Transforming the leadership function of any organization, such as in a Lean-Agile transformation, presents unique challenges.

To set the context it’s helpful to remember that executives and leaders have as their highest priority the need to run the entire system. Their decisions have huge impacts, and understandably, most items that fall into their purview (or should, with proper decentralization of decision-making) are business-critical.

When these leaders are called upon to change the very system that produces the output its customers purchase, there is understandably strong caution and concern around how those changes are being made, and for what reasons.  If these changes are being undertaken to accelerate other initiatives, such as a digital transformation or a B2C effort that needs to move more quickly than past or existing configurations would allow, or when the state of the company hangs in the balance, as it does even in the most established organizations, the stakes are high and therefore the scrutiny on that change is correspondingly elevated.

For further context about transforming the leadership role, it’s instructive to contrast how transformation feels for the teams, and also for the leaders.

Teams experience what can be termed organizational disruption: while they are called upon to organize their work in a different way, they are ultimately using the same development environments, languages, and frequently the same coding methods to produce their work. Yes, Agile suggests standups, and perhaps as much as 10% of their job might change (in terms of time and focus), but 90% of their work often stays the same.

Conversely, leaders who are called upon to adopt a lean mindset, or one of business agility, are changing significant portions of how their actual work, including day to day activities, will be accomplished.  Their expectations of work output will also need to change along with the reporting that drives leadership awareness and governance (and even their sense of comfort). Additionally, the way that they listen to their teams and programs will have to evolve since a key facet of business agility is heeding feedback on capacity and availability that teams send upwards in the system. At minimum, 75% of their job may be affected.

With such high consequences, and the fundamental and structural change in the leadership function as prescribed by business agility, how do we choose to transform this function?

Too many times we are told that leadership does not have two days to “sit in a class” or take any more time than absolutely necessary away from what they ‘need’ to do. There are two problems with this mindset: first off, it is easy to underestimate the time required to both learn, and most importantly, master the new skills behind leading the new system. Secondly, the actual required change to business agility brings with it an entirely different set of system needs. This means that leaders are deferring learning that their current activities need to be modified to work on those current activities. Circling back to the insight that at least three quarters of a leader’s job may be affected by an effective transformation: it’s entirely unreasonable to expect that a 3 hour orientation will be adequate in providing leaders what they truly need to be successful in this new role.

We at AgileFire have found that the best way to help leaders understand the changes required of their new system is to perform at minimum a two-day training event tailored to the leadership group – typically the Leading SAFe content from Scaled Agile is sufficient – followed by one to two days of workshop time where they can immediately contextualize and process the new paradigm. This workshop helps facilitate the process of hardening their knowledge into deeper understanding of what it is they must do. Finally, individual coaching is helpful to assess the current state for each leader, create an action plan, provide accountability and support, and ultimately, to ensure that each leaders’ organizational goals are met.

At this point the question often comes up as to how an organization should look to accomplish these changes and run these activities? During my time at Scaled Agile, wherein I advised on hundreds of transformations both directly and through Partners, I realized that there were three critical times when it’s advisable to bring in an external transformation consultant. Working backwards, let’s start with the Inspect and Adapt event at the end of a PI. Due to the heavy facilitation needs along with the required technical mastery of the activities, this should ideally be handled by someone experienced with that ceremony. Next comes the PI planning event itself. Due to the intense focus on time management, group facilitation, and other skills, this should also be run by a seasoned veteran with a deep understanding of the process and expected outcomes.

In addition to the two events above, which are more procedural, the most important event that merits bringing in an experienced and specialized outside transformation consultant, is the transformation of the leadership team.

I mention the value of an external consultant, because as compared to an in-house change agent, an external consultant can discuss observations and recommendations without concern on either side about politics, motive, or (frankly) professional safety. And, that consultant should be bringing not just technical mastery of the topics at hand (and the wisdom to know what to apply in the nuanced space of leadership transformation), but also deep experience and relevant anecdotes to illustrate and show social proof of best practices. After all, leaders are where they are because they are insightful and have a keen sense of what works. They are inquisitive and rightly demand excellence – your consultant should be able to support those needs.

If you want your initiative to have maximum success, grassroots or even grasstops transformation initiatives can only get you so far – to achieve your best results, leadership needs transformation, too. Feel free to email me or connect with me on social to learn more. 

Bob Ternes is a refugee from waterfall practices. After experiencing the benefits of Agility as a customer liaison and project manager, but then seeing how organizations with Agile practices only in their teams often build the wrong stuff as fast as possible, he became convinced of the imperative to scale Agile practices beyond the team level. Before joining AgileFire, he supported hundreds of organizations implementing lean and agile-at-scale during his work at Rally and Scaled Agile, Inc.