Lean, Agile, and Becoming an Effective Leader

A man looking at a tablet in a conference with glass walls that have charts and post its on it.

Posted on Mar 10, 2018

It’s an undeniable fact that technology has transformed industries in almost every way imaginable and, as a result, leaders have no choice but to rethink the way they manage their organizations and teams. Meanwhile, two of the most popular innovations models—Lean and Agile—offer important principles for organizing workflow, product development, and the myriad tasks necessary to bring an idea to reality. But how should leaders adapt? To answer that, let’s explore the differences between Agile and Lean - and what these differences mean for organizational leaders.

First question: What’s your goal?

When it comes to managing creative teams, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, think of your immediate goal as your starting point. Or, as John Shook, CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute, would say, “What problem are you trying to solve?”

In most Agile literature, there’s no defined role for leadership. That is one of the most profound differences between Lean and Agile. In Lean, however, the conventional wisdom is that leaders must profoundly understand every aspect of the business, which can be a very high bar. Further, this is a very stringent way to interpret “management.”

Since there’s no book of knowledge for managers in Agile, some leaders may act as a “facilitator,” whose role is “helping by getting out of the way” and letting teams organize themselves. If you’re working on a small-scale initiative, then Agile may be enough to get you across the finish line. Bear in mind, however, that you probably can’t have hundreds of people organizing themselves when you have a company-wide transformation underway.

The value of process

Most Agile “fundamentalists” will see process as an annoyance, as something that limits the autonomy of the team. In other words, if you’re giving autonomy to the team, how can you also impose processes? There’s a natural tension between Agile and process.

Conversely, in Lean, there must be a process. Defined processes outline the “best way that we know so far” to do something—and everything reflects this collective wisdom. Team members are encouraged to change the process and try to innovate, as long as they first understand the “best way.” Meanwhile, those enforcing the process and trying to evolve it are in leadership.

The learning process

In Agile, every team defines its own process from scratch, or better, from its members’ previous experiences. But there is no defined foundation to build upon, and you’re improving upon the base of knowledge of the team members.

Lean attempts to limit mistakes by helping people learn from the mistakes of others. When you have an organization, you don’t want people to keep making the same mistakes. In this type of environment, established processes may reflect previous mistakes in that they represent “the best way to move forward.” But processes can also frustrate your team’s ability to learn because it’s harder to fully appreciate the journey and mistakes of others.

Ultimately, the knowledge base and organizational leadership are completely different.

What this means for management

How do we reconcile these seemingly similar, yet different, innovation models? One could argue that Agile works best on the team level. But Lean can help you get to the end goal in a process-oriented way. For example, Lean principles work well at the organization level by establishing foundational principles, a unifying culture, and best practices for teams. Then Agile provides teams with a framework for testing ideas and finding solutions.

Within Lean organizations, leaders must profoundly understand the work being done. They should also have a sincere desire to develop people and see them grow professionally. This is different from the old dynamic that says, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.” When managers don’t want to see problems, that is organizational myopia or, dare I say, “blindness.” Under the old model, leaders create blind spots that keep them from moving the business forward. What happens if the team member that sees the problem doesn’t have the capabilities or the autonomy to solve it? This is why preventing people from bringing you problems is a big mistake.

In a Lean organization, leaders also need to be willing to participate in their team’s struggles, to ask questions, to make them reflect on the solutions, and, ultimately, to become an expert and reference in the business they lead. In an age where most companies have a command-and-control approach to management, Lean offers a more fluid alternative—one that helps people feel supported because they are given space to think.

A Lean organization with Agile teams

CI&T has never embraced the idea that leadership should be out of the way. On the contrary, leadership is there to develop the team, to help the team make decisions and to learn and teach in a Socratic way. This means that teams are afforded the freedom and flexibility to consider the best way to approach problems—which is the idea behind Agile.

Here’s how leadership can be a part of this process: A true leader will never “give a solution” to the team, she will use her knowledge to help the team see gaps in their line of thought and challenge the team to come up with better solutions. And it’s critical to allow teams to come to their own conclusions rather than having them imposed by leadership because—quite bluntly—no one really learns without thinking for themselves. That’s the difference between “learning the best way” and “blindly following the process.” To be effective, leaders must foster a dynamic environment where process and autonomy work in harmony. This is when the magic really happens.