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Self-organized teams? So what will the agile project manager do?

Recently, many businesses have been using agile teams and more self-organization. The goals are clear: teams should be able to react more quickly to complex changes and individual desires in the project. The implementation is normally simple. Management and managers should trust their employees and give their teams the option to make decisions themselves (team autonomy). At first, this sounds very easy.

But what does this statement mean? “I trust my employees and let them organize themselves.” Some might wonder: Should I leave my employees to their own devices or should I guide them with targeted question, coach them? Of course, there is also the possibility of acting as a model or even to work on an equal footing with the project executives or managers. But how do you implement agile leadership and how should you behave? Many project managers and executives are still unclear on this.

Agile project management

Study on agile leadership

That’s why me and Tobias Greff from the AWS Institute for Digitized Products and Processes carried out a n extensive study with 66 executives, project managers and Scrum masters. The study examined which practice-relevant challenges digitization causes for leadership and how to react to these. Through a group discussion with the executives, we identified the challenges of digitization which were described in more detail in an analysis. Possible solution approaches were analyzed in detail in a subsequent survey of the executives. The results of the survey lead to recommendations for action for agile, generation-orientated and virtual leadership. In this blog article, I would like to demonstrate how project managers can lead more agilely using the findings of agile leadership.

What is agile leadership?

According to the statements of project managers and executives, the goal of agile leadership is to improve the self-organization of teams and of individuals. The people we surveyed recommended being “agile and flexible” with each employee. We quickly established that agility is more of a “mindset”, a “behavior” or a “personal attitude” of the staff. The debate about agile management is not about methods, but rather about the personality of management.

Managers’ behavior is a much-discussed theme. If you look in current journals, then you will find many articles about managers who pay bonuses despite bad results. Sometimes, you read that bad decisions from top management caused a lot of jobs to be lost but the managers don’t realty seem to care. Basic values and principles are obviously ignored by management. However, managers like the Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche gain sympathy through unconventional, public actions, like appearing in a “do epic shit” t-shirt in February 2018.

Characteristics like charisma, the ability to communicate, authenticity, continuity and courage are increasingly important, especially for management staff. Even in an agile context, current management methods are less and less important. What can you do to become an agile manager? Behavior, character and mindset. But these are pretty vague attributes. However, we made some important findings in our study “agile leadership needs an agile model” and have tried to flesh them out.

Agile leadership needs an agile model

We read up on models and found many that require certain characteristics of a manager. Examples are openness and trust, speed and flexibility, and lots more. In conversation with executives and project managers, we noticed that it’s not about being 100 percent flexible or fast or open, but rather a mixture of these properties. Because of this, project managers prioritize many values. This proves management staff to be a type of DJ who needs to bring all of the different values into the right balance according to the situation. Here is an example with the five most highly-prioritized values:

Agile leadership: A balancing act

Agile leadership: A balancing act

You see, it’s not about being completely agile. It’s about balancing certain values sensibly. For example, it’s not always good to only be fast, although speed is very important. Project results should be quickly tried out on the market to test the value and to drive sensible development with feedback. However, the quality can’t be completely ignored. Fixed goals are still important. But employees should also be inspired to bring their own ideas into the project, because sometimes fixed goals lead to narrow thinking and might prevent innovation. Stability is important, even in a changing environment. Requirements shouldn’t change every day and everything should be flexible. Even the agile method Scrum requires requirements to be stable for two weeks during a sprint. Meeting employees at their level is becoming more and more important according to our study. However, authority and assertiveness remain important. As project manager, you have to make a lot of decisions in the future and represent the project in the classical sense. The last point is the balance between trust and control, which is an important factor for agile teams. Trust weighs more, but it’s just as important to control whether each member of the team still has drive and that the project can continue to pursue the business goals.

Summary and other “agile” findings for project managers

You might have noticed that agile leadership is still quite vaguely defined and must be lived individually by leadership according to individual case. It’s clear that agile leadership is not just about you, but also about your personality and attitudes as well as empathy for the employees and their situations.

We could also derive other points from the study which I would like to present as inspiration or guidelines for your leadership:

  • Basis: This is the unique understanding that agile leadership should have social, technological and visionary skills that can be trained.
  • Primary characteristics: These are facilitating leadership eye-to-eye, trust in employees, experiments, real-time information and inspiration.
  • Secondary characteristics: Like real-time feedback, exemplifying agility, living change and participation.
  • Further training: Management regularly learn more through internet research, conferences or discussions with colleagues.
  • Trial and error: Because “learning by doing” is the best learning method for executives, it’s advised to directly adapt the leadership model to a typical workday.  A willingness to experiment is very important here!

Would you like to read the whole study? It’s available from Springer Professional. The references are as follows (in German):

Lindner, D., & Greff, T. (2018). Führung im Zeitalter der Digitalisierung – was sagen Führungskräfte. HMD – Praxis Der Wirtschaftsinformatik, 7(1), 20.



Dominic Lindner writes the blog and has done a doctorate on digital leadership, work 4.0 and agility in medium-sized businesses at the FAU university in Erlangen-Nuremberg. On top of that he works as an Associate Manager for an IT provider and accumulates the insights he gained from research with practical work there.

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