How to influence leadership to embrace agile
Gareth Ellis-Thomas worked for Prostate Cancer UK for 13 years and his final position was Director of Transformation and Technology. Gareth used this role to create the conditions needed for agile working to thrive across Prostate Cancer UK. Here, he shares five techniques which successfully encouraged the wider leadership team to join him on the journey.
1. Learning through doing is the best form of evidence
- Agile working is a learned skill that needs practice – you need to do it in order to understand it.
- Find an experienced agile practitioner to advise along the way.
- Evidence everything and work openly – only then will agile begin to make sense to the wider organisation.
Find a low-risk pilot project, and start small – always start small. Maybe a project that is in crisis and needs to shake up, as that team will likely want to try something new. It’s also important to get someone who’s done it before to help guide you. I worked with Tilt, who were excellent at helping us figure stuff out.
Then document everything. Gather feedback. Work out in the open to make it a thing which people notice. Because agile working is quite theoretical a lot of the time. It often doesn’t make sense until people see it in action.
2. Tell a story and then repeat it. Over and over again.
- Use the language of your organisation to ensure the case for change resonates.
- Show is better than tell, so make sure your story is practical where possible.
- Keep the story simple for greater impact.
At Prostate Cancer at the time, we were talking a lot about ‘engagement’. We brought in a new Engagement Strategy. And I felt that agile had a real part to play in that. So I used that language. But I wasn’t telling lies by matching it to strategies, it simply begs the questions: What is the point of changing anything? What is the point you’re trying to get across? That’s the heart of the story.
Tell a story by showing the difference. You may have lovely slides, but they don’t tell the story.
The story is that agile working helped take a fundraising product from £30,000 to £100,000, and all we did was change the way we worked. That’s the story. That’s what gets noticed.
3. Agile working requires influencing at the team and management levels
- Understand colleagues’ needs – which will vary for staff at different levels of each team.
- Some will feel threatened, some disinterested, others too eager.
- Recognising your colleagues’ different responses will help you think through the type of support to offer so that change can continue to happen.
From a leadership perspective, agile working may mean a change to their role. They’re no longer telling people what to do and that can be unsettling. So you’ve got to help them understand that they’ve got a more important role now – the role of giving their team everything they need to deliver in the best way they can. It takes consistent influencing understanding colleagues’ needs and concerns and helping them work through these.
4. Find advocates and a community of agile change-makers
- Build a community of advocates across different teams and at different levels.
- This will help agile working to be seen as an organisation-wide culture shift.
- A community is also essential for sharing challenges and facilitating learnings.
I was very fortunate at Prostate Cancer UK when we started agile working. We had great support from both senior management and within the teams themselves. When you’ve got people across the organisation who can tell the story for you that makes it an organisational story, rather than just a pet project.
You’ll also need colleagues to unload your struggles to, as it will get frustrating at times because you’re trying to make change happen. It’s also really important to understand how other people are doing things, and sharing your experiences makes everyone do better.
5. Be pragmatic and flexible
- Things won’t go exactly as you expect. It won’t be neat and tidy – and that is ok. In fact, it’s a fundamental aspect of agile working!
- It is how you adapt to these challenges and changes which is key to success.
- This may mean letting go of long-held beliefs, and going where the energy is, rather than where it isn’t.
One of the mantras we came up with at Prostate Cancer UK was: progress over perfection.
It’s about being practical and flexible and keeping a broad view of what ‘agile’ may mean for your organisation because you probably won’t know this at the early stage. When I started I was in the mindset that teams need to be doing certain things a certain way. And actually, you learn that it doesn’t matter too much. It’s actually about what’s good for the team and providing a flexible framework, rather than a set of rules.
In summary, take an agile approach to embedding agile!
So there you have it. 5 keys to influencing your leadership team to embed more agile ways of working. Give them a try, learn your way forward, sharing openly as you go.
Here is the full video of Gareth sharing his story from Prostate Cancer UK and his 5 key ways to influence leadership: