Change. Chapter 6. Leadership

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“It is absurd that a person should rule others, who cannot rule themself.”
— Latin Proverb

Writing about Leadership in a single chapter is a brave endeavour. It would be hard enough to encapsulate everything worth saying about Leadership in a single book, however I will condense the key factors that are needed by the greatest number of people to lead others working towards agility.

Leadership

Leadership can also be seen as a series of events rather than a role. A leader could then alternatively be described as someone who frequently does ‘acts of leadership’.

Whichever way one sees it, it is people doing these events and the events that people do depend on their inner workings, beliefs and experience, the culture they are in, and the meaning made from available information.

Process of working with leaders

We never get involved with bottom-up transformations or the so-called ‘Agility by stealth’.

Newton’s Cradle — working with vertical slices of the organisation

My friend Jonathan Smart gives a simile using Newton’s Cradle to describe the way we descale an organisation, form Real Teams, and teach and coach leadership, is a vertical slice from top to bottom aligned with the product teams from the perspective of the customer.

In practice, we start training and coaching the most senior leaders and work downwards by product or real team. In most cases, this starts with the board of directors.

Be aware of your limits

This might seem obvious, but many coaches think they can make an incredible organisation if only leaders would listen to them. This is a perfect example of a coach who is using their own will over others to get what they perceive to be best. This is exactly what most leaders are doing that the coach wants to change. This is an example of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

Coaches and Transformational Leaders must live the way they want the world to be and lead by example.

Leadership enablement

The three beliefs need to be held on a deep level. The third belief of relentless improvement also applies to self-development. Craig Larman, at the LESS conference in Amsterdam in December 2020 postulates the idea that effectiveness is not what you know or even how fast you can adapt, but how fast you can learn new things.

I go one step further to say that effectiveness is how fast you can make meaning. This is the first place we start; A good Enterprise Coach helps Leaders at all levels to learn faster, learn the right things, and co-create the right meanings to take effective action.

Enabling the co-creation of meaning requires building the right environment for meaning to emerge collectively and letting go of trying to control the outcome.

The current state of leadership

Adult leadership development is also reasonably well documented. However, there is rarely any educational structure in place to allow us to develop past a certain age and point of complexity. Most leader’s personal development has stalled and remains static as time pressures and other priorities take over. This has become a real problem as there are not enough people who are able to solve today’s problems.

There have been various attempts to uncover models of adult development. Bill Torbert gives us one model in his book Action Inquiry, that adds competencies in what he calls ‘Action Logics’.

This table lists 4 of the most relevant Action Logics and the corresponding traits and how many leaders operate from these archetypes. To lead successfully with agility, it is necessary to have developed the Transformer Leadership Archetype.

Torbert’s Leadership Archetypes — only the Transformer Leader is able to lead effectively using agility

Torbert and other models often use a linear or stage-gate model of progression. I do not like level-based hierarchy models of development because they create judgement, inequality, and are less useful. I don’t believe life works in that way.

I prefer a much simpler model. Instead of building blocks on top of the other in a staged progression, I like to think of Action Logics like apps we can download on our phones. If you do the internal work, you gain competency and you can use whatever you have installed.

Wolfgang Hilpert gives another useful metaphor. Archetypes can be thought of as keys. Each one unlocks certain benefits and comes with it certain limitations.

Assessing a leader’s (and your own) capability

Other appropriate assessments are the Leadership Circle 360. The 360 gives insight into strengths and growth areas and interestingly can be mapped onto the likely culture that the leader will manifest based on their current self-development.

Both assessments give the coach and the leader clear areas of improvement to work on. These improvements are sorely needed in almost all cases. According to five different sources, Gartner Group, McKinsey, Bain, IBM, and HBR, 70% of agile transformations fail to bring about the changes that were required.

The Business Agility Institute cites the reasons for failure in order of importance as Lack of correct Leadership Style, Lack of the Agile Mindset, Organisations structured in silos, Lack of sponsorship, and the wrong organisational culture.

Global statistics — how well are we doing?

It is no wonder then that 70% of agile transformations fail. It is surprising, given where most leaders are operating from, that at least another 25% don’t fail too.

The big question

“People love change, but they hate being changed.”

On every training course we run, we get the same question. “How do we make leaders do X, Y, or Z?”. This question has variations such as ‘How do I sell my idea?”, “Why don’t leaders get it?” etc.

My response has always been the same. Trying to change others is never the right place to start. We must first look at ourselves and examine our own agenda and motives. When we stop pushing, we stop getting resistance.

Asking permission and then holding a mirror up so that the leader can see clearly how their own actions and behaviours are impacting their own goals is the primary focus of coaching. This is by far the most effective way to help others.

What if you don’t get permission? What if leaders don’t want coaching?

Another technique, that I will focus on for the rest of this chapter, is providing leaders with the right type of facilitated activity to allow them to gain the experience and insight needed to grow.

We will grow appropriate leadership capability through two different lenses; firstly, grouped by leadership archetype and then through the lens of the first two Agile Mindset beliefs.

Lens 1: Tables of leadership traits and techniques used to help them

I have grouped leadership traits together using two of Torbert’s archetypes as this can give you, the reader, an additional source of reflection and further reading. About 80% of all leaders fall into these two archetypes. I briefly describe these now. Understanding the rest of Torbert’s model is not needed to make use of this chapter.

Expert Leader Architype

Experts find it hard to let go of needing to be right, they often get buried in the detail, find it hard to delegate, and have a planning view of a few months. They can be overly critical of themselves and others and will only take feedback from other objective acknowledged craft masters.

Achiever Leader Architype

Achievers are better at taking feedback, although often this feedback can only be accepted if it fits within the Achievers existing established scheme of things or it will be rejected. This is generally the case for most solutions as well. New ideas must fit into their existing view of the world.

They are time-driven, feel like they are initiators and not pawns, are demanding of effective and timely results and can feel guilty if they do meet up to their own standards.

Mapping observable traits to practical exercises to achieve desired outcomes

Practical Applications to help the Expert Leader Archetype

Moving beyond the Expert archetype is necessary for any leader to achieve success with agility. In summary, the Expert

  • can benefit by looking less at the detail and small picture and instead focus on the larger strategic view.
  • would benefit from finding their confidence and status in other things than being right, the best, or having the latest information.
  • must relinquish control and allow others to shine, even if they are perceived as not as good as the Expert themselves.
Practical Applications to help the Achiever Leader Archetype

Moving beyond the Achiever archetype is necessary for any leader to achieve success with agility. In summary, the Achiever:

  • would benefit from slowing down to go faster
  • moving from output-based operational strategy to outcome-based strategy and vision
  • making the most of diversity and including more people and focusing on the relationships over results.

Lens 2: Helping leaders through the Agile Mindset

The fear of uncertainty and unpredictability

“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Most people prefer to make a bad decision than remain in uncertainty

The first agile mindset belief is about complexity and uncertainty. Believing that the world is predictable has many consequences for the leader who lives in an unpredictable world. Not many of them are good.

Antifragility

Organisational Agility should give us antifragility, but how can this possibly happen if leaders operate as if things are predictable from the outset? Predictability leads to codifying repeatability into our processes, structures, decisions, reporting, and expectations on staff. This provides efficiency but produces rigidity. The opposite of antifragility.

This belief in complexity and unpredictability is the first agile mindset belief for a reason. The lack of this belief is behind almost every problem that organisations face.

Impact on organisational structure

The result of these structures is that they lock-in huge amounts of work in progress, loss of quality, and lack of ownership that make it impossible for organisations to change direction without huge loss of work and money. When significant changes happen, organisations are ill-equipped to deal with it. They are fragile. This is the current state of almost every large organisation on the planet.

Impact on trust and collaboration

When senior management believe in the ‘analyse, plan, develop, test, deliver’ cycle and apply this to non-predictable problems such as software development, they will most likely be sorely disappointed with the results. This disappointment creates rifts in many organisations with a ‘them and us’ mentality and finger-pointing that implies blame and incompetency.

I have seen Project Managers reduced to tears with a Senior Manager shouting at them for not getting products delivered in the right order and not as fast as promised. Instead of looking to improve their understanding of software development and challenging their belief in predictability, many managers push harder, often looking for the person or team that failed to analyse, plan, or test properly.

This shows a total lack of understanding of complex systems, product development, and how people in knowledge work thrive, and it all stems for this simple belief. It amazes me how we can still have senior managers in software companies that do not yet realise this.

Working with leaders in unpredictable domains who want predictability

In chapter 4 we took a deep dive into how we have evolved over the last 600 years and discovered that the evolution of consciousness from independence to interdependence is required for agility to work.

Unfortunately, many leaders do not have the skills to look inwards and even less time and inclination to do so. Fear not! There are externally tangible techniques we can use to move things forwards.

Professional mask

An Expert leader overly values other experts, and this creates a culture where everyone needs to at least look like an expert to be accepted and succeed. In a culture led by both Expert and Achiever leaders, failure is not an option, and this creates the need for everyone to look successful, not run experiments, and report every status as GREEN until we can’t pretend anymore and then everything goes RED!

The first step in removing the professional mask is to fix up your own insecurity and find a place of equality with others that is not driven by the need to be seen as professional and successful. That should be a given. Real success comes from solid relationships where we stand by each other no matter what and figure things out together.

You can achieve this by appreciating and growing the parts of you that build good relationships and put them to practice. Focus on the long-term outcomes and build a network of people to help get you there. You cannot grow leaders beyond that which you have achieved yourself!

The long-term game

The Expert and Achiever tend to play the finite game. This is not surprising as we are programmed to play our lives this way since school. We are taught the end is our exam results. Most people do not do much self-development since formal education and so still operate in the same way.

Example: I see teams working all night and at the last minute to get their product feature over the line to the client and then the next day they start the next feature without any assessment of the impact or outcomes of the previous ones. This is a clear sign that the leadership are operating from the Expert or Achiever mindset.

All leaders who want to embrace agility must play the infinite game and grow beyond the Expert architype. The Expert mindset limits an organisation because it inhibits team ownership, diverse collaboration, open inclusive discussion, and creates a culture of having to be right. None of these things allow us to succeed in complex environments.

To move beyond the Expert and Achiever leadership style, leaders can embrace longer term strategy based around a solid vision and clear outcomes. The objective is to iterate towards a vision using adaptive strategy that keeps us in the game. Only operating the Expert or Achiever mindset is unlikely to allow the creation of a motivating vision, however, you can build workshops around this to help pull leaders out of short term, detail led, and output focused thinking.

What got you here won’t get you there

Changing the reward structure is essential if you are working in a culture that rewards the very behaviours we are trying to move away from.

Are you working in a culture that cheers and rewards individuals for staying up late to get the feature out to the client on time? Then how are we going to encourage investment into sustainable delivery?

Are you working in an industry that rewards individuals based on their performance over others? Then how are we going to promote large scale collaboration, teamwork, and whole product ownership?

Have you got to where you are by doing whatever it takes to succeed? Then how are you going to find a work-life balance and include others who don’t feel the same way about work as you do?

The strengths in one context can be the very thing that holds you back in another.

A personal story

Through hours of meditation and yoga I focused on what was inside me. Allowing me to see who I truly was. Through this period of noticing and just being, I found a deep connection to the divine. In this connection I found great peace and knowledge that I am looked after by the universe. I call it the universe or profound love, or sometimes god, but not in the sense of religion or a separate entity. It is the universal system of balance and harmony. Tuning in and adapting to the outside world is to accept that we all belong in a great systemic web. Every organism must adapt to its surrounding or die.

I started to rely more on this sense of harmony in the greater world than on my own sense of separate will and my individualist ability to get things done. I eventually allowed myself to let go of the very thing that had given me all my success so far — my fierce belief in myself.

As soon as I did, my world opened like a flower, and I could finally build the professional relationships I needed to move forwards. I feel connected and ‘in flow’.

I am now eternally grateful for the universal love that guides what I do, and I am no longer able to take all the credit for my work. My work is the gift from the universal balance that moves through me as I tune in to it and allow my day to day to reflect on what needs to be said or done.

I get a huge amount of certainty from this connection and this allows me to live in uncertainty in my day to day.

Inner work

Where there is no vision, the people perish. — Proverbs 29:18

Instead of the eternal battle of good over evil made popular by the religions of the dependent age and Hollywood films, I see life in a constant battle with entropy. The universe tends to disorder whilst life is constantly creating ever more complex forms of order.

All fear can be boiled down to fear of disorder. This could be disorder of the body as we grow old and die, disorder of a failed project, or disorder of conflict. Uncertainty is the feeling we do not know which direction we are heading, either towards more complex order or towards chaos and disorder.

We can encourage leaders to find a sense of certainty in higher and higher scope and this allows the leader to be more comfortable in uncertainty in the lower scope. For example, we can increase the probability of leaders embracing unpredictability at the operational level by creating predictability at the strategic level, and likewise, unpredictability at the strategic level can be countered by predictability and belief in the vision.

Ultimately, if one can find a sense of predictability and certainty in the flow of death and life and the overall universal feeling of love and joy, this will allow one to relax into chaos and uncertainty in many areas of life and use the appropriate tools to make these areas antifragile and use agility to benefit and prosper.

This is the journey leaders must go on if they wish to open their transformation abilities and move beyond the Expert and Achiever mindsets.

The shadow of individualism and willpower when used alone

The Age of Independence celebrated our individualistic mind over all else. The problem with willpower and intellect is that it takes enormous effort and requires a very narrow focus on success. This leaves the leader exhausted and wondering if any of it is really worth it.

Often this type of narrow focus leaves both the leader and the system in a worse state with unpredictable consequences even though the original goal may have been achieved.

In other words, there is a localised move towards order but a systemic move towards greater entropy and chaos.

For example, many successful leaders who use willpower or ‘being the best’ as their main tool for success, end up never seeing their children, have a string of broken marriages and are out of balance with their physical or mental health, as well as alienating their team members and isolating themselves from others, cutting off their ability to tune in and adapt.

The Expert and Achiever blockers to wider success

Often Expert and Achiever leaders tend to create anxiety and conflict among others. This can lead to blaming behaviours and a self-reinforcing loop of blame, feeling better than others, pushing others away or disempowering them, and then seeing worse results because of this. This results in more blaming and the cycle repeats.

A downward spiral that stops agility that is created by the need for certainty in an uncertain world

Cycle that stops leaders and their teams from performing well

Unfortunately, the final blow to leaders using the Expert or Achiever mindset who use willpower as their primary tool leave the underlying system and ways of working unchanged. Real change comes from empowered workers and changing beliefs. The Expert leader does nothing to empower others, encourage ownership, or remove disempowering beliefs. The Achiever leader does nothing to challenge existing belief models or move towards outcome over output.

Moving beyond the Expert and Achiever archetypes to embrace uncertainty and complexity

The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground. — Sir Winston Churchill

For agility to work there must be people who work on the business rather than in the business. These are the people who facilitate and coach the best working environment possible for those who are producing stakeholder value.

How good an organisation is at producing value depends entirely on how capable those that build the environment for success are. Their capability depends entirely on their mindset and belief system.

Triple loop learning applied to product and service development

We use this model of triple-loop learning applied to organisational vision, strategy, and operations.

We use this model to plan workshops and training for leaders who need to increase the scope of the attention. Expert leaders are usually focused on operations and Achievers are usually focused on the outputs of strategy.

Our job is to invite them to raise the scope of their focus and find certainty in the vision and outcome-based strategy (not output) areas and create environments for others to thrive in the uncertainty at the operations scope.

Step by step — not too fast

I have often fallen into the trap of running vision workshops expecting leaders to be enthused and excited to create the ‘why’ of their business and to excite others, only to find impatient groups looking to get on with the ‘real work’ of getting things done.

When this happens, instead of jumping into vision, I encourage leaders to focus on creating outcome-based strategy. After all, racing ahead only to find you have gone off a cliff will benefit no-one.

As a coach, I slowly over time help leaders to feel more comfortable with outcome-based strategy, motivating visions, and creating environments where results emerge rather than trying to control outcomes and results directly.

Tip

Many organisations have tracking tools that require feature or task-based objectives for the quarter or year. Often these are linked to headcount and budget allocations. At the end of the year, these are reviewed to see which ones were completed and which were not. I encourage leaders to complete these with open-ended outcome statements rather than closed feature or specific tasks. This raises the level of measurement to strategic aims rather than work done.

Breaking the downward cycle of control and competition

Breaking the cycle requires leaders to embrace outcomes over outputs and apply strategy and vision

Once a leader can let go of needing certainty and predictability at the operations level, they are able to embrace the Agile Mindset belief in non-predictable problem domains and work towards creating the best environment for others to emerge the right solutions. Leaders focus on outcome-based strategic work to fulfil the vision.

The people belief for leaders

Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. — Jack Welch

Raising leadership focus out of operations and into vision and strategy was the first step. Now leaders can work on leveraging the power of people.

The role of management changes into leadership when there is a re-focusing on vision and strategy and then creating the right environment for others to learn, innovate, and deliver.

I rarely see senior executives with the ability to do this and now we are asking the entire organisation to distribute leadership appropriately to enable local decision making and ownership. This is not going to work.

Instead of leadership programs provided across the organisation, it is more effective if we start at the top and work downwards by product line. (See Newtons Cradle above). Senior leaders can act as coaches and mentors to those below them. Product line by product line, leaders can create safe spaces for Real Teams to emerge. Real Teams are discussed in the next chapter.

Creating the right environment means to effectively create a compelling vision with an executable outcome-based strategy AND an environment where people feel they want to work together to figure out the best ways operationally of achieving that strategy and turning the outcomes into outputs.

The role of leadership is to create the environment for success

Leaders create excitement, empowerment, direction, and provide appropriate constraints for staff to learn, innovate, feedback on strategic outcomes and vision, and deliver products and services accordingly.

Mapping to complexity jargon and the AWA playbook.

In the playbook, we start with leadership, align everyone around pressure from the market and the current state. We upgrade the capability of leadership and focus everyone on vision and strategic outcomes.

Leaders then build the right environment for Real Teams to emerge and for the teams to experiment with risk appropriate and measured changes.

Inner work for leaders

Privilege and bias

I have found it incredibly useful for leaders to list every benefit or privilege they think they have and to consider how they would get by if they didn’t have it. This is a sharp focus on what type of environment they need to build for people who don’t have those abilities or background that perhaps were assumed attributes beforehand.

I invite and advise you to do this too.

Defensive, abusive, and reactive behaviours

As the market environment changes rapidly and the level of complexity has risen, knowledge workers have taken centre stage in dealing with that complexity with evermore deeper and deeper domain expertise. As projects and product development teams have gotten larger with more and more people, our existing organisational structures for alignment, risk management, and delivery have become insufficient. The tendency to want to centrally control growth, processes, and risk management, have hindered our ability to use distributed staff to handle complexity.

To counter this ever-increasing complexity and number of people, we must leverage a new form of collaboration that includes everyone who has a piece of the complex knowledge jigsaw. Including everyone has challenges for both the Expert and Achiever archetype because both naturally get along with those similar to themselves and struggle to include difference.

A necessary step then, for leaders looking to grow, is to face these inner ‘edges’ of discomfort when dealing with people or situations that are not familiar.

It is now necessary to have facilitated sessions where everyone can emerge the next steps together. This will bring up considerations that might make leaders feel uncomfortable. Leaders must find their strength in their vision and strategy work and find a way to listen and include all the diverse opinions such that the business objectives can be achieved without causing more chaos.

Speed and direction

Achiever Leaders must balance their need for speed with the very real need to include everyone and meet outcomes with the least work and risk. Outcomes-based strategies work well for this, and the Achiever can focus their ability on creating the best strategies by including everyone as fast as possible!

Problems into desired outcomes

Help Leaders to go from Problem to Desired Outcomes and then they ask for help to create solutions. Facilitated workshops can then provide a co-creation of experiments to emerge solutions that leverage the diversity of different opinions.

Being able to hold multiple opposing views

Another characteristic of a leader who can succeed in complex adaptive environments is to be able to hold the space for multiple viewpoints, even if those viewpoints oppose each other. There are lots of healthy tensions in an organisation and a leader who wants to succeed with agility will need to relax their own need for the one right answer and be able to hold multiple truths both within themselves and within the organisation.

Examples of these dualities under dynamic tension fall into these two categories, ones that the leader must deal with internally and ones that the organisation must deal with.

Personal duality dynamics:

  • Challenge vs support
  • Honest expression vs diplomacy
  • Task focused vs relationship focused
  • Thinking things through vs decisive action
  • Controlling the outcome vs building an environment of success

Organisational duality dynamics:

  • Centralised coordination vs decentralised or self-organising
  • Keeping the lights on vs new product innovation
  • Short term vs long term strategy
  • Getting work done quickly vs getting the right work done
  • Working for a purpose vs making money
  • Working from home vs all being together

Sometimes these dualities align and sometimes they do not. There is no right answer and often tenuous and temporary balances can be formed that need constant care and revision to maintain a financially and emotionally stable business.

Drawing duality lines and having conversations about where the current situation lies and where that is helping or hindering at any given moment can help.

Asking for help

Leaders can observe the difference in ownership and response when then they tell versus when they ask. You can create a series of activities around this.

Designing leadership development programs

We have found that leaders who are pushed into development often resist it. No one can be made to do self-development. Also, telling leaders about self-development theory and how they should be developing based on the theory also doesn’t work.

Those leaders that are interested and want to grow, need at least three things to be present in the training, these are:

  1. To experience why and how much self-development is needed.
  2. To experience ‘sensing’. Leaders need to be exposed to multiple and often contradictory viewpoints and learn how to deal with this emotionally and systemically.
  3. To be able to collectively sense-make from their ‘sensing’ data and create measurable experiments based on interdependent and systems awareness.

Without these 3 things, even though the leaders might love the course, little will change.

At AWA, we run training and cohort programs for leaders, you can request information about the leadership programs via the AWA website.

Summary on leading with agility

I have captured the most important elements I believe are lacking in today’s managers and leaders (94–95%) that are stopping agility from working. I have focused on the majority of leaders (80%) and the problems they face when they are operating from the Expert and Achiever archetype.

Through the lens of the Agile Mindset, we can see leaders need to embrace uncertainty and unpredictability by focusing on high scope learning (outcome-based strategy and vision) and to create environments where others can thrive and grow rather than controlling and forcing.

And finally, an organisations capability is limited by the capability of its leaders, and a coach’s ability is limited by the coaches operating model. In both cases, it is the inner work of removing emotional and limited belief blockers that will enable growth.

CEO and Founder of the community of practice, training, and coaching company: Adventures with Agile.