The Future is Agile: Teamwork, Leadership and Decision-Making

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“We no longer have project managers; instead, we have a project leader. In Agile, we use the terms ‘servant leader’ or ‘true leader’; they are not decision-makers but facilitators.”

‘Agile’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the modern workplace, but what does it really mean?

As with anything, the best way to find out is by asking an expert…

Kalpesh Ashar is a management consultant and corporate trainer with over 20 years’ experience working with startups and large corporations around the world. In addition to his Engineering degree, Kalpesh also has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and several Agile certifications.

We discussed some of the books he has written for Vibrant Publishers’ Self-Learning Management Series. This collection offers essential business lessons for students, entrepreneurs, professionals and new managers. The topics range from finance and human resources to marketing and consumer behaviour.

Image of the author: an Indian man wearing a light blue shirt, with his arms crossed.

In 2020, you released a book on the essentials of Agile — an area in which you’re highly qualified. Can you offer a brief overview of the Agile methodology/ies for anyone unfamiliar with the concept?

Agile is a new way of handling any kind of work, like a project or an operation. Earlier methodologies were based on the assumption that we would know all the requirements upfront and there would only be a few changes as the work progressed. However, as the business environment becomes more and more dynamic, such an assumption is no longer valid.

The term ‘agile’ comes from the English word ‘agility’, which means to be able to change course with ease. When issues and changes arise, we need to be able to adapt. This can happen either because customer needs evolve or because we receive feedback that the direction of the project is not what the client was expecting. Changes can come from anywhere, which is why Agile is important.

Agile teams plan and deliver projects in bits and pieces, rather than all at once. We realised that no one can know or anticipate everything at the beginning of a project, so now we only plan for what we do know. Then, we deliver and get feedback. After that, we plan something else, deliver and get feedback. It’s an iterative process, which means we can handle changes better, do what the customer expects and get it right the first time.

Agile is essentially a highly efficient approach to project management. Does this methodology only apply to particular industries or roles, such as software development and engineering?

Agile methodologies can be applied to any industry which requires people to work in this way, but it’s more prevalent in a few particular industries, like software. This is because two prerequisites apply to Agile: firstly, changes are expected and we don’t know everything upfront; secondly, knowledge workers should be involved in the project.

The first prerequisite is self-explanatory, but the second one needs clarification. When we use the term ‘knowledge worker’, we’re talking about highly qualified, highly skilled resources. This is because Agile teams are self-organising — free from command and control. They have the ability to make their own decisions about how much time to spend on something, who does what and how they do it. All of that is the team’s decision, hence why we need knowledge workers. As long as those two prerequisites are satisfied, Agile can be applied to practically any industry; it’s not industry-specific.

Can you provide more detail about how Agile principles can be applied to leadership and teamwork, especially in terms of decision-making processes?

As I mentioned, the key difference between the earlier way of working and Agile is the self-organising team. Previously, managers would have all the decision-making authority, but now most of it is passed to the development team. We no longer have project managers; instead, we have a project leader. In Agile, we use the terms ‘servant leader’ or ‘true leader’; they are not decision-makers but facilitators.

Another important thing about the change in leadership and team dynamics is that teamwork has even more emphasis when it comes to Agile. We hardly ever recognise individuals in an Agile team; we recognise them as a group. There is a clear incentive for them to help each other and ensure that they all succeed, because the entire team is working towards the same goal. Either everybody succeeds, or nobody succeeds.

Do you find that this speeds up the progress of a project, because decision-making is decentralised and you’re more focused on working together and helping each other, rather than moving in different directions?

Yes, it absolutely does. When you shift the decision-making authority to people who are in the best position to make decisions, the process will happen faster. Employees are also more motivated because they can own and commit to their decisions.

Teamwork also makes things quicker. Let’s take an example from a non-Agile environment: people want to finish their own work, so there might not be an incentive to help their team members. But when it comes to Agile, it’s frowned upon if you or your team members only finish something partially. So, instead of half-finishing 2 or 3 things, you will complete one task before helping your team member finish something else.

That makes sense. Moving on to a different topic, the 5th editions of Financial Accounting Essentials You Always Wanted to Know and Financial Management Essentials You Always Wanted To Know will be published in August this year. Can you tell me the key difference between financial accounting and financial management, if there is one?

One obvious difference is in the name, but there is more to it. Financial accounting is about understanding an organisation’s financial statements. You basically keep track of all the financial decisions or transactions throughout the year. This information is gathered and then published in certain preset formats—such as a balance sheet, a profit and loss statement, an income statement and a cash flow statement. Then you help stakeholders understand how everything is going.

Financial management pretty much starts where financial accounting ends. This is where we analyse financial statements and use them to make decisions. These statements could contain a huge wave of numbers; if you read them without understanding what the numbers mean, you can get lost very easily. Financial management is the field that shows us a path through detailed financial data, providing a systematic way of comparing the data and making an informed decision.

So, financial accounting is about collecting and organising data, while financial management involves analysis and decision-making. Are these books intended as an introduction for non-specialists, then?

That’s right, yes.

Is it useful for anyone in a management role to understand the fundamental concepts of finance? For instance, does an awareness of the economics behind business processes have an impact on a leader’s decision-making skills?

In an organisation, employees eventually rise in the hierarchy and become managers. They will have to make decisions on a regular basis, so it’s important to have knowledge about the work being carried out. This is a technical skill that we possess. However, it’s inadequate unless it’s tied to numbers that affect business outcomes. So, we also need to have a business understanding.

For example, you need to make a decision about whether to purchase a new testing server or lease one. Technically, both are equivalent decisions because you get a server either way, but you need to analyse the costs involved to make a well-rounded decision in the best interests of the organisation and the customer. Hence, understanding finance and costing is one of the key skills needed for decision-making in an organisation. This is related to microeconomics, which is about supply and demand. So, when you have this level of knowledge, you can make good pricing decisions.