Aug 242010

In a recent e-mail exchange with Cutter Fellow Lynne Ellyn (SVP and CIO of DTE), she mentioned that one characteristic of agile leaders is providing focus and clarity for an organization or team. Her comments sparked my thinking about why it’s so hard to be a good agile leader. We tend to create lists of what leaders do or their agilelike behaviors, but these lists and the item descriptions obscure the difficulty in actually being an agile leader.

Consider providing focus and clarity. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Why do we embrace agility in the first place? Agility helps us manage change and uncertainty. Turbulence — business, economic, and technological — creates change, which in turn creates both opportunity and peril. Change does not yield to rational analysis; responding to change requires a leap of faith. Sure, one can analyze the situation and come up with options that look reasonable, but most of the time, significant changes create mounds of uncertainty, and the decisions required to respond to those changes are never clear-cut. There is never one obvious option, but a multitude of options that seem reasonable. There is never enough information, and the information in hand is often contradictory. Change creates ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, and indecision that lead to floundering.

Agile leaders have the ability to cleave through this ambiguity, to focus on a decision when everyone else is floundering, to clarify direction when everyone else sees confusion. This requires an ample supply of thought and analysis, but probably an even greater supply of guts. Providing focus and clarity is both mentally and emotionally taxing. Agile leaders have doubts, just like everyone else, but they can put these aside in order to drive the project or the organization in the right direction. They can communicate the decision, focus, and clarity to others.

And, they can change that direction if need be. There is a delicate line between focus and obsession. One of the greatest Western explorers was John C. Fremont, who, among other feats, secured California for the US. His focus and clarity, in the face of tremendous hardships and uncertainty, won the day time and time again. One exception was a time when his focus and clarity became an obsession that nearly created a second Donner party. Leading his men (which for once did not include Kit Carson, who might have influenced Fremont’s decisions) across the Rocky mountains in late season, he met disaster as the snow piled up, mules died, and food ran out. Fremont finally turned back, but this journey sullied his pathfinder reputation.

Change also implies adaptation. We throw around such words as “agility,” “adaptation,” and “flexibility” as if they were easy to implement, so why isn’t everyone doing it? But what agility requires to be successful is strong leaders at every level. It needs technical leaders who can cut through the myriad of technological possibilities to set direction. It requires product leaders who can sort through the myriad of new product possibilities to bring the right product to market. And it requires executive leaders who can see opportunities in turbulent markets and make the right decisions to move forward.

Agile leaders are those who have vision and foresight; who can articulate the focus and clarity; who can persist in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, and other’s doubt; who can adapt before their focus becomes obsession. Finding agile leaders who embody these traits may be the most difficult task in building an agile organization.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss Jim Highsmith’s keynote Agile Leadership: What it Takes at Cutter Summit North America, 25 October 2010.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  3 Responses to “Building an Agile Organization with Agile Leaders”

  1. Great points. These soft skills can’t be learned through a certification course. These skills are bred through experience and learnings!

  2. […] confusion, and under-performance and does something about them.  So coming full circle, in an August 24 post on the Cutter site, Highsmith, too, talks about how leadership comes down to having the ability to reduce ambiguous […]

  3. Great post Jim!
    You identified an essential aspect that throwing words like agility and adaptation, the industry is only muddying the waters. A leader acts as a model. A leader is able to inspire others to align everyone (at least most) to the vision. A great vision needs focus and leadership to cover the path from creativity to innovation. Adaptation and agility should enable simplicity.

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