How to Master Agile Leadership? Learn from Apple’s Failure and Success

How to Master Agile Leadership? Learn from Apple’s Failure and Success | Leadership | Emeritus

Change is the only normal—nothing better captures the essence of today’s business world than this phrase. No matter which industrial sector we concentrate on, the fact that the business world is evolving rapidly is the truth. To remain relevant in this dynamic business world, organizations and their leaders must embrace an adaptive culture to change. Adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to change while prioritizing organizational aims and objectives form the core of agile leadership. But what exactly is agile leadership? How can one become an agile leader? How does agile leadership contribute to an organization’s growth? Featuring the real-life example of Apple’s failure with Lisa, its desktop computer, and its successful comeback, this blog aims to address these questions and deliberates on different aspects of agile leadership. 

What is Agile Leadership?

what is distributed leadership

Let’s begin with a basic question—what does being agile mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, being agile means the capability to move quickly and easily. That means that someone who is agile would be flexible enough to adapt quickly to rapid changes. Agile leadership harbors the principles of adaptability and flexibility.  In a nutshell, agile leadership is a style of management that exhibits these core principles of agility. With agile leadership, a business organization becomes efficient enough to adjust and respond to changes, such as market conditions or customer/client requirements.  The task of agile leaders and agile coaches is to help navigate their organizations through changes, maintaining a high level of productivity and adherence to the organization’s common goals. Some of the key principles of agile leadership are:

1. Empowers Organizational Adaptability

Agile leaders empower their organizations to adapt swiftly to various business variables. They include market conditions, technological development, or changes in customer demand.

2. Sets Incremental Goals

Agile leadership operates by setting smaller, achievable goals, allowing teams to adjust objectives dynamically. It helps you envision and achieve larger goals that are in line with the organization’s vision, 

3. Ensures Frequent Communication

Agile leadership thrives on organizational clarity, transparency, and regular communication.

4. Collaboration and Teamwork

Agile coaches and leaders frequently collaborate to align stakeholder goals and adapt to changes quickly.

5. Supports Experimentation and Failure

They promote testing new processes and learning from failures to improve and adapt.

6. Provides Regular Feedback

Agile leadership relies on a constant feedback mechanism to optimize workflows and improve team performance.

7. Demonstrates Leadership By Example

Agile leaders lead by example, demonstrating adaptability and encouraging their teams to embrace agility.

8. Empowers Team Leadership

Agile leadership enhances employees’ agency by encouraging them to take on leadership roles.

9. Builds an Innovation-Focused Culture

Agile leaders cultivate a culture that prioritizes innovation, encouraging teams to relentlessly pursue creative solutions and new ideas.

10. Promotes Iterative Development

They advocate for an iterative development process. This enables teams to refine and improve their outputs through regular revisions and enhancements.

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Why did Lisa, Apple’s Revolutionary Computer in the 1980s, Fail? 

1. Revolutionary Beginnings

Before we grasp Lisa’s failure, we must acknowledge its pioneering nature. Before Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) became standard, users interacted with computers via complex command-line inputs. Consequently, the GUI innovations at Xerox PARC in the 1970s—featuring windows, icons, and pointers—radically changed the computing scene. Steve Jobs’ visit to PARC in 1979 inspired him to integrate GUI technology into Apple’s products. This set the ball rolling for Lisa, who aimed to surpass the command-line-based Apple II.

2. High Aspirations With Steep Costs

Initially marketed as an expensive business tool, Apple’s Lisa introduced an icon and menu-driven interface within a desktop environment. Additionally, it featured a document-centric approach where users interacted with “stationery pad” documents instead of application icons. Equipped with the powerful Motorola 68000 microprocessor and a comprehensive application suite, Lisa was designed to transform personal computing.

3. Market Challenges and System Flaws

Lisa’s market uptake was hindered by its high cost of $9,995, making the cheaper IBM PC more attractive. Moreover, its complex operating system strained the processor, leading to poor performance.  Its exclusive application suite discouraged third-party development, and the unstable Twiggy floppy drive further marred its reliability. These issues, coupled with a hesitant market, led to Lisa’s commercial downfall despite its innovative design.

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What Did Apple’s Leadership Do After the Failure of Lisa: Lessons in Agile Leadership

1. Recognized the Need for Change

When Lisa did not do well in the market, Apple accepted that its price point and technical shortcomings had created problems. This is a typical way agile leadership works. They admit and deal with issues quickly to guide projects in the right direction again.

2. Shifted Focus to Macintosh Development

Apple put more emphasis and resources into making the Macintosh and ultimately shelved Lisa, which was unsuccessful. Hence, this change showed a tactical shift towards a product with wider market appeal and affordability. Moreover, it highlights how agile leaders, given an unfavorable situation, reassign their resources for maximum impact.

3. Leveraged Lisa’s Technological Innovations

Apple’s team did not throw away the technological improvements that accompanied Lisa. Instead, they used them to improve the graphical user interface of Macintosh. This illustrates how the agile method values use current technology efficiently and flexibly promotes innovation to adapt to market demands.

4. Implemented a More Market-Focused Approach

The introduction of the Macintosh marked a vital shift in Apple’s product creation approach, transitioning to a more market-oriented strategy.  This exemplifies the agile leadership style that prioritizes customer input and market dynamics in its product development.

5. Promoted Rapid Prototyping and Iterative Development

In the period of Macintosh’s creation, Apple welcomed quick prototyping and step-by-step evolution. Agile helps make faster modifications according to testing and reaction, leading to a more refined product. This strategy demonstrates an agile leadership style that emphasizes adaptability and swift response toward change.

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How to Be an Agile Leader?

 Let’s look at what you can do to become an agile leader. 

1. Define Clear Goals

 Begin by setting clear and attainable goals. However, remain flexible to adapt to the ever-changing business environment.

2. Embrace Team Diversity

Welcome diverse perspectives and challenges from your team to enhance creativity and problem-solving.

3. Foster a Learning Environment

If you want to be an agile leader, it’s crucial that you encourage continuous improvement and learning within your team to adapt to new challenges.

4. Maintain Open Communication

Ensure transparency and frequent communication to keep team goals aligned and adaptable.

5. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Work hard to push yourself and your team to explore new ideas and strategies beyond familiar boundaries. Set yourself as an example. 

6. Listen Actively

Always be open to genuine feedback from your coworkers. Consequently, this will help you stay updated and responsive in case you need anything. 

7. Accelerate Decision-Making

The ability to think and act rapidly is vital to agile leadership. Hence, it’s crucial to make timely decisions to keep pace with rapid changes in the business environment.

8. Embrace Uncertainty

Don’t shy away from uncertainties. Rather, try to develop confidence in facing unforeseen situations and adapting to them. 

9. Experiment Regularly

Conduct small, manageable experiments to test hypotheses and learn from the outcomes.

10. Handle Fear Constructively

Lastly, acknowledging and addressing fears hindering agility allows for courageous and decisive leadership.

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In conclusion, agile leadership fosters adaptability and collaboration. It empowers teams to navigate complex challenges and drive continuous improvement in today’s dynamic business landscape. By embracing iterative learning and flexible decision-making, agile leaders inspire innovation and resilience within their organizations. So, if you believe that you have what it takes to be a leader and feel the need to gain in-depth knowledge of different forms and types of managing a team of employees, consider joining Emeritus’ leadership courses, and take a step toward becoming a future business leader.  

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About the Author


SEO Content Contributor, Emeritus

Promita is a content contributor to the Emeritus Blog with a background in both marketing and language. With over 5 years of experience in writing for digital media, she specializes in SEO content that is both discoverable and usable. Apart from writing high-quality content, Promita also has a penchant for sketching and dabbling in the culinary arts. A cat parent and avid reader, she leaves a dash of personality and purpose in every piece of content she writes.
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