Agile Leaders Needed

Last week was a “gearing up” week after the holidays, and I had put aside several Wall Street Journals. I always check the Management section in the Wednesday edition, and since the recycling folks were on the way I was hurriedly reading the January 4th Management section.

I’m so glad I didn’t miss the lead article, Technology Radically Reshapes Leadership. Of course, technology has actually been reshaping leadership for years, particularly as access to information has become more ubiquitous. The all-knowing, I’ll-make-the-decisions leader has long been irritating at best and a productivity killer at worst. It’s easier and easier to get the information needed for good decisions to the front line so that lengthy “up and back down” approval processes are unnecessarily slow. Technology and data enable agility and speed, but only if leaders don’t muck up the process.

Three big trends are touched on in the article and are easy to see around us. I think they all have huge implications for the way we lead:

  1. We can get and use massive amounts of data. Our capacity to both gather data and to analyze and makes decisions based on data has exploded. Companies are investing in technology to help them organize and make sense of data. Equifax opened a facility in 2015 with small, self-directed teams working to leverage data and design new products – with only half the managers in a typical Equifax facility.  Leaders here are agile leaders: they don’t direct – they serve as coaches and enablers to help the teams get things done.
  2. “Agile” has moved way beyond software. I’ve long admired three things about the Agile process in software development: it depends on strong individual accountability and specific commitments; it’s iterative and “agile” in the sense that needed shifts in direction are enabled; and, perhaps most importantly, it respects the professionals doing the work – their voices really direct the project. Agile techniques are now spreading to all kinds of projects and teams , and this trend has a profound impact on what successful leadership looks like. See Embracing Agile article in HBR last year for an introduction to the spread of agile beyond software. Even senior teams are “embracing agile.”
  3. The new recruit can ping the CEO. Andrew Wilson, CIO at Accenture, is quoted in the article. He says that years ago the idea of a young recruit “pinging a C-suite member with an instant message” was absurd. Not so any more.

New ways of working – collaborative, self-directed teams that hold themselves accountable – are spreading. The data explosion (and the technology changes that drives) is impacting every workplace.  We will need “agile” leaders in every sense of the word.

Carolyn (Lyn) Turknett


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