Do Executives Help or Hinder Agile Teams?

Executives have priorities that may conflict with agile practices and mindsets. They can play a critical role in empowering agile. But do they?

How did agile development start? Was it a reaction to the control and bureaucracy that is applied to waterfall projects? Was it about listening to the customer? Or was it about being fleet of foot as an organization? The answer is, of course, all of the above (and some more.) But are these priorities shared by executives? If not, executives and agile teams are going to clash. And agile teams will lose.

I use the term “executives” to include the C-suite, the senior managers, and indeed, CIOs and IT managers. In fact, in some cases, IT management represents a hurdle to agile teams all on their own, with their need for architectural fit, security, operationalization, capacity planning, and sometimes just plain stubbornness for doing things the traditional way. (But that’s another story for another time --fitting agile with traditional IT discipline.)

We should look at executives and their motivations before understanding whether they help or hinder agile teams. In my book “Reinventing the C-Suite,” I researched executives’ psychology, and the results are disheartening for agile teams. Amid a plethora of research papers on the psychology of executives, I found such titles as: “The dark side of executive psychology,” “Executive derailment,” and “1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths.” Of course, there were also positive papers, but these still suggest a need for executive psychology to be examined and managed.

So what are the predominant psychological traits that these researchers found so disturbing? Hubris and narcissism dominate. Both are negative and affect the kind of executive support that agile teams can expect.

Executive hubris (arrogant pride) is dangerous to agile teams because these executives have ambitious plans and firm expectations that these plans will be executed. An agile approach might be just as ambitious, but it draws from what customers want, not directly from the executive. And agile teams expect to pivot often and not stick firmly to an outdated objective. Executive narcissism, which usually manifests as “I am right,” clashes with agile’s expectation of changing direction or even stopping an initiative.

Hubris and narcissism have served executives and their organizations well. Executives propose bold and expansive moves and have the drive to make them happen. Just what most organizations need. But perhaps not what agile teams need.

Executives should give the teams a cohesive vision of the future.

But then their role should change. And because executives have influence outside the team, that’s where they should play. They should remove roadblocks and smooth the way for the team. They should also offer guidance on the direction that the team is taking -- because most sprints react to feedback and progress, some agile teams can lose their way.

Leaders should also help agile teams feel safe trying new things and then pick up the pieces if they fail. An executive’s job is to extract the learning from a failure, fix the failure’s consequences, and help the team move on quickly. They should set safe guardrails within which the team can innovate or even constructively destroy stupid or bureaucratic organizational practices.

This brings us to bureaucracy. It’s the biggest bugbear of agile teams. The organization and its managers continually apply rules that are not needed or inappropriate to the agile environment. For instance, how do you budget for agile? The way everyone else does, of course. Annually. But agile doesn’t work like that. Organizations should budget for the epic or the agile stream, but certainly not for sprints. The same bureaucracy applies to business cases, provisioning, HR, strategy; there are rules for each that don’t apply to agile thinking and methods. That’s where the executive should step in. Make decisions about what rules apply and what rules can be avoided or rewritten if necessary. Or even remove the rule altogether. If in doubt, ask the question: Does this rule help or hinder you in getting the job done? Research shows that about 85% of an organization’s rules are hindrances to people wanting to deliver.

So. Do executives help agile teams? The research shows that they don’t. But they can. They just have to think and act differently.


Terry White was a CIO for 15 years and has been advising executives for 20 years. He is a senior analyst at the technology research company Omdia and has been researching and writing for 15 years. He has written three books on IT management and one on general management. His special interests are IT organization and strategy. He has developed IT budgeting and project prioritization methodologies. He has written about the new role of IT and CIOs in a post-pandemic world. In his spare time, he goes rock climbing.