6 ways agile leadership can become an engine for your digital evolution

  • Insights
  • Digital transformation

Successful business transformations start with great leadership. Just as agile methodology breaks away from traditional waterfall management by embracing change, agile leadership often requires faster decision-making, streamlined working methods, and the willingness to disrupt existing processes.

In short, agile leaders respond positively to change. They adapt the route as they go and take advantage of emerging opportunities whenever they present themselves. They also instil this mindset in their teams.

So, what does it take to become a leader able to implement the cultural change necessary to make the most of agile methodologies? Here we explore 6 key considerations for tech leaders embarking on that journey.

1. Personalise agile methodologies to create a system that works for you

Agile relies on positive feedback loops with clients or customers, responding rapidly to the information you receive and iterating your product or service so it meets changing demands. This can be applied to a huge number of processes across an organisation, but it needs to define which problems can be won in the short term and which are long-term goals.

Take the case of LEGO. They developed a framework for 20 independent agile product teams to work effectively together with both regular updates and deep-rooted systematic changes. To do that, they divided the agile process into three stages:

  1. ‘Team’: focusing on 2-week sprints.

  2. ‘Program’: meeting every eight weeks for a one-and-a-half day planning session and releasing updates in two-month increments.

  3. ‘Portfolio’: the top layer of the system where they take on the long-term business plan that cascades down to the other layers of planning. 

As a result, local managers have been able to transfer ownership of deliverables to their teams, allowing them to become self-reliant and switching traditional, process-focused KPIs to value, product and team measurements.

2. Never lose sight of your North Star

As our Director of Consulting, Nick Rudd explained at the Digital Leaders Innovation Week 2022, it’s crucial to establish your destination before embarking on any digital journey. Effective leaders communicate that vision clearly with their teams – and make sure everybody’s on board for the ride. We call this vision your North Star, because it’s the guiding objective that all your work needs to flow into.

How you achieve that objective may change in response to shifts in the economic landscape or consumer demand, but a clearly defined North Star will ensure your product evolves in the right direction.

“The world doesn't stand still because we want to sail in a straight line or deliver a digital solution,” said Nick. “A clients’ requirements may change. Things can break. Sometimes you just need more people to help. And sometimes those people are there and willing, sometimes those people aren't there at all. You just need to innovate, you need to find different ways of getting stuff done.”

3. Employ a data-led approach to measure the performance of your team

When done right, agile is an incredible tool for impacting traditional KPIs like reducing costs, releasing products to market faster, and improving communication among teams.

But getting there relies on tracking new metrics for the agile process itself and identifying areas for improvement. The productivity managing tool Hubstaff has created a list of 10 key agile metrics and why they matter, from measuring the progress made during each sprint for a clear overview of task completion, to how long products take to go from initial idea to launch, to sprint velocity and how much work you achieve in each two-week sprint.

Do this thoroughly and you’ll get a realistic overview of productivity, quality and client or customer satisfaction. For example, our work with Vodafone to accelerate their digital product delivery resulted in application deployment times reducing from 24 hours to 15 minutes, and environmental set-up lead times decreasing from eight weeks to less than 30 minutes. It’s hard to argue with those figures.   

4. Reimagine, rethink and reassess as you go

Leaders with an agile mindset might have a clear vision of their final destination, but they are prepared to make changes to the way they get there. They’re backpackers, navigating challenges and regularly adjusting their direction of travel in search of the best experience.

A traditional project model, on the other hand, involves lots of time researching, planning and defining exactly how a product or service should turn out. It’s no surprise that this certainty is attractive to businesses and organisations.

But, as our Product Delivery Manager Kelly Gallagher explains, this can leave you at a competitive disadvantage: “With a project mindset, you spend lots of time in the ideation and discovery stages, planning out exactly when and where all the web engineering components of a project are going to happen. It can take months during which time you often lose sight of the actual value that you’re looking to deliver. By shifting that mindset to product thinking, it helps you continuously identify, understand and prioritise the outcomes you want to achieve and rapidly build solutions.”  

By constantly responding to changing demands, evolving your products and developing and testing solutions, you will ensure they constantly meet the needs of your customers.   

5. Lead by example

Agile leaders see the value and opportunities of change, and are comfortable empowering others to test new ideas. There are numerous attributes that enable this mindset, which can be boiled down to several key characteristics such as humility, adaptability, vision and engagement, commonly known as the HAVE model.

In practice, this means you listen to others’ views, do not say no to ideas without good reason, give people decision-making responsibility, and don’t fear moving on quickly from ideas that aren’t working. Ultimately, your role as leader is to remove obstacles from your team’s path so they can navigate their way to your digital strategy’s North Star as quickly and simply as possible.    

6. Invest your time in building an agile culture your team buys into

One common mistake agile leaders fall into is a focus on tech before culture. As the IT and research company Gartner points out, without the right culture and mix of people, technological innovation isn’t going to have the desired impact. In a study of infrastructure and operations organisations, Gartner found that 90% of companies looking to leverage DevOps without specifically addressing the cultural foundations will fail.

This imperative should be reflected in how agile-specific roles are filled. For example, a scrum master doesn’t need to be an accomplished software developer, but they do need to be facilitators, mentors, negotiators and teachers able to provide agile coaching. Likewise, product owners need to understand the customer and have the ability to turn that knowledge into insights that development teams can use to generate business value. Although digital innovation is the engine of agile, a human touch is needed to steer it.

You can’t achieve agile development practices without also establishing an agile culture within your teams. This takes resilience and resolve. Instilling agility is critical to maximising the ROI of your digital business, and it’s something that successful organisations measure every step of the way.

Whatever stage you’re at in your journey to becoming an agile organisation, always remember to clearly define your vision, track progress, embrace change, refine your leadership style and feed that same culture into your teams. That way, your approach to leadership can be as agile as your products.

As a digital consultancy specialising in agile transformations we can help your organisation build the culture and leadership capacity it needs to thrive. Book a discovery call to find out how.