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Agile Empowerment – Why leaders need to step up their game when it comes to Agile Transformations

Felix Herrmann
8 Dec 2021

With new target operating models on the horizon and a shift towards a more agile way of working, there is an imminent need for cultural change.

However, a successful “New Way of Working” can only be sustained if the leaders develop their leadership style and become Servant Leaders.

Leaders are the key drivers of any agile transformation.

Agile, the response to VUCA

In most Swiss organizations, the acronym VUCA or an equivalent has been frequently used over the last couple of years. The term highlights the importance that the organization of the future needs to adapt fundamentally to survive the ever-changing market environment as a result of digitalization. To counteract this change, more and more organizations are turning their attention towards agile. While agile methodologies and frameworks certainly help to foster cross-functional collaboration to build concrete and measurable value, the application of said structures is not enough. A clear vision and a radical willingness to change on the part of the entire organization are also necessary. The key driver for any successful agile transformation is the leadership of the organization. To embrace the change and bring the employees on board, they need to fundamentally re-think their leadership styles.

How does traditional leadership differ from Servant Leadership?

In a traditionally hierarchical environment, managers tend to take on a comparatively more authoritarian, directional, and controlling role. They are figuratively on top of the pyramid and exercise their power respectively. However, various studies[1] show that today’s and especially tomorrow’s employees increasingly value creative freedom, cooperation at eye level as well as trust and support when choosing an employer. This in combination with agile values, practices, and methodologies requires us to re-think the role of the traditional “Leader” and move towards Servant Leadership. Whereas the “old guard” has been exercising their power from the top, Servant Leaders aim to empower the workforce and leverage their already existing capabilities. They share power and control, measure success by growth and development, and understand the importance of listening to their colleagues. Hence, using the pyramid metaphor, they are now positioned at the “bottom” with a service-oriented mindset to support the workforce with all their means on a daily basis.

What are the key challenges for a Servant Leader in an Agile transformation?

At Capgemini Invent we have been supporting numerous agile transformation projects and are repeatedly confronted with the statements such as: “We are using Scrum as our way of working, so we are already agile”. The biggest misconception is that by simply introducing agile frameworks such as Scrum or SAFe, an organization can consider itself to truly be agile. It’s certainly a step in the right direction but agile also requires new values and particularly a new way of thinking with a focus on transparency, flexibility, creativity, empowerment, and an open and direct feedback culture. The establishment of a self-organized working framework can only be achieved by combining an agile mindset with methodological empowerment. This framework should be large enough to allow employees to try out their new responsibilities and live the agile values on a daily basis. However, the framework should also be tight enough to provide a sense of security and guidance.

In the transition from a classic to an agile way of working, most employees already discover in their first agile training sessions that their role, that of the managers as well as their collaboration must change. As Servant Leaders or often also referred to as “Agile Ambassadors” it’s the responsibility of the leadership team to act as role models and lead by example to lift the whole workforce towards an agile organization with the needed encouragement and support. In this regard, it’s safe to say that the biggest constraints of a sustainable agile transformation are the mindsets of the organization’s leaders.

Agile transformations are not a sprint but rather a marathon. It is therefore crucial that the leaders of an organization understand the most common challenges and are prepared in their roles as Servant Leaders:

  1. At the beginning of any agile transformation, it is essential to have a common understanding and transparent communication about the vision and strategy for the transformation. As servant leaders, it is their task to bring the workforce onboard, gain their trust and share the new values before embarking on the agile journey.
  2. While it is hard to disagree with the benefits of agile values and methodologies on paper, the added business value can only be crystallized once they are applied on a day-to-day basis. The most important aspect is to take the time, resources, and professional support to plan and execute a sustainable agile transformation. This requires dedication, courage, and trust that everyone in the organization is owning their part of the value chain while dedicated change management support is essential just like in any transformation project.
  3. Choosing the right agile framework is a critical pillar in any agile transformation. Organizations tend to consider the chosen framework as the “holy grail” and focus too much on the implementation of frameworks and methods and forget to focus on what “agile” is about at its core: dealing with complexity, accelerating processes, and the changing mindset. Instead of specifically adapting the concepts and methods to the needs of their organization, they tend to focus on the formal process of transformation.
  4. During the transition to agile, there will come a time when the new Target Operating Model will be questioned. Often, the hesitation to embrace the new way of working is rooted in the “old” company culture and way of working. Especially in the area of corporate governance, organizations are often unwilling to change old reporting and committee structures and thus risk ending up in micromanagement and loss of speed with massive negative effects on product development costs.

While there are certainly additional aspects to consider such as expectations of the employees, preparing for and overcoming the above-mentioned challenges allow you to engage in a sustainable agile transformation.

The first step towards Servant Leadership

Change is never easy and particularly if it involves one´s very own behavior and associated mindset. The good news is that Servant Leadership can be learned. The key question leaders need to understand is not only WHY they need to adapt their behavioral patterns but also HOW they can achieve this. The latter is particularly important as it requires a continuous personal development effort that cannot be shortcut with a simple training or coaching session.

To make sure that the transformation will lift off as planned, aspiring Servant Leaders should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What do the agile principles mean to me as a leader and which characteristics should be discarded and which should be developed?
  • How do I develop the necessary new leadership qualities and how can I give more responsibility to the teams and learn to build up my trust in their capabilities?
  • How do I develop the courage to face headwinds, to admit mistakes (personally as well as with my colleagues)?
  • How do I manage to build strong alliances and get employees on board?

Profound change is not something that happens overnight. It requires personal willpower, perseverance, and courage to take the path to an agile way of thinking and working. With the necessary discipline, after a while consciously applied rules of conduct become new routines for action – autopilots – that help you navigate effortlessly in the agile environment. At the latest then you will be rewarded – with increased employee satisfaction and motivation, increased team productivity as well as increased quality of results up to more creativity and innovation.

Many thanks the Co-Author Pascal Rota and Daniela Helmer for her significant contribution to this blog post.

[1] Capgemini, Virtual organizations need real leadership, or Capgemini, The Digital Talent Gap.