In February of 2001, a group of 17 innovators met in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. It was a meeting among the Agile Alliance and what emerged from their work was the Agile Manifesto.

The reason for meeting was to discuss the convergence of factors causing them to do more with less, faster and with higher value (i.e., no waste, errors, defects, omissions and outright failures). The meeting that February provided an opportunity to reflect on the pressure to change how work was being done among teams in their organizations and outline a new kind of practice to navigate the way forward. The way forward was determined to be agile, and it is needed more now than ever before.

The need to become more agile due to emerging conditions was obvious to the 17 people meeting in the mountains that winter in 2001. As they sketched out a manifesto based on experiences of the past and expectations of the future, they noted what has now become obvious to others too, over time. There needs to be an obsession (or as near to it as possible) with customer satisfaction. Knowing that customer demands change, market conditions change, technologies change, product and service requirements change, all things change, there needs to be an acceptance of change not an avoidance of it.

Early in design work cycles, during development work cycles, and even late in pre- and post-production work cycles, we need to be ready to change and willing to change; not resist it, not ignore it, and not postpone it, but rather adopt it. The Agile Alliance went as far to say such adoption of change can (even should) be acculturated as a competitive advantage.

Knowing that the pressure to change can originate from any part of the organization’s ecosystem, collaboration is key — not only among people in similar departments, but also among everyone. To drive this cross-departmental collaboration, any potential ambiguity, uncertainty, or risk of assumption should be rooted out. This means going directly to the source (i.e., the people) with questions, comments, issues and concerns; and being direct with facts first, then opinions, then feelings. If you are able to, try to prioritize face-to-face communication (whether in person or virtual) over an email or messaging exchange. This will help mitigate misinterpretation often found in email content and context. It also drives collaboration in real-time exchange among people, rather than a mere doctrine of espoused best intent.

In total, the Agile Manifesto is a compilation of 12 practices that outline a means to building excellence into the core culture of work, rather than bolting it on as an appendage to the core. Together, the 12 practices illustrate a bit of a surprise in the Agile framework. The foundational elements of Agile are not grounded in project-based work, or software development, or technical product management. All of these are indeed elements of Agile work, but the foundational element of Agile is a culture of people serving people as efficiently and effectively as possible; making decisions faster because the world around them/us is faster; iterating our work in a matter of hours or days not weeks or months, which significantly increases the likelihood of success amid constant change. Agile creates the greatest likelihood of doing more with less, faster, and with the highest potential value because it focuses intentionally on building connections between people, across the organization. It is about individuals interacting together, simplifying complexity and collaborating in response to change. It is “the mushy stuff of values and culture” as described by a member of the Agile Alliance. In short, it’s all about people. This is not a likely outcome from a group of technologists, program designers, process engineers and software developers. It is, however, a very likely outcome from a group of leaders serving as change agents focused on increasing value for customers (and employees). That’s Agile.

The Need for Agile Leadership

Agile is becoming more commonplace as the preferred leadership style in organizations contending with constant change, needing to balance competing priorities, and generally having to do more with less — the factors that the Agile Alliance recognized as irreversible trends in 2001 and a year later in 2002, the U.S. Army War College dubbed “VUCA” to describe the increasing volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions organizations face today (military and all others, alike).

So, how do leaders actually implement agile leadership in a VUCA world, and how can learning leaders equip existing leaders with these skills and prepare emerging leaders to be agile, too? Before diving into what to do and how to do it, here is a warning from Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk and Steve Berez, who detailed agile work in a Harvard Business Review article: “Building an agile enterprise does not mean replacing traditional operations with agile teams everywhere.” Here is their explanation of how to establish agile leadership in your organization: “Building an agile enterprise means finding the right balance between standardizing operations and pursuing (sometimes risky) innovations.” What these authors mean by “balance” can be applied to nearly every aspect of your business. Take your mission, vision, values or purpose. Think of each relative to a continuum. On one side of the continuum, you have a mission or purpose or set of values that is static, rigid, stale or “soulless” as they would say. On the other side of the continuum is chaos due to ambiguous goals or vague ideas that your team of employees (and outside stakeholders) cannot relate to relative to their work or who they are or how they interact with your company, your products or services. There needs to be a balance between a static state and unbridled change.

Somewhere in the middle of that continuum is the agile leader’s work (their leadership) to establish inspired goals, shared ambitions, aligned commitments, and a clear sense of reason, cause and belonging; and, it is constantly changing due to the pressures of change from factors such as market conditions, competition, customer preferences, employee expectations, new regulations, advancing technologies and more. The work associated with achieving balance in a point on that continuum between the endpoints is agile leadership.

Stay tuned for the second article in this two-part series, in which we’ll explore agile leadership as it applies to strategy and other business functions, as well as content to cover in agile leadership training programs.