I entered the Agile and Lean world about 4 years ago, and since then, I’ve read hundreds of articles and a few books about the different practices, methods, and approaches in the field. All this completely changed the way I approach work processes now and how work should be done. But most importantly, it helped me change my work mindset and understand that every change starts from within.
Speaking about Lean and Agile, I just can’t wrap my mind around organizations that still believe if you just take a given methodology or a concept and drop it to your people, you will solve all problems. Done. Finito. Fertig. We adopted the concept, and now we are Agile/Lean. We’ve created an environment that encourages leadership, is what you will hear them saying.
Well, it is not that simple. See, creating an environment where anyone can be a leader is great. Every organization should aim to get there. But it doesn’t happen like this, and it is not a one-time exercise.
It all starts by creating a safe environment.
Building Leaders from Within – the Foundation.
My last 4 years in Kanbanize showed me how vital a safe working environment is, where you can fail, without being crucified. Where you feel free to raise your hand and say something that is not exactly a great idea without being judged or shamed for it. Where lack of knowledge is not a shameful thing, but a motivator to learn more.
We feel comfortable working in our company, NOT because we have amazing chairs, desks, laptops, free lunch, etc. It is because we don’t fear the leaders.
It doesn’t mean there are no rules or consequences from our actions. It means we feel safe inside the organization, and we don’t have to protect ourselves from each other. Instead, we can focus on doing our best to protect the organization from outside dangers and explore opportunities. And this is how we all evolve.
See, many companies want to stimulate leadership at all levels but fail to achieve it. From my perspective, this is often because they don’t really allow it. And usually, the stumble-stones are the managers that want to micromanage and hold everything under their control. When it gets tough, they are willing to sacrifice people for numbers and lay blame. While it should be the other way around.
When I Became a Parent
As trivial as it sounds, being a good leader is like being a good parent. Believe it or not, when you become a parent, you realize it.
When you have kids, you want to provide everything needed so they can grow up and achieve more than you—good education, discipline, opportunities, responsibility, and so on.
Let me stress this once again – you want to make sure your children will achieve more than you could or at least the same.
How is that different from good leadership? Well, it is not. It is pretty much the same.
If companies want to grow, they should enable their people to grow. No matter the position. And we all should strive to become a better version of ourselves as long as we breathe. In Lean, they call this Kaizen or continuous self-improvement. This finally brings me to the role of Lean and Agile in modern leadership.
Let’s discuss the Agile and Lean practices/concepts that can help us create leaders from within.
How Agile and Lean Can Support Creating Leaders?
Establishing a Kaizen culture is one of the most important takeaways from Lean. Making this step will transform your team’s mindset. When each person is aimed at improving individually, and as a team, the common goals and purpose will shape a new culture. Shortly, you will notice the positive effects of continuous improvement and the development of leadership skills.
There is one very important aspect here. The main driver of the Kaizen approach is something that the Japanese call Hansei. In other words to “acknowledge one’s own mistakes and to pledge improvement.” Simply said self-criticism.
The Lean philosophy also encourages knowledge sharing. This creates a desire in each employee to learn more, become better and improve the work process. This way team members will not feel threatened, but instead – more stimulated to grow. In such an environment leadership is shared and self-organized teams carry out projects without panicking when their manager is out of the office for a few days.
Walk the Floor or Gemba
This is a concept that encourages leaders to go and see where the real work is happening. The idea of this is for everyone to be involved in the process of work and familiar with the common problems and challenges.
Stop the Line
If there is something that most people are afraid of, it is saying loud and clear that something is wrong. Well, Stopping the line [which originates from the Andon system in manufacturing] is exactly the practice that not only allows, but to a great extent obligates anyone no matter their position to ring the bell if they think something is wrong.
When it comes to Agile, two things catch my eye.
The first one basically says it all. It is the 5th principle of the Agile manifesto – Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. I don’t have anything more to say here. It speaks for itself.
The second one is the 4th value of the Manifesto – Responding to change over following a plan. After all being Agile is exactly this, isn’t it? Being Agile is the ability to adapt and respond quickly to changes. How does that relate to leadership? Well, allowing people to respond to changes over following rules may support unprecedented levels of creativity. Because in a fast-changing business environment leaders at all levels identify opportunities, no matter their position.
Swallow Your Ego. This Is How Leaders Build Leaders.
As I stated in the beginning, applying a methodology or a framework will not create leaders by itself. It all starts with self-criticism and acknowledging our own flaws first. If you can realize that you are far from knowing everything and your ideas are not the best and you can acquire new knowledge from anyone, then I think your company has already created an environment where anyone can be a leader. I know this isn’t easy because, after all, we are human beings, and to some extent, we are all egocentric.
When you’re ready to put your ego aside, admit your mistakes, and put people in front of numbers, then people will follow. Even more, they can lead you through tough times. And this is how leaders create leaders.
Last, I realized that building leaders from within is actually a cultural process – a change of culture, management practices, and implementing practices that create a new collective Agile mindset and allow your team to show their best.
This article is inspired by two great speakers Simon Sinek and Anthony Perez. And of course by the founders of Kanbanize and all my colleagues.