I never expected to learn a new approach to leadership development from software developers. I admit that I tend to think of most developers as socially isolated brainiacs with little interest in their own or others’ personal growth. But one of my favorite thought partners, Kate Garmey, recently introduced me to the “agile” approach to software development. Here are the basic steps of the agile approach:

  1. Take time to gather as much information as possible at the start of your project. Really get to know your clients and the full context in which they work.
  2. Start small. Build small pieces of the project quickly, try them out, tweak them, and try again.
  3. Test your product every step of the way. Expect to fail early and repeatedly.
  4. When the product is delivered to the client, do a retrospective on the process and get feedback.
  5. Commit to continuous improvement. The project is never done.

This approach is revolutionizing the way software is developed and delivered, and it seems to me it could also be very powerful in the world of leadership development. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t offer off-the-shelf approaches to leadership development. Don’t use the same assessment tools all the time, without regard to the nature of the problem. Take time to really understand the business context and the barriers to success.
  2. Do experiments. Try different ideas and approaches out and be ready to change and customize them quickly.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s the only way you will be bold enough to do really creative work.
  4. Take the time to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. In my experience, failing to reflect is one of the most common mistake business leaders make.
  5. Continuously look for ways to make a good program even better.

One note of warning – the agile approach is not a one-size-fits-all panacea. There are situations when it won’t work well, especially if the client is not interested or available to give the frequent feedback this process requires. Some clients may find this annoying or feel that it indicates a lack of expertise or confidence. But for many clients, it’s a highly collaborative and effective way to build something together. It seems to me that the agile approach could be useful in many endeavors besides software development. For more information, check out Kate’s blog at http://www.tablexi.com/blog/2013/11/an-agile-approach-to-developing-teams/business/ or take a look at The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson.

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