Category Archives: Values of Agile Leadership

Some surprising truths about admitting to our mistakes

Is playing the blame game really necessary?

It takes courage and humility to admit when we are wrong or that we have been the cause of some upset.  So is it a lack of courage or personal pride that keeps leaders from admitting they were wrong or made a mistake?  Argyris, in his book overcoming organisational defenses (1990), suggests that what is really going on with leaders is that they are engaged in a game of saving face or to put it another way avoiding embarrassment.  This behaviour is extremely dysfunctional on so many levels.

Firstly, if the reasons for the failure are not attributable to ourselves and we engage in a witch-hunt to find the “culprit”; this activity distracts us away from discovering and subsequently solving the root cause of the problem.  As a result we may become more concerned with dishing out justice rather than engaging in an activity of learning.

Secondly, if we go about looking for the “culprit” we are subconsciously saying that the problem was out of our control.  A recent example of this can be found in the banking crisis where the fault was identified as “too many people defaulting on their mortgage payments” rather than accept the responsibility that maybe is was risky lending practices that was the true root cause.  This is damaging because what we are saying to our stakeholders (shareholders, employees or otherwise) is that we are not in control.  This has a knock on effect of damaging the trust that is placed in an organisation’s leadership.  It may also indicate to our stakeholders that we lack capability, which is quite ironic because the reason for looking for a scapegoat is to demonstrate that we are capable and “… if it wasn’t for so-and-so this wouldn’t have happened.”

If we don’t play the blame game – then what?

The blame game is really quite a pointless activity on so many levels because if we truly understand the root causes of our organisational failures we would quickly discover that rarely is one individual or department solely to blame for a mistake.  The failures tend to be systemic ones rather than truly simplistic cause and effect relationships.

So what is the solution instead of seeking out the culprit?  In my opinion it’s about looking within; either within ourselves or within our own department to understand how we might have contributed to the mistake.  If we were to make this the first part of the learning process it has all sorts of implicit and explicit benefits:

The benefits of admitting our mistakes

It demonstrates courage: Who doesn’t want to follow a brave and courageous leader? Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility as a leader takes extraordinary courage.  It also demonstrates humility and sets us apart from mediocre leadership where ego, looking good and believing in our infallibility are more important that the benefits we will accrue from learning from our mistakes.

It demonstrates our humanity: People are people so the cliché goes and as people we anticipate or expect people will make mistakes from time to time.  Admitting our own mistakes qualifies us as a member of the human race and it turn allows other people to step forward when they have made a mistake.

It sets an example for our followers: leading on from the previous point as leaders we need to be aware of the example that we are setting because our followers will in turn follow our example.  There is little stock placed in a leader who says one thing “we need to learn from our mistakes” and proceeds to cover up their mistakes maybe giving the message that they are either perfect (mistakes, what mistakes?) or that “the rules don’t count for me”.  If integrity, truth and honour are values of your organisation, then leading by example should be a behaviour that demonstrates that we are living our values not just espousing values that sound good.

It garners greater respect:  I am often amazed at the apparent lack of humility that leaders demonstrate.  Some organisational cultures value a more macho or machismo approach, but in the long run this does little to engender the respect and loyalty of the followers in that organisation.  Leaders who demonstrate humility and a willingness to accept responsibility as opposed to giving a bollocking to “wrong-doers” only serves to make people hide or cover-up their mistakes.  This also has an impact in that leaders are then unable to make a decision call to limit the damage or fall-out from unintentional mistakes often resulting in even greater damage being caused.  Admitting mistakes and learning from them separates extraordinary leaders from mediocre ones and earns the respect of our colleagues, families, friends and stakeholders.

It engenders more trusting relationships:  The traditional style of leadership may have perceived that it was a sign of weakness to admit our mistakes or shortcomings; instead it is now often seen as a sign of emotional maturity in our leaders when they hold themselves accountable rather than “passing the buck”.  This trust will in turn strengthen our relationships as our stakeholders will translate these actions into somebody who is honest and is worthy of our trust and loyalty.

It creates greater organisational value:  If shareholder value is of greater importance than say personal or organisational learning then the research carried out by Lee et al (2004) may be of interest to you.  The research carried out over a 20 year period indicates that investors and shareholders place a greater value on organisations that look to rectify their mistakes from within as opposed to blaming external factors.  Investors, unsurprisingly, place a greater value on leadership that assumes responsibility and control.

Conclusion

An Agile leader is a continually growing leader and one that continues to inspire their followers so if we are interested in creating an Agile organisation, one that holds continuous improvement and learning as a value, then admitting our mistakes is a key behaviour to promote growth.  It may not be easy at first as it will take courage and determination to overcome our defensive behaviours, but in the long run I believe the benefits are worth it.  Don’t you agree?

References:

Argyris, C. (1990), Overcoming Organisational Defences. Prentice Hall.  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Overcoming-Organizational-Defenses-Facilitating-Learning/dp/0205123384/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332407757&sr=8-1

Lee, F. et al (2004), Mea Culpa: Predicting Stock Prices From Organizational Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 2004 vol. 30 no. 12 1636-1649. http://psp.sagepub.com/content/30/12/1636.abstract

The Abilene Paradox – Saying Yes When We Really Mean No

Have you ever sat in a meeting or some other gathering where a decision is being made that you don’t particularly agree with.  You maybe heard one of your inner voices say “wait a minute – that doesn’t feel right”.  The group consensus appears to be saying “yes”, but then you maybe start to feel uncomfortable about being the sole voice who says “no”.

This is quite a common occurrence and is referred to as the Abilene Paradox, named by Dr Jerry Harvey.  Abilene is small town in Texas in the USA and is used as a metaphor to describe a destination to where all members of a family verbally agreed to travel, but internally they all have misgivings about going there.  The point is that as individuals we tend to mistakenly believe that our opinion is in the minority and as such we might not want to voice our opinion for fear that we might “rock the boat”.

Why bother?

Think about it for a moment, who wants to be the party pooper, the kill-joy being accused of not being a team player just because they have a different opinion.  It’s part of our human condition to want to be part of the group as Maslow identified in his hierarchy of needs, so why go to the bother of isolating ourselves when maybe if we kept our mouths shut  maybe things will work out OK in the end.

Of course this is not always the case because there are a few individuals in every organisation who have the courage of their convictions and do speak out.  However these Lightning Rods, as I refer to them because they take on the wrath of God or the leaders, tend to get a bit of a name for themselves and end up with limited career options.

Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict

Many management theorists talk about this particular problem as that of Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict.  The great thing about conflict is its visibility.  If we can see the conflict we can help to resolve or manage it.  But what about the false agreements that are made in organisations every day that may have widespread and long-lasting impacts.  People may mutter and grumble about “that’s the way things are around here” and may become very cynical about their ability to change opinions or reverse decisions.  This is why the Agile value of courage is most important in organisations, people do need to have the courage of their convictions to voice their opinions.

What’s the Solution?

Ultimately however, my belief is that the solution to this particular problem is a leadership one.  Leaders need to become more aware of the power of group dynamics and the effects that it has on the individuals in an organisation.  If leaders can find a way to allow true  dialogue in their organisation that encourages a spirit of inquiry in their teams and groups, this would allows differences of opinion to emerge and who knows how this may benefit everyone concerned.

Many leaders may be unaware of how they surround themselves with “yes -people” or how the power of their personality may overwhelm people to the point that others cannot provide the diversity opinions that may be needed for an organisation to break out of a slump or to make a meaningful difference in the marketplace.  All too often I have seen leaders become consumed with their own importance and lose sense of reality.  They may say that they value other peoples opinions but they may be quite shocked to discover that they have unwittingly given a covert message that disagreement will not be tolerated.  When that happens, very soon the organisation will suffer and so will its people.

Leaders – Be the Change

So if you are a leader reading this and you have decided to embrace an Agile culture in your organisation, please know that there will most likely be changes needed with you and other leaders in the organisation and not just the delivery teams and people in the front-line.  An Agile organisation requires a different form and style of leadership than a bureaucratic one.  As Gandhi famously said “Be the change”.

Something Agile Leaders can learn from Steve Jobs

Ok – maybe there are lots of things that Agile Leaders can learn from the  late Steve Jobs, but here is just one particular example.

Focus to bring business value …

Steve JobsIt is reported that when he returned to Apple in 1997 Steve Jobs reduced the number of Apple products from 350 down to just 10.  Why did he do this?  Surely a company would have more chance of penetrating the market with over three hundred products rather than just 10. Well, no.

One of the main values of Scrum is focus.  The creators of Scrum understood that there is only a certain amount of meaningful attention that an individual or a team can apply to a problem in any given time, otherwise the level of noise in the team just increases.  The same is true for organisations also where the cost of maintaining a product or service continues to demand attention long after the product has been created and delivered.

Focus as a cornerstone value for Agile business practice

One of the important things a leader must do in their organisation is to continue to critically appraise which products they want their teams to work on.  I was asked to by a senior manager in an organisation to sit in on their weekly review board and provide some Agile consulting to her and the other attendees.  I made an observation about the number of change projects that they had ongoing.  There were over fifty projects of varying sizes and complexity.  Her comment back to me was “well that’s what’s expected to be done around here”.  We had some more discussions on this point but in short the organisation continues to fail to meet all of its targets and is continually playing catch up on meeting its commitments with its clients.

Why wont leaders change?

There is a fear that prevails in many senior managers that they must be seen to be doing more, yet they will have heard the expression “less is more” but they will continue to respond to their fears rather than the needs of their customers. Customers may not often want more, but they do want quality.  This is why Apple excelled at what they did.  (I use the past tense because I’m sure there are many like me who are waiting to see if the Apple culture of creativity and quality will continue in the absence of one of the most inspired leaders the world has known.)

The solution …

Prioritise.  Again experience informs me that is an often uncomfortable conversation I have with senior managers who believe they want it all and they need it now.  I explain about focus and attention; I talk about sustained pace of the team; I implore on the basis of better quality and motivated teams;  but the justification that I am given is that they don’t want to fall behind the competition; or certain stakeholders will expect these features or changes or some other form of rationalisation that make their demands right.

In short by asking a senior manager to prioritise  I am asking them to take more time to think about where their priorities lie and as a result what they should focus on. But all too often it is easier to to put more pressure on the product delivery teams to deliver more and quicker.  This keeps the managers from making painful choices and having uncomfortable conversations that involve saying no to stakeholders.  This is not leading but passing the buck and the consequence of these types of decisions that put more pressure on the delivery teams is poor quality and as a result poor customer satisfaction.

Conclusion

It makes me wonder what would have happen if Steve Jobs would have allowed his executive team to continue working on over 300 different products.  Would we have ever seen the ipod, ipad, iphone or itunes? And if we did would we have seen lesser versions of these products that would have annoyed us?  In short there is much business sense in focusing our resources on doing a few things well rather than a lot things mediocre. Remember less really is more.

About the Author

Mark Buchan is an Agile consultant  with experience of delivering organisational transformation for his clients.  He has worked with organisations such as Rolls-Royce, Nokia, Bupa and BT.

You can view Mark’s profile on linked-in

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