Over the last few days and weeks I have read many high-quality articles on leadership in times of crisis and my first reaction was ‘everything that should be said has been said’: reflections, practical help, innovative ideas.
But on second glance it felt like something was missing. I read a lot of reflections about individual leaders, on their individual capabilities, their emotional intelligence, and their decisions; all very valuable and yet, at the same time, it seemed like a renaissance of the “leader” – a typical instinct in a crisis.
Questions rose in my head: where is agility in the crisis, where are self-managed teams, leadership beyond the individual leader? Are they superfluous? Harmful? In a crisis of their own? Or are they helpful? I soon became tempted to initiate a debate with a few of my own ideas. Because, for me, agile and self-managed teams are especially helpful in the current climate, forming crucial leadership elements as they provide structural options to react in a crisis, leveraging the many.
A central component of the current crisis is that many of its effects on individual companies are uncertain, unpredictable and impossible to plan for. How long will the measures be in place and how will they be overturned? How are your employees dealing with the situation? How are your customers reacting? How does everyone work together when so many are working remotely or in different shifts?
This uncertainty (“VUCA2“) is actually a very typical context for self-managed, agile processes and structures:
- Decentralised decisions enabling immediate reactions specific to the situation.
- Small teams that can network well in such situations, can focus on specific topics and working rhythms and in which everyone can contribute with their own specific talents and abilities.
- Small teams, in which the individuals take care of each other – both emotionally and with subject matter expertise – and therefore leadership tasks are better distributed.
- Creativity, testing and trial and error, because you need to innovate and have no idea if and how a solution works.
- Delegation & distribution of tasks to enhance leadership skills: discovering and integrating existing skills is faster than changing individuals.
- institutionalised learning within the teams – immediately from the experience and applied to action
But enough theory for now. From a practical standpoint, I would like to address two major objections:
First objection: If we have not yet had any experience with agile and self-managed teams, can we really afford to experiment with new processes in the middle of a crisis – especially if they involve such a fundamental transformation with a challenging degree of change management?
Second objection: In a crisis you often see agile companies working in a less agile way and becoming more hierarchical. Isn’t that a sign that everything is just theory?
The first objection, that the change is too big and therefore too risky is, in my experience, one of the greatest myths about the topic of agility and self-management. The path to agility and self-management is itself agile and self-managing: in small steps, trying things out, learning, expanding. As long as you stick to the basic principles of a sprint (planning – sprint – review & retro – adaptation, good moderation), the risk can be controlled, the goal is adaptable, many things are conceivable and feasible and your own needs are catered for.
Sprints are just much shorter in a crisis situation – a week, sometimes only days. This means there is room for many small steps and a lot of flexibility. For example:
- The management team itself works in agile sprint mode – the management meeting becomes a planning, review & retro session
- KanBan Boards – a tool from earlier times, very suitable and simple to use
- Consciously give room for individual teams to self-manage and ask where they need support.
- Focus on the topics that appear to be just right in “size”, with the right focus, manageable, influenceable, and look for teams for these topics
All you need is one experienced moderator, very focused, limited time invest. If you also manage to collect a good overview of the learnings and you find one or more people who are happy to moderate the process, then the small steps can be scaled as required.
The second objection – even agile companies become more hierarchical during a crisis – is resolved when one questions one of the other major misconceptions about agility: agility equals freedom and creativity and cannot be mixed with other classical approaches. I strongly disagree with both. Agility can be combined well, and often out of necessity, with high process discipline and classical operational management models. However, start-ups in particular often fail to do so.
In practice, especially in crisis management, four simple “additions” to typical agility are very helpful which add stability to and expand on self-management:
- North Star: The vision, what do we want, the why-how-what. It can have a 3-month or 12-month timescale, it can refer to a team or the whole company. It can be a short document, maybe even just a North Star Metric. The North Star needn’t take too much time to formulate but it will save a lot of time spent coordinating later on because it ensures a common direction.
- Clear delegation boundaries: What are the absolutely critical issues and decisions that must not be made in isolation but coordinated with others.
- Classical project management: There are many situations which require the joint focus and concerted efforts of large parts of the company and where freedom is somewhat restricted. This has to continue and you can just think about embedding self-managed teams further downstream, like you might embed lean teams in a production environment.
- Controlling: Agility is often applied too laxly, because self-management is equated with lax implementation. Controlling, however, is just as necessary as in any classical approach albeit with one difference: processes, frameworks and KPIs that the team sets itself.
By following this path – small steps, supplemented by a few overarching processes – I see more opportunities than risks in agile, self-managed teams, even or especially in a crisis like this one. Not only can you improve yourself as a leader, but you can scale the leadership ability of your organisation via structures & processes.
How do you perceive the current debate? Do you see agility being in a crisis or do you see a crisis as an opportunity for agility and self-management? Do you see trial and error as an illusion or a potential asset in this situation?