How to Avoid a Self-Organizing Train Wreck

October 12, 2010

In my last post, I noted that most businesses have a heavy bias towards planning and execution, and that learning isn’t really a part of the business psyche. I also stated that it is poor execution on management’s part to stand idly by while watching a team as it runs straight into a brick wall and fail miserably.

As a manager involved with Agile teams that are supposed to be autonomous and self-organizing, is there a single, RIGHT way to manage? Is there a checklist that we can use?

The answer to both questions is: No. My rationale centers around optimal (not flawless) execution. And optimal execution for one team will look completely different for another team because the mix of engagement, skills, strengths, and preferences of the individuals involved vary.

The first step is on management. Make sure that you understand where your people and teams are at, and adjust your leadership style accordingly.

The book Great Business Teams recommends selecting a leadership style based on the level of engagement and skill set:

ENAGAGEMENT: An individual’s commitment to being a team player, his or her willingness to take ownership of and be held accountable for the team’s success; his or her intention to embrace the attributes of high-performing teams.

SKILLS: The knowledge and skills an individual brings to a goal or task; education, experience, and/or ability; the individual’s appropriate utilization of his or her technical leadership, interpersonal, and strategic skills in the context of meeting performance goals.

Engagement and Skill Set Stage
Recommended Leader Behavior
Low level of engagement and/or skill set
Moderately low level of engagement and/or skill set
Moderately high level of engagement and/or skill set
High level of engagement and/or skill set

Where the leader behaviors are defined as:

Prescribing/Directing: Telling players the what, where, when, and how of an issue.
Coaching/Instructing: De-emphasizing the how in favor of the why.
Coordinating/Partnering: Working alongside the players.
Inspiring/Empowering: Allowing team members to run with the ball.

The next step is on the individuals who are on the teams.

The notion of “blaming the people instead of the process” when things go wrong certainly raises blood pressures in many of us (rightly so when blame is being placed), but there are times when people and teams bypass critical learning steps. So don't take it as indictment from me, but simply an observation.

Sometimes people choose to eliminate certain things that are important, clinging to old patterns when they should let go. Other times people judge new concepts – without trying the concept – through the lens of their own experience, keeping their minds closed to new possibilities.

Before rejecting something, it is important to absorb what IT is. Lyssa Adkins outlined how martial arts students progress through three stages of proficiency in her book, Coachng Agile Teams. The three stages are called: Shu Ha Ri.

Shu: “Follow the rule.” A student should copy the techniques without modification and without yet attempting to understand the rationale behind them. This stresses the basics in an uncompromising fashion so that the student has a solid foundation for future learning and breaks people out of their existing well-worm patterns.

Ha: “Break the rule.” As a student reflects on the truth of everything, the student comes to a deeper understanding of the art than pure repetitive practice can allow. The student can now instruct others as an additional way to advance their own practices. In the quest of the advance, individuality will emerge. While breaking free, the student carefully upholds the principles underlying the practice.

Ri: “Be the rule.” The moves become a part of the student. “There are no techniques…all moves are natural.” At this point, a student can replace a technique with something else, but the replacement technique still achieves the principle of the original technique.

The lessons are simple: As managers, we need to adapt our leadership style based on the expertise and abilities of our people and teams. And for those who are learning and applying their learning, don’t start modifying anything until you’ve put something into practice and spent time reflecting on what the practice is and why it works. Understand the principle that the practice is addressing. This puts you on the path to building expertise. And you will avoid looking past the very things that can help make you successful.