Why Do You Need Agile? It’s About Leadership!

Leading teams on projects is one of the most important and crucial jobs of the Project Manager. While you may not always enjoy the direct consistent leadership of your teams (you may have to “borrow” personnel from other functional areas), you should take the opportunity to lead those team members in the most positive and effective way possible when they are working on your project. Regardless of the project type, you should consider using “adaptive leadership” to unlock the power of your team.


One of the most important aspects of adaptive (agile) leadership is the ability to harness the power of the team. It is so important in fact, that the Agile Manifesto (2001) features the team members as it is number one important item to create success and what is “valued” on agile projects.



But what about a traditional waterfall project? How do we empower the team when we are doing these types of projects? Some would argue that there are two types of problems we ask our teams to help solve: technical and adaptive problems.


Technical problems are where some “satisfactory pre-determined response is already available” and we ask our team or experts to follow those steps to deliver the desired results. Adaptive problems are slightly different, however. These problems exist where there are no set of established rules or procedures to follow or the steps to take become ‘situationally specific’ as called out by the agile Declaration of Interdependence (2005).


In reviewing Agile methods and organizational agility, success depends on appropriate leadership of the team and stakeholders. The easiest way to see this is to review the four values of the Agile Manifesto:



Make no mistake; both sides of each statement are important, however agile methods place a greater emphasis on the items to the left. Look at each of the statements in the image from a leadership perspective.


Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Concepts such as servant leadership and Management by Walking Around (MBWA) and techniques such as coaching, mentoring, and daily stand-up meetings all show a high value of individuals and interactions.


To understand why we would desire to use adaptive leadership regardless of the project type, we can also look to the people we are responsible to lead for some insights. In a (slightly old) study about employee satisfaction by Gallup, respondents were asked to answer a series of questions regarding employee engagement, retention, production, and profitability. In the results, we can see a place for adaptive leadership. The poll’s results showed that answers to these six questions were the most important to the team:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?

  2. Do I have the tools and equipment to do my work correctly?

  3. Do I have the environment and opportunity to do what I do best every day?

  4. In the last week, have I received recognition or praise for good work?

  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?

  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” answers all these questions because adaptive leadership relies so heavily on following four principles:


  • Emotional Intelligence – Understanding and influencing the emotions of yourself and others

  • Organizational Justice – Culture of openness and trust to experiment or explore new options

  • Development of New Strategies – Discovering new ways to work that allow for growth and development

  • Character – Transparency and creativity to earn the respect of others and act as a positive example



To ensure the team understands the job, has the tools to complete it, and the environment to experiment for positive results, you see where emotional intelligence, organizational justice, and developing new strategies is important. Additionally, handing out praise, care, and encouragement we can see emotional intelligence (again) and character being instrumental.


Working software (product) over comprehensive documentation

Positive leadership and a motivated workforce have consistently shown an increase in the quality of a product. In a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, the results of an engaged and empowered workforce showed that engaged workers are more involved and work harder while disengaged employees are likely to do only the bare minimum to get by.


While this likely is not some great new insight for you, it may be enlightening to note the study showed across healthcare and factories, the studies revealed that organizations with higher employee engagement scores reported 48% fewer safety incidents and 41% fewer patient safety incidents.


Creating engaged employees starts with building trust founded in the four core principles of adaptive leadership above.


Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

This Manifesto value is also aligned with good leadership principles, however it is not isolated to “the team” but also the stakeholders. In agile projects we do include the stakeholders consistently through the project to create feedback loops and ensure their needs are met and value is consistently delivered. While there is a slightly different way to work with and engage stakeholders in predictive projects, ensuring their needs are placed above getting the contract in place should still be a primary indicator of successful stakeholder relationships.


In today’s business environment our customers and clients also need to maintain agility to take advantage of opportunities in their respective markets and remain competitive. To satisfy the business value proposition, teams in all types of projects need to ensure we understand that contracts are about ‘relationships’ and we need to instill some flexibility. This is a difficult thing to grasp for most people (especially your acquisitions and legal teams), but recognizing the business world is changing, our contract management needs to be flexible to deal with the inevitable changes that arise during projects of ALL types.


Responding to Change over Following a Plan

If the last topic did not hit on it sufficiently… today’s business environment REQUIRES flexibility and agility. This value requires projects of all types to decompose the project work into smaller or shorter and easier to handle segments. Responding to change also means we need to be engaging and collaborating between the team and the stakeholders.


Whether dealing with technical or adaptive work, teams need the engagement and principles of adaptive leadership to generate their best results and deliver value. The stakeholders need the principles of adaptive leadership to engage and collaborate with the people on the project to make value-based decisions to create the largest ROI possible.


Today’s leadership cannot just be one individual handing out tasks and enforcing his will to get the job done. Leadership is a team sport. Determine what your team and stakeholders need from you as a leader and (within reason) use that to empower the team by following agile values to achieve greater results and increase value.

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