How executive leaders create the space for agile to flourish
Lyssa Adkins, Author of Coaching Agile Teams and an agile and leadership coach
About this podcast episode
Change is pervasive, perpetual, and exponential. Organizational efficiency is often hidden behind a veneer of busyness. Effective leaders embrace agile values and build a safe space for teams to succeed.
In today’s podcast, Lyssa Adkins shares the mindset executive leaders should consider if they want to embrace agile values.
(transcripts are auto-generated, so please excuse the brevity)
Welcome to the podcast
Bill Raymond: Hi and welcome to the podcast. Today, I’m joined by Lyssa Adkins, author of "Coaching Agile Teams," and an agile and leadership coach.
Bill Raymond: Hi, Lisa, how are you today?
Lyssa Adkins: Hi, I’m doing great. Thank you for the invitation and for this conversation, who knows where it’s going to go?
Bill Raymond: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to talk about how leaders create the space for agile to flourish today. But before we get started, could you introduce yourself?
Lyssa Adkins: Sure. I’m probably most well known for my work for over a decade in helping emerge the profession of agile coaching, and the discipline of agile coaching. And recently, I’ve been shifting my focus to where the greatest pain point is, which is leadership, leaders individually, and then collectively as leadership teams, and the shifts that they are being asked to make to be more of a match for this, you know, sort of confounding and volatile era that we’re in, and how that’s related to agile and just modern ways of working in general.
Bill Raymond: When we talk about agile transformation, very often, we just talk about a product team or a software team or IT.
How can leaders start to think differently?
Bill Raymond: But it is expanding throughout the organization, and there is a different mindset that we have as a agile team and sometimes we expect leaders to act differently as well, and to understand what that means.
Bill Raymond: So could you maybe at a very high level to get started, talk about what that means from the context of this conversation we’re having today?
Lyssa Adkins: Yeah, I think what it means is that we start putting ourselves in the worldview in the context of what leaders care about. You know, we agileists for a long time have been you know, working at the team, the portfolio, the product level, you know, up to sort of director, senior, vice president sort of level in organizations pretty regularly.
But we haven’t really entered their world yet. And that’s what I have been attempting to do for the last several years, is enter their world and say, so, you know, if one of the goals is to deliver better and to deal with the constant change that’s happening through agile, if that’s one of the goals, then what’s the daily context that leaders care about that would have them clear the way for those goals to happen, for agile to flourish in their organization, and for them to be able to deal with the complex confounding world we’re in a little bit better?
Agile and Non-agile Team Differences
Bill Raymond: We talk about this very frequently, what agile means, but could you share what an agile team looks like and what some of their focus is that might be different from if you will, maybe a non-agile team, and the differences between what they might expect from their leaders?
What is an Agile Team?
Lyssa Adkins: Sure. So an agile team is one that is going to be in constant direct conversation and collaboration with the business people that want the thing they’re creating. An agile team is going to be delivering a piece of that actual business value on a regular cadence, let’s say every two weeks. They will be able to have real customers inspect that delivery of value, so that you can change when it’s cheap and you can adapt and actually build the thing the customer wants, rather than the thing we sort of imagined they wanted. And an agile team will be expecting to have no wait time, not waiting for things they need to come into the team and not waiting for the product that they make to hit the customer. That should just flow very, very smoothly.
Lyssa Adkins: So agile teams are going to expect that leaders are there to sort of take the ball of a big organizational impediment, that they will throw a leaders’ way.
Lyssa Adkins: Because one of the things that agile does, well, I often say this sort of tongue-in-cheek is that, you know, the only thing agile is guaranteed to deliver a hundred percent of the time are impediments. You know, and impediments are those things that make it so this team that has a charge to do something important for a customer doesn’t get stopped by the sort of the regular big machine sort of mechanical processes we’ve set up from the last century, that are still very much alive in many modern organizations.
Lyssa Adkins: So they’re going to expect leaders to number one, essentially, let them make a lot of decisions and stay out of the way of their value creation. Number two, come into the process at specific times, and there are specific times for leaders to do that, to give significant feedback, to make sure that the product is exactly hitting what we want in the marketplace.
Lyssa Adkins: And then number three, be Johnny-on-the-spot, like right there, to help clear those organizational impediments when they arise.
Lyssa Adkins: That’s the agile team and what they would sort of expect from leaders.
What is a Non-agile Team?
Lyssa Adkins: A non-agile team is going to be a lot more passive. A non-agile team is essentially going to, you know, maybe the team members don’t work together in a concentrated block of time every day. Maybe they’re not directly connected to the business people, who are directly connected to the customers. You know, maybe they’re just sort of waiting to do their piece and hand it off to the next person. So you can already feel like even in the way of describing that, like how much more waiting there is, how much we’re used to making, as my husband likes to say, making a plan for a plan for a phase gate review, you how much we’re used to raising something that’s right in our way, we can’t do our work, but yet we know it’s not going to get addressed anytime soon, so we just sort of fill the time with other things. And there’s a lot of that sort of inefficiency that goes on in organizations, and is it most of the time, hidden by a veneer of busyness. So most leaders don’t know what’s even happening.
Project Management in Agile is Very Different
Bill Raymond: Yeah, I can see that for sure. And, you know, I can tell you one of my aha moments in my personal career. You know, I’ve been in the project management business for a very long time, and as a project manager, my role was to be the intermediary between the project team and the sponsor. And very often it was a sponsor that made the decisions.
Bill Raymond: So I, as a leader in the project team, as a project manager, people would come to me and say, can I do this? We think we need that. The customer said they want this change. I have to go back and talk to the sponsor. And then the sponsor would say, I don’t like that idea, I do like this idea and we got sign off on each and every one of those things, and I bring it back to the team, sometimes the team was unhappy.
Bill Raymond: But when I moved into the agile world, frankly, the project manager’s role is very different. As a matter of fact, it’s kind of like hands off the agile team, and those agile teams are talking to the customers, as you said, and they’re saying, oh, the customer just told us that this isn’t going to work for them, so we are shifting on a dime and making a change, and there’s no, if you will, big project plan either.
Bill Raymond: And while the leader might have some say in what the team does, they’re usually not the ones making the decisions. it’s these agile teams that are doing that because they’re the ones that are closest to where the customer is.
Bill Raymond: So that was my big aha moment.
Agile is a Very Disorienting World
Lyssa Adkins: Well, I mean, I think it’s an amazing aha you’re having there. The thing I want to highlight about it is that agile is a very disorienting world. The agile way of working much better matches this volatile and uncertain time we’re in that’s actually, frankly, not projected to get any better anytime soon.
Lyssa Adkins: In fact, you know, maybe even change is going to be on a even more steep exponential curve, right? So agile works beautifully with it, but you see how disorienting the two things are. Like you talked about not like a baby step forward from one to the next, you talked about two completely different worlds.
Lyssa Adkins: And I think that the thing I would add to this is, I recently was asked to do a keynote, and it was for leaders of supply organizations to a big multinational corporation. And they wanted to know, OK, it sounds like agile just lets us change all the time and that doesn’t feel very safe. So how can we react and work with all these changes that are happening and still sort of have some semblance of where we’re going, and still sort of have some way of knowing that it’s going to turn out OK. And there’s two things I want to pull apart here. Number one, no one will guarantee that anything is going to turn out OK. And I think if leaders are looking for that, that’s the thing they’re going to have to start doing, their own inner work on to deal with the fact that we’re in an era where everything’s falling away, everything you counted on is falling away. So that’s a bit, no one’s going to guarantee it’s going to be OK.
There are Safety Harnesses Built Into Agile
Lyssa Adkins: However, there is safety in metabolizing all of these changes using the agile practices, principles, and values. That agile actually creates safety for us to do that. And while everything else is falling away, while you can’t guarantee that the next change that’s going to rock your whole organization, you can’t guarantee how that’s going to happen or what that’s going to do, you can build safety in using the agile pieces to metabolize that change, and no matter what the change is, get something good out of it.
Lyssa Adkins: There are these safety harnesses built in to the way agile works. And I think what happens is that unfortunately, when agile comes into a lot of large organizations, those safety harnesses get taken out, right? And so this is like, I just really want to impress upon people, if you do the agile frameworks as intended, you’ve got the safety for adapting to change built in.
Bill Raymond: So far, what you shared was that there needs to be a shift in mindset. And we’ve also talked a little bit about the fact that the leaders will trust their teams to be working with the customers on a regular basis, and that they will be focused on delivering what those customer needs are.
Bill Raymond: So there’s maybe a little less, if you will, if we do that comparison between the old and the new way, there’s sort of a new level of trust that happens between the leaders and the teams. And there’s a lot of this concept of, you know, solving problems, closing impediments, I think is actually the words you used, and fixing those issues.
Strategic Perspective for a Leader
Bill Raymond: But, what about from the strategic perspective? Because of course, I could imagine, you know, as a leader that’s something that I struggle with on a regular basis. What am I leaving the teams to do versus how do I think about moving the company forward?
Bill Raymond: Could you talk a little bit about that?
Lyssa Adkins: Well, so far, I think our conversation is talking about teams that deliver value inside of organizations, sort of maybe the one or two levels of leaders above that.
Lyssa Adkins: I think there’s a lot for those leaders. I think those leaders that are in direct contact with teams, there’s certified agile leadership courses, there’s all kinds of things that help them understand how to use agile to their advantage. Who I’m really interested in, are the executive leaders of an organization that by and large, are not that involved with teams on a daily basis.
Lyssa Adkins: And yet what happens in organizations, is as agile continues to proliferate, as we start to get some good return from using it, then at some point it hits this glass ceiling in an organization. And that glass ceiling is usually the top leadership team, because that top leadership team is behaving in a frame of reference that is completely different than the rest of the organization now.
Lyssa Adkins: And the rest of the organization will absolutely be stopped by the level of consciousness and mental complexity of that top team. that’s where I think like the biggest bottleneck for using agile well is right now.
Mental Complexities of the Leadership Team
Bill Raymond: Yeah, so could you talk a little bit about what those complexities are?
Lyssa Adkins: Yeah, obviously, different for every leadership team and every leader, but as a general idea, what top leadership teams are faced with now, is that the way they have coped and the way they have thrived up to this point, no longer holds.
Lyssa Adkins: And if individuals think it does hold, after one or two conversations, they could start to say like, oh yeah, now that you’re asking me questions, Lyssa, I’m actually letting in how volatile and uncertain things are. I get how it doesn’t really hold anymore.
Lyssa Adkins: And so these top leaders come to sort of the same realization honestly, that agile teams come to, which is that we cannot control any of this, that the empirical process is our best hope. And for leaders even more is at stake. So much is at stake because of the way we’ve organized our economic activity, the way the stock market expects certain things.
I have such compassion for leaders who understand that their way of leading is not working as well as it used to. And yet at the same time, they’re up against the same sort of demands and stresses that they have been up against for a long time. Yet it doesn’t seem to be working well anymore.
The Inside Job
Lyssa Adkins: This is where the job becomes an inside job, you know, inside of each leader, and then more importantly, collectively with how that leadership team functions. So let’s just start with inside every leader first.
Lyssa Adkins: The inside job is to radically expand one’s mental complexity, to become a match for the complexity of the problems and situations we’re in on a daily basis in business these days.
Lyssa Adkins: And so what that means practically, let’s just take an example of like, well, there’s so many supply chain failures right now, so let’s just take a supply chain failure example. That’s pretty common, right?
Lyssa Adkins: So as a supply chain failure, you can’t get a key component that you need to make your product. The way we handle that right now, as leaders and as a leadership team, is we just sort of pile on the pressure. We’re like, make it happen, you know, we go into like massive overworked firefighting mode and we just continue to force. And that is one way of dealing with it, and maybe a useful way in a short term situation. But if we’re going to be encountering those sorts of failures over and over and over again, then it might be worth taking the time and looking at it from lots of different perspectives.
Lyssa Adkins: And so one of the most disorienting questions for leaders that is really useful to them is something like, what are these supply chain failures trying to tell you? Questions like, what is trying to happen here? If you were to take the perspective of your supplier, what would you see? If you were to take the perspective of the relationship system that your organization and all of your suppliers are in, what’s happening there that might be clues?
Lyssa Adkins: These are ways to expand one’s range of possibilities to create new points of view. I realize this is still sounding so abstract, because it’s just so different for each leader in each leadership team, but there is absolutely this beautiful instrument that helps leaders see what their leadership impact actually is, compared to what they think it is.
Lyssa Adkins: And it helps them move from this sort of predict-and-plan mentality that used to work, you know, quite a bit better, to a more sense-and-respond mentality, which is exceptionally uncomfortable. I’m telling you, I’m in it every day myself, it’s super uncomfortable, but it’s more of a match for the volatility.
Keeping Yourself Thinking Differently
Bill Raymond: As a leader, there’s this expectation that things are moving forward and you have excellent communication with your teams. So when a big change happens, like suddenly the supplier. I can’t deliver as promised. One of the things that might happen and go through your head is I already made commitments based on what the supplier committed.
Bill Raymond: And I already made commitments because my team said that we can make these dates. And now there’s a sense that you have to do something about it. And I think that puts you into this fight or flight mode.
Bill Raymond: Now you have to start pushing to get things back on track. And what you’re saying is, well, yes, sometimes you do just have to push. You have to push hard.
Bill Raymond: As you said, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. But here’s the big problem is if you start to go down that path, it’s hard to step back and think differently.
Bill Raymond: Do you have any ideas, concepts, approaches that someone might take as a leader to think differently about the challenge at hand?
Lyssa Adkins: Yeah, I sure can, and I want to start by challenging the notion that it all worked before.
Lyssa Adkins: Because it didn’t. So you and I are long time project managers, we know what happens, we know what happens. You know, things do not go according to plan, even when we were in a simpler world where change was not exponential, things did not go according to plan at all, but we sort of drove the system to just deal with it somehow. And so by the time information gets to an executive leader, they don’t necessarily see the duck going like crazy with the little feet under the water. They see something that looks smooth. It never was, it never was.
Lyssa Adkins: And so this idea that we can hold back the tide by holding back change and holding back reality has always been sort of like a veneer that we put on top of what was really going on. So that’s the first thing to challenge, is the notion that it actually did work before. And if it did work before, on whose back did it work?
Lyssa Adkins: So that’s like an interesting question to look at. And given that the pace of change is now exponential, that change is pervasive and perpetual, I love that new definition from Aneel Chima and Ron Guttman. They have a Harvard business review article that just captured my attention.
Lyssa Adkins: They said, Look, change itself is different now. We are in an era where change is pervasive, meaning it’s happening in multiple parts of your organization, multiple parts of your own life simultaneously. It’s perpetual, meaning we don’t get the rest between big changes anymore like we used to. We don’t get the sort of, Oh, it’s a big change, OK, we get to rest for a little bit and integrate that. It’s like change after change after change, we don’t get to get off the change bus, in other words. We’re on the ride.
Lyssa Adkins: And the third is, that change is exponential. The actual pace of change itself is increasing.
So given those conditions, a really useful thing for a leader to do is to allow themselves to feel the pain of it. So just imagine how many executive leaders don’t want to go here, and just imagine how useful it would be if more of them did.
Lyssa Adkins: And so this is the work I do, is I help executive leaders actually face the pain of trying to continue to apply things that used to work better, and they’re just doing it a little bit harder, and maybe a little bit harder now, maybe with a little bit more force, and yet things are still falling away.
Techniques to Help with Change
Bill Raymond: And so what are some of the techniques that you use to help with that?
Lyssa Adkins: Well, I think one of the biggest things that’s useful for leaders is to get some objective data about how their leadership is impacting the people in their organization, how it’s impacting their organization’s goals and targets, and how it’s impacting them. And so for that, I use just, I think it’s a really fantastic instrument called, The Leadership Circle Profile. It shows you in no uncertain terms the gap between your self perception of your leadership and the perception of everyone else that you interact with. And the leaders who get the most out of this ask their customers and suppliers to also be part of the 360 evaluation. So that’s one thing, it’s like, get some objective data, have a way to create a pathway for yourself.
Lyssa Adkins: Because otherwise, you’re just sort of swimming in this notion that, oh yeah, we’re being asked to be agile leaders, we’re being asked to be 21st century leaders, what the heck does that mean? And what it means practically to a leader, at the director level and below, is really different than what it means practically to an executive leader. Because an executive leader is dealing with things in a totally different, you know, just a different scale all the time, right?
Lyssa Adkins: Once you have that sort of language, that model, that pathway, it can create, then some really interesting coaching can happen around the leader’s actual issues. So leaders will come with an issue of like, here’s what’s happening in the market, here’s the change that’s happened, you know, here’s what I’m trying to do about it.
Lyssa Adkins: When we do coaching around those sorts of topics, it’s not just general. It’s now referring back to what the leader is already getting in touch with related to their own leadership and how they react to things like that, versus how they create outcomes.
Lyssa Adkins: That’s one of the big shifts that this leadership circle profile helps people do. It’s called, moving from problem-reacting to outcome-creating.
Being Outcome-driven from an Agile Perspective
Bill Raymond: Can you talk a little bit about outcomes. This is a conversation that I think we have fairly frequently on the podcast, but very often when we’re talking about this outcome-driven mindset, we’re usually talking at a team level. And I am curious to maybe pick your brain around what that means when you’re at an executive leadership level, what does it mean to be outcome-driven?
Bill Raymond: Because I think we can all say, yeah, I’m outcome-driven, of course, I mean, my sales numbers are tied to that or, you know, my bonus is tied to that. What does this look like from an agile perspective?
Lyssa Adkins: So of course, a leader has organizational outcomes they’re going for. And in every specific instance, every specific issue or problem they’re dealing with, there’s always the opportunity to, instead of being run by sort of the problem-reacting mode, which in essence is a mode to reduce our own anxiety, although most of us,even in executive leadership now we’re still run by that kind of mode.
Lyssa Adkins: Instead of being run by that mode, there’s a possibility to stop and say, OK, this is a really difficult confounding situation. Let me ask myself some questions or maybe let me get someone else to help ask me these questions. Questions like, in this specific situation, what am I committed to creating? In this specific situation, what is the higher good that’s trying to happen? Now, the reason you would ask yourself questions like that, is because you’re trying to open up more possibilities for working with the change and the turbulence that’s happening.
Lyssa Adkins: When a leader asks themselves or a peer or a coach asks the leader, so what is the outcome you’re committed to creating here? They might say something like, I need to create more leaders in my organization. Because we don’t have enough people who are just able to run with the ball. OK. They might say, I need to create a better capacity for working with supply chain interruptions, and I’m noticing that that might mean the expansion or the creation of something new in the organization, right?
Lyssa Adkins: So their concerns become much more of like, if they look out across their organization, sort of like a lab scientist, like a scientist in their lab might look across their organization. It’s like, so what’s a little piece that needs to be tuned here, what’s the missing piece there, what’s, you know, those sorts of things are really useful for an executive leader to focus on. Many executive leaders focus on solving the problem of the day. And that’s going to continue to just keep us in the loop of firefighting, making the machine work at all costs, you know, and we’re finding out that employees are no longer willing to be that cost, so that’s even falling away. The idea of becoming outcome-creating is well, it’s whatever it means to an individual leader in a given situation.
Lyssa Adkins: But the more leaders work with this, the more they start to look at building capacity and capability in their organization, more than hitting a thing.
Bill Raymond: It’s maybe at a larger scale, but it still is very similar to the way we talk about this with teams. For example, I know that one of the biggest challenges that agile teams have, doesn’t matter what part of the organization they’re in, marketing, sales, software development, doesn’t matter, you know, one of the biggest challenges that the teams have, is people come to them and say, do this thing. And what they’re looking for is the value. What is the problem that you’re trying to solve? What’s the value that this is going to provide and start thinking about that more holistically.
Bill Raymond: I liked your examples that you used you have a supply chain problem. That problem means that you’re not going to produce what your customers need and it needs to be solved. So you have a few options. Now, I know my answer would be, well, let’s just find more suppliers. But really, what I need to be thinking about is, how do I have a leadership team that works with me, and tell them that problem that we’re having, this supply issue, and have them come up with some interesting solutions. It might be ultimately what you thought would happen, but they might have some other ideas that you hadn’t come up with.
Lyssa Adkins: That’s another way that this is a parallel process to what agile teams go through, just at a different level of impact, just at a different level of scope. It’s so interesting that when I started working with leadership teams, I had this sort of hypothesis that they would have similar team dynamics issues and similar level of competency in things like conflict and whatnot that delivery teams have. Which is to say, we’re all getting better at it. No one is great at most of these team dynamics things.
The Five Core Competencies
Lyssa Adkins: Well, what I found out was that yes, they have that, and in fact, maybe it’s a little bit less competent than your average delivery team. So one of the things I’ve started to really talk about with leadership teams a lot, just to create sort of like a frame around this, is that you have these goals that you have, these OKRs targets, whatever you call them. The way we achieve these in a leadership team is we have a lot of conversations. We make decisions. We have work sessions, right?
Lyssa Adkins: The way those work sessions, decisions and conversations happen, is through five core competencies that every team has to have: collaboration, creativity, conflict, change, and choice-making. So five CCs, five core competencies that just remember them easily for me. And then further than that, what’s really underneath all of that, is the web of relationships and the health or the lack of health of that leadership team’s relationship system, such that they can build those competencies.
Lyssa Adkins: So if we can increase the literal level of competence in those things, then decisions happen easier and they stick longer. Then we can move through work sessions easily without a lot of drag of, you know, poor conversation dynamics. Then as you just said, team members can bring creative ideas to the problem we’re trying to face. We can all be asking ourselves, what are we committed to creating here? Not just, how do we solve this problem, right?
Lyssa Adkins: And then of course, the lift happens through all of these things and then targets and OKRs and all those things get met easier and get trued up to reality more often.
Lyssa Adkins: And I think that’s a key piece of it as well. We start to let reality in more often.
Bill Raymond: I really appreciate your time today, Lyssa. This has been a great conversation. If anyone wants to reach out to you to talk about this further, how might they do that?
Lyssa Adkins: I suggest visiting my website and using contact us. You can also see the sorts of things I’m up to there. There’s lots of podcasts and interviews and all that sort of stuff. It’s at LyssaAdkins.com, but you have to know how to spell it. It’s L Y S S A A D K I N S .com
Bill Raymond: Thank you for that. And I absolutely will make sure that the link for that gets on the agileinaction.com website. Just look up this conversation with Lyssa Adkins. And of course, if you’re listening to this in a podcast player app right now, just scroll down to the show notes or the description, and you’ll see the link there for LyssaAdkins.com.
Bill Raymond: And you’ll also find the link to her book, which is, "Coaching Agile Teams."
Bill Raymond: Thank you so much for your time today, Lyssa, this was a great conversation.
Lyssa Adkins: My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.