quickly from mistakes. If the team feels they will be publicly humiliated, betrayed, or held accountable for things beyond their control, more time will be spent on caution, politics, and protecting themselves than on creating working software. Trustworthy leadership clears a path for software developers to deliver quality software to the end-user.
Look around. Ask yourself who the leader is and how that person’s leadership style is impacting product quality. If you already have great agile leadership, how can you support it? If you see opportunities for improvement, how can you help? Do not wait for someone else. As part of the team, you are a critical component to overall product quality.