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Putting the “I” in Agile Teams

Focussing on ever shorter time-to-value and creating self-organised, multi-functional teams is the basis of Agile work. But where does this leave the individual and why, as an Agile Leader, do I care?

Task, Team and Individual Leadership

By User:Johndueme - Own work by the original uploader, Public Domain,
John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership Model

Classical leadership trainings will often talk about aligning the tasks of a Leader around Functional Leadership Models, and especially John Adair‘s Action-Centred Leadership Model. In this, the Leader is encouraged to address three different dimensions of the leadership role, namely those of the Task, the Team, and the Individual.

Adair’s model shows that there is not only a sweet spot where task, team and individual come together, but there is also a large area outside of the overlaps that a Leader should address to fulfil the requirements of each of these three dimensions.

Although there are many other leadership models out there, and it can be argued that Adair’s model from 1973 is no longer quite up to date, the simplicity of the three-circle model gives us a good foundation for a discussion.

Agile and Scrum

Skip forward fifty years and we find ourselves in the realms of Agile Development where the focus is on being adaptive, incremental, and output-focused, using multi-functional, self-organising teams. Especially in software development, but also beyond, this has led to a fundamental change in how teams are put together and how they operate on a day-to-day basis. It has also changed the role of the Leader and the functions that person needs to operate. Let’s take the Scrum methodology as an example:

Scrum framework – by Dr Ian Mitchell, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Within this framework, there are two roles that can be defined as having Leadership responsibility:

The Product Owner (PO) is responsible for the interface to the various stakeholders and prioritising their needs and wishes in the form of Product Backlog Items. They are also the authority for the Product Vision, i.e. to define the overall direction that product development should take. In the terms of Adair’s three-circle model, the focus of the PO is therefore on the Task.

The role of the Scrum Master (SM) in the framework is to act as the facilitator of the Development Team. It is the role of the scrum master to ensure that the development team has all the people, process, and technology resources available to do their job of turning the backlog items into product increments. The focus of the SM is therefore on the Team dimension of Adair’s model.

The Individual in Scrum

So, who is responsible for looking after the Individual dimension? Many Scrum Masters see comprehensive People Leadership as part of their responsibility. The biggest challenge, however, is that the responsibility of the Scrum Master for the individual is only there while that individual is a member of their Development team. And although there is a strong emphasis in Scrum that the Development Team should be stable, i.e. without any changes in membership over a longer period, this is rarely the case in larger organisations.

SMs are therefore challenged to fill a void left by taking away the long-term responsibilities of the former line managers to long-term, strategic people coaching, development and mentoring. And the (relatively) short-term nature of the relationship between SMs and their team members is not making it easy for them.

The need for long-term, strategic People Leadership

To provide the comprehensive People Leadership that everyone deserves, organisations should implement and emphasise the role of what are sometimes called Pastoral Managers or Career Counsellors. Their role should be to look after those long-term development goals of the individuals and ensure that through coaching, development, and mentoring each individual can achieve their full potential within the organisation.

Some organisations either still do this through the remnants of the line manager structures or have started doing this through dedicated pastoral manager roles. When I however look at the relative priority that these roles are given in comparison to those of the POs and SMs, covering the Task and Team aspects, this does appear like more of an afterthought.

If organisations and leaders are to embrace the idea that Task, Team, and Individual are equally important, then a lot more emphasis will need to be put on these People Leadership roles, both in enabling the Leaders to fulfil them, and in holding the Leaders accountable for the execution of their People Leadership responsibilities.

My own experience

Over the past two years I have put a strong emphasis on being that People Leader for my team. The results in motivation and energy within the team have inspired me to continue with this approach. In upcoming articles on this blog, I will share some of the tools and methods my team and I used along the way and to show what worked well, and what didn’t.

Of course, every team and every organisation are different. Your mileage will therefore vary. So please do use the comment function below to share your own thoughts and experience on the topic. That way we can all learn from each other.