An Agile Leader Cultivates Agility

June 18, 2020
6 minute read

The rules of leadership have changed.

If you want compliance, then traditional management approaches may be effective.  However, in today’s digital revolution where knowledge workers are the key to value delivery, a different approach is required.

That is because engagement, innovation and creativity are the new goals, while focusing on compliance and conformity usually results in demotivated individuals and high turnover rates.

Unfortunately, not a lot of guidance is given to managers and leaders about working with Agile teams other than “get out of the way” or “be a servant leader.” Most of the time, the role of management and leadership isn’t addressed.  This usually results in a reliance on traditional management practices that often conflict with and cause dissonance for their Agile teams and organization.

That being said, there are some fantastic training courses and learning events offered by some truly inspirational facilitators I have the privilege of working with and knowing. But other than these, there seems to be a gap in helping Agile leaders understand how they should act.

To help I am going to use the analogy that a good Agile leader should be like a good gardener; they should cultivate a positive environment for success.

Vision and Outcomes

When envisioning a garden, a gardener should be clear in their own understanding and in communicating the effect and outcome they are seeking.  They should have a vision for the garden and be able to effectively articulate expectations and outcomes to stakeholders of the garden (support staff, other gardeners, recipients of the garden products, etc).

Specification by example can be a helpful approach, so a good gardener will often seek out other existing gardens to visualize and show the effect they are looking for, including what is expected and what is not desired.  At the same time a good gardener will realize no two gardens are (or should be) alike, and that the real intrinsic value is in the uniqueness and diversity of each garden, in how it thrives, and in what it delivers.

Collaboration and Diversity

A good gardener will pay attention to what plant varieties and species will achieve the desired outcome, which ones have symbiotic relationships (e.g. roses love garlic), which ones are not compatible (e.g. carrots do not do well near dill or celery), which ones will protect one another (e.g. roses at the end of grape vines protect them from and are early warning signs for insects and fungal infestation), as well as what environment and support they will all require in order to thrive.

That includes being aware of other plants, insects, animals or diseases that may hinder the success of the garden.  Then continually working hard to ensure diversity is maintained, to cultivate a good environment, and protect the garden from these known and other new threats as they emerge.

Support Through Empiricism

When tending to a mature, older or less successful garden a gardener shouldn’t just start ripping things out, as there may be unintended consequences of disrupting the complex ecosystem.  Instead, a gardener should first study the garden to see how it is evolving and to learn of any inter-dependency, such as intertwined roots or one plant using another for physical support.

When observing a garden in trouble a good gardener will have patience and will carefully inspect to identify any obvious threats or deleterious effects.  Sometimes issues will self-correct but that doesn’t mean the gardener can or should ignore the situation, just that they should sometimes exercise restraint.  Only after the situation is seen as requiring intervention should the gardener gather information and systematically determine the likely root causes.  Only then should action be taken.

A good gardener will know that simply treating the symptoms won’t make an issue go away, and often all that will do is prolong the suffering and unhappy state of the garden.  Instead, a careful analysis of the facts and information including a deeper reflection of cause and effect is often necessary before an effective treatment may be identified and administered. An Agile leader can learn a lot from these age old horticultural norms.

Support Through Protection

Ongoing maintenance of a garden is also a necessary part of success.  This does not mean micromanaging the garden and constantly intervening in its evolution.  What it does mean is checking the progress of the garden, ensuring it has all the required nutrients and situation to thrive, and protecting the garden from obvious threats and danger.

From time-to-time some plants may require pruning or tending to, or physical supports to help them along or to heal.  At times the removal of unwanted items such as weeds may be necessary, while other times the appearance of a net new and unintended plant may be a welcome change.  This means a gardener should frequently inspect the garden to observe and provide necessary supporting action to cultivate a healthy ecosystem.  At the same time they should refrain from making blanket or wholesale changes to the complex system as the cumulative impact may not be easily predictable nor positive.

At the same time a good gardener will know the best gardens aren’t constantly manipulated, as repeated disruption can inhibit success.  Instead, some of the best gardens are left to grow organically while receiving clear oversight and protection from real external threats.

To that effect a gardener should actively work to transform or eliminate threats so they no longer pose a risk.  For example, working in adjacent gardens and areas to create a more supportable and positive environment for the primary one.  In some cases, turning threats into opportunities may even be the best way to ensure the long-term success as a symbiotic relationship may emerge with positive consequences.

Gardeners as Leaders

In conclusion, a good gardener will choose the right situation and the appropriate plants and species for the desired outcome.  They will nurture and cultivate positive organic growth with patience and without intervening unless critically necessary.  They will use empiricism to learn from, inspect, and adapt the garden as new information is learned.  They will protect the garden from large risks and threats that it cannot defend itself from.  They will constantly provide the vision, environment and support needed in order to allow the garden to succeed, thrive, and grow towards the outcome.

Just like a good Agile leader will do for their teams and organization.


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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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