Embrace Agile, Empower Teams, And Scale-Out
The volume, velocity, and complexity of change require leaders to abandon traditional command and control leadership styles and embrace agile concepts and practices. In 2001, 17 software engineers from Silicon Valley met in Snowbird, Utah to figure out how to change the way software organizations delivered value to the customer. The result of the visit was the Agile Manifesto, a one-pager, that describes this new philosophy of Agile. The philosophy hinges on four main pillars:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
4 Tactics For Agile Leadership
The manifesto clarifies that while the statements on the right do retain some of their value for the organization, it is the practices on the left that can be decisive in foundational organizational change. Since then, Agile has been implemented across almost every industry, far beyond software. McKinsey research reveals that teams that embrace and practice agile concepts to create value, increase the rate of success in their transformation efforts by 30%. This article offers four tactics that you can explore as an L&D (Learning and Development) leader to embrace agile concepts, sharpen your own agile leadership skills, build agile teams, and finally scale agile across your organization.
Embracing Agile Concepts
BP, the petroleum company offers a successful use case of scaling agile across the organization. As the leadership team started exploring agile, they asked themselves two key questions: 1) what would it take to fundamentally improve business performance, and 2) how do they want to feel when working at BP? To answer the questions, they benchmarked with Silicon Valley agile pioneers and started rigorously training teams in agile concepts and practices. They recognized that culture change was pivotal to the effort, and thus, they focused on the people (the employees and the customers) by offering them learning and training options and the time and room to adjust. Next, the focus and application of agile concepts expanded to processes, data, and technology.
Becoming An Agile Leader
As a leader, you can apply Agile concepts to your own leadership practice and set an example for your team. The BP C-Suite themselves completed agile training to be able to inspire and empower the agile teams to lead. Senior BP leaders admit that, initially, it was difficult to step back, let go, get out of the way, and delegate authority to teams. Leaders had to practice servant leadership whereby they defined the “why” and the “what” of the strategy and empowered the teams to decide and deliver the “how” and removed obstacles along the way.
Building Agile Teams
The next step after strengthening your own agile leadership skills is to build agile teams. Building agile teams is critical to the success of implementing and leveraging agile in your organization. One senior leader at BP described the process of building agile teams as “gardening” where you have to prepare the soil, plant the right seeds at the right location, and then water and nurture them and remove the weeds so that they grow and flourish. To maintain momentum, senior leaders listen actively to the agile teams, communicate frequently and transparently, collaborate closely with the agile coaches assigned to each team, and apply agile practices such as holding bi-weekly stand-up meetings to discuss challenges and remove obstacles across the organization.
Scaling Agile Across The Organization
Once you successfully build an agile team and implement agile concepts to drive business outcomes, you will need to take steps to scale agile into your broader organization. Scaling agile across your organization requires coalition building, cultivating growth mindsets, communicating with transparency, and empowering multiple and diverse teams to go off and implement agile in their own business units. In 2016, learning from the earlier challenges facing the company including globally detrimental oil spills, BP realized that it had to revamp its vision, mission, and whole organizational structure if it were to survive climate change and changing customer needs. As such, it set a strategy to become a net zero organization by 2050. This new vision made BP’s vision extremely complex.
Thus, the organization decided to embrace and deploy agile to implement its ambitious transformation. First, they started small by piloting agile in their Azerbaijan country office. The journey was difficult and became even more complex with the covid-19 pandemic. However, as the Azerbaijan Georgia Turkey country director explained, they plowed forward. To begin their agile journey, BP started experimenting by training teams in agile and encouraging them to apply the learnings on the job. The teams were also provided with dedicated agile coaches. Next, they created a frontrunner unit of about 75 agile-trained employees in operations and maintenance.
Subsequently, they reorganized all processes around end-to-end value chains and stood up agile teams across the enterprise. To sustain the effort, they focused on mindset shifts and culture change initiatives, changed their data and financial systems reporting to reflect the change in the organization, and updated the people process to provide incentives and recognition to those successfully implementing agile. Soon, they saw cycle time improvements by 40-50%, a 69% increase in daily oil production from 19.9 thousand barrels per day to 33.3 thousand barrels per day. Internally, the agile model has increased organizational efficiency by enabling BP to quickly allocate resources and deploy expertise to the highest value-adding opportunities and speeding up the decision-making process.
Embracing and deploying agile concepts to drive enterprise-wide transformation is hard and unique to each organization. However, there are some key steps that you can adopt and adapt from the agile journeys of other organizations. These steps include starting with yourself and setting the example as an agile leader through training and also embracing and practicing a growth, agile mindset. Next, you will need to train, inspire, and empower pilot teams to learn and practice agile. During this time you collect and transparently communicate pilot results to build momentum. Finally, you leverage the learnings from the pilots, adapt, iterate and scale out agile to the broader organization through training all employees, redesigning processes around the customer need, and calibrating key functions such as finance, product development, HR, and IT around the agile concepts and relevant metrics.