Agile Project Management: Leadership and Teams

Though the Agile Manifesto and the 12 agile principles were written with software development in mind, many of the ideas could be applied to a collaborative style of operating, regardless of business domain or project.

Many of the agile project management concepts are applied at a leadership level and require an organizational culture in which teams and individual contributors are given more autonomy and decision-making power.

In order for agile teams to be successful, the management and executive leaders need to understand and apply agile principles in how they lead. This is often a departure from the traditional project management approach.

Servant Leadership

Agile uses the term “servant leadership" to describe a leader who provides support to the team, but trusts the team with much of the day-to-day decision-making authority, and asks the team to hold themselves accountable to commitments.

This type of agile project management can be foreign in an organization that is hierarchical and authoritarian, practicing a “command and control" style of leadership.

There are a variety of models used in agile organizations that may outline who has decision-making or approval authority under which circumstances. Historically, the need for agile project management was to omit some of the overly bureaucratic processes and delays that can result from approvals.

Teams that are held hostage to being micromanaged and to produce lengthy reports or metrics to justify their productivity are demotivated. Likewise, it has been shown that individual contributors are more productive, creative and innovative when they are given more autonomy and trust from management.

In agile environments, leadership still makes strategic decisions and will provide a certain level of guidance on organizational goals, but the tactical decisions about how to implement the work to meet the goals will be driven more from the individual contributors.

Cross-Functional Teams

Traditionally, teams have been organized by function with a functional manager. An organization chart would show teams of developers reporting up to a development manager, testers reporting up to a QA manager, and business analysts, product managers and project managers would be in entirely different organizational groups, often not even interacting with the technical teams.

On waterfall teams, functional groups often operate in “silos" and have a reputation of throwing deliverables “over the wall" to the next functional group. Rather than communicating face to face, each functional group uses documentation to communicate, which often leads to overhead, confusion and misunderstandings.

Agile project management aims to rectify this by providing frequent opportunities for the cross-functional team to actively and regularly communicate without the overhead of unnecessary documentation that will soon become outdated.

Though org charts will vary, in agile environments, teams include both technical and business personnel who work together and communicate on a daily basis. There still may be functional managers who will help to provide resources for professional development or provide personnel management for their staff members; however the cross-functional agile team most often is a “self-managed" team and has responsibility for deciding what it works on.

Self-Managed Teams

Agile proponents advocate cross-functional teams who together make decisions about what they work on, how they operate, and hold themselves accountable for delivering on commitments.

Agile teams take the approach of being responsible as a group for their deliverables. Rather than have a single lead who is held accountable, everyone on the team is accountable and responsible for delivering a quality product.

Though there are many opinions and suggestions about best practices in agile project management, the team must reach consensus on how it will operate.

The team must strive to regularly reflect on what's going well, what could be better, and how it is going to continue to improve. Many agile teams do this by hosting a retrospective at regular intervals. Management doesn't attend the retrospective so as not to influence the results. The team members decide how they will be accountable and what actions they will take to continue to improve as a team.

Because team members have more decision-making authority, self-managing teams typically are more productive and efficient. Agile organizations are typically flatter organizationally with leaders and managers acting more as servant leaders, and provide the needed resources to encourage and support their staff members so that they can be successful in agile project management.