What it means to be a lean agile leader


A common mistake of many leaders is assuming that Lean and Agile is a self-contained set of practices that will magically make teams more productive while the rest of the organization—including leaders—will remain unchanged and will continue to operate in the exact same way as before. If you are a leader that is determined to help your organization deliver more value, here’s what you need to know about Lean-Agile leadership.

Focusing on the flow of value, end-to-end

First of all, the role of the Lean-Agile leader is to inspire and enable the teams by focusing the organization on the flow of value. A leader must see and understand the full value stream. And has to help the teams to identify and remove impediments to flow of value. And, as it often happens, multiple teams, departments or organizational units may be involved. The task of the leader is to facilitate improvement end-to-end, as opposed to making local optimization. That usually means that you will have to use help and support of other stakeholders in the organization. Maybe, as a leader, it will be your task to initiate value stream analysis or start limiting excessive work-in-process to actually speed up, or to help the teams organize around value so that less time would be wasted in hand-offs and unnecessary rework. But when we are talking about flow of value, the focus is not just on “flow” but also on “value”. Ultimately, it may be not that hard to improve the mechanics of the flow and deliver more; but what’s delivered may not benefit the customer or the organization. So, focusing on business outcomes is a big part of taking an end-to-end view on value delivery. And to keep things productive, the organization has to constantly improve. The spirit of relentless, continuous improvement is something that you as a leader must instill in those involved in creating value.

Enabling people and interactions

Second, people and their interactions are key to value creation. The performance of the entire value stream will depend on whether or not people find intrinsic motivation in what they do, whether or not they have the required skill-set to cope with technical and other challenges, whether or not they have a certain degree of psychological safety and whether or not people effectively interact with one another to find better ways to implement complex solutions.

Embracing flexibility and responsiveness to change

Third, when dealing with complex tasks whether in software development or marketing or talent management or other important domains, it is impossible to be right with a long-term detailed plan of action. So, flexibility, adaptivity, and responsiveness to change, must be baked into regular routines and fully supported by the leaders. And possibly you will have to help relax some constraints that prevent the teams from delivering more value. Maybe their planning horizon is unrealistically long, and it would require your support to help teams start operating within a shorter timebox. Or maybe you will help establish a prioritization technique based on business outcomes that will help everyone focus on the most important thing at a time. Or maybe you will provide help by making exploration and experimentation an integral part of value delivery process.

Without full, active support of leaders, implementing Lean-Agile practices will hardly produce a significant improvement. But leaders that have embraced Lean-Agile mindset are the driving force that helps the teams unleash their full potential.

Please, carefully review the three main bullets that we considered today; and plan your next step as a Lean-Agile leader.

Alex Yakyma

Alex Yakyma is the author of “Pursuing Enterprise Outcomes” and “The Rollout”. As a consultant, Alex is helping enterprises succeed with complex challenges. Throughout his career, he operated in multi-cultural, highly distributed environments. Alex has trained a large number of change agents and leaders whose key role is to help their organizations achieve higher effectiveness at pursuing business outcomes.

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