Agile for Executives: A Leadership Guide

Agile for Executives: A Leadership Guide

Insights | 11 September 2017

It’s been 16 years since the Agile Manifesto sparked a new collaborative approach to software development, breathing fresh energy into earlier attempts to transform the way software gets made, and finally shifting the industry from heavily regulated to lightweight and iterative.

But as with history, 16 years in the business world can be as short as a blink of an eye or the better part of a lifetime, depending on your perspective. Given the pace of change at most large corporations, Agile has really only been around a hot second, so it’s not surprising some executives are still learning what Agile is really all about.

Agile for Executives

The good news is that broad adoption of Agile within software development has left an already deep body of knowledge (with plenty of mistakes and successes to learn from), which can be invaluable for anyone looking to get up to speed quickly.

To help you zero in on the most actionable insights, we’ve gathered the top considerations every leader needs to know, regardless of industry or job title.

Agile isn’t just for IT

First, it’s important to realise that Agile, despite its birth in the world of software development, is now found in nearly every industry. For example, one of America’s public broadcasting services, National Public Radio, has used Agile practices to reduce programming costs by 66 per cent.[1] The best way to understand how Agile practices can be so universal is to understand the elegant simplicity of its four core values[2]:

  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

Likewise, here’s how one online Agile community, Agile Connection, describes Agile. Note the broad terms: “Agile is about change, speed, and dealing with the unexpected and unpredictable; it involves technology and innovation and ranges from operations all the way up to strategy.”[3] What company today needs less innovation or speed? Not a single one.

Agile is flexible

Music streaming giant Spotify is constantly adapting Agile methods for its unique business challenges and corporate culture. They also clearly feel empowered to make it specific and real to internal teams and goals. For example, they call their fully autonomous development groups (that go from design to delivery) something unique — “squads” — as a signal that it’s not all about software developers. Further, experimentation and “fast failure recovery” are celebrated throughout all levels at Spotify.

Ulf Eriksson, founder of ReQtest, a software testing tool, writes this about Spotify and Agile[4] on his company blog: “In order to remove the shame and stigma of failure and encourage experimentation, Spotify hosts several experimentation weeks, where people spend time building whatever strikes their fancy and then showcasing to their colleagues at the end of the event. Besides removing fear, experimentation also promotes a data-driven approach to taking decisions, rather than having decisions taken on the basis of personal opinion, ego or authority.”

What’s more Agile than that?

Agile still needs leadership

For all its emphasis on self-organisation, Agile still needs something pretty old school: executive sponsorship, especially in large organisations.

Here’s how we described it back in 2015, but the advice still holds true today[5]: “Adoption of Agile/Scrum should be treated like any other initiative, therefore gaining sponsorship and high-level stakeholder support should be a top priority … Without top-level buy-in to advocate Scrum and a ‘just-in-time’ culture, there is more likely to be political and organisational resistance.”

So, in order for Agile to truly take root, leaders need to engage with the process and, above all, support the transition.

Common pitfalls

Here are some areas where executives might find themselves most at risk of stepping on Agile success, consciously or otherwise:

  • Not understanding how Agile teams work (and why): There are many factors that drive the effectiveness of Agile teams, but one that might challenge so-called traditional management the most is that Agile calls for self-organisation vs. ‘command-and-control.’ This means that teams should be empowered to resolve fairly major questions about the product independently. Trust the team.
  • Expecting bells and whistles: Agile focuses on rapid prototyping within short sprints, not long shipment cycles where the expectation is delivery of a fully finished product. The idea here is that customer feedback should guide future iterations.
  • Thinking Agile need only be team – or department – deep: James Shore, an Agile expert and signatory on the Agile Manifesto, advocates engaging with the deeper questions about the purpose of Agile practices. During a 50-minute speech for Agile Australia 2015, he said we must all realise that “Agile is about how you think” and since “organisation thinking overrides team thinking,” success with Agile depends “primarily on organisational culture and investments.”
  • Thinking Agile teams can’t understand the ‘bottom line’: Not true. Shore says the best Agile teams are deeply connected to business value and supportive of the creation of it. One crucial way to ensure this result is to intentionally embed business experts on all Agile teams.

What’s next

Agile adoption creates the need for change across all of a company’s people and processes – and the best leaders will seize these opportunities.

Danny Smith, an engineer writing about Agile on Medium[6], believes Agile will continue to inspire leaders to rebuild organisations around “value streams, flow and validated learning” and to “encourage a culture that promotes transparency, speed, innovation and agility (in the proper sense of the word).”

PM-Partners group offers a team Agile overview and Agile Coaching.  For more information on this please contact us on +65 6818 5771.

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