Agile management: How this new way of leading teams is delivering big results

Evidence suggests traditional leadership styles are being replaced by Agile management techniques that encourage collaboration and foster accountability.

Many business leaders say this leadership style has been a great fit for the new way of working during the past year, where companies have had to transform their business models quickly in response to fast-changing circumstances.

What’s more, increasing numbers of experts believe Agile is here to stay. That’s certainly true for Chris Porter, vice president for talent acquisition and matching at BP, who believes an Agile leadership style helps to empower and engage workers.

“Personally, as an HR executive, I think Agile is all about the culture that you create as you push decision-making down, and you help people to understand that they have the power to do things themselves and really focus on one single problem at once,” he says.

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Porter and his BP colleagues have been exploring Agile working styles, which involves the application of the principles of Agile software development to managing all kinds of business-related tasks, through a series of experiments and implementations at the company. These positive experiences mean he’s now a “big believer” in the Agile leadership style.

“From an organisational-design perspective, it’s a fantastic thing to implement. And we’re looking forward to seeing how that plays out for our people with a view, hopefully, to more of our organisation adopting that sort of philosophy in the future,” he says.

Porter explains to ZDNet how as many as 15,000 of the company’s employees are already using Agile working structures as part of a corporate reorganisation process that took place last year.

This reorganisation supports BP’s ongoing transition to becoming a net-zero business by 2050 or sooner, with the company focusing on three key business areas: low-carbon electricity and energy; convenience and mobility; and resilient and focused hydrocarbons, which is about developing lower-cost and lower-carbon oil, gas and refining processes.

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Porter: “I think Agile is all about the culture that you create.”


Image: BP

Consultant McKinsey suggests successful Agile leaders build the capabilities to transform the organisation by making agility core to the design and culture of the enterprise. That’s something that Porter recognises in his own company’s reorganisation efforts.

“The very reason that we’re doing that is to help culturally, so we have more accountability down the line,” says Porter. “We’re pushing decision-making deeper into the organisation; people are focused on one set task at a time. And we work in Agile ways, including Kanban boards and daily standups.”

The company’s 15,000-strong implementation of Agile follows an earlier pilot across BP’s AGT region, which covers Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. This project involved a range of teams being arranged and then working in an Agile fashion.

As with the application of Agile in other companies, the tools and techniques used across BP vary with each business context. Different projects require specific Agile working styles. However, the broad focus, explains Porter, always remains the same.

“You centre around one particular task, you have empowerment, you take decisions, and you have the right blend of skills in that squad to solve the particular problem that you’re looking at,” he says.

Experts suggest agile management produces benefits in two key ways: it gives workers the empowerment that research suggests they crave, and it frees up leaders to focus on higher-level tasks, such as refining strategy and developing new business models.

Porter says BP’s initial implementations of Agile have helped the company to embed its working processes into various areas of the business. He says the benefits of an Agile way of working are clear.

“‘It’s really liberating’ is what we’re hearing from the various pilots and work that has started already,” he says. “So we’re seeing that play out in the broader BP and getting some really good indications back from where we have used Agile in the past and what’s coming at us as we embed our design throughout the organisation.”

The introduction of Agile leadership isn’t without its challenges. As managers empower their teams, so they stop being involved in the minutiae of decision-making processes. Get Agile management wrong and there’s the possibility for chaos and anarchy.

Good Agile managers don’t use command-and-control approaches to manage their staff, but they do focus on fostering accountability. Porter says BP wants to avoid diluting the devolved decision-making processes that Agile encourages.

Teams at the company are typically organised into small groups of between 10 and 20 people, depending on the organisational context. Rather than having one permanent line manager who is accountable for a small number of people, these groups are orchestrated and organised by a squad lead.

“They just hive around activities,” he says. “So it’s less hierarchical, it’s quicker, everyone has a voice. Culturally, it’s an enabler, so it helps people come up with creative solutions and feel great about the work they’re doing.”

Empowerment isn’t the only potential cultural benefit of BP’s Agile approach to work. Porter says the management style – which allows people to work on a range of projects across varied organisational contexts – also helps to boost worker engagement.

“It gives people a good experience because you’re not only doing a repetition of one task every day or every week. There might be something slightly different thrown at you, so it gives people that angle to broader development as well,” he says.

While the broader organisation is keen to make the most of devolved management styles, there are some areas of BP where Agile is less applicable than others. Porter gives the example of his own department, talent acquisition, which is predominantly based around structured, Waterfall-like operations: receive news of a vacancy, advertise it, recruit for it.

“We took the decision not to embed it in my particular organisation, but we’re still adopting Agile ways of working. So we will still run sprints, we will have Kanbans and daily standups, depending on the sort of work that we’re doing at any one time,” he says.

Porter is now involved in a project where the company is looking to automate the deployment of its people into Agile work structures. His team is helping with the implementation of that process, ensuring that the company’s people are treated well through the experience.

The message is clear: where’s there’s an opportunity, Porter and his senior colleagues at BP are keen to make the most of Agile. Like in so many other companies around the world, what started as an experimental way of working is now very much the new normal.

“We are making a big push – we’re taking a punt on it, but it’s an educated punt,” he says. “We are getting our people into these Agile squads and formations at the moment, as the design is embedded through the first two quarters of this year. And we’re hoping to reap the benefits shortly of a mass wave of people in that Agile structure.”

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