Self-organization needs leadership
Don’t get me wrong: I am not talking about executing command and control, placing a manager in the driver’s seat, doing micro-management or the like. What I am talking about is leadership, and for me this starts with giving orientation to those who have to achieve goals in an uncertain, changing, flexible environment. From my personal experience I would rate this the single most demanded aspect by Agile teams.
Tons of books have been written about how to create a vision, how to actively manage change et cetera. Those topics are without a doubt of utmost importance when transforming an organization or at least parts of it. I have seen inspiring leaders who were able to mobilize cohorts of people by giving powerful presentations of their vision. And I have seen very enthusiastic teams coming back from exactly those presentations, asking themselves “OK, what now? What’s our part? How can we contribute?”. It appears to me that there is sometimes a link missing between understanding the vision and making meaningful steps in daily operations. This small gap is where leadership comes into the play.
It’s the expectations, stupid
Have we spoken to employees at all levels of the organization what we wanted to achieve with the Agile transformation? Yes. Have we told them why we are absolutely positive that becoming Agile will make us “better”? Absolutely. Have we engaged trainers and consultants and coaches and have we massively invested in education and team building? You bet. Did it help? I’m sure. Are we all set now? Nope.
I have to admit that it took a while until my leadership team and I figured out, that we never ever had made our expectations clear. And I mean clear as in “black on white”. We completely skipped the part of stating in simple sentences, what -aside from what everybody in the Agile community speaks or writes about- we as the leaders expect from Scrum teams. It’s not that we didn’t have expectations. We just failed miserably by assuming that those expectations were clear anyway because they had always been there. This assumption was terribly wrong.
One example of an expectation we stated is “We expect from our Scrum teams that they stick to their commitments, detect deviations, and find solutions”. We do not expect, that all commitments hold every time under all circumstances. This would be unrealistic and absolutely not motivating, because it makes people anxious. But if a commitment cannot be fulfilled, the team must find out what went wrong and come up with countermeasures. This is nothing exotic, nothing new, nothing special, and it was definitely not invented by us. But we expect exactly that. So we told them.
Once expectations are stated, a lot of good things can happen.
- You could debate them, for example. If you believe this is important and strengthens your leadership position, go ahead.
- Or you could explain them. By this, you probably lower the risk of your expectations not being met.
- You could try to elaborate a measure of how many of your expectations have been met at a certain point in time.
- You could simply confront people when you sense that one or more of your expectations are not being met.
- But quite frankly, the best thing that can happen is that the teams use the expectations as a framework when it comes to making decisions. And that’s the point.
Leaders must make sure that decisions can be taken. (I am not saying that they take all the decisions.) However, if the desired end-state cannot be achieved in consensus, they should be consulted. But from my point of view this doesn’t scale fast enough – leaders are not always available, there may be perceived hurdles in approaching them, or whatever. Clear expectations claim the boundaries for nearly all the decisions a self-organizing team needs to take can act as a proxy. If in doubt, check the case against the expectations of the leadership team. What I find great about this is that it also requires a high level of trust both from the leaders and the teams. Teams must trust that the expectations are suitable to achieve overall goals. Leaders need to trust their teams that they will a) decide in line with the expectations and b) strive to meet the expectations.
And, by the way: The expectations must be met by the leadership team itself. That’s at least what is expected.
Let me know what you think.