Agile 2012 day 1: Leadership Agility

This week I am attending the 2012 Agile conference. Below is a quick recap of some highlights for me today:

  • In the morning, I started out attending a session but found it to be, shall we say, “uninspiring”, for me. Using the Law of Two Feet, I took off after about 15 minutes. The other sessions I had marked as interesting were full, so I wandered the halls.
  • Wandering the halls is awesome. I ran into LOTS of friends and met some new ones. Instead of sitting impatiently in the originally planned session, I ended up in great, engaging hallway conversations:
    • Listening to Mary Poppendieck describe how software developers and hospitals have, generally, eerily similar bottlenecks (deployment for software, discharge for hospitals)
    • Getting picture taken with Luke Hohmann, excited about the release of Scrum Knowsy (sorry, too lazy to look up the character for “registered”). (BTW Luke, I’m still waiting for the cardboard version of Knowsy to be released. I’m all over it when it is!)
    • Catching up on our plans to put together a Lean class for agile practitioners with Robin Dymond and Bas Vodde
    • Seeing my friend Roger Brown who is organizing this year’s Coach’s Clinic, seeing if I could help coach anyone dropping by
  • In the afternoon, I attended the session that immediately made the whole trip worth it: Bill Joiner and Michael Hamman presented on Leadership Agility. My summary follows the break.
  • Caught up with Lyssa Adkins, author of the fantastic book Coaching Agile Teams and Michael Spayd – my personal coach.
  • Had a great dinner with some of our fantastic Adobe agile coaches & gurus: Eric Rapin, Barb Spencer, and Duane O’Brien.

Leadership Agility

I love a good framework. Not that frameworks are always accurate, or that you always implement them exactly as described. To hijack a famous phrase about models “all frameworks are wrong, some are also useful”. In my agile thinking tool kit, I have models for basic product development execution (Scrum, Kanban), technical practices (XP), market research and discovery (Innovation Games), Product Discovery and Validation (Lean Startup, Marty Cagan’s approach), and an overall way of thinking of how the pieces fit together (Lean Thinking, Systems Thinking, Theory of Constraints, etc.). A weak spot for me has been in Agile Management and Leadership. Today I feel like that gap has finally been closed with Bill Joiner’s Leadership Agility.

Leadership Agility is the result of years of research into thinking patterns, specifically the subset of adult thinking patterns that are most relevant for business leaders. In the session today, Michael and Bill walked us through the three primary mindsets, listed in order of effectiveness from “Expert”, to “Achiever”, and culminating in “Catalyst”. There were two levels above this, but they didn’t go into detail and said that they’re extremely rare. I don’t recall what they are now. One doesn’t skip stages, they said, and someone can be a Catalyst but sometimes lapse into Achiever and Expert throughout the day, depending on lots of factors. One metaphor that Bill used and kept referring to as a way to describe the difference relates to the level of focus. He asked everyone to stand up and put your hands in two mirrored “L” shapes, making a bit of a picture frame. He asked us to first have the frame be very narrow, then to slowly open the frame up to include a broader focus, including more parts of the room, until our arms were wide open and we had the whole room in our frame. We then refocused the frame back down to that original narrow view. He pointed out that Experts have the most narrow view, and that Catalysts tend to constantly focus wide then re-zoom on what to do next.

A high level description of the three levels follows. A key thing to remember, that Bill and Michael had to repeatedly remind us of, is that even if we see ourselves as catalysts, it means we’ve passed through the earlier phases, and so should be able to view it empathetically, not derisively. We’ve been there, we sometimes still go there.


Experts know a lot about a given field. They have been rewarded for this expertise, which has reinforced the desire to succeed in the same way again. When looking at problems, they attack them from a frame of mind that “I’ve seen this type of problem before, and I know how to solve it”. When they are managers, they tend to have a hub and spoke approach: they are the hub, they collect data from members of their team, synthesize the information, come up with a solution, then pass instructions back down to the team members to execute. They are not very aware of their own blind spots, or that other perceptions of problems may be just as valid as theirs. They tend to use the word “I” a lot, since they are the expert. They can feel challenged personally when any of their ideas are challenged, since their self image is tied up in the quality of their expertise. They tend to over react to conflict, either by avoiding it or blowing up.


The achiever knows a lot individually but also recognizes the importance of getting the buy-in of others in order to be successful. Their desire is to get results, and they recognize that usually good results are a team effort. They see their roll as having good ideas then rallying support for those ideas, setting goals, and executing on those goals. As managers, they do solicit feedback on ideas, but often in a narrowly focused way. They are very solutions focused, not systems focused, and as a result may miss opportunities to create lasting change, rather than solving the immediate problem. Problem Solving is their drug of choice. They accept that others may have opposing views and we may need to work through those differences of opinion in order to reach a path to success. They are more willing to have difficult conversations, but will push through them as quickly as possible in order to solve they perceived problem.


The catalyst is a leader that, rather than looking to solve problems, looks to create a culture of problem solving in the organization. Instead of trying to figure out the right way to meet the current strategic goals, they seek to build a system that can rapidly shift to respond to whatever strategy will be required after the current one becomes outdated, and that recognizes when and how that strategic shift might happen. Catalysts recognize that there can be many valid perspectives for any given situation, and so they seek to collaborate across groups and up and down chains of command. They use a “Go and See” approach to learn what’s happening in the business. They are visionary – they often will describe the high level “what” for the business, but then they use collaborative techniques to arrive at the best “how”. They model the characteristics that they expect the organization to have: transparency, openness to criticism of ideas and approaches, willingness to address uncomfortable situations for the betterment of the system, and a recognition that this approach leads to better ideas (good ideas come from everywhere in the company), much stronger engagement, and the ability to shift quickly when market conditions change.

As we worked in the session on really inhabiting these three approaches, I often wanted to slap my forehead when I recognized areas in which I was playing the Expert or Achiever. I also saw areas where I was moving towards a catalyst approach, but lots of room for growth into that mindset.

Why it matters

This session was so powerful for me because I feel that Adobe, like many organizations, has gotten about as much juice out of our grass roots agile adoption as we can, and that many teams have reached what we might call the “Organizational Agility Ceiling”. For me, Leadership Agility provides a framework for breaking through that ceiling. I am excited to continue to grow into a catalyst approach and help others do the same.

2 Responses to Agile 2012 day 1: Leadership Agility

  1. Horia says:

    Co-Creator and Synergist were the other two levels that are even rarer than Catalyst.
    See for more details.

    • Peter Green says:

      Thanks Horia! I had a chance to have dinner with Bill Joiner and he gave me all of the details.