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14/09/2021

Lean-Agile Leadership: Delivering Value in a Complex World?

A Complete Guide to delivering value in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, changing, ambiguous) world 

Change seems to be the one constant; customers, workplaces, employees, disruptive competitors, regulation, social and environmental factors are all contributing to organisations needing to be adaptive and respond quickly to the forces impacting their operating model. 

This is where Lean-Agile leadership comes in. 

To deliver value with its operating model, an organisation has no choice but to consider how Lean-Agile methods can be utilised to improve an organisation’s ability to change. If Lean-Agile operating models help organisations to be more effective and efficient, what does this mean for the leaders within the organisation; how do they “show up” differently to lead every day? 

Some Definitions on Agile Versus Lean 

A lot of people get quite passionate about the Agile versus Lean argument, but we see it a little differently. Lean thinking has been around since the 1950s and became “famous” when Toyota utilised Lean principles to create the Toyota Production System and subsequently out-compete the United States in the Automobile market. 

Agile gained notoriety between 1990-2000 as a means to develop better software. Agile borrowed aspects of lean and could be considered a close ‘cousin’; so we see Lean and Agile as complementary approaches to delivering value. 

When considering the differences between Agile and Lean, it’s best to see them as a body of knowledge, practices and methods to draw from.

“Enabling” Versus “Installing” a New Operating Model 

Lean-Agile leaders do not impose a new way of working onto their employees. Recently, there have been many examples of consulting firms selling a “playbook” approach to the adoption of agile as a way to work. Usually this involves a big-bang implementation with upfront design of how teams will work. 

Our recommendation is to start the change to agile through small experiments with 1-2 teams. This allows learning and insights to inform a broader ‘scaled’ implementation of agile across the organisation. There will come a time when the operating model within a business unit or even the entire organisation will need to change in order to support agile, but this should be done after a series of smaller experiments.

Implementing Change Top-Down, Bottom-Up and Across 

Lean-Agile leaders show the way and model the new behaviours for the rest of the organisation. Lean-Agile leaders are team #1 to adopt new ways to work, and send the strongest signal to the rest of the organisation that the change is to be taken seriously. 

Of course, this can be combined with smaller experiments within individual teams; together this bottom-up and top-down approach creates momentum for the culture to shift towards agility. 

Leading the Implementation of a Lean-Agile Operating Model 

Many articles have been written and much research has been done on what leaders need to do to deal with volatile, complex, uncertain, ambiguous environments; so this article will not re-prosecute what leadership is. What is not often considered though is how leaders need to enable the adoption of new ways to work and operate so as to remain relevant and deliver value. Here are five leadership behaviours that support enabling change in how an organisation delivers:

  1. Push decisions down to those with the most information (closest to the customer). 
  2. Let teams experiment with the way of working but don’t remove accountability for delivery outcomes. 
  3. Proactively manage impediments; leaders need to focus their effort on blocker removal. 
  4. Use metrics to monitor time to value and frequency of value delivery; the numbers should trend in the right direction over time. 
  5. Build and protect psychological safety; teams need to feel safe to try new things; even when the pressure to deliver is on. 

Conclusion 

Lean-Agile leadership is part mindset (attitude) and part behavioural (what the leader does and says). To make the shift to becoming a Lean-Agile leader requires new knowledge (a little education via courses /certifications) some advice and support (agile coaches do this) and some process design (consultants help with this).

It is important for leaders new to Lean-Agile to understand what they need to stop doing, what they need to start doing and what doesn’t change (continue doing). This start-stop-continue is a great way to plan your transition to becoming a Lean-Agile leader; to learn more reach out to MetaPM for help. 

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