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Agile Lean Leadership is a modern way of structuring organizations to be highly resilient and able to create sustainable value for all stakeholders in complex times of rapid change – It offers a reliable and innovative approach that provides consistency of purpose and enables constant learning, adaptation and improvement.

What is Agile Lean Leadership

At the deepest level, Agile Lean Leadership is a framework that governs how people confront challenges and opportunities, particularly when working with others in organizations.

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin

It begins with establishing a firm focus on the customer, user or whoever we serve. The primary focus is on the Value Stream known from Lean. Many challenges are automatically reduced if this becomes the primary focus.

Next comes the realization that much of what we deal with today is in the complex domain where only fragmented knowledge is available, but we still have to act. We are much less in control than we would like and have to work iteratively through experimentation to discover the way forward.

Then, we establish some helpful enabling constraints that help us act our way into new thinking and augment our capability of sensemaking and rational decision making, countering many of psychological biases that haunt individuals organizations.

Agile Lean Organizations work in self-managing Circles with teams where each member is a valued contributor, using their skills for the collective goals of the Circle. They have autonomy, a sense of purpose and license to develop their own intrinsic motivations on the path to mastering new skills and meaningful accomplishments.

Agile Lean Leadership is firmly based on all the experiences harvested in Lean, Agile and in particulier Scrum over the last many years.


The values represent the deepest answers to the “why” question. We should share these with the people we work together with in the organization.

Purpose, clear and worthwhile

An organization must have an aim to work towards. The aim has to be bigger than anyone individual and it has to be more than just making money. If it is going to be useful to bind people together in the long term, its stakeholders must find its purpose worthwhile. The purpose will reveal the organization’s own values.

Sustainability in all things

An organization must have a long term view, more or less on all things. This implies being able to survive for a long time, removing waste, avoiding draining scarce resources, building up relationships and human capabilities for the long haul – not wearing them down.

Resilience in all things

An organization must expect change and unpredictability. The structures and communication channels must be capable of responding fast to new challenges and opportunities. Everybody must be on the lookout for new knowledge and disciplined reflection must be in place to make sense of things.

Respect for people

An organization must serve its customers, employees, stakeholders and society at large with respect. That includes giving people psychological safety and allowing them to grow, develop and have joy and pride in their work and contribution.


The principles are reminders of how to decide and behave in order to nudge toward the Values.

A clear and worthwhile purpose

  1. Always, at every level, be very clear about the purpose, values and constraints
  2. Always balance the value for the customers, employees, society and stakeholders
  3. Always hold and display the moral high-ground with integrity and strive to build trust
  4. Always remember that the final judge of the quality of a product or service is the customer

Transparency and visibility

  1. Always sustain an unrestricted flow of information up, down and sideways
  2. Always be in dialog with the customers to fully understand how to benefit and serve them persistently
  3. Always shorten the distance of understanding between the customers and the organization
  4. Always create optimal visualization of models, goals, status, progress and impediments

Institutionalized learning

  1. Always strive to see and understand the facts in their full context as a system
  2. Always build up and sustain commitment to constant improvement and learning
  3. Always strive for collegiate decisions, pushing responsibility as far out as there are people to carry it
  4. Always balance the need for structure and standards with the need for adaptability and innovation

Respecting and developing people and relations

  1. Always allow people pride of workmanship and a certain autonomy, building them up to their maximum potential
  2. Always be willing to serve colleagues, subordinates, customers and suppliers; leadership is a service
  3. Always keep the long perspective on people and relationships; create psychological safety
  4. Always be transparent and suppress fear as a leadership instrument, as fear leads to distortion of data or systems

Practices and Patterns

The Team or Circle

The Circle

In Agile Lean Leadership the Team is the main operating unit. Teams are cross-functional, designed with high internal coherence and low external coupling, so they can operate largely on their own, like a small business.

The Team concept is taken from the classic vanilla Scrum Team, which we have generalized and called it a “Circle”. The role of Commanding Officer (CEO like) is equivalent to the Product Owner in Scrum, looking out towards customers, competitors and society at large. The Executive Officer (COO like) is equivalent to the Scrum Master in Scrum. The cross-functional, self organizing Team has the skills to deliver whatever is on the Circle’s Main Backlog of deliverables.

Each Circle has a Manifest and Relationships with other Circles (could be Suppliers and Customers). The Circle maintains its Manifest, that shows what the Circle does, who the members are, who they serve and their rules of engagement. This is transparent to the whole organization and can be modified periodically as circumstances change.

Some Circles may choose to work with Kanban or a combination of Scrum and Kanban. Under all circumstances they  are expected to follow the practices of iterations (or cadences) in planning, review and retrospective. They are also expected to focus on making their work as transparent as possible.

The Organization – Network of Teams

When we start putting Circles together in an organization new patterns arise. Circle architecture is a collaborative process that often takes several iterations before the final design is agreed. It requires the involvement of everybody, not just senior managers. We normally use a drawing like this to explain it:

Circle Relationship Map

The Value Stream – Primary Circles

Customer Circles

Customer Circle Manifests describe who these customers are, their values, requirements and feedback.

Peripheral Circles

Formed with the customer in mind, Peripheral Circles have the skills required to best serve customer needs. It is preferable to keep teams small, sometimes it is better to get help from other Teams by delegating deliverables rather than expanding individual teams beyond their optimal size.

Center Circles

Center Circles serve other Circles in the organization (typically in the Periphery). They perform services like marketing, admin, HR, legal support and platforms or services common to multiple products; their “customers” are internal to the organization. When external suppliers are involved they may have dependencies or interactions with them too.

Supplier Circles

Supplier Circles serve  the Peripheral og Center Circles. Often organizations are faced with the decision of “build or buy” a certain component or service, Supplier Circles provide those deliverables that originate outside to organization.

Level 2 Circles – Resolution

Level 2 Circles exist to coordinate interaction between Circles and to deal with issues, conflicts and opportunities that are either unexpected or beyond the scope of other Circles. They fall into the categories described below.

Tactical Resolution Circle

This Circle resolves tactical issues which cannot be addressed by individual Circles. It involves team members representing other teams. They meet periodically to discuss pan-Circle issues such as dependencies, impediments and planning matters. In Scrum, this is known as the Scrum of Scrums.

Strategic Resolution Circle

This Circle resolves strategic issues, perhaps relating to customer requirements, prioritization, product specifications, resource issues, or other business matters that cannot be addressed by other Circles and therefore need to be escalated. The Circle is composed of COs or Product Owners of the Level 1 Circles in question and includes an XO. One of the COs may be designated as more senior with the authority to break deadlocks.

Operational Resolution Circle

This Circle is composed of XOs (Scrum Masters in Scrum) who meet to resolve issues related to process, impediments and improvements that cannot be resolved at the Primary Circle level. Decisions are made from an organization-wide perspective so may have a bearing on more than one Circle.

Secondary Circles – Cross Cutting Concerns

In traditional hierarchical organizations those with similar skills or competencies were grouped in the same departments. However, Team-based organizations designed to work in the Complex Domain are cross-functional and instead of being focused on functional grouping, concentrate on the value stream and the delivery of goods and services to customers. The downside is the loss of comradery and the sharing of ideas that sometimes comes when people with similar interests and get together.

The solution is Secondary Circles, where Team Members from Primary Teams meet to discuss cross-cutting concerns within their special area of skill and expertise. This is indicated in the figure above with the dashed green line.

This is a well known concept in many agile implementations and has been called Communities of Practice (COP) or Guilds. Sometimes these Circles start spontaneously because of a need in the Primary Circles and sometimes they are formalized because they provide valuable input.

And more

There are many more details that need to be addressed that Agile Lean Leadership has answers for. Some of the solutions are not so different from classic organizations and some quite different:

  • Including people by invitation treating them as volunteers
  • Principles for delegation of work and prioritization at the delegatee side
  • Principles for escalation of tactical, strategic and operational matters
  • Handling of crisis, transient teams and crews
  • Workgroup methods
    • The Future Backwards
    • Ritual Dissent
    • Agile Lean Circle Formation
    • Agile Lean Team Formation
  • Artifacts, templates and tools
    • Vision Board or Lean Canvas
    • Strategic Road Map for a circle or aggregated for the whole organization
    • Estimation tools
    • Competence matrix
    • Templates for rules of engagement when delegating work
    • Templates for employment and compensation
    • Templates for customers and supplier contracts
  • Abemba the unique collaborative tool supplies transparency as the door-opener to radical improvement

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