Empower Agile Teams: Leadership Strategies That Inspire People, Not Micromanage

Many agile and scrum teams want to be left alone so that they can do their work. The last thing they want is leaders looking over their shoulders and overseeing their to-do lists, even when they struggle to complete their sprint commitments. Whatever the blocks impeding their progress are, they’ll work through them, though maybe not at the pace, schedule, or quality leadership expects.

Inspire Agile Teams by Isaac Sacolick

Therein lies the conflict, as leadership is accountable for driving outcomes, which often means hitting deadlines, ensuring quality releases, and meeting customer and stakeholder expectations.

When scrum teams aren’t on track to meet their goals or aren’t following agile practices and standards designed to help them meet objectives, what should Digital Trailblazers do to intervene? And what shouldn’t they do?

Micromanaging is not the answer. I wrote, “Talented software developers bristle at the idea of being closely managed, and many will leave jobs where there is a culture of micromanagement,” in a recent article on managing software developers without micromanaging.

That was a “big picture” article where I challenged the norms in yearly performance reviews and offered several suggestions on managing team and individual performance objectives in ways that align with agile principles.

But what should agile leaders do in real-time to guide teams when releases, sprints, practices, and behaviors are veering off course? How can Digital trailblazers inspire their teams and avoid declaring edicts?

Agile cultures are built on trust, transparency, and openness 

Digital Trailblazer by Isaac Sacolick

Stepping in and guiding teams when there are problems requires some upfront work well before there are issues. An agile culture must include trust, transparency, and openness as core principles, and teams must see consistent leadership participation, not just when there are issues.

What do these elements of an agile culture mean in practice? Below are some examples.

  • Trust is established when leadership supports psychological safety, experimenting, learning from failures, avoiding blame, questioning the status quo, and requiring inclusive and collegial debates when brainstorming and solutioning.
  • Transparency starts with leaders documenting vision statements, creating program charters, and ensuring teams have prioritized objectives. It extends to agile teams who see benefits in using tools to help manage their work and expect leaders to use them as a window into the team’s productivity and impediments.   
  • Openness implies that leaders are open to being questioned and challenged. It means teams hope leaders will attend their sprint reviews and encourage constructive feedback. It requires that agile teams hold retrospectives, acknowledge their problems, and apply continuous improvement practices.  

Without trust, transparency, and openness between scrum teams and leaders, it’s hard for Digital Trailblazers to guide agile teams, especially if leaders only parachute into the team’s practices when there are problems.

Let’s assume that the agile organization has elements of trust, transparency, and openness. What are some dos and don’ts when guiding teams back on track?

1. Clarify the vision and avoid rigid roadmaps

StarCIO Vision Statement Template

Writing a vision statement and articulating a roadmap shouldn’t become a fixed contract. Leaders must communicate the vision and roadmap repetitively and actively listen for signals where teams need clarifications or when these artifacts need updating.

  • Do help teams see the forest from the trees and better understand the vision and midterm objectives. Misalignments occur when teams misinterpret vision statements or assume more difficult-to-achieve acceptance criteria than what’s actually required.
  • Don’t promise rigid roadmaps to stakeholders where scope and timeline set a high bar for agile teams to hit consistently. When scrum teams support openness, invite stakeholders to participate in sprint reviews and encourage them to share feedback. The transparency and resulting dialog often lead to stakeholders acknowledging they are learning the requirements and priorities in partnership with the teams.

2. Bring a flashlight into the weeds, not a machete

When teams struggle, I believe it’s important for Digital Trailblazers to step into their working process lightly. That means observing and highlighting improvement areas without explicitly telling teams and their leaders how to fix issues.

  • Do sit in sprint planning, observe the process, and encourage teams to perform a bottoms-up commitment. Accept a lower velocity and help address any questions about the intent of user stories or clarify acceptance criteria.
  • Don’t dictate commitments or invite yourself to the daily standup, as this will undermine a team’s self-organization. Stay away from the day-to-day sprint mechanics and instead mentor the team’s tech leader or scrum master on improving team collaboration and cohesion.

 3. Inspire the team by taking them out of their sprints

Teams can easily burn out going sprint to sprint and release to release without time to come up for air and recharge. Here’s some of what Digital Trailblazers do when teams are stressed out.

  • Do give teams time to reset, especially after major releases or if they responded to a major outage. Celebrate their success, provide space and time for learning, and take them on roadshows to visit customers.
  • Don’t allow stakeholders to pressure teams for more features, fixes, and releases to the point where there’s too much stress and risk of burnout. Empower product managers to work with stakeholders on priorities and set realistic expectations.

Agile’s promise and strengths lie in giving teams more control of their workloads, repetitive practices that improve delivery, and tools for simplifying collaboration. When there are issues, avoid falling back into command and control behaviors. Help teams identify problem areas, listen to their impediments, address issues outside of their controls, and empower them to prioritize continuous improvements.  

Isaac Sacolick
Join us for a future session of Coffee with Digital Trailblazers, where we discuss topics for aspiring transformation leaders. If you enjoy my thought leadership, please sign up for the Driving Digital Newsletter and read all about my transformation stories in Digital Trailblazer.

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld, CIO.com, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.