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Ingo Kallenbach

Leadership in an agile world (1): the success of agile companies

The concept of agility and how to successfully implement the development of your company to an agile organisation

The concept of agility originated in software development. Agile methods, such as "scrum", have been on the agenda there for a long time. Even beyond the IT sector, agile processes are becoming increasingly important as a leadership and organizational principle and are gradually conquering the entire corporate world.With this article, which summarizes the most important aspects of the agility concept, we start with our series "Leadership in an agile world". In further atricles we will illustrate the characteristics and basic conditions of the practical application of different, agile methods.

The concept of agility - what is behind it?

In general, the term agility is understood as the ability to react quickly and effectively to changes. In the corporate context, agility describes a holistic management and organizational principle that enables companies to continuously adapt to their complex and volatile environment (keyword VUCA), i.e. to proactively react to permanently changing market conditions.

In the "agile Manifesto" Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, inventors of the project management system "scrum", among others, formulated the basic principles of agile software development. For example, on agile project work it says: "Establish projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to do the job." These and other principles serve as a model for today's agile methods, project tools and new-work concepts.

The company sipgate is considered one of the pioneers in the integration of agile methods into everyday working practice. The "Open Friday", which is held every 14 days as a kind of conference day under the direction of the employees, is to be mentioned as one of many typical examples. In summary, agility stands for an iterative approach, lateral leadership, interdisciplinary and cross-functional teamwork as well as the organised self-responsibility of the employees.

What distinguishes an agile organisation?

Agile organizations are generally characterized by flat hierarchies, cross-functional teams, network structures and the use of agile methods. The practical working method in agile companies is determined by an iterative procedure that includes a strong orientation towards the customer.

With the iterative approach, prototypical preliminary results are generated by short and manageable planning and implementation cycles, which are gradually adapted in further cycles to the concrete (and in the course of the process also often changing) customer and market requirements. This so-called "prototyping" allows potential errors to be corrected at an early stage by continuously checking and improving the product.

The network structures and cross-functional teams of the agile organization require a high degree of self-organisation and self-responsibility of the individual working groups and employees. A corporate culture based on mutual trust and promoting the skills of both individual employees and teams is fundamental to this. The successful development from a classic to an agile organization is thus largely determined by the establishment of an open feedback and error culture, which requires communication at eye level and the transparency of decisions.

Bild Fuehren in der agilen Welt


Leaders as a key element of agility

Above all the managers contribute to a company's degree of agility, as they shape the prevailing behaviour and thus the corporate culture. In order to promote agile processes and pave the way for successful development from the classic to the agile organisation, an employee-centered understanding of leadership is of essential importance:

The introduction of agile methods requires employees to have increasing responsibility and decision-making authority. In contrast to traditional companies, in which responsibility is assumed by a disciplinary manager, the agile organisation transfers this responsibility equally to the employees. Managers and employees are thus faced with the challenge of configuring their traditional roles, as well as adapting their working methods and thinking.

Leading in an agile world requires an innovative understanding of leadership, which can essentially be described as a lateral style of leadership. "Agile leadership" aims at giving responsibility to employees and building mutual trust. First and foremost, it is the task of the manager to create the basic conditions for his employees that enable agile working.

In this context, agile work focuses on the result and not the process. Employees should be given as much leeway as possible for creativity and innovation in order to be able to develop solutions on their own. In order to achieve these goals and establish an agile mindset, an enormous tact is required from the manager, since the employees must be prepared for new processes as well as for a higher level of responsibility.

Agile methods in practice - facts and figures

Agile methods and agile processes are characterized by an iterative procedure. They thus focus on short-term results and enable rapid adaptability to new framework conditions. In a study by the Koblenz University of Applied Sciences, the success and application forms of agile methods were investigated (2017). The main motives for introducing these methods were identified as optimising of time for a product launch, quality and risk reduction. Over 90% of the participants rated the improvements due to the application of agile methods significantly higher than the effort involved in their implementation.

The success rate of agile methods is also rated more positively by those surveyed than that of classical project management. The return on the introduction of agile methods is thus significantly higher than its costs and leads to greater corporate success in the long term. In 2017, 20% of respondents already used consistently agile methods in their daily work practice. Almost 70% occasionally or regularly used agile methods in addition to classical project management. Only just under 12% continue to exclusively use the methods of classical project management.

These figures make it clear that agile methods are still on the advance and will continue to play a decisive role in the development processes of companies in the future.

(editorial realisation: Corinna Brucker)

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Further blog posts from the series "Leadership in an agile world":

Leading in an agile world (1): the concept of agility

Leadership in an agile world (2): "working out loud"

Leadership in an agile world (3): scrum

Leadership in an agile world (4): barcamps

Leadership in an agile world (5): retrospectives

Leadership in an agile world (6): peer feedback

Leadership in an agile world (7): transparency

Leadership in an agile world (8): Delegation Poker

Leadership in an agile world (9): crossfunctional teams

Leadership in an agile world (10): face time