7 Agile Leadership Lessons for the Suits

7 Agile Leadership Lessons for the Suits

CIO Eugene Nitzker attended this year's Agile conference and returned with several suggestions for CIOs, IT managers and programming team leaders.

Most of the 400 presentations at the Agile 2008 conference, held last month in Toronto, were geared for developers and testers. But the event held more than a few revelations and "Aha!" moments for IT managers, particularly revolving around team workflow, business value, company culture and the new role of the manager. Here are the key messages communicated by and to the Agile community.

1. Trust the Wisdom of Teams

Software is a result of a team effort, so a manager's main concern should be nurturing the team. But how many of us see our roles as enlightening an otherwise substandard and underperforming bunch of geeks who would escape their duties the moment we take our eyes off them? No, we never talk this way, but smart developers can conclude from our actions when a manager does not actually trust the team. The result is lower morale, underutilized brain resources and lost opportunities.

In his conference keynote, James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, described how groups demonstrate better decision-making results than do individuals. We need to aggregate the intelligence available to organizations, he said, and develop frameworks for making near-optimal decisions.

Among the pitfalls that Surowiecki described was the importance of diversity because homogeneous groups become "dumber." The role of devil's advocate is essential, he said, to avoid group degradation. However, over time, a homogeneous group gets used to its devil's advocates and learns to disregard their reasoning. As a result, you need to mix up who wears the devil's-advocate hat.

2. Even Self-Organized Teams Require Coaching

Command-and-control practices inevitably lead to substandard results in software development. However, it would be naive and irresponsible to imagine that turning teams into self-organized machines means abdication from managerial duties. On the contrary, Agile principles require managers to become leaders, and that goes all the way up to the CIO.

Many presentations revealed several results-based techniques in team dynamics. One was a tutorial on "Coaching Self-Organized Teams" delivered by Joseph Pelrine and Steve Freeman.

Pelrine and Freeman focused most of their attention on models managers can use to leverage team conflict, such as the Abide model (attractors, barriers, identities, diversity, environment). By changing those parameters, the presenters said, you can change the results. Using the Flow model, managers can pay attention to the acceptable level of challenge based on an individual's skills to find a balance between anxiety and boredom; they suggest you can manipulate the flow channel based on the learning patterns team members demonstrate.

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