The Agile Executive
In this third installment of our “Agile Organization” series we discuss the qualities and attributes necessary for someone to lead a group of cross functional Agile teams in the development of a web-centric product. For the purposes of this discussion, the Agile Executive is the person responsible for leading a group of agile teams in the development of a product.
In a world with less focus on functional organizations such as the one we’ve described in our Agile Organization articles, it is imperative that the leadership have a good understanding of all domains from the overall business through product management and finally each of the technical domains. Clearly such an individual can’t be an expert in every one of these areas, but they should be deep in at least one and broad through all of them. Ideally this would have been the case in the functional world as well, but alas functional organizations exist to support deep rather than broad domain knowledge. In the Agile world we need deep in at least area and broad in all areas.
Such a deep yet broad individual could come from any of the functional domains. The former head of product management may be one such candidate assuming that he or she had good engineering and operations understanding. The head of engineering and operations may be heads of other agile teams, assuming that they have a high business acumen and good product understanding. In fact, it should not matter whence the individual comes, but rather whether he or she has the business acumen, product savvy and technical chops to lead teams.
In our view of the world, such an individual will likely have a strong education consisting of an undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) degree. This helps give them the fundamentals necessary to effectively interact with engineers and add value to the engineering process. They will also have likely attended graduate school in a business focused program such as an MBA with a curriculum that covers finance, accounting, product and strategy. This background helps them understand the language of business. The person will hopefully have served for at least a short time in one of the engineering disciplines as an individual contributor to help bridge the communication chasm that can sometimes exist between those who “do” and those who “dream”. As they progress in their career, they will have taken on roles within product or worked closely with product in not only identification of near term product elements, but the strategic evaluation of product needs longer term as well.
From the perspective of philosophy, the ideal candidates are those who understand that innovation is more closely correlated with collaboration through wide networks than it is to the intelligence of one individual or a small group of people. This understanding helps drive beneficial cognitive conflict and increased contribution to the process of innovation rather than the closed minded approach of affective conflict associated with small groups of contributors.
In summary, it’s not about whence the person comes but rather “who the person is”. Leading cross disciplinary teams requires cross disciplinary knowledge. As we can’t possibly experience enough personally to be effective in all areas, we must broaden ourselves through education and exposure and deepen ourselves through specific past experiences. Most importantly, for a leader to succeed in such an environment he or she must understand that “it’s not about them” – that success is most highly correlated with teams that contribute and not with just being “wickedly smart”.