In the first article of this two-part series, we discussed the rise and importance of agile leadership. Read it here.

Agile leadership is essential for companies looking to stay ahead in today’s fast-paced business environment. But Agile can also be applied to other business functions and processes. For instance, the same agile work can be applied to strategy.

On one end of the continuum, an organization’s strategy is comprised of documented plans managed with command-and-control tactics or, on the other end, it’s a chaotic sense of undisciplined actions and reactions. Somewhere in the desired middle — or a bit right of center for some organizations, or farther to the left for others — is the agile leader’s work to establish flexible roadmaps that account for changing conditions, yet have detailed milestones that allow for better budget planning, talent mapping and allocation to prioritized work, product and service release schedules, and are iteratively updated as needs change.

Relative to strategy roadmaps and change are budgets. Budgets are often annual templates that get filled in based on some predetermined growth target relative to last year’s performance. Or, they are loosely codified management systems based loosely on the reality of the past and a forecasted future. Somewhere between these endpoints is the agile leader working toward a dynamic system with built-in feedback loops for budgeting and forecasting relative to and at the speed of changes in the environment. That’s agile leadership.  It’s structured planning of an unknown future based on iterative cycles that attempts to more quickly know the unknown-unknowns of changing conditions.

Such work of agile leadership can also be applied to human resources (HR). The way that agile leaders think of workforce planning and talent management is neither based on collecting dutifully aligned conformist nor rogue individualists. Rather, agile HR leadership is the purposeful act of establishing a collaborative network of experts who share in a vision and have trust, respect, and a sense of optimism in which all are necessary to achieve that vision.

The same thinking can go into every product, service, process and function within your business. Identifying those, and the endpoints of the continuum for each, is an early step, if not the first step, in the journey to create a culture of agile leadership. The next step, which is the harder part for most leaders and L&D experts alike, is determining the “right” place within the endpoints to aim.

Agile leadership within a high-tech research and development (R&D) business will differ from that of a government agency. Agile leadership in a university will differ from agile leadership in a business. The ubiquity in the need for agile leadership is based on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) environment of which no organization is immune; and because of increasing VUCA, there are a few commonalities that characterize agile leaders. These are points competencies all L&D offices should prioritize in their curriculum development and training materials. The best agile leaders:

  1. Have a bias toward action.
  2. Intentionally drive (cross-team) collaboration.
  3. Enable, promote and reward team work over individual work.
  4. Force (or close to it) feedback loops with critical candor and care.
  5. Speed decision making by moving it to the most localized area/team/person as possible.
  6. Build positively influencing networks and systems.
  7. Measure only what matters and management what is measured for improvement.
  8. Balance the tension between the comfort of status quo with the chaos of undisciplined change.
  9. Balance the tension between what is known as possible and what may be just out of reach.
  10. Never stop uncovering and learning irreversible trends from customers, employees, anyone.

To start your agile leadership journey, or to reinvigorate it, conduct a leadership audit (and employee sentiments) about where you are on major continuum items (i.e., your mission, strategy, budget, structure, systems, workforce skills, products, services, processes and others)? Where is your ideal midpoint or balance along that continuum? From there, have conversations about the ten characteristics of agile leaders. From there, apply the five-whys and five-hows technique of facilitating to get to the root cause of impact. This is the leverage point of transformation. The findings from this facilitation will be unique to your organization.

As you go about this work, remember this from The Agile Alliance: “We embrace modeling, but not in order to file some diagram in a dusty corporate repository. We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely-used tomes. We plan, but recognize the limits of planning in a turbulent environment.” That’s agile leadership.