Transactional leadership and Agile; conflict or contrast?

Also known as the management style of leadership, its principles and Agile’s seem at odds but does it really matter?

Self-organising teams, building projects around individuals, giving them the environment they need and trusting them to get the job done. These are some concepts found in the principles of the Agile Manifesto, the widely accepted founding document of Agile software development. It’s a much more people-centric approach to building software that has emerged and evolved in the last 2 decades but do the leadership practices of organisations that run Agile teams really affect them? [paragraph 1 of 5]

This is a question that interests me and which I am asking in some research I will be doing over the next few years. Using a method called grounded theory I plan to interview Agile practitioners from a wide range of projects and companies. I’m particularly interested in whether Agile teams can flourish in environments where leadership is transactional in nature and where the focus is on rewards and punishment, command and control. [2/5]

An article in the IEEE Software journal of Sept/Oct 2005 explained that “Project managers in most Agile methods play two primary roles: protector and coach. They act as a barrier between the organisation and the team. In other words, Agile teams can be more successful if they are shielded from the organisation within which they are working. [3/5]

Innovation, such as Agile methods, has a long history of needing to be protected. General Motors famously created a new and autonomous division to innovate auto-manufacturing called Saturn. Top leadership of GM gave the team free reign and the space to exercise it (even in a separate building) – they knew the transactional or management style of their own leadership teams below them would suffocate it; like a host organism rejecting a virus that threatens its survival. [4/5]

In theory, Agile appears to face the same challenge, teams need to be protected and its people-centric ethos contrasts with traditional management methods. There are Agile-friendly leadership models or perhaps Agile by nature is resilient enough to its broader environment. GM’s Saturn project was eventually shut down (despite it’s success) so I hope Agile doesn’t suffer the same fate – I think leadership holds the key and I aim to find out. [5/5]

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