Posts tagged leadership
Empowerment and Control

One of the most common complaints I hear when speaking to senior leaders is around a lack of empowerment in their teams. More specifically, the leader is trying to empower their people but the people are not responding - "I have told them they are empowered, but they still come to me for every little decision". Empowerment is a tricky thing. Telling people that they are empowered is easy, getting them to behave in an empowered way is a very different matter. The problem here is that we are looking at empowerment the wrong way round. Empowerment is not something you can just give to someone. While the giving of empowerment is important, it's not the only step. Empowerment only works when the receiver accepts it. You can give empowerment all you like, but if the intended recipient doesn't accept that empowerment, nothing will happen.

But why wouldn't someone accept empowerment? Everyone wants to be empowered don't they? Why don't they jump at the chance? Many years ago I worked for a very large engineering company and the management wanted to try out this brand new (It was a long time ago) empowerment thing. So they gave every employee an "empowerment card" with a statement from the CEO on it that said that anyone in the organisation was empowered to make any decision required. The idea was that if you wanted to seize empowerment by the horns and make a decision that was out of your normal role, you could whip out your card, toss it on the table and say "The CEO has empowered me to make this decision", and away you go. Sounds great doesn't it? Trouble is, not one person used it. Out of the 150,000 people in the company, not one person used one. Zero. Why?

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Decision Making and A Culture of Trust

Last time we looked at the Advice Process as a simple (in principal) 4 step decision making technique -

  • Decide who should decide

  • Make a proposal

  • Seek advice

  • Decide.

While the process itself is very simple, getting it working in most organisations is very tricky because it completely upends a number of pretty baked in cultural conventions - use of hierarchical authority, undermining consensus to get your own way, lack of trust requiring approvals and so on. The existing culture will fight this process every inch of the way. But, if the organisation is really serious, really puts some resources into this and pushes it forward, it can act as a significant catalyst to cultural change. By changing the way decisions are made, the cultural conventions around decision making can be transformed.

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Agile Culture Part 4 - Enabling People

Last time we looked at what it means to be a learning organisation. There are obvious benefits to having a learning organisation - better decisions, better products, better processes, better, well, just about everything. There are also some non-obvious benefits that are, in some ways, even more powerful than the obvious stuff - it turns out that learning is extremely motivating for people. Learning organisations tend to have very highly motivated, switched on, dedicated people in them and that gives them a huge advantage. It's not just that these organisations attract those sort of people, but the really amazing thing is that the people already in the organisation become more motivated when the organisation embraces learning.

It turns out that learning - getting better at something - is one of the key things that motivate us. When we talk about motivators in a work context we tend not to think about things like learning. We tend to think more about things like pay and bonuses. Psychologists who work in this field divide up motivators into two types - extrinsic (meaning coming from outside) and intrinsic (coming from inside). Things like pay, bonuses, company cars and the like are extrinsic motivators. Things like learning are intrinsic motivators. Guess which turns out to be more powerful? Yep. Intrinsic motivators win. Extrinsic motivators tend to work in reverse - the lack of pay is a de-motivator, but once you are paid fairly, more pay does not equal more motivation. So, what are intrinsic motivators and how do they work?

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Agile Culture Part 1 - Supportive Leadership

Hi Folks. Back after the new year (and a major unplanned upgrade to the blog that knocked me off air for a few months…so much for keeping up to date with maintenance) I’ll be kicking off with something I talked about at the end of last year - an in-depth look at my views on what an agile culture looks like. If you can cast your minds all the way back to 2018, I posted an overview of 5 things that I feel are the foundations of a good agile culture. To refresh everyone's memories (including mine) after the holiday season, here they are again -

  • Supportive leadership

  • Strive for quality

  • Learning organisation

  • Enable people 

  • Enhance safety

Today I'll be looking at the first one - supportive leadership. Agile folks talk about this all the time by different names. Servant leadership, supportive leadership, people-focused leadership, and a host of others. We all mean the same thing. The trouble is, when we are asked "well, what exactly does that mean, we generally aren't very good at defining it, and are even worse at giving leaders real, practical guidance on what to do to become a supportive/servant/people focused leader. So here is my attempt.

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The Cost Trap

Time to close out our series on common traps with a look at probably the most common trap organisations fall into. I don't think I have ever worked for an organisation that wasn't caught to some extent in this trap. What I'm talking about today is the cost trap. You get into this trap by having the wrong sort of conversations - conversations about cost. "How much will this cost?" That question has lead most organisations astray. Why is that? Surely how much it costs is an important question. And indeed it is. The problem occurs when that's the only question you ask. Cost is important, but there is something else you need in order to make a good decision. There is half the information missing. That other half is value. "What will I get in return?"

Let me put it this way, if I were to ask you "would you rather I took $10 from you or $50?" I suspect most of you would chose $10 (and for those who wouldn't, you are very generous, please leave your name in the comments below...). If, on the other hand, I asked "Would you rather I took $10 and gave you back $50 or took $50 and gave you back $500?" I'm guessing most of you would pick the $50. Just focusing on the cost would drastically lower your return. But this is what most organisations do. To be fair, most organisations do consider value, particularly at the top levels of the organisation. Every idea starts with a cost/value decision. ROI is a key consideration. But as work moves down the organisation, the discussion starts to become less and less about value and more and more about cost. The point at which the organisation falls into the cost trap is the point where the value part of the discussion vanishes and the discussion becomes entirely about cost. Often, this is where an idea becomes a project and is handed over for delivery.

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The Urgency Trap

Continuing on with our series on common traps that organisations can fall into, it's time to look at the Urgency Trap. What's that? It's a particularly common trap and unlike most of the other traps where agile techniques tend to help avoid them, the urgency trap is one that agile teams can fall into even more easily than traditional teams. It's also a particularly dangerous trap because it can lead otherwise great teams into other traps, like the rebuild trap we looked at last time.

But what is it? Take a look at your current backlog. Now take a look at your team's long term goal. How much stuff at the top of the backlog is stuff that is strategic and aligned to your long term goal. How much is stuff that's short term, tactical and is at the top of the backlog, not because it gets you closer to your goal but because it's urgent? That bug fix. That urgent tweak to a feature that someone demanded. That urgent update to the terms and conditions because someone in legal found a problem. What's the ratio? More than 50% long term and strategic? Trend is steady? You are probably OK. Less than 50%? Percentage of urgent work is creeping up and displacing more and more strategic work? Welcome to the urgency trap.

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The Rebuild Trap

Another post in my series about common traps that organisations can get themselves into. This week we will look at a really common one. I think I have seen this in one form or another at every organisation I have ever worked for. It's really easy to get into. Once you are in it, it's really hard to get out of. But fortunately, once you know what you are looking for it is really easy to avoid. It's the rebuild trap.

It works this way - the product or process you are working in is becoming old and inefficient. The code base is old and riddled with tech debt. Technologies have gone out of date. It's becoming slower and slower (and more and more expensive) to add new features or other changes. Finally the organisation throws up its hands and announces that the system will be re-built. Everyone cheers. Out with the old, in with the new. A team is stood up. Everyone fights to be on the sexy new rebuild team rather than the boring old legacy maintenance team. Work begins and...never ends. The new system never gets delivered. The old one never gets replaced. Large amounts of money are spent with no result. The other possible outcome is that the new system eventually gets delivered, very late and with vastly less functionality than the one it replaces. What went wrong?

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The Efficiency Trap

I have been looking recently at some of the common traps organisations can get into. Today it's time for the efficiency trap. "Hang on", I hear you say. "What's wrong with efficiency? Efficiency is a good thing...right?" Well, yes, but exactly what are you efficient at? Are you efficient at delivering things or efficient at achieving business goals? "But wait?" you say. "Aren't they the same thing? Don't we achieve business goals by delivering things?"

The answer there is "not always". It's really easy to deliver things that don't actually deliver business outcomes. Features that no one uses. Products that don't sell. Or at a smaller scale, designs that never get implemented. Business cases that never get funded, and so on. This is where the efficiency trap gets us. We fall into the trap of thinking that the more stuff we produce, the better. We mistake efficiency at producing outputs with efficiency at producing outcomes.

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