How to be a successful agile leader in a technology-driven world

One thing that we can be absolutely sure about in our uncertain world is that it is impossible to predict the future. That, and the fact that technology is driving change at an unprecedented rate, says Simon Hayward

The pace of technological change is pushing us towards more agile ways of working.

Technology, and what we do with it, is changing how we behave. It has altered the way we collaborate and communicate with our colleagues and customers. The explosion of internet connectivity also raises questions about who, or what, is in control. For many business leaders, this can be quite a challenge.  We need to create new ways of working that reflect the changing world outside and inside our organisations and enable us to respond to unexpected opportunities or challenges with speed and focus.

Why become a more agile leader?

Even if you feel your organisation is stable and successful, it’s possible that someone may come along, disrupt your industry, and turn your world upside-down.

Agility has become a highly-prized leadership asset because agile leaders can develop agile teams that in turn create agile businesses, which are able to adapt quickly to the ever-changing competitive conditions in our technology-driven world. Agile businesses tend to be innovative, customer centred, and focused on achieving goals.

There are opportunities around today we couldn’t have imagined in the past. Agility enables us to embrace these opportunities. It helps us to innovate, to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and to stay ahead of the competition.

The agile leadership paradox

The agile leadership paradox involves building a more connected business while at the same time disrupting that business sufficiently to reinvent it.  To become an agile leader in this era of digital disruption, leaders need to be both connectors and agitators. They need to embrace both sides of the agile leadership paradox: the need to enable and the need to disrupt.

When we look at the business leaders at the helm of today’s most successful organisations, they tend to be quite disruptive.  They are unwilling to accept current rules, and willing to think the unthinkable, to achieve breakthroughs in innovation in both the customer experience and the operating processes of the organisation. They go against the grain, challenge preconceptions, and are unafraid to encourage what others might see as unreasonable step changes in productivity when it matters most.

However, as well as being ‘disruptors’, these people are also ‘enablers’. They understand the need to engage people with transformation. To do this, they build a clear sense of purpose to underpin the importance of where the business is going. This encourages others to follow with conviction. These leaders create an environment where fear of failure is replaced by ideas generation, collaboration and innovation. None of this can be achieved in a traditional command-and-control structure. However, it can be achieved if leaders ‘let go’ and devolve responsibility to others. Successful agile leaders remove barriers to productivity and create an environment where teams are free to get on with doing a great job.

Leading agile teams

At the heart of agile ways of working is the team. One of the central principles of agile organisations is that teams get on with it and self-manage.  In a truly agile set-up, the team is a multi-skilled, collaborative unit of production. Teams also need freedom. An agile leader empowers team members to decide how they will achieve their goals, in line with overall organisational strategy. They work together to deliver what customers want, quickly and effectively. Many leaders find it difficult to cede control to others, especially if they’re trying to drive change. However, if they can devolve decision-making and responsibility more widely across teams, it empowers others to achieve results.

Agile leaders help to create a compelling purpose for their teams, one that means something special to team members and which gives them clarity about the real value they collectively provide to the enterprise. For very task-oriented leaders this can seem a somewhat esoteric activity.  However, the process of defining a team purpose together, of articulating the reason this team exists, can be powerful. Defining purpose is a crucial step in becoming a great team, as it provides a constant reminder of why the team needs to work together, and with what focus.

The pursuit of shared purpose is a powerful motivator.  A common purpose is crucial to teams knitting together to achieve great things. Teams with shared purpose are also good at solving their own problems. Team members share mutual accountability and a willingness to act, which in turn leads to quality results.

Once the purpose is clear, teams find it easier to agree the shared goals they should focus on. The team members will prioritise their role in the team over and above their individual goals, if the purpose is sufficiently compelling.

Having explicit shared purpose and goals helps to build trust between team members, and an appreciation of the contribution each member can make, so that they can value the differences between them. Trust in a business context is about having a real confidence in others, in their capability to deliver, and their character to do so reliably and honestly. Building trust in your teams is an essential foundation if you want them to work together in agile ways, and it starts with creating an environment where they feel safe, and therefore confident to take risks. Creating this requires dedicated effort from the team and the team leader to building this confidence through creating time and space for honest conversations, team reviews and reinforcement of positive behaviours.

Fail fast and learn

A key challenge here is that many leaders employ management techniques that have proved successful in the past but are largely unsuitable for addressing today’s problems. Because they do not know how to change, they end up focusing too much time and effort on the wrong things.

To adopt agile thinking, many leaders need to change their own belief systems and attitudes. An example of this is not blaming team members if things go wrong – to develop agility, leaders need to encourage experimentation alongside a ‘fail fast and learn’ approach where team members learn from mistakes, move on, and do it differently next time. It is up to leaders to create a safe environment that enables team members to work in an agile fashion despite pushback from elsewhere.

What makes agile organisations special is their ability to balance fast action and rapid change with clarity, structure and stability. Agile organisations are typically powerful engines for innovation and learning, with strong motivation from having meaningful values and inspirational leadership.

If you can develop teams to face the challenges of our technology-driven world, your organisation will be better able to react and adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Through building trust, creating a culture that brings a united sense of purpose to the organisation, and empowering the people around you to take responsibility and make decisions with speed, you will be well on the way to building an agile business – one that is more customer-focused, innovative and competitive.

No matter what industry you work in, chances are it is becoming more complex and competitive. A focus on agility will help ensure that you can innovate and adapt with speed – whatever lies ahead.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus, Honorary Professor at Alliance Manchester Business School, author of The Agile Leader.

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