If you only adopt one practice of Agile, adopt retrospectives. The rest will emerge from that. This is old wisdom among Agilists, and back in the early 2000s, Cutter Senior Consultant Alistair Cockburn boiled down his Crystal Clear method to “Iterate and Reflect.” I thought everything of interest had already been written on this topic — until I was involved recently in a mostly failed transition during which this was a major topic.
Looking at leadership models, you find the concept of post-heroic leadership where the heroic leader solves problems by either being the expert him or herself, or an “achiever” who pushes others to solve the problem. The post-heroic leader works by providing the context for others in which they can solve the problem. In his book Leadership Agility, Bill Joiner emphasizes the importance of self-reflection for post-heroic leadership. According to his studies, Joiner states that more than 50% of post-heroic leaders do regular exercises in self-reflection, such as meditation or supervision, while fewer than 10% of heroic leaders do regular self-reflection.
This correlation is not a big surprise. Post-heroic leadership implies a routine of continuous improvement, and improvement needs reflection. Because the only thing you can really change is your own behavior, regular self-reflection helps you become more effective as a leader.
As heroic leaders, most managers fight at the edge of their own abilities. This is what you expect from a hero. Heroes don’t make mistakes, thus reflection is a waste of time — and time is a scarce resource for heroic leaders.
However, this is an ideal. Of course, heroic leaders make mistakes too, and they are pretty aware of it. Still, admitting your own mistakes means destroying your own status as a hero. This mechanism leads to intransparency and secrecy and makes heroic managers ineffective leaders.
Though you usually find both heroic and post-heroic leaders in an organization, most organizations have a clear leadership culture of either heroic or post-heroic. Heroic cultures have a tendency toward time pressure and command-control management, while post-heroic cultures have a tendency toward participative approaches.
You are probably starting to see the connection now: Agile organizations are far more compatible with a post-heroic leadership culture than with a heroic one. So an Agile transition is more a matter of changing the leadership culture than of implementing a new process. According to Joiner, about 85% of managers have an heroic approach toward their jobs. So, chances are that you have to deal with a mostly heroic management culture when starting an Agile adoption. To a large extent, the success of adoption depends on how many leaders in the organization manage the shift toward a post-heroic attitude. The major tool here is self-reflection. The bad news is that such cultural change is a tedious and hard thing to accomplish. The good news is that upper management has significant influence on the leadership culture. By “eating their own dog food” and demonstrating both self-reflection and post-heroic leadership, they significantly influence the success of an Agile adoption.
(Photo via JD Hancock)