Tag Archives: leadership

Alternatives to bureaucratic hierarchy

I don’t doubt that its possible to have an organization with out traditional managers. I’ve read about Semco and Morningstar Farms. I’ve talked to people who work at Gore. My husband works for a less well know firm that doesn’t have traditional managers.

But those companies didn’t get there by happenstance. They got there by design. People chose, designed, evolved practices and structures to support a specific culture. They didn’t take off-the-shelf models of functional or product based organizational structures.  They didn’t slide into typical  for people management practices, organizational structures, job levels or reporting relationships.

Most companies settle for practices shaped by management thinking of the first half of the last century–without a second thought. The language of this thinking is mechanistic and dehumanizing. It’s the language of efficiency, compliance, hierarchy, rules.

If you want a different sort of company, start with using a different language.

For example, rather than talk about “managing performance,” talk about giving people the information they need to continually improve or sitting down on a periodic basis to examine how we can work better together.  Does that feel different to you?  It does to me. Those words offer a different set of possibilities.

Because we are talking about people and complex human systems, not moving parts in some vast machine.

What do middle managers do?

Last week, someone tweeted that the C-suite “gets agile,” but middle managers “resist” it. I also saw a tweet that the C-suite doesn’t get agile, but middle management does.

I don’t doubt the observations of either of these tweeters.

I have observed situations where both senior and middle managers saw the value in moving towards a team-based organization and iterative incremental delivery. In my experience, it’s a little more common for middle managers to hold onto the existing pattern. And why not? When they don’t see their place in agile they don’t embrace agile. And agile is silent on the role of middle management. Blanket statements that dismiss the need for managers or management don’t help.

Organizations moving to agile still need management, and often still need people in management roles, especially in large complex organizations. In traditional hierarchies, middle managers look up the hierarchy for direction, and focus down the hierarchy to accomplish cascading goals. When teams pull work from queues and self-organize to meet goals, the real opportunity for middle managers is to look across the organization to improve the system and develop people and teams.

So what do middle managers do when they aren’t directing day-to-day work? Plenty.

Now you see some of the things middle managers can do to help their colleagues, their managers, and teams. Do you need help shifting the role of middle managers in your organization?  Give me a call or drop me an email.

Command & Control: Let’s talk about power

Command and control isn’t just a mindset and a style of management (though it is both those things). What we don’t often talk about is the power that rests with people in management roles.

Traditional managers have power, and that power comes from different sources. Part of what rankles people in traditional organizations is the way managers wield power. I’m not suggesting throwing out all managers or eliminating all controls–controls help ensure a system is functioning within appropriate boundaries. That’s the case whether we are looking at the financial system, training system, administrative system or any other system in the organization. But controls are different from keeping people in line through positional power–which is the essence of Tayloristic management.

The notion that managers must keep people in line assumes that those people are neither responsible nor intelligent–that left to their own devices, they will make irresponsible and stupid mistakes. In many organizations, managers say they want people and teams to be responsible and accountable, then treat them like children. Let me give a concrete example. One manager I know exhorted people to take responsibility for their professional development. Then when a developer asked to attend training, the manager grilled him on the nature of the training. After the grilling, the manager asked the developer to produce documentation. Finally, the manager rejected the developer’s request because the no one “responsible” in the company had vetted the training. This is an extreme example, but one that makes the point. When managers tell people to take responsibility, then force them to ask for approval, they are sending a mixed message. You can guess which part of the message people believe. They hear, “you are not capable of making a wise decision, I must exert my authority to prevent you from doing something irresponsible or stupid.”

One way to dis-aggregate power is to delegate some power to teams. For example, you could delegate authority for a portion of a training budget to a team. Establish guidelines, (e.g., training must be relevant to current or future projects, or must increase capacity in some other relevant way). Then let team members assess what training they need to improve their capability. Guidelines act as controls, within which the team has autonomy. Both are necessary. The team exists within the context of the organization. Managers do have a fiduciary responsibility. But managers don’t have to force other adults to come as supplicants to fulfill that responsibility. Other areas that are easy to delegate are tools used within the team, books and periodicals, and conferences.

People in management roles can share hiring decisions with the teams who will work with the new person. Rather than have individual managers make decisions about promotions, have a panel. Place professional and career development with mentors, instead of with the manager who evaluates or supports the team.

When power isn’t concentrated with a group of people (managers), there are many more possibilities for creativity, partnership, and empowering leadership.

(This is an excerpt from an interview in Lean Magazine, published by Softhouse.se)

Rethinking Manager’s Relationship with Agile Teams

This article originally appeared on gantthead.com 

In the early days of agile, some pundits (and developers) cried, “We don’t need no stinking managers.”

By now, most people realize that organizations still need management (and people in management roles) after they adopt agile methods. However, if those organizations want all the benefits of agile, managers must also change the way they work.

Managers can play an even more valuable role in organizations as teams become self-organizing and take on more responsibility. But if managers want teams to take more self-responsibility, they need to shift their focus from monitoring the day-to-day work of individuals and let teams grow up.  Here are three common areas of confusing as managers and teams negotiate their new relationships.

Messing with Team Membership

No group is a team the first day they are together.  Becoming a team takes time–time to learn how each person fits in and contributes, time to lean how to work together, time to develop group identity and trust.

If you want the benefit of the team effect, provide the enabling conditions:

  • A clear and compelling goal
  • Appropriate constraints
  • Stable membership
  • Time for the team to gel.

Plucking people off the team or poking people into the team causes a re-set in the team forming process. Mess with the membership often enough, and people will stop trying. When team membership feels like a revolving door, individuals won’t put in the effort to form team bonds. You may get a group that functions reasonably well, but you’ll miss out on the team effect.

That doesn’t mean that team membership never changes. People leave (or are asked to leave) and people join. Hiring new people for a team should always be a joint decision, involving team members. And when people are asked to leave it shouldn’t be mysterious to the team why that happened. (For more on hiring as a collaborative process, see this article.)

Delegating then De-delegating Decisions

As a general rule, delegating decision making to the people who are closest to the work is an excellent principle. Doing so can remove bottlenecks, lead to faster decision-making, and improve customer responsiveness.

Except when it doesn’t, as happens when a manager and a team haven’t clarified who makes which decisions. Or when a manager delegates a decision, but doesn’t clarify boundaries or constraints around that decision.

When managers see that a team is about to make a poor decision, they may be tempted to countermand that decision. Countermanding a decision prevents the problems that would have been caused by a faulty decision. But it leads do a different kind of problem–loss of trust between the team and the manager.  Team members may feel the manager wasn’t serious about delegating decisions in the first place. They may believe that he only delegates decisions on the condition that the team decides exactly what the manager would choose.  Such situations will damage a mangers relationship with the team.

If the team makes a decision that will result in real harm to the company, a manager must intervene. How he intervenes makes a difference. To prevent real harm to the relationship, refrain from blame. Acknowledging that key constraints weren’t clear or communicated will help. Use the opportunity to learn from the mistake, and to set appropriate boundaries for team decisions.

Strategic decisions belong to management. But tactical decisions, course corrections, and decisions that affect day-to-day work belong with the development team. Some decisions fall in between, and require both management and front-line input.

Work with the team to identify which decisions are squarely with the team, which ones you share, and which ones are management decisions. Then set boundaries, about cost, impact, and scope.

For example, when it comes to hiring a new team member, the decision about what skills and qualities to look for in a new team member is probably a joint decision.  The choice among candidates is best done as a recommendation from the team (which you may over-ride at your own peril). But the offer and salary are neither a team decision or a joint decision. Employment terms and salary (in most organizations) are management decisions.

Clouding Team Commitments

One of the secrets ingredients for team success is that team members make commitments to each other to complete their goal. Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. But commitments can lead to conflict, it’s not clear who makes commitments to whom about what.

Fred, a member of an agile team, participated in a planning meeting where he and his teammates committed to deliver six stories during the next iteration.  Then Fred when to the team manager, Megan, to get approval for a two week vacation, starting the second week of the next sprint–as he had done every spring for the last four years.

But this time, the result was a mess. The other team members were mad at Fred, for committing his effort to the team, when he knew he wouldn’t be in the office for half the next sprint.  The team members were mad at Megan, too, for giving Fred permission when they thought he should have talked to them first. Fred and Megan felt attacked–for doing what they’d always done.

Managers are still point-person for matters of company policy. But work commitment a happen between the team as a whole and their product owner or customer. Megan and Fred landed in the middle of that. In the end, Fred took his vacation. The team needed to renegotiate their commitment to the product owner. Megan attended the meeting to explain what had happened to the product owner.

When Fred (gratefully) returned from two weeks at the cabin with his three kids and the in-laws, they all had a sit down. They talked about which commitments the team could make, what the team could negotiate among themselves and where Megan needed to be involved for legal reasons.

I hear managers say they want teams to take more responsibility. The best way to make that happen is for managers to stop acting in ways that take responsibility away from teams. Start with these three areas.  Then, spend some time examining your relationship with the team. What else could the team do that would enhance their autonomy and responsibility? What else are you doing that might confuse the team about how much responsibility they really have?

Empowering Leadership II

Every team needs leadership, even self-organizing teams.

When I make this statement, some people assume I mean that every team needs a designated leader.  I can’t blame them, most people are accustomed to thinking of leadership residing in a role or a charismatic individual—a “born” leader.

On self-organizing teams, there isn’t one leader.  Agile teams may have a coach; however, the coaches job is to help the team see where they need to improve and help them learn specific skills.  The coach may lead at times, but the coach isn’t the leader.  In fact, if the team looks at the coach as the leader, they’re in trouble. Holding up one person as leader will hamper team development.

Before we go any further, let’s define leadership: leadership is creating an environment where everyone can contribute to solve the problem at hand.

On teams that function well, every member of the team leads.  Each person takes responsibility for helping the team move forward.

But acting at random or on gut feel isn’t enough. Empowering leaders can be more effective when they work out of a model that helps them make sense of what they see happening on the team.

One such model is the MOIJ model articulated by Jerry Weinberg.

1. Every team needs motivation—and I don’t mean pep talks, cheerleading and extrinsic rewards.  Teams do best when they are intrinsically motivated, when they derive satisfaction from the work and team relationships.

Team members lead when they work for appropriate harmony and consensus—and engage in constructive conflict.  Leaders pay attention to how other team members are participating, so that everyone can use their talents and creativity. Leaders pay attention to how the whole team is working together, and building a team culture that supports achievement and good working relationships.

When only one person on the team pays attention to motivation, the team doesn’t learn how to create the environment for their own success.

2. Teams need organization.  Organization is more than the boxes on an org chart.  Organization includes physical space, time, and structure.

Leaders make sure that the workspace supports the team with appropriate equipment and information. Teams need someone to lead by pay attention to commitments and the ticking clock.  They need to figure out how to allocate the work so that it gets done and there’s a balance between people expanding their skills and relying on experts who can do the work most quickly. Teams need structures that help them work effectively together, for example, working agreements or configuration management.

When only one person pays attention to organization, he comes across as a nag. After a while, people ignore nags.

3. Teams need information.  They need to see a vision, generate ideas, bring in data and analyze and connect the dots.

Along with a flow of ideas, sometimes, a teams need a Devils Advocate.  A Devil’s Advocate challenges habitual thinking, checks solutions against foundational principles and values.  Without a Devil’s Advocate, teams can slip into group think, or miss risks and weaknesses when they consider options. But like the nagging organizer, no one enjoys a habitual naysayer. When there’s only one Devil’s Advocate he’s likely to be marginalized.  Like all the other leadership activities, it’s important to spread this one around.

Team members also need to know when they have too many ideas, and it’s time to slow the flow. We usually don’t think of following as a leadership activity.  But I’ve seen teams where everyone wanted to have his or her way.  I’ve seen teams sidetracked when members keep throwing in new ideas each time they come close to a decision.  Those teams argue and debate endlessly and don’t make forward progress.  Knowing when to zip the lips and follow is leadership, too.

4. Finally, every team needs people who can recognize when they are stuck and need a jiggle.  My favorite jiggle is a paradoxical question: “How can we make the situation worse?” Simply commenting on the stuck-ness can sometimes shake a team out of their rut. Changing position—standing up if the team has been sitting–can jiggle the team into productive action, as well.

***

What happens when only one person on the team—whether a formal or informal leader—tries to do all the leadership?  I suppose there are the rare individuals who can do it all. But on most teams that aren’t sharing leadership, are missing some leadership ingredients.  When teams rely on one individual they flounder when the leader isn’t available.  Worse, they don’t develop their own capabilities and slide into dependency.

Leadership is about making sure the team is functioning well and creating an environment where everyone can do his or her best work.  And it takes a whole team of leaders to make a self-organizing team.

Empowering Leadership

Some pundits proclaim that leadership rests on charisma, the ability to create a vision, or “presence.” Teams do need a vision and a compelling goal.  But do teams need one charismatic leader? No.Teams need leaders of a different sort. Teams need leaders who don’t need to be out in front, who are able to work quietly, creating an environment where everyone on the team is empowered. Such leaders–empowering leaders—may not get the glory. They do help teams get work done, invite creativity, and build capacity.  How do they work? Not by rousing speeches, through followers or by exuding some magical stuff. Empowering leaders create an environment where everyone is empowered. The act on observation, not gut feel or random action.

As Yogi Berra pointed out, you can observe a lot just by watching.  But what should you watch? How do you make meaning of what you see?

We are bombarded with sensory input, and our brains are built to find patterns. They are also build to filter out data.  Empowering leaders can’t rely on innate observation abilities.  They need to hone their awareness to make their interpretations reliable guides for action. Empowering leaders hone awareness in three areas:

  • Self-awareness. They know their own strengths, patterns, blind spots.
  • Team Awareness. They understand group dynamics and understand that teams are goal oriented social units.
  • System Awareness. They grasp that the team exists within a larger system, which includes the organization as a whole, other teams, customers, work flows, and policies.

The average person knows quite a bit about him or herself.  He knows what he likes, and what he doesn’t like. He probably knows whether he likes to decide quickly, shoot from the hip, or examine all the options before choosing. He probably knows whether he is mad, sad or glad at any given moment. He probably thinks he knows what he’s good at.

Average self-knowledge isn’t good enough for leaders.  Empowering leaders observe their own thoughts and feelings, so they can manage their emotional responses. They separate the data from the interpretations they make of data. They understand their thought patterns, and how they respond to stress. They understand how that not everyone sees the world the same way (and that’s a good thing).

Empowering leaders learn to observe the team and discern patterns of behavior on the group level that effect that ability of the group to get work done. They notice who offers ideas, who challenges ideas. They notice when one person consistently interrupts another team member. Leaders hone their ability to notice the roles people take in group discussions, and pick up on non-verbal cues. This is the information that allows them to determine what is happening, and what (if anything) is needed to adjust the environment so everyone is empowered and able to work. Empowering leaders notice how the physical arrangements affect work, how information is flowing (or not), and when the constraints on the team are too few or too many.

Finally, empowering leaders pay attention to the context, the world the team works in.  How does work flow into the team? What are the relationships with other parts of the organization? Are their policies and procedure that are hindering the team? An empowering leader on a team may not be able to eliminate such factors himself. But he knows how modify the team environment to lessen harm, and to influence out side the team to achieve change.

Awareness gives leaders the ability to make sense of the data. Then, they can choose from a variety of responses that will influence the environment to empower all members of the team to contribute.

Yours, Mine, Ours: Clarifying Decision Boundaries

I recently talked to a group that’s forming a new “change leadership” team.  Part of the work of the team is improving the organization, and part is capacity building. Four of the people on the team are folks with technical backgrounds who are viewed as having potential to be future leaders in the organization. The fifth person is a manager.

By definition, the manager will have a different role on the team. Because of his role in the organization, he’s accustomed to taking a  broader view of the organization.  He’s got more experience steering change.  He’s led and managed teams.  He has more authority, and access to resources. He can approve expenditures.

One of the tasks for this group in becoming a team is to clarify the managers role, and identify decision boundaries. This is something I do with self-organizing teams. It’s especially important when the manager sits on the team. I find that it helps both the manager and team members break out of the common “looking up/looking down” dynamic.

looking up/ looking down dynamicthe Looking Up/ Looking Down Dynamic

And, the act of co-creating the relationship helps build trust.

It’s  not necessary to list and delineate every decision that could possibly come up. Usually, there are classes of decisions that can be treated in the same way.  I start by having the group brainstorm all the decisions they are likely to make as they work towards the team goal.  Then, they group the decisions to identify the classes.

Looking at the classes of decisions, I help the group answer these questions:

Who defines the problem or issue?

Who sets the focus and boundaries (e.g., money, timing, unacceptable options, criteria, etc.)

Who identifies candidate options?

Who evaluates chooses among options?

Who implements the chosen option?

Who evaluates the decision, once it’s in place?

At the end of the activity, they have a grid that looks something like this chart (though they usually have names, rather than M and T to stand for manager and team).

decision matrixClear decision boundaries makes it explicit which decisions are the managers alone, which are the managers, but involve the team. It also identifies which decisions are shared, and which the team can make even if the manager isn’t around to participate in a particular decision.

This sort of clarity make is easier for teams to act on their empowerment. It also avoids the sort of ill will that can come up when the team believes they will be involved in a decision, and the person with a management role believes differently.

 

Fill in the blanks

I’ve been noticing what’s missing lately. In some ways, its harder to see what’s not there than what is. But there’s lost of useful information in what isn’t said, as well as what is.

For example:

A manager, talking about one of the people who reported to him said:

“He’s difficult to manage.”

What’s missing?

“He’s difficult (for me) to manage.”

“(When he does X), he’s difficult (for me) to manage.”

“(When he does X,) he’s difficult (for me) to manage (because I don’t understand his actions).”

“(When he does X), he’s difficult (for me) to manage (because I don’t understand his actions and I don’t know what to do).”

There may be another follow-on sentence, that hints at the crux of the matter.  That sentence might be…

And I’m worried that if I can’t bring him around, I’ll miss my goals and my boss will think I’m not competent.

And I have judgements about that behavior because I was criticized for that when I was in school.

And I feel threatened.

And I feel I have to defend my ideas.

I know what I’m asking doesn’t make sense, but my boss told me to do it.

It may have been more comfortable for the manager to say the first sentence, as he did.  He may even believe it.

As long as the manager deletes parts of the sentence, it’s easy for him to see the other person as the problem. As long as the problem resides entirely with the other person, there’s not much he can do to improve the situation (other than fire the “difficult to manage” person).  But the deletions contain important information that could help him improve the situation.

What examples would you add?

Changing to Agile, in an Agile Manner

A while back I was contacted by a potential client who wanted to “go agile.”  But they wanted to do it in a deterministic manner.  They wanted a plan, complete with milestones and dates–mostly indicating that other people had changed their behavior as dictated by management.

Sigh.

One could make a plan for mass training (aka sheep dip), I suppose.  One could   dictate that by June 10, 20XX, all teams will practicing TDD.  Or that all projects will be converted to backlogs and loaded into agile project management software.

But that doesn’t seem so agile to me.  It seems like it misses the point of learning and adapting; of embracing values; of understanding systems and patterns, how the work works, what’s working and what’s not.  Without considering the WHY behind processes and learning as you go, you are only going through the motions.

Start with understanding the current state, and what problem you are trying to solve by “going agile.”  Understand how the current structures and goal alignments are supporting or hindering the goal of delivering products to customers, and identify targeted changes that will improve that ability. Identify where and you can change the pattern and establish structures that will help the new pattern take hold.

Make a Road Map, knowing that you don’t know everything and can’t foresee all you’ll discover on this journey of change. Describe the desired pattern and the steps that you can currently envision to get there.  You won’t be able to see all the steps. If your initial actions are effective, your culture will be changing. Any far-future actions you described from the driveway may no longer be what’s needed when you are 100 miles from home.

It’s impossible to know everything at the outset when you decide to make what amounts to a cultural change. You take some steps, observe the effects of actions, and adapt, learning as you go.

Deterministic planning fails with complex software systems, and it fails with organizational change. Organizations are far too complex, and we need to plan for adaptation, learning, and the fact that the organization will be changing as the plan unfolds.

Real leaders make space for others to shine

I’ve seen a renewed cry for leaders in organizations lately. Too often in these discussions, the definition of “leadership” boils down to a role where one individual creates a vision for others to follow. That’s not enough. We need more leadership, not just more anointed or appointed leaders.

“Leadership” is most potent when it’s a verb, not a noun. Leadership is taking actions that will help a group create a product, achieve their charter, grow in capability, solve problems, or improve results.

Looked at this way, we can create organizations that are full of leadership, not just individuals in leadership roles. And, sometimes, the most potent leadership action is the quiet act of choosing to follow. I call that being an active follower. Here are three ways to be an active follower on your group or team.

Step Back and Let Someone Else Step Forward

When one person on the team is the most skilled, it’s easy for the rest of the group to over rely on that person. Overreliance on one person poses a risk. On the operational level, there’s the truck factor: If the most-skilled or sole skilled individual leaves the job for whatever reason (and we hope it’s not because he is hit by the proverbial truck), the team won’t be able to function. No one will be ready to step in. In cases of extreme overreliance, the rest of the group won’t be aware of all the work that person was doing. It might take weeks before someone else can identify and pick up the pieces.

There’s also a long-term risk to team health. When person takes the lead, others don’t have the opportunity to learn and develop their own capabilities. If there’s no place to grow, people will check out and leave—or, worse, check out and stay.

Break Gridlock by Deferring to Someone Else’s Idea

When too many people want to be “the leader,” the result often isn’t action but a complete lack of forward movement. If no one is willing to step back and declare “I don’t have to have my way; let’s try your way this time,” the result is gridlock. An active follower seeing gridlock will choose to follow someone else’s lead for the good of the team.

Take a Supporting Role

There’s a reason that the Oscars have an award for best supporting actor. Without the supporting actor, the work of the lead falls flat. Many jobs demand the work of two people, but it’s not equal in every case. An active follower is willing to take that supporting role and let someone else take the lead. You may not get the credit this time, but chances are that if you’re willing to support someone else today, she’ll be willing to take the supporting role another day.

Back up a team mate when he chooses a difficult-to-implement story–or one that’s at the edge of his technical skills. Pair program with him, but let him drive. Offer informal peer review, offer feedback, or coach.

Let a less-senior member of the team make an important presentation. Play a supporting role by offering feedback on a draft, listening to a practice run, and sharing tips and experience that will help the other person succeed.

When only one person leads, the rest of the team members are turned into passive followers. Unlike active followers, who make a choice to allow someone else to lead in a particular instance, passive followers always hang back. Passive followers fall into the habit of depending on others, whether it’s keeping track of time, coming up with ideas, or galvanizing the group into action. Passive followers wait for someone else to step up, not out of an intention to achieve results, but out of habit or a sense of disempowerment.

Over time, the de facto leader may resent being the only one who attends to time or urges action. When only one person comes up with ideas, the team is missing out on a rich mix of ideas to choose from and may be missing good options. Other team members don’t exercise their own creativity, and the team as a whole misses out on their talents. Some people prefer to let others take the lead and the credit (and also the blame). But, most people want at least a slice of the glory. When they’re always in the background, they don’t get that and eventually disengage. They may even undercut the star who won’t move off center stage so they can get their own moments of fame.

Productive teams count on leadership throughout the team and know that each can lead at different times. Likewise, they expect that, at some point, each will follow another’s lead all in the interests of the team and team results.

When you consider your team or group, which sort of followership do you observe? How is that serving your team? What are other ways to be an active follower? Post your comments.

(An earlier version of this article appeared on Stickyminds.com.)