Posted: 08 Dec. 2022 7 min. read

Want to scale Agile? Leadership matters

Making Agile unique to your organization through great leadership

A blog post by Lars Cromley, technology fellow, Deloitte Consulting LLP; Diana Kearns-Manolatos, senior manager, Center for Integrated Research, Deloitte Services LP; Jonathan Holdowsky, senior manager, Center for Integrated Research, Deloitte Services LP

Most leaders want better, faster business outcomes for their organizations, and many see Agile as a way to get them. It is—but only if it’s done right. And right doesn’t mean implementing Agile piecemeal, to put out fires throughout pockets of the organization. Right means understanding what you need from Agile, building a plan to get there, and—most importantly—scaling it to the organization with a thorough, strategic approach to make those better, faster outcomes a reality. And to get Agile right, leadership matters ... a lot.

How leaders can help their Agile teams

Leadership doesn’t mean building and managing the most Agile teams. It doesn’t matter if you have 500 Agile teams. If they’re not functioning, they’re adding to the chaos. Instead, it’s essential for leaders to understand the special challenges of Agile at scale and manage to that scale. Leaders embrace change and typically manage and measure success in ways that reflect the agility they’re trying to achieve.

So how do leaders help and not hinder Agile teams? 

  • They build empowered teams: Most teams, despite being staffed with Agile personnel, often fail to work together well because of internal mandates or conflicts. 
  • They fit team members to appropriate roles: Roles like scrum master, Agile coach, and product owner are critical, and it’s essential to fill these roles with the right people. It’s also crucial to understand that just because someone is “in IT” doesn’t mean they’re an Agile expert. Effective leaders find talent with a good mix of technical and people skills to foster team cohesion.
  • They understand that each team has a different culture: What works for one company or team often won’t work for another. Good leaders recognize that and understand the underlying cultures of teams are ever-changing, they replace rigid management styles, and they evolve as the needs of their organization and markets evolve.
  • They think outside the orthodox box: Many organizations still manage with practices evolved from the first, second, and third industrial revolutions—relying on meeting financial goals instead of creating value. Successfully scaling Agile requires leaders to combat their fear of losing power and instead focus on the value created from Agile initiatives rather than a rigid focus on numerically defined productivity.
  • They understand each team has different needs: Since no two teams and no two organizations have identical cultures, leaders must allow Agile structures to grow organically within teams. Effective leaders are self-aware and strive to find what works best for each team, applying Agile management practices accordingly to give teams the freedom to find out what works for them.\
  • They are servant leaders: Leadership and management should recognize that it is the people on their teams who execute daily tasks and who deliver value to the organization. Leaders should exercise self-awareness and serve as facilitators of learning and experimentation instead of dictators of work.
  • They reimagine success: Agile is about creating value for the organization and the end user. That may mean failures in a conventional sense or successes in ways that cannot easily be captured. For example, instead of measuring success through quantitative outcomes like time taken for product development, leaders could focus on qualitative outcomes like the team’s ability to communicate and solve problems. This entails leaders shifting their mindsets to promote learning from failures without judgment—even given negative outcomes.

What leaders should keep in mind as they scale Agile

Scaling Agile, even if done successfully, has its challenges. It introduces new complexities to the organization, especially as it scales larger and reaches more of the enterprise. There are a few things that good leaders keep in mind as they scale their Agile initiatives.

  • Avoid too much governance: As teams scale Agile, it is essential to maintain a balance between agreed development standards and autonomy. Good leaders develop a common, agreed-upon set of standards that allow for basic interoperability while enabling teams to operate independently, according to their mandate and culture.
  • Keep the bigger picture: While organizations can benefit from continuous improvement, they also need to maintain the time and space to adequately evaluate much larger shifts in markets and customer needs. Effective leaders keep this big picture in mind and manage to that while helping their teams work through the sprint-cycle chaos.
  • Never consider Agile as a silver bullet: What Agile does, ideally, is allow organizations to better operate within that larger business culture while inspiring Agile team members to do their best work within their individual microcultures. At the same time, leaders must assess whether their organizations (or any parts thereof) really need Agile. If you can’t measure the outcome in terms of value, Agile may not be a good fit.
  • Start small, with a passion: Before thinking big, consider a single “lighthouse” team that can incubate what works and doesn’t work. Create a clear and consumable vision—a road map that is not just for the C-suite but for the entire organization. It’s going to be an incremental focus on what teams can deliver in a given period and the milestones they can achieve.
  • Define success according to transformation goals: Leaders need to transition from metrics that use terms like “cost” and “return” to terms that describe value outcomes and meaning—which may require the organization to rearchitect work processes that align with the use of such value metrics. Even as Agile teams increasingly rely on metrics that reflect an Agile sensibility, they also need to find ways to “translate” such metrics into terms that an outside stakeholder can understand.

Lead effectively, and the outcomes will follow

Agile organizations, when they’re truly successful, are continually learning, and they fail fast with a faster recovery. They’re about creating value, customer delight, and innovation—quickly and without rigidity. Sure, you’ll likely need to find ways to translate Agile-aligned measures like “value creation” to terms that traditional external stakeholders can understand, and success may not always be totally captured in the bottom line. However, Agile is a journey, not a destination, and it will allow your organization to operate more successfully in a chaotic, highly competitive global marketplace. Lead well, and the outcomes you seek will follow.

To learn more, read our Deloitte Insights article “When scaling Agile, engaged self-aware leadership matters. A lot.” 

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David Linthicum

David Linthicum

Managing Director | Chief Cloud Strategy Officer

As the chief cloud strategy officer for Deloitte Consulting LLP, David is responsible for building innovative technologies that help clients operate more efficiently while delivering strategies that enable them to disrupt their markets. David is widely respected as a visionary in cloud computing—he was recently named the number one cloud influencer in a report by Apollo Research. For more than 20 years, he has inspired corporations and start-ups to innovate and use resources more productively. As the author of more than 13 books and 5,000 articles, David’s thought leadership has appeared in InfoWorld, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, NPR, Gigaom, and Prior to joining Deloitte, David served as senior vice president at Cloud Technology Partners, where he grew the practice into a major force in the cloud computing market. Previously, he led Blue Mountain Labs, helping organizations find value in cloud and other emerging technologies. He is a graduate of George Mason University.