Encouraging team’s freedom : how much is enough ?

When talking with directors about how to enable collective intelligence and co-responsability in their teams, they usually find me too strict regarding their own behavior.
« Yes, last week I’ve been keeping someone’s action on hold -it was over a detail, but I didn’t understood her decision, you know. And the next day I stepped in and took direct control of à team’s action plan, telling people what to do.
But what’s the deal, that’s just two times, right ? On average, I let them go on their own if it’s good for the business. They know I expect them to decide and act without waiting for validation on details, right ? »

My point is : no, they probably don’t.

To explain why, I’ll use a reverse example.

Reverse proposition: dictatorship

Imagine a dictator of a 150 people village. How many people does he have to punish to remove any attempt of free-thinking and free initiative ?
My bet : 2 are enough.
It’s not about controlling all of the free-thinking leaders, it’s about making an example, telling a message. Once people got the message, they’ll stay away from displeasing you. The first punishment makes an example, the second one set a pattern. Then the word spread. Self-restraining behavior will soon appear.

Now let’s say the dictator changes his mind.
How many people does he need to reward to remove the former message, to say « good you take that initiative on your own. It helps ! » ? 10, 20 rewards at least, right ? While restraining from any censorship

Back in our management situation.
Control messages are far more powerful because they’re calling our inner surviving sense. « Don’t get into bad situation » comes before « Thrive in your life ». No balance is possible because these are not competing on the same level : safety wins.

You’re the boss, boss

As a CTO/CEO, you have a lot of power and influence on the people that works for you, probably more than you think.
So when you’re a manager, a CTO, a CEO, and you forget yourself 1 or 2 times per week by being over-controlling, censoring someone who takes an initiative you didn’t understood (in other words : you freaked out), you don’t get an « average » message at the end of the week. You drawn a powerful pattern that you’ll have a hard time to remove.
That’s why, even if I’m being tolerant as a coach, I stay relentless about the behavior required to set a proper messages.

Now, if you’re asking yourself « Am I doing enough to get my teams confident about their freedom to think and act by themselves ? », I would use two reverse questions instead :
1) how many censoring actions are needed to kill people’s investment in your project ?
2) how far are you from that number ?

Meet in circle for circularity

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Your coworker, what a jerk, right, interrupting people like that ? You can’t event figure how to raise a word in these damned monthly meeting. So when it’s your turn, you use it as much as you can. And… you keep it a bit too much, maybe. Think about a vicious circle, right ?

There’s a basic trick to prevent people -yourself included- from interrupting each others during meetings : have the chairs set in a close circle, 2 or 3 meters wide.

We’re all bullying from time to time, let’s be honest. But when you can see everyone at once, feel them close, you know who’s talking and who’s about to. There’s also a pressure to take others in count before bullying around. So consider this trick a good way to stop yourself from being harsh. Suggest it to your coworkers for yourself.

I see a few cases when this no-brainer of meeting facilitation is forgotten

Presentation followed by a question / answers session

After a coworker ended her classy powerpoint, ask 30 seconds before the talking to move the chairs as to have everyone in circle, in each other’s sight. Yes, in conferences too, as much as you can, have people move their chairs or themselves before the Q/A.

Tables are set in U shape

or anything too large, dismantle them form each other. Have people sitting closer, 2 or 3m max. If you like, remove the table, best trick ever for honest conversation.

When there’s this big one-piece of un-removable presidential table

I’ve seen that. A large table set up as a triangle, proudly riveted to the ground. It set people apart in 3 factions at every meeting, 5 meters away, with people at the corners feeling unengaged, and people in the middle of the sides feeling exposed.
Well, get rid of that table. It deserves all you can. Talk to the boss. There’s important things running in this meeting room, right ? otherwise nobody would have put such a proud piece of furniture there. Get. Rid. Of. It. Replace it with simple tables on wheels so you can easily rearrange the room whenever you want.

You’ll thank me.

… now, I do know it may take some months. Until then, try to set up a circle of chairs beside the table. You’ll prove how much more efficient and healthy meetings are. Now, go get the chainsaw.

Work with old kingdoms to establish new republics

Everyday, agile changers face the same challenge : how to create a system with shared responsibility and collective decisions when there’s a hierarchical organization in place ?

In 2005 I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa. I was impressed by one particular event faced by this 400 years old country. The apartheid was ended by white people. Exclusive owners of the voting right, they voted a new constitution to share that right with everyone, no matter their skin color (note : they were more than one step leading to this, refer to wikipedia if interested).
13 years after the events, I was amazed when visiting Cap Town at how much a country with such a heavy burden was able to move forward so fast. They already had gay mariage.

Last month Alexandre Boutin told me another related experience he had when coaching a Korean company. His attempt to promote collective creativity was stuck. He was informed after a few hours that what he promoted was in contradiction with local manners : you don’t challenge in public someone else’s idea. A brainstorm, based on that precise principle, was impossible. After this social trait had been made explicit, they worked a way to circumvent this social convention in brainstorms.
But who did explain this cultural trait to him? The big boss. Who proposed and allowed criticizing ideas inside the group? The big boss.
The power in place allowed another distribution of power. It was peaceful and with immediate effect.

For change makers like me, there’s a lesson here. To change an organisation, the most efficient course of action is to have the current one doing it. So work through the system, not apart from it, not against it.

This led me to a few recipe when spreading agile in a hierarchical organization (with a tendency for command and control) :

Look for the person with a crown

Working from the ground level, doing more agile rituals, more « let’s prove them … », more « let’s have them understand that … », that’s not working. If you want your agile zone to spread, go up the power ladder and start where the power lies.
(How up the ladder ? enough to rule the whole organizational zone you want your new organization to reside in)

Deal with local lords

Unless you have a feature-oriented organization like Spotify, an efficient agile team usually unite skills from different divisions (business, IT, etc.). There’s as many managers to convince. Learn to sell them the change, let them deal with their current restraining forces (local power, budgets as a social status, etc), mobilize them.
Usually, these guys will introduce you the queen is she’s hard to talk to.

but all this requires to

Respect them, learn their etiquette

Understand their constraints, their social codes, their decision ecosystem, what subject triggers their interest. Just ask them, if you respect them some will teach you, even offer their help. They will tell you what is needed for this change to happen.

Is that encouraging the current system ? I don’t think so. Going along with the rules is not giving up. It just means you need to respect the system in place if you ambition to change it.

Agile explained in 3 paragraphs

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I said earlier (in french) that being able to explain agile in any time frame from 1 minute to 2 hours is a key to agile adoption. Sometimes it’s also in a written manner. As years goes by I have stacked some short descriptions of agile I use here and there or rewrite.
Here’s a 3 paragraph explanation I wrote for a client’s HR division, whose people had no knowledge in software development. Feel free to reuse / modify / share.

Iterative implementation
In a classic waterfall development process, the software is exhaustively described, then developed at once, then validated.
Every evolution during the project disrupt the schedule. In agile development, features are added little by little up to the wished goal, refining requirements and validating as implementation goes on. This approach enable innovating during the project, and shortens the time between idea and implementation.
For agile mode to work, the implementation organisation must remain stable : a dedicated team, stable over time ; fixed-duration iterations (one or two weeks) ; and a regular work rhythm.

The agile team
Maximum proximity of all contributors is seeked as to benefit from face-to-face communication and the best emulation possible. Through specific meeting rules and visual management, shared responsibility and self-organisation are encouraged : success is everyone’s business, and the team operates day-to-day the way that seems relevant to it.
3 roles are distinguished in agile :
– the product owner (*) defines thinly the functionalities and their relative priority of implementation
– developers are in charge of end-to-end implementation
– the facilitator run the meetings and watch after the team dynamic. This role is endorsed by either a developer or the technical manager (**).

Handling risks and work pace
Progress indicators and risk indicators are evaluated by the contributors of the project themselves. With ground people driving the project, incident and delays are detected earlier, enabling structural decision to be taken by the top management soon enough, thus reducing further rush hours. (***)

(*) I used in fact « responsable produit », french translation of « product manager », a term more suited to the client’s usual terminology. The intended receivers weren’t about to run projects themselves so I choose not parasite their understanding with our agile-specific metaphor
(**) This organisation used to put apart technical people from business one. Coaching some of the technical managers into becoming agile facilitators of their team, aka Scrum Masters, was a choice we had made in this particular organisation.
(***) … Which was a way to tell the HR that a more efficient project management, i.e. Agile, enabled a healthier way of working

My meeting attender manifesto : be useful or don’t be

Proclaiming that meetings are evil is common these days. I’m rather part of the people who proclaim that meetings are useful and precious but expensive. Meaningless and inefficient meetings are evil. There are plenty of advice around on how to run efficient meetings, like setting up agendas, protocols and decision report. After trying to bring these practices to various clients, I find this group approach too slow, it does not spread fast enough.

Why not starting by working on our own individual behavior ? More precisely : our will to be useful in meetings. Not having meetings useful for us, no, the other way around. As to support this statement you could for example

  • decline the invitation if you don’t expect to be useful
  • get out if you think you are not useful
  • when in doubt, ask if you will be, otherwise leave
  • leave in the middle of the meeting if need be
  • ask to bring the items you’re useful for on top of the agenda
  • delegate if you are not available

It doesn’t mean you will go to less meetings. You can go there differently, learn to improve your usefulness, even if your involvement to the subject is low. Like

  • ask for a wrap up of the further discussion if you’ve lost the point, offer your wrap up if no one answers
  • ask candid question
  • ask quiet attenders for their opinion when a conversation gets stuck
  • bring out new perspective through suggestion
  • propose various way of deciding
  • start making a drawing or give a pen to someone
  • follow the time and make time announcement
  • ask for the agenda and purpose of the meeting if unclear
  • go write key points and decisions on a paperboard
  • show a good mood and a comforting smile

You can also ask yourself if you are still useful if

  • you will bring no difference in opinion, position, perspective, culture from the other attendees, at least regarding the agenda
  • you just want to be kept informed
  • you need to see someone you know will be there
  • you will hide your disagreement
  • you chit-chat and whisper with your neighbors
  • you will check your emails

A set of tricky questions

  • What if I’m not concerned at all ? Facilitators and role models are useful. Ask if one is needed. Otherwise decline.
  • What if I just care and want to bring my support ? This is a wonderful motivation. Now show your support even more by trying to be useful.
  • Who cares if I’m not useful ? Your silent presence distracts others from feeling committed to the usefulness of the meeting. By the way, don’t you have anything else to do ?

Now the last question will draw the conclusion. What about the others ? What can I do to have the others follow the same path ? I don’t want to be alone driving things forward.

Don’t distract yourself teaching others. Focus on yourself. Your own attention to be useful (or moving out of the way) will inspire others.