21st Century Leadership - Prologue - ORDERLY  DISRUPTION

21st Century Leadership - Prologue

5 min read

For executives and for change agents who deal with executives in large contexts ...

A number of people inside and outside Scrum.org collaborated with me in 2018 and early 2019, to talk about 21st-century executive leadership. Some people contributed independently, some built on work I had been doing since 2015, some of us leveraged the work of Ron Eringa and Ryan Ripley with their Professional Agile Leadership - Essentials class. Discussions were mostly bilateral, most were online, some were face to face. Sometimes, it felt like we were going backward. We went back to the drawing board at least once.

Some of the people involved from inside & outside the Scrum.org community have communities in their own right, communities that are strong and growing. 

To personalize things a little, previously strongly held positions by me are not so strongly held now. Most of the movement in my thinking was prompted by conversations with Angie Main, Andrzej Zińczuk, Andy Carmichael, Ben Maynard, Bjarte Bognes, Brendan Wovchko, Charles Bradley, Daniel Doiron, Daniel Vacanti, Dave Snowden, Dave West, David Dame, Don McGreal, Erich R. Bühler, Erik Weber, Fin Goulding, Haydn Shaughnessy, Jackie Thoms, Jill Graves, John Seddon, Kurt Bittner, Laurens Bonnema, Liz Keogh, Mark Noneman, Marshall Goldsmith, Mike Burrows, Nader Talai, Ron Eringa, Steve Porter, and Thomas Power. Some had time to see the full picture, others inspired me & some of my peers with their experience so I could update the full picture later. The conversations strongly influenced what the reader will see in the coming posts in this blog series.

I now understand more deeply why there is so much sub-optimal Scrum/Kanban out there, and why there is scope for all sorts of agility from crap to phenomenal, and why it is not always helpful to diss "inferior" approaches. As a passionate optimist, I want to help organizations towards their direction of travel using agility as a strategy.

I watched an interview recently. I loved the webcast by Dr. Lance Secretan and Rhett Power. People need to be inspired ("lighting a fire within someone"), more than motivated ("lighting a fire under someone"). And we have so many models, so what should we stop doing? 

21st-century executive leadership, what to stop doing


Before we start, I have a confession to make. As recently as 2017, I had a strongly held belief that if I had 30 minutes captive audience with an executive in my contexts with access to a whiteboard, I would (visually) talk about a selection of the following:

There were other topics also. Wow, was I wrong! Even if we agreed on a better list, there is a little problem. More often than not, the executive is not ready to listen to:

  • Limit work in progress
  • Avoiding the bull-whip-effect
  • Remove the limits to growth
  • Remove some responsibilities from managers to allow them to become leaders as coaches (I now refer more to situational leadership, see examples)
  • Insource or build long term relationships with key partners

Long-lived teams, product over project mindset, customer jobs to be done, or consciousness are usually off my shortlist for the first 30 minutes also. 

Executives are smarter than most, so there are no issues with getting the theory as long as the executives are ready to listen. The biggest challenge is the disparity between actions and words, not because of a lack of candor. It's because it's hard to change. 

I and my peers discovered 5 steps on a journey for a 21st-century executive leader. Each step has a set of exit criteria that are effectively about stopping to do some things. The blog post series will do those Steps more justice.

Long story short for now:

Step 1- apprentice, values efficiency, commitments are not made by teams, scale as much as possible, outsource as much as possible because speed is of the essence. See this survey for exit criteria from step 1.

Step 2- tiger, values "star performers" over teams, values big bets, measures cycle time, improves the ideas of others, still values efficiency over effectiveness, uses the equivalent of tiger-teams to solve problems that the normal organization struggles with. See this survey for exit criteria from step 2.

Step 3- impediment blaster, more customer centric, actively removes bottlenecks, values smaller bets and still expects bets to win, ventures into the land of long-term-stable-product-teams. See this survey for exit criteria from step 3.

Step 4- system-inverter, in tune with the customer, understands that the customer often doesn't really know what she wants, values effectiveness, values small bets while expecting most bets to lose, insources or builds long term partnerships, changes the organization design, changes the ways we finance work, changes the way we reward/promote people, thinking in direction of being guardian of the culture, applies coaching skills, de-scales the organization. See this survey for exit criteria from step 4.

Step 5 - custodian-of-the-culture, in tune with staff and customer Jobs To Be Done, values sustainability, embodies consciousness, sees backlogs as wasteful queues,  can operate based on principles such as the Agile Principles ("back to the future") and without frameworks. Somewhat akin to an executive leader of a "Teal organization" but not necessarily. See this survey for exit criteria from step 5, as there is always room for improvement.

To exit a step, one has usually passed the exit criteria for all previous steps. 

The step for an executive could be dictated by the culture and the industry. It helps to have "the right people on the bus" and "in the rights seats on the bus" with the "right person driving the bus" (Collins, 2011), at the right time. 

"You don't see what you don't see". So, in an industry where safety risk is high, having a technical understanding to not only see the technical risks but to help fix problems is crucial. At Step 1, a leader might be "back to back" in meetings, and be tempted to see people as "resources". At Step 4, a leader helps to fix problems 80% of the time and engages proactively with people who have unique qualities & skills.

When executive leaders within the sphere of influence are in Step 1, it is almost impossible to have Professional Scrum, LeSS-Friendly Scrum, or Kanban with limited WIP in the long run. Step 1 is where we see creative "best practice" of mixing Waterfall and agility. In the curriculum for Step 1, executives come to understand this phenomenon & some unintended consequences a little more.

Some change agents have the talent and skills to bring up topics (see my chapter in Stalham, Bradley and Priestley, 2018) from day one; I'm not one of those. Instead, I need to help the executive from where she is right now, even if it means not talking about topics I would have been bursting to talk about as recently as 2017, at least not until she is ready, not until I or my colleagues have helped to nudge things forward. We don't wait forever, we need to see evidence of progress. That's where Evidence Based Management kicks in, although, at Step 1, it's a challenge to get executives to stop measuring the wrong things. Therein lies the paradox.

Equally, one might find a pocket in the organization with Step 3 executives where one can be more optimistic about teams using Professional Scrum and Kanban (or whatever is appropriate) as they were intended. That is my plan, my hope.

I discovered I need to speak about content for the step the executive leader is at. I am (usually) wasting my energy and the exec's time talking about anything more.

My job and the job of my peers and partners is to nudge the executive leader to the next step through workshops. After building the curriculum for the 21st century-leadership, I finally reviewed this work against Spiral Dynamics Integral, and the Adizes Corporate Lifecycle

This hypothesis is part of why I now understand more deeply why a Step 2 (at a point in time) executive would like something like "the Spotify approach" (ok, Spotify has moved on by now). I should perhaps support that with caveats. See Misconceptions of a Product Owner by Michael James.

The exec content will evolve. Unless you're one of a few having real success with serious topics, regardless of Step, from day one, I say:

Stop talking about stuff your executive is not ready for, start meeting your executive where she is!

Stop preaching, start teaching!

Stop "drudging", start nudging!

Iteratively ask "what's the smallest thing we can do to change?"

Help executives, their reports and teams to see the problems for themselves, to see beyond the pretty dashboards.

On the last point, the Vanguard Method seems to be particularly effective in the service sector.

In the next post, let's have a deeper look at Step 1. You will see some recommendations. In Step 1, some complexity theory helps to explain why a strategy such as agility is needed. Cynefin Sense Making (Cognitive Edge, 2019) is 101 for 21st-century executive leadership.

And for those who do not like frameworks, we also have something for you on this journey. 

What looks smart in hindsight isn't a predictor for the future for complex work. Lots of people are trying to bridge the lack of congruence between the executive's questions and organizational agility. Help us with our experiments, give us feedback, tell us about your experiments. Thank you.


Collins, J. (2011). Good to Great. HarperCollins.

Cognitive Edge. (2019). Cynefin as of St Davids Day 2019 (1 of 5) - Cognitive Edge. [online] Available at: https://cognitive-edge.com/blog/cynefin-as-of-st-davids-day-2019/ [Accessed 23 Mar. 2019].

Stalham, A., Bradley, M. and Priestley, A. (2018). Pivot: Real Cut-Through Stories By Experts At The Frontline Of Agility and Transformation. 1st ed.

https://linktr.ee/johncolemanxagility - social and podcast links
https://linkpop.com/orderlydisruption - order training from right here

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