Agile leaders do these 3 things

What do agile leaders do?

If orange is the new black then agile is the new orange in the world of work.

My clients often talk to me about the need to become more flexible, more adaptable, more able to ‘roll with the punches’ and deal with the complexity of the change and challenges they are facing.

They ask, “how can we help our people be more agile?

agile leader

The Agile movement was born in software development from a need to move beyond traditional ‘waterfall’ approaches to product development, to a way of working that met the demands of rapidly changing and unpredictable markets; what we now call a VUCA environment.

In 2001, 17 software developers met in Snowbird, Utah to wrestle with this challenge and the outcome was The Agile Manifesto – four new values for developing software and principles to guide adherence to those values which, to this day, form the basis of agile techniques.

The four agile values and the principles that guide them

People over Processes and Tools
Projects should be built around motivated individuals who are given the support they need and trusted to get the job done at a sustainable pace in a fun, creative environment for problem solving. Employees should talk face-to-face and feel safe to suggest ways to improve their work environment. The role of management is to remove obstacles to foster easier, more fruitful collaboration.

Respond to Change rather than Follow a Plan
Whilst teams should create a vision and plan, they should plan only those tasks that won’t have changed by the time they get to them. They should understand the value (and find the joy) in learning things that alter direction – even late in the development process – but that bring them closer to the customer and make for better results.

Working Prototypes over Excessive Documentation
Experimentation as the building block of innovation. When we can see results in real market conditions, we learn faster, are happier, stay longer, and do more-valuable work. Test ideas with real customers early – keep what they like and fix or ditch what they don’t. Let the market resolve arguments rather than endless debates or appeals to authority.

Customer Collaboration over Rigid Specification
Accept that customer specifications will evolve, because they can seldom predict what they actually want. Rapid prototyping, frequent market tests, and constant collaboration keep work focused on what they will ultimately value and minimise time to market and associated costs.

But sitting behind these values and principles and the practices that bring them to life is a mindset.

agile leader

So what does it mean for a leader to have an agile mindset?

I believe that an agile leadership mindset moves beyond ‘doing agile’ to ‘being agile’. It means that we value people for their unique talents and contribution rather than as a means to an end;  we honour the talent in teams by giving them the autonomy and responsibility to do the work they need to and consciously look for individual strengths and align them with the work they do.

We accept the inevitability and complexity of change and put customer value – whether that is an internal or external customer- at the centre of our decision-making. An agile leadership mindset values diverse thinking and perspectives and is able to hold the positive tension created as teams stretch boundaries and explore new ideas and solutions; it also recognises that we all have unconscious biases, but uses this awareness to stay curious, ask questions and lean into learning possibilities to overcome feeling challenged and uncomfortable.

agile leader

The Agile Mindset is about letting go of control, about trusting, and about using experiments and radical transparency to show results and setting people up for success. It turns the leader-team dynamic on its head – it’s not the team delivering to the leader; it’s the leader delivering to the team, so that the team can deliver to the customer (internal or external).

It shifts the conversation from ‘trying to control the uncontrollable’ to ’embracing complexity’.

Ultimately, it means that we recognise team members as valuable people with skills, rather than people with valuable skills.

How can you develop an agile leadership mindset?

  1. Know your customers and the value they want from you

Who are your customers? And I don’t mean the people who buy your products or services (although they certainly are important). Who are the customers of your leadership?

Likely it is your team, your immediate boss, perhaps your peers or other members of project groups that you’re on.

What value do they need from you? What’s the best way you can enable their success? How can you celebrate their wins and remove obstacles from their path? 

agile leader

  1. Get to know your biases

As leaders we often want to save time by making decisions more quickly. If we take the right mental shortcuts, we’ll have more time and energy to devote to other matters – right?


Our brains are more wired to look for information that confirms our existing beliefs — as fast as possible — than they are to gather a range of opinions and reflect carefully on the facts. There have been examples of the tricks our either-or minds play on us on the internet recently – the audio clip of the word that people hear as either Yanni or Laurel. Or the dress that people see as either black-and-blue or white-and-gold.

I know that in my house we didn’t all fall on the same side of the categorical dividing line, and my children were practically willing to stake their lives on the idea that their perception was ‘right’.

Slowing down and seeking out diverse forms of data from diverse sources will help you gather a more complete picture that isn’t driven by your either-or mind or unconscious bias. Adding new people to project meetings and having ‘guest attendees’ to provide feedback and different perspectives can be a simple and effective way to do this.

agile leader

  1. Accept the reality of change

Disappointment, anger, stress and anxiety all live in the gap that we create between our expectations (what should be) and our perceived reality (what we think is).

Accepting that change is an inevitable and inherent pathway to learning, development and growth can help reduce conscious and unconscious resistance to it. When we resist we become rigid, tense and defensive. Our mind closes to the possibilities and opportunities that may exist and we waste valuable energy bemoaning the situation.

Acceptance frees us of this. It leaves us open, curious and flexible; able to embrace possibility and seize opportunities for progress. Acceptance does not mean that we are comfortable (necessarily), but it does mean that we are using energy to move forward rather than fight the flow.

You can cultivate acceptance by trying to avoid thinking of situations as good or bad and simply see them for what they are. This means letting go of the ‘should’ stories that you may be telling yourself and uncovering the ‘what is’ ones that are real.

Ready to become an agile leader?

So, instead of just ‘talking the talk’ of agile leadership, let’s try ‘walking the walk’ by understanding our own biases, accepting the reality of change and truly listening to what others want and need, especially your customers and end users.

I can help you develop your agile leadership mindset…

Let’s connect and talk about my coaching, mentoring, or a Pick My Brains session, or check out my Leading Well  Workshop.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.