Leadership: adapting to agile

In the Communications Directorate at the Department for Work & Pensions, we blog about thought leadership, current affairs and matters we hope will be of interest. I've decided to use my KHub blog to share them with the team and more widely.

Many years ago, I undertook leadership training with the Hay group and was profiled through 360 degree reviews and other techniques to see how I fared across the six leadership styles: directive, visionary, affiliative, participative, pacesetting, coaching. As useful as these are as management tools, I’ve always seen leadership as more of a philosophy and set of integrated values that one aspires to.

Having worked in digital roles, the concept of ‘agile’ is one that I naturally gravitate too and, recently, I’ve been thinking about its relevance to leadership and public sector working.

Increasingly, public sector workers are being encouraged - I would go as far as saying need - to work together across government departments, local-central, different services and in partnership with private and voluntary sectors, to create more joined up and efficient citizen-centred services. This fluid environment in itself requires more adaptive practices but to be able to lead and guide your team through this myriad of connections; to be confident in failing fast, learning and moving on; and having the confidence to enable the right people at the right time to lead and deliver requires an agile leadership approach.

The original ‘agile manifesto’ was concocted by 17 people in February 2001. This group felt that there was a “need for an alternative to documentation driven, heavyweight software development processes.” However, despite its application to technology development, the four principles that emerged are immediately recognisable whatever discipline you work in:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

In my quest to consider these principles in a leadership concept, I carried out some research into what other people were saying.

First I came across a blog by Heidi de Wolf (who I follow across social media and as an organisational design consultant, offers regular food for thought) who said “Agile is not a tool or technique. Agile's importance needs to be understood and is more like a shared purpose or commitment which can help align transformational effort in and beyond the boundaries of the organisation.”

Next, I came across a blog by Lisa Ollerhead, a member of Cabinet Office’s Open Policy Making team. Following the unconference UKGovCamp earlier this year, she considered how the concept of agile could be applied to policy making and came up with her version of the agile values:

  1. individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. viable solutions that benefit citizens over endless papers
  3. ministerial input and user research over bureaucracy
  4. responding to change over following a plan

I thought these were a great adaptation and I highly recommend reading the blog.

However, what I really wanted to know was what does all this mean for an agile, adaptive leader and what qualities do they need to exhibit and how do they learn them? The closest I came to this was a piece of research in the US by Korn Ferry  involving 1 million executives. What they found was that as people progress up the ladder, they need to become increasingly comfortable with uncertainty and change. In order to deal with this, five dimensions of agile leadership were identified. I’ve listed these below with an explanation of how we could apply them in our own work:

  1. Mental agility: critical thinking to understand complex policies. Ability to connect ideas, even if on the surface they look different, to work up fresh communications and campaigns.
  2. People agility: confidence to harness the opinion of others even if it differs to your own. For example bringing in stakeholders and experts who may challenge our thinking and approach.
  3. Change agility: ability to think about delivering differently, test out new ideas and take failure in your stride. This would typically mean testing out no and low cost pilots before full campaign roll out.
  4. Results agility: performing well and succeeding in first-time situations through resourcefulness and inspiring teams. Here, identifying and developing people is key.
  5. Self-awareness: a knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, and having emotional intelligence.

In this ‘learning agility’ framework, the aim is to score highly across each of these five principles. Of course, each of us will score better or worse against these competencies. The challenge is to know where you need to develop and to identify opportunities to grow and gain experience.  

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Former Member 6 Years Ago
Hi Sarah, Great post. I am convinced that agile is the way forward. We're moving from the industrial-era where work is complicated & predictable to post-industrial where technology is accelerating change and the challenges are becoming less predictable. I'm sure you've probably encountered it before, but the Responsive Org movement really embraces all of the concepts that you're talking about. Well worth a look if you have not. http://www.responsive.org/manifesto
John Dawson 6 Years Ago - Edited
Sarah – thanks for your useful insight to leadership and agile – your quote: “What they found was that as people progress up the ladder, they need to become increasingly comfortable with uncertainty and change.” I wonder how much the ‘learning agility’ framework gives thought to emerging leaders who are true digital natives? Korn Ferry will be keen to promote solutions for measuring to these dimensions – but digital natives will think less of hierarchies, and more about people having equally valid opinions with wider collaboration and sharing - how will these dimensions be shaped by more instinctive collaboration, sharing of information across silos and other organisations in partnership? In the next 10-years more than three-quarters of the workforce will be digitally native – people inculcated to different ways of being ‘agile’ with people and change, while accustomed to faster decisions and results. Do we need to review the development areas to consider the impact of ‘digital natives’, or the need for existing leaders who are not, to at least become ‘digitally wise'?
Sarah Jennings 6 Years ago in reply to John Dawson . - Edited
I completely agree. We'll soon have those digital natives becoming leaders (if we haven't already!) In my last blog, I referred to a 2013 Cass Business school study where senior executives were asked what skills the leaders of tomorrow would need and, not unsurprisingly, they were closely aligned with being more collaborative and open to ideas so somewhat similar to the agile approach. It will be interesting to see whether digital natives naturally adopt this style of leadership. https://khub.net/web/sarah.jennings/blog/-/blogs/from-augustus-to-baby-boomers-how-leadership-is-adapting
Sarah Jennings 6 Years Ago
Thanks Neil. I'm always looking for new perspectives so I'll check out Responsive Org.
Robb Sands 4 Years Ago
Hi Sarah, Though this post has been a wee while back, it still is very relevant today. I think there's merit in checking out the agilebusiness.org site, and this post in particular: https://www.agilebusiness.org/resources/downloads/cultural-and-leadership-the-nine-principles-of-agile-leadership Although primarily focusing on devops leaders, there's a lot of characteristics and tactics on the scaledagileframework.com site as well, such as: http://www.scaledagileframework.com/lean-agile-leaders/ There's undoubtedly many sites with similar thoughts as these, though each seems to have a subset of characteristics and I haven't found one, single, compelling resource that seemed to have it all figured out. Cheers, Robb