agile engineering leadership

Agile Engineering Leadership describes a range of leadership, project management and business abilities engineers need that become increasingly important as engineers advance in their careers. Regardless of job title or formal role, engineers need leadership ability because the profession involves influence, ownership of work that relies on others, and clear, concise communication with a range of stakeholders. As engineers advance, project ownership and leadership responsibility increases with greater challenges involving communication, influence, collaboration and results.

Whether the way-of-working is viewed as agile, waterfall, hybrid or other, adapting to change quickly (agility), AND effectively AND efficiently is part of the engineering leadership challenge. Exceptional agile engineering leadership ability in various roles is needed to achieve all that. Agile skills are becoming more important as agile methods are increasingly being adopted for mechanical and electrical engineering. This article explains the major elements of Agile Engineering Leadership.

Engineers Need Leadership Ability

Engineering is a leadership-intensive profession because as a minimum, engineers need a solid foundation of trust, respect and influence—the core aspects of leadership. Earning a high level of trust and respect are needed for more challenging opportunities and greater responsibility. That typically doesn’t happen solely through demonstration of technical skills. A range of communication skills are necessary for building rapport and being effective in more responsible roles. Abilities such as clear and concise communication with a broad range of stakeholders, presentation skills, and listening ability can also be considered as foundational leadership competencies.

As engineers increase knowledge and advance in their careers, giving clear direction to others who don’t have the same expertise is essential. Greater responsibility requires decision-making ability, meaning consistently good decisions which are often needed quickly. Ability to influence a range of stakeholders becomes more important with substantial new ideas, proposals and business cases that need buy-in. These are all examples of the need to develop leadership characteristics, and are possible to develop with sufficient focus.

Engineering Project Management Skills

Whether or not an organization has formal project management roles, there are a number of common challenges creating the need for engineers to have project management skills:

  • Project managers are often spread too thin, such that not every project gets adequate attention
  • Project managers typically don’t manage engineering details
  • Teams using an agile way-of-working or hybrid waterfall/agile rely on team self-management
  • Documented product development processes rarely give clear guidance for managing details
  • Not all project managers are effective

Before an agile way-of-working became prevalent, the challenge with developing project management skills was to learn what is relevant and also identifying the methods and tools that aren’t valuable for a particular situation. Now, with agile methodology included in the mix of project management learning, the challenges are even greater.

For engineers, there’s a balance to consider across technical, leadership, management and business abilities. With increasing responsibility greater emphasis in the areas other than technical is needed, and the level of management competency depends greatly on the project management aspect of the role. All engineers should have practical, foundational engineering project management skills. Those in roles requiring significant project management duties need a deeper dive into relevant methods and tools.

Agile Engineering Leadership Challenges

A major challenge that engineering leaders face is to create an environment and drive a way-of-working that adapts to change quickly, effectively and efficiently. Achieving this is difficult and impossible to know without the right measures, so determining the best metrics is a good way to start. Questions to consider:

  • How do we know we are adapting to change quickly and continuously improving?
  • Are we continuously completing similar high-priority projects faster?
  • Is our quality of work continuously improving based on customer satisfaction?
  • Are we continuously reducing time-wasting and low-value activities?
  • Are we adapting to change better and faster than our competition?
  • Is our team satisfaction with our way-of-working continuously increasing?
  • Are we constantly getting results aligned with our business needs and values?
  • Do we have clear values and principles that our way-of-working supports, and are they clear to the entire team?

Many teams that describe their way-of-working as “agile” struggle with related issues, though agile values and principles when truly embraced should be keeping issues to a minimum. When this happens it can almost always be attributed to leadership gaps in the organization. Strong engineering leadership can influence other leaders within their company to resolve gaps and provide the support needed for effective and efficient agility across all business functions involved in product development.


Since engineering is the core function of engineering-oriented work and because of the need for agility in business, Agile Engineering Leadership is needed to help ensure the many aspects of effectiveness and continuous improvement. If your way-of-working falls short of achieving desired outcomes, developing leadership and agile project management ability on your engineering teams should lead to consistently better results.

About the Author

Gary Hinkle is founder and principal consultant at Auxilium, a company dedicated since 2002 to helping product development organizations develop leaders, improve ways-of-working, build stronger cultures, and increase overall product development performance. You can contact Gary directly here.

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