The 4 important Leadership Behaviors in an Agile Transformation

Like with many things leadership plays a pivotal role in setting up an agile transformation to be successful. While there is agile manifesto, behaviors, principles and all of that, I figured it all comes down to 4-key contracts that leadership must establish with their teams and then take their “SEAT” in an agile journey.

SEAT is really my way of qualifying 4-behaviors and establishing a “contract”.

Service Contract

More often than not, leaders are trained to get in and solve, tell the teams what to do, and even worse tell them to do it. Slowly but steadily either everyone is solving all the problems or no one is solving anything or even worse teams and leaders frustrate each other feeling the other person is not doing the job.

“How can I break down an impediment?” is fundamentally the mindset and being clear on things that teams should solve vs. leaders would solve is key.

In my view, things that are one time decisions, require systemic solves, or defining upfront guiding principles is a key leadership role and anything that is tactical and day-to-day needs to get handled at the team level.

Both leaders and teams need to establish this Service Contract, do a dry run on typical things that they are encountering and continually revisit that agreement. It is not a muscle that happens in day 1 but need to occur at least by day 90 to prevent ongoing frustrating moments.

Empowerment Contract

When people often tell me “I don’t feel empowered”, usually three things are at play — 1) Leaders haven’t aligned on Service Contract 2) The Support Ecosystem of a broader enterprise is not there yet 3) Teams are not entrepreneurial enough. Let’s break this down.

When leaders don’t align on the service contract, they end up gravitating towards telling the team “do this” or teams feel like leader is adjudicating the duties and not doing enough. Team feels obligated to do it and thereby begins a vicious and iterative cycle. Discontent begins to spread.

The other common issue is the support ecosystem of a broader enterprise is not there yet. “I need a contract done now”, “legal told me not to do this”, “cyber review took time”, “there is no policy for this” are all issues. Initially it requires a simple blocking and tackling but then these need to be codified. It is a matter of time, focus, and maturity.

The last but not least is teams are not entrepreneurial enough. Empowerment comes with a great responsibility. The teams set the pace, define the aspiration, and the journey to get there. If they are not bold enough and cannot work with others to solve the problems themselves, leaders begin to break their service contract and the vicious cycle starts again.

The Empowerment Contract is really about ironically identifying the boundaries of problem solves. Every person can solve every problem but in their own unique way. This causes breach of boundaries, violation of some hierarchy, or even worse inaction. On a constant basis, monitoring the issues, risks and agreeing to who owns what type of issues are important. In addition, it is about establishing the clear policies and processes to solve them.

Leadership needs to have a balanced perspective into solving these problems.

Alignment Contract

The term that we often use to mask corporate bureaucracy. Alignment Issues are often caused by 1) Territorial Scuffles 2) Lack of a common strategy 3) Too many cooks in the kitchen 4) Genuine disagreements.

Leadership plays a pivotal role in solving the territorial scuffles, defining a common strategy, and reorienting too many cooks in the kitchen. This is only possible by constantly keeping your ear to the ground. It is not another survey but a simple human conversation. In most situation, leadership is oblivious to this and expects people at the working ranks to figure out the solves. One thing leads to other and the system comes to a grinding halt!

Genuine disagreements are fantastic. It shows people care and want to figure it out. However, disagreements driven by opinions are harmful but disagreements driven by insights are absolutely fine.

In an opinion driven disagreement there is absolutely no way to figure out what works. The best way forward is to validate or invalidate them with proof points.

Alignment Contract is about clearly defining the Outcomes, Goals, Signals, Time Horizons and Ownership. If these things aren’t defined, the empowerment contract gets impacted first and few days later the service contract and the entire system begins to crumble!

Trust Contract

No one ever wakes up saying — I am going to do a bad job today. They are usually a result of their circumstance.

The single most important component of any team and it is amplified in the Agile context. Both leadership and teams need to trust each other. In the absence of a service, empowerment, and alignment contract, it is a free for all.

Leaders begin trusting their teams ability to do it, teams begin to solve for things themselves until it is too late, and entire system begins to become toxic and smell.

A colleague of mine recently said we don’t talk about people behind their back we talk with people.

The power of that quote is so true when a leader expresses frustration about a team or a team expresses frustration of a leader or even worse a team member expresses frustration of the other. In most cases, a service contract is broken, empowerment root causes weren’t determined, or alignment issues were left to fester for long!

Trust Contract is about how people talk to each other and solve when they see one of the above contracts go out of whack. It cannot be put in place and ironically trusted if leaders and teams don’t trust each other to begin with!

I started off by saying Agile Transformation and then started talking about hierarchy! Hierarchy is a corporate truth that is going to existing until human kind exists or people figure out a way to work in holacracy.

That is a different conversation for a different day.

How have you approached leadership implications in your agile transformation journeys?

Originally published at https://www.digitallymani.com on March 20, 2021.

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