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.