Agile: A Set of Methods and Skills or a Leadership Mindset and Culture?

businesswoman talking in meetingPublished by the Agile Project Management E-Mail Advisor, a weekly electronic briefing from Cutter Consortium’s Agile Project Management Advisory Service.1 June 2006

Agile: A Set of Methods and Skills or a Leadership Mindset and Culture?
by Christopher M. Avery, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

A friend of mine evocatively condemns many development organizations as “team ghettos.”

Designing a team ghetto is easy: organize developers into teams and organize management into silos over the teams, then watch the predictable inversion layer form between the two environments so that nothing ever gets across whole and unscathed — not information, not people, and certainly not trust, honesty, and the truth about operations, competition, customers, progress, and results.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the other group will rule both environments and when the pain threshold is exceeded you will declare that “whole team thing” an impossible disaster and undo it.

IT appears to be in full acceleration toward making the same cruel and expensive mistake with agile.

We support an intoxicating habit of treating agility as a truly mesmerizing set of skills and methods (they are, aren’t they?) as opposed to an astonishingly effective and high-performing mindset, culture, and approach to leadership. The death march of agile ghettos is upon us, and we are piping and drumming to the beat.

We’ve learned the hard way that you can’t successfully “install” agile skills and methods in an essentially nonagile culture where traditional leadership mindsets prevail. But we keep trying.

Oh sure, you can successfully run an agile project or two in such an environment as long as you have the sponsorship and leadership to buffer the project and team from the organization’s attempts to inoculate itself against invasion by agilists run amuck.

In fact, this scenario is playing out right now all over the world (drrruuump, drrrmp, drrrmp!). Agile skills and methods succeed on a project or two, but then the proponents of this success meet numbing resistance as they attempt to expand agile disciplines into other teams.

Conclusion? Agile methods and skills are necessary but not nearly sufficient elements for creating the agile enterprise.

Instead, we need to be thinking and talking about agile as a leadership mindset and culture (see ” The Mindset of an Agile Leader,” Cutter IT Journal, Vol. 17, No. 6, and ” Responsible Change,” Agile Project Management Executive Report, Vol. 6, No. 10) that creates one agile operating context throughout the organization supporting the rapid and effective movement of people, information, trust, honesty, and information about projects, operations, and results.

Should you wish to work in an agile enterprise, invest in asking and answering a simple question at the enterprise leadership level: How can we operate as an agile leadership team creating and supporting a culture and operating environment of agility for the entire organization?

And then answer it by studying visionary value statements such as the Agile Manifesto ( and the Declaration of Interdependence ( The Declaration of Interdependence especially is focused on agility as an approach to leadership. Use those value statements to pose straightforward questions like the following:

What are our greatest sources of organizational uncertainty, change, or complexity, and how might we be welcoming instead of fearing them?

What is the continuous flow of value we are providing to our customers?

Are our customers present in our leadership team?

How are we actually valuing people, creativity, teams, and innovation?

When and what will be in our next leadership team release?

What will be the length of iterations for our leadership team?

How will our leaders pair on assignments?

What questions will we ask in leadership retrospectives as we end each leadership team iteration?

I think you’ll find that agile isn’t just for methods and skills anymore. And it never was.

— Christopher M. Avery, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Posted in Agile, Leadership on 06/19/2006 01:11 pm
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