Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Agile leadership

One of the things that draws me to agile programming styles is the agile approach to leadership.

Waterfall processes naturally fit within a top-down organization where leadership is a direct chain of control in the shape of a pyramid. The exemplar of waterfall leadership is a military organization.

Agile leadership follows from agile processes. It emphasizes change, collaboration and consultation. To adapt is more important than to plan; to listen is more important than to order; to trust is more important than to manage. The shape is that of a network.

But agile leadership is not the opposite of waterfall leadership. A good leader keeps both in mind and applies the best principle to the problem at hand.

For example, new junior programmers are often bewildered by the array of technical approaches available for a given problem. In an agile environment, pair the young Jedi with a senior developer who can share his craft and training.

However, there may not be a senior developer available. Lacking a suitable guide, it is better to task the apprentice with short, straight-forward steps—spell out a likely solution that the junior programmer can learn from as he codes, and provide supervision as requested.

Again, a problem arises: what sort of supervision? If possible, instill in the new peer that you trust him to follow simple instructions but that you are approachable for questions and suggestions. The goal is not to simply train the fingers to type good code, but also teach the mind good values. I believe those values to be agile ones; you may believe otherwise.

None of this is controversial, yet I encounter such mentoring more often with agile leadership than with waterfall leadership. Perhaps it is more a measure of where I worked than how I worked, but I prefer to believe the manifesto.

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