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​Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most agile of them all?

​Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most agile of them all?

Winter falls on Canberra again and the cardigans come out of the mothballs. It’s the funky new ‘agile’ cardigan this year, newly beloved of our nation’s leaders.

As we approach another election, talk turns to who is the most agile of them all – the solid and reliable agile leader or the fit and responsive agile leader?

But wait, the emperors have no clothes! This month I’m stepping out where angels (and sumo wrestlers) fear to tread. Politics.

Technology really should not mess with politics. Technology should stand alone, enabling our citizens and our businesses. However, this year we cannot look away from the political arena, where the faux macho and faux agile spruce, strut and attempt to sprint. It’s a battle of leadership styles.

Just like in the workplace, this year is a year of digital tenacity, where the traditionalist command and control manager often sits squarely alongside the agile advocate. Sometimes the two tribes come to blows and other times the cloak of agility is the emperor’s new clothes. They’re still in the same tribe.

In the political arena, the faux agilists are not convincing the citizenry. In the workplace, faux agilists are not convincing the millennials.

This year, the public and private sectors must be wary of leaders endorsing agile, who have limited experience and understanding of its principles and practices.

Enterprise leaders know this through the theory and practice of adaptive leadership, servant leaders and high performing teams. IT leaders generally approach organisational agility through the lens of scrum and other variants of agile practice.

Warning signs of a naked (agile) emperor you could look out for include:

  • Lack of transparency (what are they doing in there and why are they hiding?)
  • Hierarchy (all are equal, but some are more equal than others)
  • Supremacy (I’m more agile than you, you are less agile them me)
  • Ideas are mine (and only mine)
  • Change is good (as long as it’s my change)
  • I listen (but only to people worth listening to, not you).

The signs of naked emperors are as plain as the nude swimmers about to brave Hobart’s River Derwent for Dark Mofo winter solstice swim. It’s the sign of poor leadership dressed up in ‘agile’ cardigans.

If an IT leader has never experienced a daily stand-up with their own team and doesn’t know the language their agile teams are using when they parlay ‘sprints, retros, scrum poker and cadence,’ then they may have neglected to do their homework and team prac work. Agile is experiential, not a methodology.

Agility is adaptive leadership, high performing teams and servant leadership in full-blown practice. As exposed, active and powerful as a sumo wrestler, who couldn’t be more bare-bottomed if they lost their loincloth.

The agile leader of a connected digital business model is human, a little afraid, but exposed nonetheless, and learning from that experience. Learning what agility does to ready any enterprise to evolve and thrive in a fast moving, digitally connected global ecosystem.

But all is not lost. In the absence of detail, leaders can and should embrace the basic values espoused by the ‘Agile Manifesto’ – valuing people, outcomes, collaboration, and change. Ideas and action; talk and adaptation.

If you’re a leader who wants to quickly ‘get’ this agile ‘thing’ and lead by example, there are some simple steps you can take to cover yourself.

  1. Get your hands dirty – go do a basic scrum master or agile course. Learn the lingo.
  2. Create something – anything, perhaps your next strategic plan – in a short cycle of agile sprints. Immersing yourself, your leadership team and your organisation’s CxO leaders in the experience of using agile principles and practices.
  3. Find or convince a great product owner to support this move. Train them too.
  4. Don’t do this alone. Engage a highly experienced agile business coach to help orient and support the initiative, and prepare all participants with agile training tailored to their level.
  5. Don’t get obsessed with the outputs - this is a learning experience. Aim at MVP (minimal viable product) – see you just used an agile word!
  6. Approach this as the start of a longer term cultural change, and prepare to sustain the momentum after your first sprint cycle.
  7. Maybe you could even start working with your direct reports as an agile team, doing sprints. People will be watching. Trust me. They’ll appreciate the cut of your new clothes.

As winter begins to seep into our workplaces and you put on your ‘agile’ cardigan, don’t forget to try out your ‘beginner’s eyes’. Ask yourself, ‘Do your emperors have no clothes?’ If the answer is yes, then as the IT leader, perhaps you can help them too.

Footnote: Yes, I’ve done the winter solstice dip, and I highly recommend it as an equalising (dare I say agile and bracing) team experience that strips away all the emperors’ clothes.

Jenny Beresford is a research director with Gartner's CIO Advisory team. Previously, she served as a CIO, VP and GM in consulting and technology firms, an agile coach and a digital program manager, through to hands-on roles in strategic planning, change management, innovation, enterprise architecture and portfolio management.

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