Agile Project Management Process Grid–Process 4.2 Servant/Adaptive Leadership

In this series of posts, I am covering the first of three processes in the first process group “Initiate” and in the fourth knowledge area, “Team Performance,” which corresponds roughly to the “Human Resources Management” knowledge area in traditional PM.

The second process in this block is process 4.2 Servant/Adaptive Leadership.   I will discuss what agile or adaptive leadership means.   You can say that servant leadership is one of the principles behind it, but let me clear from the start that servant leadership is a principle that ALL project managers should practice, no matter what methodology is used.  However, this principle is particular important in agile methodology.

Servant Leadership–An Introduction

Once when I entered a meeting of the PMI Orange County Toastmasters Club, the Area Governor was visiting and I saw that he had on a shirt that said “Servant Leader”.   I asked him what it meant, and he said to be a leader, you have to serve the people you are leading.   Rather than the traditional management standpoint being that members exist to serve the needs of the leader, this turns that paradigm on its head and dares to say that the leader needs to serve the members.   As an Area Governor, that meant that he visited all of the clubs in his area twice a year, met with the club officers of each of these clubs, and tried to help the clubs get the resources they needed to face their challenges.

In a similar way, the leader of an agile project needs to serve not just the needs of the customer, but the needs of the team.   This approach serves a project manager well in any environment, but it is particularly useful in agile project management.

Servant Leadership

Here are the elements of servant leadership:

  1. Creating an environment of personal safety–this doesn’t mean physical safety, but psychological safety, in other words, a person has to feel free to express opinions and to resolve conflicts between the different opinions of team members when that occurs.
  2. Monitoring skills of team members–this doesn’t just mean skills with respect to agile project management, but technical skills and “soft skills” needed to work cohesively as a team.
  3. Facilitating (not controlling) team meetings–you create ground rules to the extent that they create the environment of personal safety mentioned in element 1 above.
  4. Guiding the decision-making process–this should always be based on creating the most value for the customer.
  5. Removing obstacles that impede progress–this is the “scrum” aspect of leadership where you block others from tackling the person with the ball, or you get handle events or conditions that will impede the person’s path to the goal line.

The focus is not on leading the team in a direction that you have in mind; rather, it is creating the environment in which the team can decide collectively on the best direction to go in.  A lot of these principles can be applied to traditional project management as well.   j.

Agile/Adaptive Leadership

Those principles which are specifically geared towards managing agile projects can be referred to as agile or adaptive leadership principles.  Here are the elements of agile or adaptive leadership:

  1. Adapting to change in the spirit of embracing it rather than avoiding it.   If there are changes to the scope that are suggested, the agile project manager needs to consult with the customer/proxy and decide a) which changes to respond to during an iteration, and b) which changes to defer until an iteration is complete.
  2. Guiding the agile process outcome through adaptive actions, such as:  reducing features, adding an iteration, creating another agile team to handle part of the project, and identifying a new metric.
  3. Adapting the agile framework to the work environment and the customer/proxy.   This is especially true if the customer is relatively new to the agile approach.   The agile project manager might customer its numbering schema for estimating story points, like assigning shirt sizes S, M, L, and XL to them, rather than adhering strictly to the Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.).

The skillset that allows one to be a successful agile leader comes under the rubric of emotional intelligence, being skillful at the so-called “soft skills” of persuading and influencing other people.   Emotional intelligence is, therefore, considered a legitimate tool and technique of agile project management and is the subject of the next post.


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