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Let’s Have a Little Sympathy for the Agile C-Suite

Let’s Have a Little Sympathy for the Agile C-Suite

Running an Agile transition requires corporate leaders to play many roles simultaneously without the supports Agile systems typically offer.

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Let’s Have a Little Sympathy for the Agile C-Suite

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Q: How can I can get the Agile message to my C-suite? They talk about Agile, but they don't seem to be living it. I’m frustrated.

Author Darrell Rigby responds: Agile teams often cite leadership and culture as the greatest barriers to a successful scaling of Agile. But most leaders aren’t fighting Agile; they simply don’t understand how it applies to their roles or how to perform those roles in ways that enhance agility.

Their confusion is understandable. For most Agile teams, members focus 100% on a single initiative, but that’s not possible for Agile leadership teams. Executives must play multiple roles simultaneously.

  • They have to build and manage the Agile enterprise’s overall operating system, diagnose which components need to be improved, and figure out when and how to best do that. Then, they must sponsor and lend their expertise to the teams tasked with redesigning and rebalancing one or more of those operating system components.
  • At the same time, executives must continue to oversee their business units and functions, ensuring that operations run reliably and efficiently.
  • They must serve as mentors, coaches, and decision makers.
  • And they must handle corporate governance issues such as compliance and shareholder communications—not to mention the crises of the moment.

Leadership teams that do it right recognize the development of the Agile system as itself an Agile initiative—in fact, they see it as the most vital of all Agile initiatives. Though they are not themselves organized as an Agile team 100% dedicated to a single initiative, senior executives learn to manage the company’s Agile transition as an Agile team would. They view it as a continuous improvement program, not as a project with predictable end points or fixed completion dates. They recognize that going too slowly may cause the transition to stall but that changing too quickly will create chaos. So they sequence and balance the components of the transition, serve as role models of Agile behavior, and come to appreciate that how they make decisions will be as important as the decisions themselves. When it works, these executives improve business results, unleash their employees’ potential, and increase their own personal job satisfaction all at the same time.

There’s much more to it, of course. We dive into the role of the Agile leader in “The Agile C-Suite,” which was the cover story of Harvard Business Review’s May–June 2020 edition. You may want to check that out, too.


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