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Talent optimization and the agile leader

In 2014, Barclays Bank had a big problem. Competitive pressure had increased as billions in new investments poured into financial services startups. At the same time, Apple and Google were bringing mobile payments online. Barclays needed to boost innovation and better adapt to a rapidly changing financial services landscape. In the years that followed, Barclays organized more than 800 agile software development teams as it shifted its execution.

Similar agile methodologies quickly took hold at Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, and Spotify, among others. Organizations of all types went to great lengths to reduce development cycles, get closer to customers, and accelerate agile’s fluidity and learning. This trend led Stephen Denning, author of “The Age of Agile”, to conclude that agile is “eating the world.”

What started as a software development methodology has now been transported to nearly every aspect of modern business. Considering how quickly market and competitive landscapes are shifting, agile organizations may have a distinct advantage over more traditional organization structures. Hierarchical, command-and-control structures are being replaced by dynamically constructed and reconstructed networks of teams. Modern organizations operate less like machines and more like living organisms.

A critical success factor in any agile transformation is the collective mindset and behaviors of its leaders. A shift to agile requires new ways of organizing, interacting, and thinking. Attitudes and values must shift towards agile aims of experimentation, innovation, creativity, and flexibility. This shift demands skillful communication, commitment, and collaboration by leaders at all levels.

Fortunately, the emerging discipline of talent optimization has several applications that can serve leaders making the shift to agile.

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Here are a few examples:

1. Diagnose: Measure what matters.

Talent optimization reminds us that all talent activities take place within the business context. For this reason, it’s important to collect the right people data andbusiness data when operating in an agile organization. The behavioral profile of team members is a critical type of people data for the agile leader. This type of data fosters self-awareness and awareness of others’ behavioral similarities and differences. This can help the business leaders understand where an agile approach is naturally well-suited for a given team member or where it may be a stretch for that person.

Agile methodologies also lend themselves well to data collection and tracking key metrics. Some examples of agile data points include measures of on-time delivery, productivity, and customer satisfaction. It’s important to use these objective measures as context for the people-dependent aspects of proper agile execution.

2. Design: Select your organization’s structure.

An agile strategy demands flexibility, adaptation, and efficient collaboration. These success factors immediately tell us something about the required organization structure. A hierarchical, top-down model has many strengths, but supporting an agile methodology is not one of them. Too many tiers of management and approvals will stifle communication and speedy decision-making.

By contrast, a flat or network structure—one that allows for self-organizing “teams of teams”—is more common in the world of agile. In this type of structure, information flows quickly and easily. Leadership is diffused throughout an autonomous team that’s guided by a shared sense of purpose and a clear goal. Continuous experimentation and learning are hallmarks of this type of organization structure.

Talent optimization and the agile leader

3. Hire: Determine candidate cultural fit.

An agile organization requires innovation, collaboration, entrepreneurship, and a performance orientation. It’s important to integrate these values deeply into the organization’s culture. When evaluating candidates for hire or promotion, it’s therefore important to consider the individual’s cultural fit across these same dimensions. Can the candidate demonstrate specific examples when they embodied one or more of these values in their work? When they ask questions about the opportunity, are these values involved?

4. Inspire: Create high-performing teams.

Team dynamics are important to the successful execution of any business strategy, but an agile methodology places a premium on team communication, decision making, and taking action. Communication in an agile organization is fast and furious. The teams must all strive to keep one another up to date on their respective purpose, goals, progress, and changes made in a dynamic environment. Agile organizations require swift action and response, so decision making must also be expedited. Finally, it’s important for an agile organization to have a bias for taking action. Boldness is always favorable in the pursuit of innovation and an entrepreneurial approach.

Organizations that adopt agile structures and methodologies aim to increase innovation, customer satisfaction, and operating efficiency, as well as see a general increase in competitiveness and performance. Leaders who are able to adopt the mindset and behaviors required to execute this shift are well-positioned to create greater value for their organizations, their customers, and themselves. For this reason, the talent optimization discipline and framework can be an important guide for leaders in an agile transformation.


Matt Poepsel, PhD is the author of Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World of Work and host of the Lead the People podcast. He serves as Vice President & Godfather of Talent Optimization at The Predictive Index. He holds a PhD in Psychology, an MBA, and a Harvard Business School Certificate of Management Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of leadership experience as a software executive and consultant. He’s also a US Marine, an Ironman triathlon finisher, and a student of Buddhist philosophy.

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