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How Project Managers Can Adopt an Agile Leadership Style

_l5a3587Being agile requires a dramatically different leadership style than what you would typically encounter with traditional project management. When I was first introduced to agile projects, I found that not only did my environment change, but my approach towards leadership did as well. I went from wanting to be in charge and in control, to seeking to empower my team to be creative and have the confidence to move forward using their own good sense of what should be done.

Through the years, I’ve picked up many effective project management tools for staying organized and moving forward, but approaching each phase of the project lifecycle with an agile mindset has allowed me to move forward, faster and further, with the help of others. As a Project Management Professional (PMP) who’s also a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Product Owner (CSPO), here are the decisions that I struggled with as I shifted my leadership paradigm, along with the lessons that came out of each:

1. Initiating / Planning

“I can create a project schedule on my own, or we can work together as team to create one.”

Creating a detailed project schedule can be time consuming, especially for larger-scale projects. When you finally share all of the tasks, deadlines, and dependencies with the team, their eyes glaze over. After spending hours crafting an elaborate plan, it can be a little disappointing to have the team disregard it because it was too much to consume all at once. Creating an overly detailed plan for a lengthy time period also means you’ll likely have to change it constantly because of factors of which you weren’t aware.

An alternative approach is to work with your team to develop the plan. On a recent project, we faced the challenge of having to launch three different websites in the same month with a small team of developers. I brought the team together in front of a large white board with the launch dates for each site. Each of them communicated to me what needed to be done, in what order it needed to be done, and what risks were associated with each product. Because they were part of the planning process, everyone understood the commitments each team member made to ensure a successful launch for each site. In the end, all three sites successfully launched as planned. As an added benefit, the team gained a sense of accountability and ownership they wouldn’t have otherwise had if they weren’t as involved in the planning process.

2. Execution

“I can tell developers what the requirements are, or we can work together to define them.”

There is immense value in getting developer feedback throughout the story writing process. There’s no doubt that the business side and technical side of a project or organization speak different languages. Coming together to talk about business needs and technical solutions is a much more fruitful conversation when it’s two-ways, involving those who want something and those who are able to deliver it.

As many of you know, EK recently launched its redesigned website. We had very specific requirements for how we wanted the site to look and feel, but we benefited greatly from the expertise of the person actually doing the front-end development. Our solutioning sessions around the site’s responsiveness led to a really clean and beautiful site that looks great on all devices.  

3. Monitoring and Controlling

“I can keep tabs on people to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, or we can trust each other to deliver on our commitments.”

During a daily stand-up, whenever a Scrum Master asks a developer when something is going to be done, I’ve seen the response almost always be hesitance with a tinge of annoyance. “It’ll be done by the end of the sprint,” they usually reply. When facilitated incorrectly, daily stand-ups can feel as if everyone is reporting out to a manager on what each person is doing. Facilitated correctly, there’s a free flow of information between the team members. The end result is that they are able to help each other make progress as a team rather than focusing on what each individual should be producing.

There’s no longer a need for micromanagement when you’re agile, because at the beginning of a sprint, the team commits to the work they will accomplish. Then, at the end, they demonstrate their work. The team works together to meet their commitments without the need for someone looking over their shoulder to make sure they are completing each task.

4. Closing

“I can be the only person the major stakeholders see and get all the credit, or we could shine as a team and be proud of the work we accomplished together.

A colleague and I joked recently when a Twitter post went out about the “A-Team” we worked closely with for the past year. Our names didn’t make the tweet, but the team shined. We reminded ourselves that a good servant leader is less in the spotlight and more like the invisible hand guiding the team. We reflected on our long hours of coordinating efforts, responding to fires, and keeping up-to-date with the latest issues and feature releases. Our role involved protecting the team from all distractions, responding to their needs, and making sure to keep the lines of communication flowing. This allowed them to focus on doing good work.

In the end, we just felt proud to have been a part of the team who built a cutting-edge product.

Conclusion

Agile projects and teams have taught me that it’s less about me and more about we. I can be extremely productive, but will never be as impactful alone as I would be as a part of a talented, motivated, and engaged team of thinkers and doers.

Taking an agile approach to leadership is more in alignment with what motivates humans to perform in comparison to the traditional command-and-control style that reigns in hierarchical, machine-like organizational structures. At EK, we see teams and organizations as more of a living organism rather than a set of interconnected cogs in a wheel. We value the benefits of technology, but we also understand the importance of a committed team working together towards the same end-goal. This is rooted in our belief that our colleagues and clients share a need to be appreciated, cared for, and seen for the qualities and talent we each bring to the table.

Interested in learning more ways to improve your leadership style and be more agile? Check out EK’s Agile Transformation and Coaching solutions.

 

Mary Little Mary Little Mary Little is an expert advisor and management consultant in the area of knowledge management strategy and implementation. She ardently believes in the value of servant leadership, effective communication, human-centered design, and maximized talent potential as means to organizational change and success. More from Mary Little »