What Is the Executive Role in Lean and Agile?

The primary responsibilities of an executive in a transformation to Lean and Agile include (1) defining and reinforcing the objectives for the transformation, (2) establishing guardrails that keep the transformation “within bounds,” (3) ensuring that the effort gets the necessary level of resources and support, and (4) providing feedback at the level of the entire system, something that only an executive can provide. This article provides the barest bones of explanation; each responsibility will get further attention, in turn, in other articles in this clinic.

Main Points

  • The executive role in Lean and Agile transformation is “sponsorship,” in the strongest meaning of the term.
  • Lean and Agile transformation requires both leadership and management.

Executives Must be Transformational Leaders

An old stereotype of Agile adoption depicts a plucky team, raging against a system that does not work, pursuing a revolutionary approach to software development. That stereotype is now largely defunct, in the phase of countless contrary experiences. Teams need sponsors for their efforts, particularly since Agile perturbs the value stream. Not just the development team, but other groups as well, must be part of the transformation  — a situation that demands, at some point, attention and support from the executive wing of the organization.

Executives occupy a unique position in the organization, able to see the results of changes in one group on the rest of the system of work that starts with an idea and ends with code in production. Therefore, they can provide the kind of guidance and support needed during the time that teams are both adopting Agile methods and interacting in new ways with the rest of the value stream (a Lean concern).

The details of the executive role in a transformation effort would take a much longer article to describe. (It is, in fact, the subject of many of the other articles in this clinic.) However, we can provide a brief outline here, with greater detail to be found elsewhere. Executive leadership in Lean-Agile transformation includes the following responsibilities:

  1. Setting the goals for the transformation. Is quality more important than time to market? How long will it take for the transformational changes to take hold? Surprisingly, many organizations flounder on these basic questions. Not only is a clear strategic goal in mind, but there is no alignment around these goals. Additionally, there may be no clear expectation of how long it will take to achieve the goals, or the amount of effort required.
  2. Establishing guardrails. While both Agile and Lean require devolving control down to the level of teams and other groups, executives still need to ensure that people play within bounds, as defined by the rules of the organization. For example, regulatory rules might require a level of documentation and verification that software teams cannot abandon. Defining and reinforcing these guardrails is another important executive function.
  3. Ensuring sufficient resources and support. Change does not come immediately, nor does it come for free. Over the course of the transformational effort, new needs might arise. A team might want to invest in a tool that will drastically improve the flow of work. Someone may need to intercede with executives on the business side of the organization, to provide some “top cover” while the transformation effort temporarily disrupts the smooth operation of IT. Executives are responsible for these and other forms of support.
  4. Providing system-level feedback. As mentioned earlier, executives see the entire system, not just the part that a team or individual occupies. For example, an executive might see the impact of technical debt on the portfolio in ways that software developers creating this debt cannot. Executives, therefore, must provide this system-level feedback to people in the software value stream.

These responsibilities demand that executives operate as leaders, not as managers, for Lean and Agile transformation to succeed. They must depict the happier future these changes will create, provide the means to reach it, and reinforce the constraints on how to arrive at the ultimate destination. They must operate as sponsors, not controllers. Without this leadership, transformation can devolve easily into a disconnected, directionless effort that might bring some tactical improvements, but not the strategic gains desired.


The transition from traditional software innovation to a Lean and Agile approach requires executive sponsorship to succeed. No one else has the bigger picture, both of how this transformation will help the organization achieve its larger goals, as well as the perspective on how well the organization overall is moving towards them.