The Trinity of Agile Leadership

No matter what you might think of Scrum, the Scrum Guide beautifully describes three aspects of leadership in the context of agile product development. At the center of value creation is the development team, which works autonomously and self-organizing. As the “CEO” of the product, the Product Owner leads the product and thus gives the autonomy a common vision and direction. And finally there is the Scrum Master, who serves the people and helps the product owner, the development team and the rest of the organization to work together effectively. A traditional manager is not described there, because his different tasks are distributed among these roles.

Self-organization and Autonomy

Discipline is achieved through self-organization and personal responsibility, by disciplining one only gets obedience.

Gerald Hüther

Value creation in agile organizations takes place in autonomous teams. This self-organization is not an invention of Scrum, but an essential principle behind the Agile Manifesto and ultimately the result of applying the Lean Principles to the process of software development. In fact, self-organization as an essential characteristic of effective product development teams is much older than the Agile Manifesto of 2001 and is not limited to software development at all. Back in 1986, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, described in their article “The New Product Development Game“, self-organization as one of six characteristics of the team they studied, which developed products such as copiers, cameras or even a car unusually quickly and effectively.

Vision and Alignment

The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.

Stanley McChrystal

Autonomy requires alignment. The more self-organization there is, the stronger the orientation towards the common vision must be. This orientation is an essential leadership task in agile organizations and is therefore explicitly reflected in Scrum by the role of the Product Owner as “CEO” of the product. Autonomy and orientation do not exclude each other, but complement each other as long as one leads with purpose and trust rather than with command and control, as Henrik Kniberg beautifully illustrates in this picture.

Individuals and Interactions

Leading means: serving life, eliciting life in people, awakening life in employees.

Anselm Grün

In addition to the focus on a common vision, leadership always has a human and systemic dimension. This aspect of leadership helps to create an environment in which people can develop their full potential and in which good cooperation is possible. This leadership therefore primarily serves the human being and acts like a gardener trying to provide a fertile ground on which good results can grow. Exactly for this purpose there is the role of the Scrum Master, which is often underestimated and misunderstood, but which actually describes this human and systemic leadership role in agile organizations.

Do We Need a Boss?

This trinity of agile leadership consisting of self-organization, orientation and servant human leadership is all intermingled in traditional organizations in the one role of the manager. Depending on personal inclination and concrete situation, some aspects are overemphasized and others neglected. An essential contribution of Scrum is therefore a clear differentiation of leadership through the strict separation of powers between the roles Product Owner, Development Team and Scrum Master.

You manage things; you lead people.

Grace Hopper

The more rigorously agile organizations implement this separation of powers at all levels, the less this traditional type of manager is needed. And perhaps that’s why the implementation of the separation of powers and thus the abolition of this traditional managerial role, in which everything is mixed up, is a good yardstick for the shift of an organization towards more agility.

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