Is Vertical Development Truly a Silver Bullet for Agile Leadership?

vertical development agile leadership

Business agility, once a niche approach, has now become a central strategy for companies aiming to enhance adaptability, innovation, and efficiency. This shift has led to a surge in Agile transformations, with numerous organizations attempting to integrate agile ways of working into their core operations. However, there’s a notable trend where agile coaches and consultants have started emphasizing that the reason Agile hasn’t taken a stronger foothold in the enterprise  is because of a lack of intentional vertical development in leaders working with agile. Blogs, webinars and opinion boosting articles are starting to draw more and more attention to “vertical development” as a magical solution for developing Agile leadership capabilities when agile transformations are not delivering expected results. This article challenges this notion, arguing that while vertical development is beneficial, it cannot rectify the complexities of a failing Agile transformation.

Understanding Vertical Development

Vertical development represents a profound journey in personal and professional growth, focusing on the expansion of an individual’s mindset, cognitive capabilities, and ways of interpreting the world. This form of development isn’t just about accumulating knowledge or skills; it’s about fundamentally transforming how one thinks, processes information, and understands complexities. It involves evolving one’s thinking to become more sophisticated, nuanced, and capable of appreciating diverse perspectives.

In light of recent organizational challenges, such as layoffs and pauses in Agile Transformations, the discussion around the role of vertical development for Agile Leadership has become increasingly significant. Coaches often emphasize this approach as essential for cultivating leadership qualities that align with Agile principles. When leaders undergo vertical development, they don’t just learn about Agile; they start to internalize and ‘get’ Agile at a fundamental level. This profound understanding goes beyond the mechanics of Agile practices—it’s about embracing an Agile mindset that permeates decision-making, problem-solving, and adaptability, which is all true.

However, the power of vertical development for agile leadership lies in its nature as a deeply personal journey. It is not a one-size-fits-all process; rather, it must be tailored to the individual. Each person’s path through vertical development is unique, influenced by their experiences, beliefs, and current level of understanding. This personalization is what makes vertical development so powerful—it resonates on a deep, individual level, facilitating genuine and lasting change in how people think and act.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that vertical development cannot be forced upon someone. It requires a willingness to engage, reflect, and challenge one’s own thinking patterns. Forcing individuals into this kind of growth can be counterproductive, leading to resistance rather than transformation. This is particularly pertinent in the context of Agile transformations, where a shift in Agile leadership mindset is essential for success.

Moreover, it’s important to recognize that vertical development alone cannot solve all issues, particularly in the realm of leadership’s difficulty to understand and champion Agile practices. While it can significantly enhance an individual’s capacity to lead and engage with Agile methodologies, it’s not a panacea for all challenges faced during an Agile transformation. Leadership engagement with Agile requires not just individual growth but also systemic changes in organizational culture, processes, and practices. Counting solely on vertical development to address leadership disengagement overlooks these broader, organizational aspects that are equally crucial for a successful Agile transformation.

Negative Impacts of Imposing Vertical Development

Supporting leadership with a broader spectrum of support is crucial for several reasons, and imposing vertical development without considering other aspects can indeed have negative impacts on the effectiveness of a coach or change agent within an organization. Here’s why:

Resistance to Change: Imposing any single method of development, especially such an intrusive and personally transforming tool as vertical development, can lead to increased resistance, especially if individuals do not see its relevance or feel it’s being forced upon them without consideration of their unique context.

Overlooking Practical Skills: Focusing solely on mindset growth can lead to a gap in practical, technical, or managerial skills that are essential for effective leadership in specific roles. While focusing on mindset growth is valuable, it should not overshadow the cultivation of practical, technical, or managerial skills vital for effective leadership. Agile coaches should balance vertical development with skill-based training and experiential learning. This balanced approach ensures leaders are not only psychologically mature but also equipped with the necessary competencies for their specific roles.

Misalignment with Immediate Needs: If an organization is facing immediate challenges that require specific skills or changes in processes, focusing exclusively on vertical development might not address these urgent needs, leading to frustration and inefficacy. Ask yourself; have you equipped leadership with the tools and pathway forward? Have you answered their questions and allowed them to feel the change is not affecting them in a negative way? Have you allowed leadership to partake in your work in understanding the larger system at play and have they felt they are somewhat in control about the next steps?

Undermining Coaching Effectiveness: As a coach, imposing a single approach can undermine your effectiveness by not addressing the diverse needs of leaders and teams. It can also lead to a perception of inflexibility and lack of understanding of the unique challenges within the organization. When imposing vertical development to your clients, you may be unintentionally creating a resistance to your own practices as coach and find yourself coached out of job really soon. Leadership usually first wants an answer, then a new approach and a clear path forward. It is only when they have started to trust you that they are willing to listen for more powerful and growth oriented coaching techniques. Take your time to work with leaders and explain, teach, mentor and take their worries seriously. It is only when you have professionally shown that you are able to coach the leadership team at leading the transformation that you are becoming successful at transforming the organization with them.

Creating Unrealistic Expectations: Emphasizing only vertical development can create unrealistic expectations about the outcomes of leadership development, ignoring the multifaceted nature of effective leadership.  Agile coaches should communicate the multifaceted nature of effective leadership development, integrating vertical development with other essential aspects like skill acquisition, cultural adaptation, and strategic alignment. This comprehensive view helps in setting realistic goals and expectations for leadership growth.

Supporting Leadership in championing and leading the transformation

While vertical development is a powerful tool for enhancing the cognitive and emotional maturity of leaders, it is not a standalone solution for the multifaceted challenges of agile transformations. In the dynamic landscape of organizational change, especially in agile contexts, leaders need a diverse array of tools and strategies to effectively guide their teams and organizations. This need for a broader approach is where the role of an agile coach becomes pivotal.

Agile coaches need to focus on what they are asked to bring to the table first: Clarity and Support. Vertical Development van be part of that mix, but do not let anyone tell you it is the silver bullet for successful agile transformations. Bring your comprehensive toolkit that extends beyond personal growth, addressing various dimensions of organizational change. These tools should range from cultural development strategies to strategic mapping, encompassing change management, leadership coaching, and more. Here are some tools you’ll learn in The Agile Company’s Enterprise Agile Coaching and Coaching Agile transformation courses:

Cultural Development Tools: These tools focus on assessing and shaping the organizational culture to align with agile values. They involve understanding the existing culture, identifying areas of resistance, and strategies for fostering an agile mindset across the organization. This might include workshops, culture surveys, and facilitated discussions aimed at promoting agile principles like collaboration, adaptability, and continuous improvement.

Strategic Mapping: Mapping out the road to success involves creating a clear, strategic plan for the agile transformation. This includes setting goals, defining key milestones, and identifying the necessary steps to achieve these objectives. Tools like roadmaps, vision statements, and strategic alignment exercises are used to ensure that the transformation is progressing in the desired direction.

Change Management Strategies: These strategies are crucial for managing the people aspect of the transformation. They help leaders understand and navigate the human responses to change, including addressing fears, building buy-in, and managing resistance. Techniques might include stakeholder analysis, communication planning, and change impact assessments.

Leadership Coaching and Mentoring: Personalized coaching and mentoring for leaders are essential for developing the necessary skills and mindset to lead an agile transformation. This might involve one-on-one coaching sessions, leadership workshops, and peer mentoring programs focused on developing agile leadership competencies.

Performance Metrics and Analytics: Coaches help leaders in establishing and interpreting metrics and analytics that gauge the progress and effectiveness of the agile transformation. This includes setting up agile performance indicators, feedback loops, and continuous improvement mechanisms.

Facilitation and Collaboration Techniques: These techniques are aimed at improving team dynamics, collaboration, and problem-solving. Coaches might use tools like facilitation guides, collaborative workshops, and team-building exercises to enhance team performance and communication.

Agile Frameworks and Practices: Providing guidance on specific agile frameworks and practices that are most suitable for the organization. This includes training and workshops on methodologies like Scrum, Kanban, or SAFe, and helping teams to adopt and adapt these practices effectively.

Organizational Design and Structure: Advising on the optimal organizational design and structure to support agile ways of working. This could involve redefining roles, restructuring teams, and aligning the organizational structure with agile principles.

Continuous Learning and Development: Encouraging a culture of continuous learning and development within the leadership and teams. This includes creating learning plans, organizing training sessions, and fostering a mindset of continuous growth and adaptation.

These tools, when used in conjunction with vertical development, provide a holistic approach to leading and managing agile transformations. They ensure that leaders are not only psychologically prepared but are also equipped with the necessary skills, strategies, and insights to navigate the complexities of organizational change in an agile environment.

Take your own growth to the next level

For those seeking further guidance or having specific questions about agile transformation and the array of tools and strategies available for leaders, reaching out to the team of experts can be incredibly beneficial. Engaging with professionals who specialize in agile coaching and leadership development provides an opportunity for personalized advice and insights tailored to your unique organizational context.

Additionally, participating in 
meetups and community events can be a valuable way to connect with peers, share experiences, and learn from others in the field. These events often feature discussions, workshops, and networking opportunities, making them a great resource for continuous learning and professional growth.

For a more structured and comprehensive learning experience, considering booking an 
Agile leadership course might be the ideal step. Courses in agile coaching and leadership development are designed to provide in-depth knowledge, practical skills, and certification opportunities. They offer structured learning paths, expert instruction, and a chance to interact with fellow professionals embarking on similar journeys.

Whether it’s through direct outreach, community engagement, or formal education, there are numerous avenues available to deepen your understanding and enhance your skills in leading agile transformations.

Natascha Speets
Natascha Speets

Natascha is always on the looking for opportunities to help her clients become the best version of themselves. She does this by integrating her professional coaching skills in everything she does.