The Certified Agile Leadership program , developed by the Scrum Alliance, aims to increase the effectiveness of leaders by providing a learning framework for developing agile leadership competencies. Pete Behrens, leadership-agility coach with Trail Ridge Consulting and board member of the Scrum Alliance, led a Developing Agile Leadership webinar in which he talked about the leadership program and explored what it means to be an agile leader and how leaders can improve their agility.
Behrens previously participated in the design of Scrum Alliance’s Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) program. InfoQ interviewed him about the importance of leadership and why changing how leaders lead and the leadership culture can be hard, leadership for self-organizing teams, the Certified Agile Leadership program, and what organizations can do to develop their agile leadership competencies.
InfoQ: What makes leadership so important if organizations want to adopt agile?
Pete Behrens: To be effective beyond a single team, organizational leadership plays a critical role in any organizational initiative, whether agile or otherwise. How an organization is structured and the values an organization lives by governs how effectively agile will be adopted.
Most companies approach agile as a process - they DO Scrum. This is a fairly naive approach that may work initially for a small group, but quickly runs into structural and cultural challenges beyond that initiative. Structural challenges include roles and responsibilities, team structures, locations, departments, etc. Once a team crosses leadership boundaries, power, influence, and ownership come into play and leadership must play a critical role in the agile approach to be effective.
InfoQ: Why is changing how leaders lead and the leadership culture so hard?
Behrens: This is a complicated multipart question. Let me address it in two parts.
First of all, change is difficult for everyone. Based on neuroscience research, human brains prefer paths that are known and routine because they require less energy and conscious focus to achieve. While this can be useful for driving your car to work and back with little effort, it becomes a hindrance when dealing with the increasing pace of change, uncertainty and complexity of work.
In a work setting, relying on past thinking, habits and behaviors limits more creative outcomes because it does not incorporate new learning and the current new context. Change is the norm, and thus changing how leaders lead must be the norm as well.
Edward Schein identified culture as the opposite side of the coin from leadership. Culture stems from leadership thinking and behaviors and eventually outlives the leaders over time and as the organization grows. Culture represents the organizational habits established over time.
So if it is difficult for people to change, imagine now trying to create change in an organizational system where the organizational habits are as engrained, or more so, than the leader’s habits. Breaking from traditions, norms and values of the past in organizations is extremely difficult and requires strong, persistent and engaged leadership to overcome.
InfoQ: Scrum promotes working in self-organizing teams. How does this impact leadership?
Behrens: Self-organizing, self-directing and self-managing groups are not new in a historical context. Dating back 2.5 million years ago, self-organizing, self-directing and self-managing tribes were the norm (Evolutionary Leadership Theory). Leadership at that time was task-oriented and leaders were chosen from the members of the tribe. If leaders became too over-bearing, members were free to leave and start their own tribe.
Self-organization was the way of the world until humans began to settle down in agricultural societies - about 13,000 years ago. The increased size of civilizations and the people’s dependence on these systems for food and safety created a separation between those in power and the rest of society. Leaders were now imposed and a single chain of command was established. People were not free to leave due to the risk of isolation and increasing domination and control was the norm.
As organizations and companies developed in our present day, they continued the model of these agricultural societies - imposed hierarchical leadership with little freedom of choice and high power ratios between leaders and workers.
Scrum, and many other approaches like it, is attempting to rekindle the power and agility of self-organizing teams. Recognizing that the human brain has a preference for autonomy, a shared sense of purpose, and a shared role in accomplishing that purpose.
Reorienting leadership to support self-organizing, self-directing, and self-managing teams is significant because it is the leader who currently controls the power and decisions in the organization. The leader must take the first step back in this transaction - enabling self-organizing teams to step forward. However, this is uncomfortable for most of today’s leaders.
InfoQ: Can you share some examples how leadership helped to increase the agility of teams and organizations?
Behrens: A couple of examples I have chosen include the McKinsey & Company IT and Salesforce.com.
Back in 2008, McKinsey & Company had a typical IT cost center spread between the US and India, supporting dozens of applications to enable its global consultancy of 9,000 people. However, costs were surging, delays were mounting and the business was increasing in frustration. Agile leadership within McKinsey & Company IT led its organization through a transformation, freeing its workforce from traditional roles, breaking down organizational silos for increased collaboration and sharing full responsibility of outcomes with the assigned teams.
This leadership re-orientation cut delivery times by 75%, reduced defects by 70% and overall lowered development and support costs by 60% over five years. Their dramatic turn around of the IT cost center opened up the opportunity to create a new delivery service for their clients in doing the same. McKinsey & Company is now enabling similar client successes through their McKinsey Digital Labs Service.
Back in 2006, Salesforce.com struggled to scale its organization and its product to meet the demands of the market. They were unable to release any new products that year and sought change. Agile Leadership at Salesforce leveraged its competitive culture in transforming their individually competitive culture to a team-based competitive culture to re-oriented the focus and impact of leaders throughout the organization.
By refocusing from a functional-matrix organization to a balanced-matrix organization where engineering managers focus on how products are developed and product owners focus on what products are developed, the organization opened the pipeline and began to flow again. Salesforce.com has become the market leader in CRM solutions, outpacing Oracle and SAP. This new team-orientation and agility allowed it to refocus on strategic initiatives each year to meet new market demands.
InfoQ: The Scrum Alliance is developing a program for leadership. Can you briefly describe it?
Behrens: The Scrum Alliance has developed the Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) Program which incorporates the concepts we have been discussing here in this interview. It is currently established as a two-part program: the first part is to create awareness and understanding of the agile leadership journey, the second part complements the leaders path on that journey with additional and deeper education and practice.
The program development occurred in two phases. Phase 1 in 2015 included myself along with Steven Denning, Pollyanna Pixton, Angela Johnson, and Simon Roberts. Phase 2 in 2016 included myself, Angela Johnson, Peter Green, Sanjiv Augustine, Scott Dunn, and Brian Rabon. Both program teams were supported by the Scrum Alliance staff including Lisa Reeder, Erika Jones, and Manny Gonzalez.
Pre-certified agile-leadership courses and coaching have been running for years across our training community. Under the new Certified Agile Leadership Program, workshops and coaching have started, both privately and publicly. Private workshops are not listed. Upcoming public courses are listed on the Certified Agile Leadership Courses webpage .
The CAL Program has been created to be a flexible education program which can incorporate multiple learning modes for leaders - training, coaching, and practice. It is set up as a set of learning objectives which guide the learning but provide flexibility for both the educator and leader participants to customize their learning path.
The Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) Program is the gold standard today in introductory agile education with over 400,000 certifications worldwide. This new Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) program hopes to bring the same quality education experience and broad education exposure to organizational leaders.
InfoQ: What can organizations do to develop leadership?
Behrens: The first step in any improvement program is self-awareness. Leaders need to know that there is an alternative path and that there are maps and guides to help them through this journey. Knowing your own thinking, habits, biases and behaviors is crucial to understanding what to do to improve them.
I have one additional comment about self-awareness. Most leadership development programs focus on leadership skills and competencies. However, this is based on the assumption that all adults have the same level of maturity. The reality is that all adults continue to mature well into adulthood and this maturity is a key component of their effectiveness at leveraging skills.
Helping leaders understand that there is a maturity model and developmental stages for leaders can help them navigate their challenges and steer a path toward improved leadership. And while education is a great catalyst for starting this journey - education is not enough. Leadership maturity requires practice - a lot of practice. Think of a professional athlete striving to be the top of their game - it is a never-ending journey.
Providing leadership assessment and coaching is tremendously powerful in terms of increasing the pace of learning and growth. You won’t find a professional athlete without at least one coach. Most have many coaches guiding their development across a range of improvement.