Sort It Yourself Please

This article is the final part of this 12-part series featuring snippets from my book, The Agile Secret.

I don’t know about you, but when I look around my team I see a wide variety of individuals, each with different strengths.

Every individual has the capacity to lead, and at various moments, we all do. Psychological theory breaks down aspects of personality in one of two ways:

  • “Type” is considered an unchangeable dimension of personality with varying strength
  • “Trait” is a set of behaviours on a spectrum

There is no leadership type. Context, team composition, history and relationship strength all influence who is able to lead. A drawback with “type” approach to personality is the identity labels. Even the MBTI that proudly labels me as an extrovert acknowledges that I get a score on the introvert spectrum too. We all have the ability to lead. The captaincy can be shared. To what extent then does making “leader” an identity label help? Imagine a team of ten people with a random composition of corporate people. It’s likely that one or two characters have the natural disposition to take charge of the group. But what happens if we remove those people?

Time and again in my experience of the situation described above (we use it on leadership trainings), the group function improves as a result of removing the so-called leaders. Something in the dominant behaviour of these individuals diminishes other people’s powers. So often the group function diminishes when someone takes the lead. What’s going on? Self-organising teams are powerful. Very powerful. The unintended consequence of some leadership behaviour is that it blocks leading from others. It takes a great deal of self-awareness and attention to lead in a way that increases leading in others.

How do we do it?

Here are some tips:

  1. Keep saying it
    Communication, communication, communication.
  2. We want a team of leaders
    This is an all-play environment. We encourage initiative at every level, “I think you can handle this on your own” etc. Pick a few mantras and repeat it as frequently as Eurosport encourages me to purchase a Bora cooker extractor.
  3. Push down responsibility
    Allow all team members to lead various aspects of the organisation. Share out the leading jobs. Allow junior staff to lead projects and have experienced staff work for them on the project without changing who is responsible.
  4. Recognise leading
    Positively reinforce leading behaviours. When people take initiative make a point of thanking them. Our recent placement student left wearing a captain’s armband. A sign that we saw him leading in several areas.
  5. Challenge senior people to delegate in bigger chunks
    Why delegate a task when we can delegate the whole project? Do we really need to be involved in this? Big-chunk delegation makes it easier provided relationships are strong enough to offer support when any issues arise.
  6. Hire for attitude
    We may have to fire a couple of people to make space. But always, always, always (always) ensure attitude is the primary focus of the hiring process. Yes, their CV is extensive. Yes, they have done similar roles elsewhere. But anything less than a brilliant attitude dilutes the whole team. Find people who love leading. And hire them.

How to lead self-organising teams

Recently I faced two challenging situations. Partly because each (IMHO) required different strategies for leadership.

  • Scenario one was primarily a request for direction regarding team function and internal practice
  • Scenario two was a discussion about a piece of client work

How did I lead in each of these scenarios?

The value of ambiguity

In scenario one, two of my colleagues wanted a decision made. It wasn’t a clear-cut decision and there was plenty of ambiguity.

I like ambiguity. Ambiguity demands each of us to think about the best thing to do. Ambiguity promotes critical thinking and principle-centred decision-making. But ambiguity is a hard master, demanding constant attention. Ambiguity does not allow us to relax into rules. It constantly agitates us.

My internal monologue was asking my colleagues, “Do you want me to tell you what to do?” That would have been massively the easiest thing to do. But, in order to reinforce the premise that “self-organising” teams outperform “leader-led” teams (which we have built our business on), my strategy in this interaction was this: Let them work it out. Sometimes my job is to abdicate, disappear and decline.

Intrusive leadership

In scenario two, four of us were debating the optimum strategy for a client project. The Interactive Workshops crew is a highly intelligent community that is good at intellectual debate. This ten-minute discussion went on for two hours, spanning both a meeting room and, when we got booted out of there, the kitchen. The crux of our debate was this: To what extent to do we want to get into conflict with the client. This can be one of the trickiest aspects of consulting.

The debate raised a moral dilemma. The client asks for X, to achieve Y. But will X actually work? And will it achieve Y? What would you do? We can’t ignore that money is a factor here. We could get paid to make X. We could make profit from making X. But what if we do it believing that X may not work, and that it won’t achieve Y? In this case, intrusive leadership was required. Forcing a debate. Forcing tough conversation and difficult questions. Yet, where possible, still not directing leadership. I wanted to lead my team to clarity; I didn’t want to tell them what to do. This kind of leadership is more akin to academic debate or philosophical questioning. Jointly we came to some pretty cool strategies to work with the client to take the project to the next step. I think we were all happy with the outcome.

The analogy

In chess, one way to win is to offer your opponent bait. Sacrificing a piece, say your queen’s pawn, that, when taken, sets in motion a chain of events and ultimately leads to your victory. The counter strategy by players who spot and resist the bait would be known as “queen’s pawn declined”.

Often, we can decline requests for leadership as part of a clear strategy. It may involve some “short term pain for long term gain”. But, if we want a team full of leading, it’s a strategy we will want to master. And this style of leadership is not an easy path. It’s a daily choice.


Now download the full ebook of The Agile Secret on Amazon Kindle here.