Adopt an Agile and Lean Mindset: 3 Steps for Leaders

Michelle Gilboy


Being a good leader is hard.  Being a bad leader is expensive.

As more and more organizations look to Agile and Lean practices to help them accelerate value delivery, the more they need good leaders to work with an Agile and Lean mindset to clear the way for the team to accomplish astonishing results.  

Unfortunately, this is not a simple task.  

Most of today’s leaders applied traditional software and product development approaches that helped them to grow their careers and ascend to more senior roles. However, these older approaches no longer serve today’s complex and fast-paced markets.

In traditional development, the cycle time from a good idea to the customer is so long and complicated, it is hard to realize where the real problems lie. When Agile concepts are applied in an organization the pain of a bad system and culture, or improper management is apparent way more often.

How Agile leadership methods offer remedy

Agile methods, like Scrum, prescribe small, self- managing teams where leaders mainly support and facilitate.  Lean views leadership as the foundation of a well-functioning team and that only management can change the system.  

This can seem conflicting and confusing---especially when this is all new. However, don’t confuse empowered, self-managing teams with good management. These two things go hand in glove.

As a leader and manager caught in the middle of the old ways and new approaches, it’s not always self-evident what to do or how to do it.  The State of Agile report from VersionOne cites that the two top challenges to Agile adoption are company policies and culture that are in conflict with core agile principles, and lack of experience with Agile.

In order for a culture to emerge that supports delivering astonishing results, leaders must know what to do and be role models—modeling the very habits and behaviors aligned with the Agile Manifesto.  It’s simply not enough to just ‘buy-in’ to Agile.  A leader must be engaged and know what to do.

3 steps leaders can take to implement Agile and Lean  

First, recognize that you are going to need to learn new habits.

If you want different results, you have to do things differently. The earlier you make peace with that, the better.  Recognize that you’ll need help learning new ways of doing things.  Get help from a coach if you can.  This can really help accelerate your learning and support you. And remember to be kind to yourself. Learning new habits is hard.

In addition to an outside coach, look to other colleagues for open and regular feedback.  Openly seeking feedback on your behavior and ensuring that it supports the new culture is vital.

Ask your peers. Ask your direct reports. Ask their direct reports:

  1. As a leader are you creating a culture that safely allows for experimentation?
  2. Have you trained and empowered your middle managers to help their team members organize?
  3. Have you motivated your team to in turn manage others in effective and motivating ways?

Second, as a leader, create an environment that supports this new way of working and then use the new way of working yourself.  Leaders establish, operationalize and sustain values, vision and environment by which their organizations thrive.

How leaders go about creating a system or an environment that works is just as important as the system that leadership creates.  Applying transparency, listening and responding to the people in the organization (including middle management and not just the people that report them), making strategic but small changes, preserving options, and making sure that there’s a feedback mechanism in place to evolve the system are key. They are not just paramount for teams that are developing solutions, but also key for leaders that are developing their organization and everywhere in between.

Follow these steps as you begin creating your Agile system:

  • Focus on outcomes and impacts
  • Be intentional
  • Take just enough time to prepare your path of transformation
  • Start with a vision and an Agile core team that will guide, coach, monitor, respond to, and sustain the vision
  • Make the change that you seek visible and assess it by asking the people in the system what needs to be done to make that vision a reality
  • Work the backlog in short and fast cycles that deliver value to the organization and gather feedback to guide the next steps
  • Keep track of the impediments that the teams raise and remove them as quickly as possible

Remember that nothing fosters apathy faster than not responding to the needs of those that are doing their best to do the right thing.

Finally, build safety and trust.  Change is everywhere: the market, our customers, technology, to name only a few. It’s uncertain, if not scary.   The people we surround ourselves with and the way we work together are the most important aspects of changing and innovating for a better tomorrow.  

Transparency, vision and giving others the freedom to work in a way that fosters innovation is a good start.  Caring about the people that you’ve hired, creating a space where learning (especially from failure) is desired, and organizing around values and a vision that unifies and motivates goes even further.  Leaders must know what motivates knowledge workers and align their values and the system to them. Teach and coach your leaders the skills they need to support this environment and the people in it. Be swift and relentless to this end.  

As Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the Agile system, once said, “Everyone is already doing their best. The problems are with the system…only management can change the system.”  If you want something different, do something different.


Learn Agile and Lean Leadership practices

For a more in-depth look at Agile and Lean leadership practices, attend our Scaled Agile Framework 4.0 seminar June 27-28 at our Pittsburgh headquarters.


Michelle Gilboy

An Agile Coach/SAFe Agilist at Summa, Michelle is a software and product development professional with over 18 years of diverse process, project and leadership experience. She’s passionate about delivering high-quality solutions using agile/lean principles and practices that empower people, and she promotes the continuous growth and development of both. Michelle is a hands-on change agent, and she’s committed to delivering value and business operations that really make a difference.