The Agile Leader

Agile processes have made big waves in the software community and allow teams to fail fast and iterate on features quicker. What if leadership and management teams used the same methods to innovate at a rapid pace? Agile methods could allow leaders to develop organizations that produce innovative outcomes by correcting course in real-time?

Agile is for Innovation

The job of a conventional agile team is to create profitable, innovative solutions to problems—come up with a new product or service, devise a better business process, or develop an advanced technology to support new offerings. The job of an agile leadership team is different. It is to build and operate an agile system—that is, an agile enterprise.


Around the world, software teams are adopting techniques such as Agile, Scrum, or other processes to innovate faster and beat the competition to the market. The agile method allows the team to focus on "what is good enough" versus seeking perfection by launch date. This agility to launch with only what is necessary, if they can tackle the right features at the right time, gives software companies a competitive edge.

What if executives built entire companies surrounded by agile methods. Fail fast, iterate, learn and innovate?

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

Software teams focus on roadmaps and feature strategy. In contrast, the organizational system focuses on business development, team synergy, and getting the entire company to bear its fruit into the market in which they are competing. Execution speed could determine a successful outcome for the business. Market share differentiation and business reputation could depend on how fast a company executes based on market or customer expectations.

Innovation takes failure, and it takes time. Sometimes slowing down, hyper focusing for two weeks on a particular issues or group of issues works better and actually solves problems faster. For executive teams to deliver innovative ideas fast, they need to fail fast and iterate. Iterating on a software team usually means figuring out what features work for your customer base as the group moves through the product launch cycle. Agile work is often completed in sprints or 2-6 week cycles.

For management, this could mean iterating through management strategies, team retention, team recruiting processes, and team makeups. Organizations can apply iteration at the highest levels of the organization down to essential processes in a team setting. It doesn't have to be related to software development. However, executives beware of just replacing tried and true strategies with innovating, iterating teams is not always good in every department. The manager must ask the question, "Do I need quick innovation in this department to breathe change and drive quick results?".

Sometimes we need consistency.

Not every department or team needs to be agile. Think about the quality department or a restaurant foodservice team, or waiting staff. You would want all of these things to be highly consistent. Innovation is not needed. Managers need to retain the flexibility not to go all-in on a single method but maintain all business areas with the style that executes the most favorable outcomes of that team or department most efficiently. From the roots of agile methodology, software teams desired to breed processes with flexibility in mind. If they don't make sense to implement them given the desired output, then don't implement them. That in itself is the definition of agility.

Innovation requires failure!

30% of the things that teams or organizations set out to accomplish actually get done.

Ed Boswell is a CEO and co-writer of the book "Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution" asserts that based on their research of 18 companies and over 300 CEO's that 30% of the things that teams or organizations set out to accomplish actually get done. These surveys show that teams make a plan, drive towards that plan, fail, and then stop trying. After they fail and give up, there are no alternatives given to adapt to the failure. So not only are they moving too fast, they are moving towards both a stationary and unreachable goal.

Think about it like this; the team aims to create a marketing plan to produce 1,000 new customer leads in 2 weeks. So, the marketing team builds a strategy in a couple of days. Then, marketing launches the campaign and proceeds to execute its plan for the next week and a half. With the deadline looming, they keep tromping forward with the status quo. What if they tried their techniques on day three, checked for market feedback, and made changes off of what they learned? What would happen if teams would self-correct themselves to achieve the desired goals of the business?

Self-correcting, autonomous teams are built inside a culture that exists to drive rapid innovation. The Agile mentality must come from the top down to drive change in the right areas. At the center of this culture has to be the ability to let entire departments fail, glean lessons, formulate a new solution and try out a new idea fast. Not only are you allowing the company to innovate quickly, but you are allowing people to learn and build knowledge of themselves, the team, and their processes at a pace that steadies consistent execution.

Agile could work for leadership.

Agile methods have proven valuable for the software industry to innovate ideas and launch products rapidly. Leaders in any industry could utilize pieces or parts of the Agile mentality or processes to build high-performing teams to generate innovation in many areas in the organization. Agile methods in leadership must remain flexible and allow teams to move at a pace that suits a steady and consistent execution pace. While every department or team might not benefit from these systems, it might not hurt to have innovative leaders who developed operational agile organizations that execute commitments by "failing fast and failing often."