When a new way to do something moves into the mainstream, it is inevitable that kinks will need to be worked out and unforeseen bumps in the road must be dealt with. In the case of successful agile adoption, one such unforeseen obstacle is the importance of management and the environment needed to facilitate the new culture.

“In the agile environment, we’re trying to put in place self-managing teams with the autonomy to make decisions and know what needs to happen in order to be successful, and management needs to be focused on nurturing and giving the resources the team needs to be successful,” said Bruce Eckfeldt, CEO of agile consulting firm Cyrus Innovation, at an October agile seminar in New York. It’s the idea of “lead by serving,” ensuring teams have the right education, direction, training and tools, he added.

Although, he said, this approach is hard to implement and an organization will need a culture with policies that recognize development teams are responsible enough to prioritize and execute projects properly. But in order to do this, “You have to trust your team, which will also have a certain level of expected quality,” he added.

Forrester analyst Tom Grant agreed, saying, “Obviously, managers must set objectives, knock teams back on course, and perform other critical functions, but they can’t be too engaged in the details of how a self-organizing team works. The team also needs room for experimentation, which is another way of saying that management must be tolerant of mistakes or ideas that don’t pan out.”

Also, successful adoption of agile doesn’t depend on the size of the organization or team. “There are a lot of variables that don’t seem to matter the way some people feared,” said Grant. “What it’s really about is, is there a corporate culture of risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and are people willing to go on ventures that might not turn out as expected?”

In a recent Forrester study, leadership was found to be the most important variable for success, surpassing the type of agile methodology used, geographic distribution of teams, and other variables. Echoing those findings was Rick Simmons, an agile coach with Rally Software, who said leaders at all levels are really the critical component to large-scale success in an agile organization.

“It’s hard to not command and control, but leadership is not about managing work. It’s about creating a capable organization that can manage work,” he added. “If you can see success at the leadership level, there is no better indicator of success. They are the baseline of success and impact the culture of sustained success.”

To Richard Cheng, managing consultant at Excella Consulting, leadership is about providing teams with vision and direction. “Ideally, agile assumes that you have the right people doing the right jobs and are capable of performing the work they need to perform,” he said.

In addition, he said, “The tasks we do in IT are really more creative and almost artistic, so what we really want to do is provide an impetus, motivation or direction to work towards. Being managed and directed leads to compliance but stifles innovation. Leaders are great at composing strategies, not implementing technologies. That’s what the developers are for.”

This idea of leadership guiding and facilitating development teams is also quite new, Forrester’s Grant pointed out. Agile only really became mainstream last year, he said, so some of the ideas about approaching the methodology are just recently coming to fruition.

The leadership role in this sense “was always true, but now there is enough agile around that people recognize how important it is,” Grant said. “But this is part of the process of something going mainstream; all kinds of considerations get smoked out that weren’t really part of the formula originally. People bumped into a lot of issues that the original founders didn’t necessarily put a lot of emphasis on or take into account at all.”