The Agile Mindshift: Leading People and Managing Systems

The Industrial Age was revolutionary. Many companies point to the rapid development and expansion of business and technology as well as the vastly improved quality of human well-being as reasons for its importance. And yet the time has come to recognize that the revolutions of that age are deeply entrenched today and, in key ways, preventing the next revolutionary advance. We are no longer in the Industrial Age; we are in the Digital Age.

Many if not most corporations operate as if little of consequence has changed. People, they reason, are the cogs of today: with the right amount of administration, coordination and coercion, human systems will yield the same exponential results that Industrial-Age machinery achieved. The evidence cannot be clearer, however: human systems do not operate like machines, and this thinking has been a huge obstacle to realizing that human-driven, human-focused businesses can achieve more than a traditional-minded organization. Creativity and innovation are not something you can relegate to a machine — at least not yet. In the meantime, only those organizations capable of sensing and responding to feedback in real time with creative innovations that meet real customer needs are likely to thrive. This is at the heart of Business Agility: the capability of a business to outlearn and outperform its competitors.

Business Agility is the biggest lever of value and success in the Digital Age, replacing efficiency and scale of the previous era. For organizations to thrive in these uncertain times, the focus must shift from optimizing the work of machines and ordered processes to developing new skills that enable creativity, innovation, continuous learning and change. To accomplish this, we need more leadership, and less management.

But what is the difference between leadership and management? And how extensive is that shift ?

Management vs Leadership

There are many definitions available for the two terms, and most of them bear some similarities. Before distinguishing them, examining the purpose of the two is important: to enable and propel the collective action of a group of people towards a common goal. To do this requires both leadership and management:

Leadership: facilitating alignment on mission, vision, goals and values through human interactions. The product of leadership is manifested in the hearts and minds of individuals and in the shared identity of the community.

Management: enabling the pursuit of organizational goals by implementing and sustaining the physical environment that contains and provisions the rest of the organization. The product of management is manifested in procedures, facilities, policies, etc.

Clearly, both are necessary for success. In an Agile organization, we advocate for both leadership of people and management of systems.

Management AND Leadership

Leadership and management are two sides of one coin: both are necessary for an organization to exist and to thrive. A healthy organizational system is one where management and leadership are congruent and mutually reinforcing. In a developing organization, leadership and management activities form a positive feedback loop that continuously refines, clarifies and improves itself, and in turn improves organizational outcomes.

Unfortunately, today’s corporations suffer from too much management and not enough leadership: short-term focus and neglect of long-term strategy built around people; specialization and silos with characteristic inter- and intra-group fighting, posturing and vying for funds; low inspiration and motivation; and little to no innovation. Leadership without management, however, can be equally destructive:

  • Charismatic leader(s) within a suffering, unsustainable organization
  • Lack of tactical approaches to moving towards strategic vision, evidence that the organization doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to grow
  • Lack of feedback loops, evidenced in the ability of internal operations and development to respond rapidly to feedback
  • Disconnected vision from actual organization capabilities

It is the synergy between leadership and management that unlocks Business Agility capabilities: rapid development of innovative products that meet real user needs and more, including happier, more productive employees and a greater understanding of constantly changing markets and market opportunities.

It’s common for expert managers to downplay “soft” skills like communication and facilitating shared understanding, and for visionary leaders to be critical of management for its rigidity and risk aversion. For any organization, there is no single right answer for the question of “What’s the right balance between leadership and management?” Even in a single organization, the answer changes over time. The right amount and manifestation of each will depend on how much complexity and change the organization faces. The more complexity and the more change, the more that Agile leadership will be the primary driver of success, with Agile management providing the supporting mechanisms for staying on course and getting results. This is why Agile management isn’t for everyone: if your organization deals with little change and your market segment doesn’t require innovation, then perhaps you don’t need Agile leadership and management. However, the vast majority of the world and the businesses in it are experiencing significant disruption, and these are the very organizations that will see the most impactful and pervasive results from Agile transformation, leadership and management.

The Problem with (and Opportunity for) “Agile Managers”

It’s largely our fault: from early on, the Agile community vocally implied that managers aren’t necessary. We realize now that Agile organizations do not require the same services that managers have to date provided (e.g., traditional management). Managers have done nothing wrong in applying the Industrial-Age approach to managing systems: it was simply the doctrine that was appropriate for a different time. In the Digital Age, however, the role of managers has largely changed. Managers themselves? They can still provide a lot of value to the Agile organization.

Agile management is an as-yet emerging concept but it will look completely different from traditional management. Agile management lives at the intersection between the positive legacy of management and the human-oriented, forward-looking Agile mindset. Micromanagement, death by bureaucracy and performance reviews will be replaced by approaches appropriate for human, learning, complex systems. Most importantly, this new collective will need a clearer vision of what it means to be an Agile manager.

In our upcoming webinar “Managing in Agile: Shifting to an Agile Manager Mindset,” we highlight the important and necessary mindshifts that businesses need throughout every level of their organizations and outline how Agile managers — individuals who manage human systems with an Agile mindset — can not only survive but shape the Agile organization for the better. Join Managing Director George Schlitz and Senior Agile Consultant Tiffany Willis as they expand upon management and leadership in an Agile environment and describe the mindshifts that all individuals but especially managers need to undertake to thrive in the digital era we live in today.

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