Agile leadership

Leadership is critical to the success of projects, teams and entire organisations. Honesty, trust in the team and the ability to make the right decisions with a clear mind have been in demand for many decades. However, the qualities of a good leader have recently changed slightly against the backdrop of agile transformation. This raises the question of what makes an agile leader, what skills and aspects are important in the recipe for success of an agile leader, and what role modern technology plays in this.
Four people in a meeting in front of a whiteboard.


Changing leadership skills

Imagine a traditional team: Employees plan and prioritise tasks with their line manager. This is done in a more or less strict hierarchy. 
In an agile team, however, the supervisor has a completely different role. They do not specify how things should be done, but what the result should be. This is because agile teams tend to be interdisciplinary and cross-functional. This means that team members take on different roles, and a team is put together in such a way that it can do everything itself. A manager needs to rethink and become more of a coach to the team. This is mainly about removing obstacles and teaching the team how to solve them themselves, introducing new methods and motivating the team to succeed. But this change takes time and certain conditions must be met.

Basic requirements for agile leadership

At its core, agile transformation changes the entire organisation, its culture and structure. Entirely new ways of working are designed to improve value creation in the organisation. 
All employees are affected by this change, but this change can only take place if management leads by example and internalises the agile approach. Therefore, the management has a crucial role to play.
Responsibility towards the company

An important factor is organisational change, including the refocusing of the business strategy. This should make it easier for the team to adapt to changes in the industry and the market. To align everything with the company's goals and to create transparency, the Kanban method is a good choice. This method provides a visual representation of each element of the work. These include Portfolio Boards, Team Boards and Programme Boards. The boards, which can be linked together, enable both teams and management to see whether the strategy is in line with the company's goals, as transparent task control is possible. This interaction will be discussed in more detail below.
Another important point is that the results need to be communicated to the executive management. This can be done using business intelligence tools that can produce reports on quality, speed, trends and capacity based on external and internal information. By producing consistent reports, management can make the best decisions based on complete data. As an agile leader, this continuous improvement is always at the forefront of your actions. You should always be looking for ways to improve your team, especially as they face change.
Responsibility towards the team

It is not easy to motivate a team in the demanding situation of change, but it is in such moments that the leader's skills are put to the test. 
A balance has to be found between the workload and the available capacity, by knowing exactly what the team's workload is so that the manager always knows how much new work can be taken on. The Kanban board, which shows the work plan and progress in real time, also helps. Continuously checking and adjusting the ideal workload optimises value creation. True team leadership removes anything that might prevent the team from completing its tasks. This includes risks and dangers, which must always be discussed openly within the team, because only if they are known and named can they be avoided. Therefore, risk indicators should always be kept in mind and possible disruptive factors should be asked about in the team on a regular basis.
In order to be able to decide whether things can continue as they are or whether something needs to be changed, it is necessary to keep an eye on the KPIs. KPIs are Key Performance Indicators, which must be defined as key figures that relate to success or performance, among other things. To do this, you need to establish objective evaluation criteria and collect data in order to make the best decisions for continuous performance improvement.

Kanban boards

Kanban boards have already been mentioned in this article, now we will take a look at the interaction between Portfolio Boards, Team Boards and Programme Boards. 
Portfolio Boards are a method of improving the company's ability to deliver by visualising the tasks and limiting the work to be done. It can be used at all hierarchical levels and can be combined with the Team Board and the Programme Board.
The Kanban cards on the Portfolio Board are subordinate to one or more Kanban cards on the Team Board. They are used to keep track of all parts of the project, especially as the project speeds up and more challenges arise. When a Kanban card is moved to a new column on the Team Board, the superordinate portfolio card is automatically moved to the next column. In this way, all important initiatives can be tracked, visible to the whole team and linked to the higher level projects.
If the Portfolio Board is to be linked to the Programme Board, the project must be broken down into Minimum Marketable Features (MMFs). An MMF is the smallest amount of functionality in a product that needs to be present for a customer to see value in it. By breaking it down, the team can maintain a steady pace of work that successfully gets the team to the goal.
In addition, if the MMFs are broken down into User Stories, these can be found on the Team Board. In this way, the team can work with the Team Board and monitor progress there, while management can monitor progress on the Portfolio Board.
Not mentioned so far, but also beneficial, is the use of the Portfolio Board at management level. The management can break down the objectives into strategic initiatives, which can then be broken down into MMFs. These MMFs are then converted into User Stories for the team, which can be found on the Team Board. As the team starts to work on these user stories, the higher-level MMFs are also automatically pushed out so that management can closely track progress.
These ways show how agile working can adapt to change and create a link between senior management and the team without exerting too much control.


An important point for an agile leader is to make sure that the communication between them and management and the team, or the interaction between all parties, is right. This is not easy, especially when change is involved. However, there are ways to help the company and the team through these changes, especially through the use of modern technologies such as Kanban.

Agile leadership - the IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Agile

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