Leadership in distributed Agile project management teams

  • McInnes, Peter (Principal Investigator)
  • Smith, Marisa (Co-investigator)

    Project: Research - Studentship

    Project Details


    The proposed research examines ‘leadership’ in the practice of distributed Agile project teams. Agile is a project management methodology that claims to deliver a functioning service/product more quickly than traditional ‘waterfall’ methodologies (Cobb, 2011; Wysocki, 2011). Accordingly it has been adopted in sectors including, software, pharmaceuticals, engineering and manufacturing (Collyer and Warren, 2009; Kerzner, 2004). It operates by having a ‘Product Owner’ prioritise the features a product should have. Semi-autonomous development teams (Scrums) are then given a sequence, or ‘track’, of features to deliver over short periods ‘sprints’. Led by a Scrum Master, these teams meet daily to review progress and identify issues. Under Agile, then, the product evolves rather than being worked upon to completion (Chin, 2004).
    As our letters of support indicate, leadership is a live issue for practitioners of Agile. The literature is confused, oscillating between those advancing a shared or distributed model of leadership (Augustine et al., 2005; Moe et al., 2009), and those insisting on the relevance of the individual leader’s skills and traits (Adkins, 2010; Mersino, 2013; Muller and Turner, 2010). Experience in an unrelated research project suggests this confusion springs from contrasts between the rhetoric and the material practices of distributed Agile teams. The first contrast is between tight integration and proximity implied by the ‘scrum’ metaphor and the geographically dispersed nature of distributed Agile teams (Cottmeyer, 2008). Team members may sit at the next desk, but may equally be on the other side of the world. This lends emphasis on the individual ‘leader’ communicating the group’s approach and direction as members cannot necessarily debate and decide these collectively.
    A second contrast can be found in the contrast between Agile teams’ purportedly self-managed status and their embeddedness within a larger development project. Agile teams are often described as containing a cross-section of disciplines capable of completing a discrete package of work pertaining to a single product in each sprint (Cobb, 2011; Wysocki, 2011). This is rarely the case, with current work affecting and being shaped by work on other packages or tracks (Chin, 2004). Likewise, while different disciplines may work in co-located scrum teams they might equally draw on, or pass their work to, others. This interdependence with those within and beyond their track adds both complexity and politics to their activity (Adkins, 2010; Cottmeyer, 2008). The challenge, then, shifts from group members leading by maintaining a team dialogue on approach and direction, towards individual leaders negotiating and defending these with others. A third compromise on Agile’s collective ideal lies in the visibility slippages or errors gain through the intense nature of Sprints. Rather than the aspiration for collective responsibility and joint problem solving, it is a rhetoric of traditional hierarchical models in which ‘leaders’ become the focus of direction setting and accountability that dominates.
    The issues above see Agile’s ideals of distributed leadership dissipate such that a ‘leader’ becomes vested with authority and responsibility. We would argue this is less a consequence of imperfections in Agile per se, but rather emanates from the entitive assumptions embedded in traditional dualistic understandings of self and organization / leader and led. It is only by moving beyond individualistic questions of who should do ‘leadership’ to examine what is being required in its name, that we can grapple with the questions of why, how, and with what consequences, these crystalize upon a particular individual. Hence our research questions are:
    • How can we understand the dynamics of 'leadership' in distributed Agile project management teams?
    o Around what matters do we see a move between distributed and individual understandings of where ‘leadership’ rests in distributed Agile teams?
    o Through what process(es) is the negotiation of shared purpose, direction and approach undertaken in temporally and geographically distanciated Agile teams?
    o In what ways are teams’ ongoing sense of collective self-determination shaped by the interdependence of different parts of the project?
    o To what extent do issues of accountability shape team members’ perceptions of who is individually and/or collectively responsible for outcomes?

    Layman's description

    'Agile' is a project management methodology which involves intensive groupwork over short periods 'sprints'. As the teams are strongly encouraged to be self-managing, the normal rules and expectations of leadership do not necessarily apply. Especially, it would have to be said, where team members are distributed across the world and interact through technology. This project will work with practitioners to investigate the processes and dynamics of 'leadership' within these distributed Agile project management teams.
    Effective start/end date30/09/1628/09/19


    • Agile
    • Leadership-as-practice