“Post-Heroic” Leaders and Agile Teams | TechWell

“Post-Heroic” Leaders and Agile Teams

A basic tenet of agile software development is self-organizing teams. Agile teams can benefit from management, but these teams need a different kind of management from what many teams in nonagile organizations have.

Mike Cohn tells us that self-organizing teams work best when their leaders achieve the subtle balance between command and influence. Achieving that balance can be tricky for both good and not-as-good managers.

A manager who has been successful in nonagile organizations can have a hard time making the transition to being an effective manager of an agile team, a recent Harvard Business Review article explains. In some organizations an autocratic style can be very effective, but agile teams—or any teams composed of creative knowledge workers—need a different approach.

As Jeffrey W. Hull wrote, “trying to run a seasoned, highly skilled group with the traditional type-A, command-and-control style is doomed to fail.” He refers to a management style of a “post-heroic leader,” which is

one who is emotionally and intellectually agile, able to modulate their style as needed from authoritative to collaborative—and back again—in order to optimize team performance. Post-heroic leaders recognize that the key to success is not adhering to hierarchy or position power, but mastering a complex set of seemingly contradictory organizational dynamics—autonomy and shared decision-making, individuality and teamwork.

While this article was not specifically about agile teams, the issues a manager can face making this change are the same. One of the hardest things about a transition to agile software development is the discomfort with the concept of self-organizing teams—and trusting the teams to solve the problem.

A post-heroic leader differs somewhat from a servant leader, in that the leader Hull describes sometimes shifts into authoratative mode. But his leader does share the same goal of enabiling the team. Mike Cohn points out that all teams need leadership and direction that guides the evolution of behaviors:

Self-organizing teams are not free from management control. Management chooses for them what product to build or often chooses who will work on their project, but they are nonetheless self-organizing. Neither are they free from influence. Early references to Scrum were clear about this. In The New New Product Development Game from 1986, Takeuchi and Nonaka write that “subtle control is also consistent with the self-organizing character of project teams.”

Understanding the balance between influence and management and between leadership and control can be very difficult to do, especially if you are a manager who is confident that you know that right answer. But it’s important to consider that while more control may seem safe, it can hold the team back.

Do you know a manager who has trouble letting go of an autocratic approach? How has it affected the team?

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