How to Apply Lateral Leadership in Agile Environments by Tim Herbig

BY Tim Herbig ON JUNE 21, 2018

Lateral leadership describes the art of efficiently influencing others around you without formal authority. It is essential for succeeding in the implicit leadership position that product managers find themselves in.

In this talk from this year’s MTP Engage in Hamburg, I share some advice on how product people can use lateral leadership in managing agile teams. It’s especially relevant if you’re a generalist who has to align domain experts from all areas around a shared product vision and manage the practical day-to-day operations.

Do you Lead Laterally?

When I first talked to people for my forthcoming book on lateral leadership, I found that most of my peers weren’t aware of the term. They also didn’t appreciate the importance that lateral leadership already had in their daily business life.

Here’s a simple check to determine your lateral leadership environment:

  • Think about how many people you asked for something last week at work.
  • Remove the ones who get their vacation days approved by you.
  • Surprise! All the other ones are already in a lateral leadership relationship with you.

Why Servant Leadership is not Enough

One of the earliest attempts to define a leadership style for self-organized agile environments resulted in the servant leadership approach.

Servant leadership puts you as a product manager permanently behind the other team members around you. It also relies on praising your peers for their work and behavior.

This approach wastes potential for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think that a product manager, as the one tasked to lead the team and to continuously represent a product vision, should vanish into the background behind the other team members.

Secondly, as a product manager I think you shouldn’t be looking for the greatness in your team. Instead you should focus on understanding and leveraging the individual drivers and motivators of your team members.

You Don’t Need to be a Domain Expert to Understand Their Pains

Typically, domain experts in agile teams also directly report to people managers who are equipped with enormous skills in their respective domains. So, much of the trust from these relationships stems from respect for the professional capabilities of their bosses.

This is a vast depth of skills compared with what product managers as generalists can bring to the table, and it makes getting domain experts follow you on a regular basis pretty hard.

So I recommend that every product manager should demonstrate their willingness to gain practical experience in the domains of expertise of their team members. This will lead to more recognition from your peers, but will ultimately also mean that you can ask better questions.

Key Takeaways

  1. Lateral leadership will become one of the most crucial skills to learn in self-organized agile environments where hierarchies are removed.
  2. By sticking too strictly to agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban, teams – and eventually whole organizations – are missing out on building up empathy among peers and not just for users.
  3. Strategic alignment is essential to frame initiatives and provide a “why” from a company perspective. But considering the individual motivators and drivers of every team member on a daily basis is necessary for achieving your goals as a lateral leader.

About

Tim Herbig

Tim Herbig is a passionate Product Leader, Remote Work Enthusiast, Speaker and Author of the book 'Lateral Leadership: A Practical Guide for Agile Product Managers'. He looks back at more than eight years of product management ranging from start-ups to large-scale corporates in the publishing, social network, and b2b SaaS sector. He's also a co-organizer of Product Tank Hamburg.

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