In the world of project management, the most common definitions of “agile” have become surprisingly… rigid.

Google “agile team” or “team agility,” and you’ll see definitions like this: “An Agile team is the project team assigned to an Agile project.” Other posts claim that agile teams are those that leverage tools like Kanban boards and Scrum.

But all of this misses the point.

Agility Is a Mindset

Agile project management is a framework, yes. But the framework is based on helping teams and individuals develop an agile mindset. That mindset, more than any tool or process, is what gives teams the ability to move rapidly in response to any change or challenge. 

Agile teams are able to adjust to changing circumstances easily and quickly, without drama, friction, and conflict. They are able to look for the opportunity instinctively, and they don’t waste time on “could have, should have, would have….” conversations. 

And they share common attitudes that support an agile working environment, including respect, collaboration, continuous learning, pride in ownership, a focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change.

As leaders, we need to create environments that encourage our teams to develop and express these attitudes. 

How to Foster Agility In Your Team

Somewhat counterintuitively, agility depends upon stability. Teams need to feel confident and supported into order to take the risks and actions that an agile response requires. A strong team culture, established processes and routines, and consistent decision-making frameworks provide a stable base from which your team can respond nimbly to changing circumstances.

Here are five leadership practices that support agility in every member of the team:

  • Communication
    You need open and honest communication across the team, and the ability to solicit and provide feedback in a safe setting. If team members don’t feel comfortable speaking up or pushing back, they will be less likely to take worthwhile risks, think outside the box, or bring new ideas to the table. In other words, they won’t be able to think and behave agilely, because they’ll be too worried about how their ideas and suggestions are received.
  • Empowerment
    Agility depends on fast, effective decision-making. Whenever possible, team members closest to the project should be empowered to use their own judgement and make decisions in the best interest of the project. There should be clear guidelines as to what sorts of decisions require sign-off from someone else, and those guidelines should remain as stable as possible across different projects and teams.
  • Support
    The quick action and rapid decision-making required by agile teams come with some risk. Not every decision will be the best one, and not every risk will pay off. But team members must know that they have the support of their organization and leaders. Otherwise, they may hold back out of fear of the consequences of failure. 
  • Continuous Learning
    Every project and sprint teaches us lessons — if only we pay attention. That’s why retrospectives should be a consistent part of your project process. Taking time at regular intervals to identify (and act on) lessons learned helps the team continually improve processes and respond nimbly during the next stage of the project.
  • Self-Awareness
    When we’re feeling stressed, uncertain or fearful, often tempted to exert control. As leaders, this sometimes means that we add in more oversight, processes, and procedures than are warranted. To lead an agile team, you need to be able to recognize and halt your own reactive tendencies before they filter down to others.

Similarly, you can encourage your team to also be mindful of their reactions to unexpected changes and new challenges. By gently helping team members recognize when their thinking has become limited, you can support them to embrace a growth mindset that supports agile thinking.

The culture and expectations that you create as a leader go a long way toward dictating how your team responds to unexpected challenges. Regardless of whether you’ve adopted an Agile methodology, hold daily standups, or use Kanban boards, your team’s mental habits will be the deciding factor in how your projects unfold. By creating an environment that supports open communication and fast decision-making, you empower your team to think and react agilely — and your projects will only benefit.

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