Trust is the rocket fuel that propels agile organizations forward. Without it, bureaucracy and rigid management can grind things to a halt. For companies to be fast and flexible, leaders must break down the barriers that hinder trust. In this article I will describe how executives, managers and team members can foster a culture of trust to improve agility.

Executives

Executives of large companies often do not grasp what it takes to be agile. To their defense, they have a lot going on. It’s easy for them to stay on the sidelines when it comes to improving agility. Let Jim, the VP of IT go work on that whole “agile” thing says the CEO. What the CEO fails to realize is that agility is critical to the survival of the company and it goes beyond IT. Agility must be part of the enterprise strategy, and it all starts with trust.

The first thing executives can do is assure middle managers that their jobs are safe. In agile organizations, managers don’t command and control. Instead, they empower and coach. If managers trust their jobs are not in jeopardy, it will be easier for them to empower teams.

Second, executives should let the organization know that it’s okay to make mistakes. Often you will hear in agile companies the term “fail fast”. What it means is that it’s better to deliver iterating on fast failures than trying to build perfect solutions. By promoting a fail fast culture, executives will help reduce fear for employees and encourage trust.

Last, executives must get engaged in agile adoption. They can’t talk the talk, they must walk the walk. The best way for them to do this is by clearing bureaucracy and clutter that impede agility. By having skin in the game, executives send a message to the company that they can be trusted.

Managers

The inability for management to empower teams is often a major roadblock to agility. To understand why, there are many layers of the onion that need to be peeled away. At the core of the issue is lack of trust, and fear. They don’t trust teams to operate without their control, and they fear for their job security. Managers also may not know how to coach.

One of the best ways to address this problem is through enterprise agile training. Most companies make the mistake of focusing agile training only on teams. They embed agile coaches within teams, while managers receive no training.

Agile training will help managers understand their role in an agile organization. They will learn how to let go of control and start coaching. Sir John Whitmore, author of coaching for performance, defines coaching as “unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance” (Whitmore, J, 2017). By coaching and empowering self-organizing teams, management will help improve trust and agility. 

Team members

Agile teams are self-organizing. This means they don’t have a manager who is telling everyone what to do. For many organizations this is a paradigm shift. Employees might be used to a project manager who detailed everyone’s task in a Gantt chart. I’ve found that many employees who are new to agile, at first are uncomfortable with the vulnerability it requires.

Team members decide what they will work on in agile teams. They volunteer and rely upon one another to get work done. Trust is the absolute cornerstone to this way of collaborating. Team members must believe that each member of the team will carry their load. If team members feel that someone is slacking, trust will erode, as well as team performance.

Agile teams are also transparent. They expose their work on a task board, also called an information radiator. To do this, employees must trust that leadership will not misuse the task board. The task board is meant to provide transparency, not as a means for managers to micro manage teams.

Conclusion

Lack of trust is a killer to organizational agility. It is the responsibility of all employees to foster a culture of trust. Executives can help by getting engaged and promoting a fail fast culture. Managers must replace command and control with coaching and empowerment. Managers need agile training as much, if not more, than team members.  Last, team members need to be vulnerable so they can trust working with others in a transparent environment.

When trust levels are high, it will take your speed and agility to new heights like rocket fuel.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the owner and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an Agile Delivery Consultant and IT Project/Program Manager. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or visit Mike’s blog.