Improving Team Performance – How Do You Improve Team Performance in a Project Environment?

A number of people have asked questions related to improving team performance. It takes some skill to do that – “How do you improve team performance in a project? 

Improve Team Performance

Improving Team Performance

How to Improve Team Performance

It is very common for project managers to over-manage teams and I think that is a mistake. A team is like a dynamic organism:

  • Rather than simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance, a better approach is to understand the dynamics of how a team performs. You can then work on the factors that impact improving performance
  • An even better approach is to help the team become self-organizing and take responsibility for improving their own performance

What is a Self-organizing Team?

Here’s a good definition of a self-organizing team from the Scrum Alliance web site:

“A group of motivated individuals, who work together toward a goal, have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands”

The diagram below shows a comparison of a traditional project team and a self-organizing team:

What is a Self-organizing Team

Does This Mean Abdicating all Responsibilities to the Team?

The principles behind empowered teams can be used in any project. It is just different levels of empowerment.  The diagram below shows a comparison of different levels of empowerment:

How Do You Improve Team Performance

Here’s a description of each of these levels:

LevelDescription
Manager-led TeamThe lowest level of empowerment is a “manager-led team”. In that environment, the only responsibility delegated to the team is for managing the execution of tasks that they are responsible for.
Self-governing TeamAt the other extreme is a “self-governing team” where the team takes complete responsibility for their operations including setting their own direction. It would be unlikely to find that level in a project team but you might find a senior management leadership team that operated that way.
The two levels below are more typically found in an Agile environment:
Self-managing TeamA “self-managing team” takes responsibility for monitoring and managing work process and progress.
Self-organizing TeamA “self-organizing team” goes beyond that and takes responsibility for designing the team including defining roles within the team and defining the organizational context of how the team operates.

An important point is that “self-organizing” does not mean that a team does not need any direction at all. Self-organizing teams should not be used as an excuse for anarchy.

What Are the Advantages of Empowered Teams?

There are a number of advantages of empowered teams:

  • Empowered teams more fully utilize the capabilities of the people on the team
  • They reduce the need for someone to directly manage all aspects of how the team operates
  • They improve team performance because the team takes more responsibility for managing its own performance
  • Team performance is more sustainable because the performance of the team is more self-correcting
  • It encourages creativity and innovation and enables the team to quickly adapt to new problems and challenges

Comparison of Agile and Plan-driven Approaches

There can be a big difference between an Agile environment and a traditional plan-driven environment.

1. Traditional Plan-driven Projects

In a traditional plan-driven project team, a Project Manager or Team Leader typically provides direction to the team:

  • The project manager is the one who is held responsible for the performance of the team and the results that they produce, and
  • Some level of control may be needed to manage conformance to the project plan

However, even in that kind of environment, it is essential to delegate some level of responsibility to the members of the team.

2. Agile Projects

In an Agile project,

  • There is a much higher level of emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than conformance to a plan
  • In that kind of environment, it is very important to fully empower all the members of the team to actively contribute to the solution as much as possible

In an Agile environment, there may not be a project manager involved at all at the team level:

  • If a project manager is involved at that level, he/she needs to be more of a coach to help the team improve its own performance.
  • However, there is no reason why the idea of empowered teams is limited to an Agile environment
  • The same ideas can be applied in a traditional plan-driven environment; however, it may involve somewhat less empowerment

Overall Summary

Project Managers have a tendency to over-manage the performance of teams because the perception is that is what a Project Manager or Team Leader is supposed to do.

  • However, in many cases, simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance may not be effective
  • A more proactive and more sustainable approach is to better understand how the team functions as a dynamic organism. You can then work on the factors that drive performance.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

What Is Servant Leadership and How Does It Relate to Agile?

“Servant Leadership” is a commonly-used term in an Agile environment. However, if you asked people what it means, I’m sure you would get a number of different responses. For that reason, I think it is worthwhile to discuss “What Is Servant Leadership?”

What is Servant Leadership?

What Is Servant Leadership?

“Servant leadership” sounds like a manager who does nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the Agile team. Is that what it really is? (I don’t think so). The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970 long before Agile came into being.   Here’s a definition of “servant leadership”:

“Servant leadership is characterized by leaders who put the needs of a group over their own. These leaders foster trust among employees by holding themselves accountable, helping others develop, showing appreciation, sharing power and listening without judging. While serving and leading seem like conflicting activities, these leaders are effective initiators of action.”

http://www.ehow.com/list_6753156_servant-leadership-games.html?ref=Track2&utm_source=IACB2B

A “servant leader” doesn’t necessarily completely abdicate the leadership role and do nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the team.  He/she recognizes the importance of working through others and engaging and empowering others to use as much of their own capabilities as possible.  Here’s an excellent quote on that:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong”

Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

What is Servant Leadership?

What Does it Really Mean to be a Servant Leader?

A major leadership principle that is applicable to any leadership role is that there is no single leadership style that works in all situations. A good leader should be capable of taking an adaptive and situational leadership approach that is appropriate to the people and the environment he/she is trying to lead.

With regard to servant leadership, the way the servant leader role is implemented will be very dependent on the capabilities of the Agile team you are leading and the environment you are part of. The goal should be to maximize the utilization of the capabilities of the entire team. However, that doesn’t mean a servant leader completely abdicates a leadership role and turns over all responsibility to the team. Determining the most effective servant leadership role requires some judgement:

  • If the team is very strong and very capable, the role of the servant leader may be limited to a facilitation role
  • If that is not the case, a more active leadership role may be needed by the servant leader

Basically, the servant leader needs to “fill the cracks” as much as possible to help the team become fully effective on their own.

Why Is This Important in Agile?

The idea of “servant leadership” is particularly important in an Agile environment because an Agile approach is best suited for projects with a high level of uncertainty.  In that kind of environment,

  • A lot of individual creativity may be needed to find an optimum solution and
  • Maximizing the creativity of the team requires that the team be empowered as much as possible.

It is basically a softer leadership style that puts an emphasis on empowering others over a more controlled approach.  It is ideal for a highly uncertain environment that requires an adaptive Agile approach.  Naturally, it probably would not be so ideal for a more plan-driven environment where conformance to a plan is important.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

What is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important?

I recently created a significant training module on Agile Leadership. One of the key topics in that module is “Emotional Intelligence”.  I’m sure some people are wondering “What is emotional intelligence and why is it important?”  I’d like to summarize some of that here.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

First, here’s a definition of “emotional intelligence”:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills:

  • “Emotional Awareness
  • The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and
  • The ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/emotional-intelligence

What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important?

Why Is It Important?

Emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills of an effective leader. The reason that emotional intelligence is so important to leadership is that if you can’t control your own emotions; it will be difficult, if not impossible to be an effective leader.

Here’s a quote that sums up the value of emotional intelligence very well:

“We probably also know people who are masters at managing their emotions. They don’t get angry in stressful situations. Instead, they have the ability to look at a problem and calmly find a solution. They’re excellent decision makers, and they know when to trust their intuition.

“Regardless of their strengths, however, they’re usually willing to look at themselves honestly. They take criticism well, and they know when to use it to improve their performance.”

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_59.htm

What Are the Benefits of Emotional Intelligence?

Here are some of the key benefits of developing emotional intelligence:

AreaImpact
Increased Leadership AbilityYour leadership approach will be based on sound, rational principles rather than being dominated by emotional responses
Increased Team PerformanceTeam members will feel much more comfortable and secure in a non-threatening team environment with no hidden agendas
Improved Decision-makingDecisions are made more objectively and rationally
Decreased Occupational StressThere will be less emotional tension involved in the work environment
Reduced Staff TurnoverThere will be fewer emotional flare-ups
Increased Personal Well-beingLearning to accept yourself and gain control of your emotions can lead to a much happier life

How Do You Improve Emotional Intelligence?

The following tips have been reproduced from the Mind Tools web site:

1. Observe How You React to People

“Do you rush to judgement before you know all the facts? Do you stereotype? Look honestly at how you think and interact with other people. Try to put yourself in their place, and be more open and accepting of their perspectives and needs.”

2. Look at Your Work Environment

“Do you seek attention for your accomplishments? Humility can be a wonderful quality, and it doesn’t mean that you’re shy or lack self-confidence. When you practice humility, you say that you know what you did, and you can be quietly confident about it. Give others a chance to shine – put the focus on them, and don’t worry too much about getting praise for yourself.”

3. Do a Self-Evaluation

“What are your weaknesses? Are you willing to accept that you’re not perfect and that you could work on some areas to make yourself a better person? Have the courage to look at yourself honestly – it can change your life.”

4. Examine How You React to Stressful Situations

“Do you become upset every time there’s a delay or something doesn’t happen the way you want? Do you blame others or become angry at them, even when it’s not their fault? The ability to stay calm and in control in difficult situations is highly valued – in the business world and outside it. Keep your emotions under control when things go wrong.”

5. Take Responsibility for Your Actions

“If you hurt someone’s feelings, apologize directly – don’t ignore what you did or avoid the person. People are usually more willing to forgive and forget if you make an honest attempt to make things right.”

6. Examine How Your Actions Will Affect Others

“Before you take those actions. If your decision will impact others, put yourself in their place. How will they feel if you do this? Would you want that experience? If you must take the action, how can you help others deal with the effects?”

Why Is This Particularly Important to Agile Project Management?

Check out my previous article on Agile Leadership and I think you will understand why effective leadership is extremely difficult and so important in an Agile environment with high performance teams.  Agile is based heavily on transparency and openness and if you can’t be open and transparent about who you are as a person, you will have a difficult time being effective in an Agile environment.

Overall Summary

Self-awareness is one of the biggest components of emotional intelligence.  Many people aren’t even aware of who they are as a person and don’t reveal that to others.  They live their lives behind a facade that is based on projecting an image of who they are to others that may not be very genuine and others can employees can see through that easily.

When I was a young manager many years ago, self-awareness training was a standard part of many companies’ management training curriculum.  

  • The idea was that, to be an effective leader, its important to be genuine and open with others and you can’t do that without self-awareness
  • Unfortunately, over the years, companies have cut back on that kind of training.  It was seen as frivolous and not essential and as pressure has mounted to reduce cost of operations, a lot of that kind of training has been cut

Additional Resources

I can’t really directly help you develop emotional awareness in my online training; however, I’ve added two new sections and twelve additional lessons on Agile Leadership and Emotional Intelligence in my online training that I think will be helpful to you to better understand how to develop an effective leadership strategy.

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership?

I just finished developing some online training on Agile Leadership and What’s Really Different About Agile Leadership? This article is a brief excerpt of that training.

Agile Leadership

Leadership Stereotypes

They’re are lots of stereotypes and myths in this area – here are a few of them:

  • Project Managers only know how to do a “command-and-control” style of management
  • Agile requires a “servant leadership” approach which means that you completely abdicate the leadership role

Those stereotypes generally follow many of the stereotypes that people have about “Agile” and “Waterfall”. They see them as binary and mutually-exclusive choices with nothing in the middle of those extremes.  Instead of force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, the right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem. Sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

Instead of force-fitting a project to one of those extremes, the right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology to the nature of the problem and sometimes that requires a blend of the two approaches.

Agile Leadership – Fitting the Leadership Style to the Nature of the Problem

You can make some similar observations about leadership style:

  • A good leader doesn’t have one well-defined style of leadership that he/she force-fits all situations to.
  • A good leader recognizes that different styles of leadership are needed in different situations. That’s what “situational leadership” is all about

Another important observation is that the leadership style that is most appropriate in a given situation is directly related to the nature of the project and the problem solving approach.  Here’s how I see the relationship:

What's Really Different About Agile Leadership?

The nature of the problem shapes the management objective and

  • The management objective shapes the problem solving approach
  • The problem-solving approach  determines the leadership style that may be most appropriate

Comparison of Different Environments

The table below shows some important differences between a traditional plan-driven environment and an Agile environment. The table shows the characteristics in each environment that might have some impact on the overall leadership approach.

General Characteristics and Problem-Solving Approach

<
AreaPlan-driven EnvironmentAgile Environment
General Characteristics Projects that have a relatively low level of uncertainty and require some level of predictability might lend themselves to more of a plan-driven approach to project management.

An important characteristic that differentiates this kind of project is that it is assumed to be possible to define the general solution to the problem with some level of certainty prior to the start of the project.

Projects that have a higher level of uncertainty typically require a more flexible and adaptive approach to arrive at the solution as the project is in progress.>

In an Agile project, both the solution and the process for finding the solution might evolve as the project is in progress.

Problem-Solving Approach A defined problem-solving approach is what is typically used. The solution to the problem is generally well-defined in advance and the general approach for implementing the solution is also fairly well-defined. An Agile project uses a empirical process control approach. The word “empirical” means “based on observation” which means that both the definition of the solution as well as the process to discover the solution will evolve based on observation throughout the project.

Management Objective and Leadership Approach

AreaPlan-driven EnvironmentAgile Environment
Management Objective Predictability is normally important. Achieving predictability requires a well-defined plan and conformance to the plan and some level of emphasis on control are also important. Arriving at an effective solution is far more important in this kind of project than predictability. Therefore, innovation and creativity would generally be emphasized more than control.
Leadership Approach The style of leadership naturally might be a bit more directive in order to remain on track with the project plan. You certainly don’t want members of the project team running loose in all different directions without some kind of plan that integrates all of their efforts together that is consistent with the overall plan. A different leadership style is typically called for. If you want to encourage creativity and innovation, you don’t want to emphasize control, you want to empower people and give them some flexibility to use their own intelligence and judgement to explore alternatives as necessary to find the best solution.

Polarized Viewpoints

There are a lot of very polarized viewpoints in this area that go something like this:

  • Agile is good and
  • Waterfall is bad

Or alternatively:

  • Command-and-control management is bad and
  • Agile Servant Leadership is good

Those polarized points of view tend to over-simplify what is not quite so simple. It not as simple as drawing a black-and-white comparison between two extremes. 

  • There are lots of “shades of gray” in both the problem-solving approach and the leadership style that is most appropriate for a particular situation. 
  • An effective leader should be able to adjust his/her leadership style and problem-solving approach as necessary to fit any given situation.

Overall Summary

Here’s a summary of some key points:

  • There is not just one leadership style that fits all situations
  • Leadership styles are not necessarily good or bad. Saying a particular leadership style is good or bad is like saying “a car is better than a boat”.  Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment you’re in.
  • Agile leadership is not really a radically different style of leadership. It is not totally separate and mutually-exclusive with other leadership styles. However, it significantly expands our definition of what “leadership” is.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Fear of Failure Can Cripple a Project

What’s the Impact of Fear of Failure?

Many people have excessive fear of failure and do everything possible to avoid it. An excessive fear of failure can stifle the creativity and innovation that is often needed to maximize the business value of a solution in a project

Fear of Failure

How is the Attitude on Fear of Failure Different in Agile?

One of the key things that differentiates an Agile approach from a traditional plan-driven approach is the attitude towards failure:

Agile Environment

In an Agile environment,

  • A “failure” is seen in a positive sense as an opportunity for learning
  • There’s a very popular mantra of “fail early, fail often”

In other words, sometimes you just have to try something and see what works. Being totally risk-averse and attempting to analyze and anticipate every possible risk and contingency before you even get started may not produce the best results.

Traditional Plan-driven Environment

In a traditional, plan-driven environment,

  • The attitude towards failure is many times very different
  • Any significant unexpected event that occurs might be regarded as a failure and many times is regarded negatively
  • There is an inference that you didn’t do enough upfront planning to anticipate the problem and avoid it

Risk Management – What’s the Right Approach?

The approach for risk management is directly related to fear of failure. I don’t think either the Agile or the plan-driven approach is necessarily right or wrong. It’s a question of how much risk is appropriate to accept and what’s the best way to manage it.

  • Like many things, it depends on the situation
  • There are some situations that call for a more risk-averse approach and some that don’t

The Edge of Chaos

Some businesses have to operate on the “edge of chaos” because of a highly competitive business environment. If they were overly risk-averse and had excessive fear of failure, they would not be successful in their business. That would be a failure in itself to not do anything to “push the envelope”.

Another saying I like is “If you’ve never failed, you’re not trying hard enough”

  • Amazon.com is probably a good example of a company that has a lot of failures like the smartphone they tried to develop
  • Yet they continue to push the envelope to explore very risky new technology such as package delivery with drones
  • I’m sure that they feel that they need to continue to “push the envelope” to maintain their competitive position

Other More Conservative Environments

In other environments,

  • The consequences of problems may be much more significant and need to be more thoroughly anticipated and mitigated
  • Sending an astronaut to the moon might be an example
  • Check out the book, “Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond” for more on that

The Gray Area

There’s a lot of gray area between those extremes where it may require considerable judgment to figure out what the right approach should be. Any project that involves a large amount of uncertainty might be an example. You need to determine:

  • How much uncertainty you can tolerate and let it be resolved as the project progresses, and
  • How much of it you can’t tolerate and need to resolve upfront before the project starts

It would probably be very irresponsible to take a cavalier approach and ignore the potential impact of risks. However, on the other hand, it could be equally problematic to get bogged down in “analysis paralysis” and never get started. Trying to anticipate and mitigate every possible risk that could possibly happen could easily stop progress.

What Level of Risk Is Acceptable?

The most important thing is to have a clear mutual understanding and a sense of partnership between the project team and the project sponsor about:

  • What the goals of the project are,
  • What level of risk is acceptable in the project, and
  • How those risks will be managed

Agile Projects

In an Agile project, that’s typically easier to do because the relationship with the business sponsor is based on a spirit of trust and partnership as well as openness and transparency. The Business Sponsor (represented by the Product Owner) should:

  • Have a sufficient level of judgment and maturity to make good, sound decisions on the project
  • Be intimately involved as the project progresses to provide ongoing direction

Traditional Plan-driven Projects

In many traditional, plan-driven environments, the business sponsors may not have that level of maturity and there may be less of a spirit of partnership with the project team.

  • The Business Sponsors frequently put that responsibility totally on the project team to “just get it done” and don’t necessarily want to know about any risks at all
  • That can lead to a fear of failure and a “CYA” approach by the project team:
    • It can cause the project team to over-analyze the project to avoid any possible problems and
    • It can also lead to less-than-open sharing of project information to avoid airing any “dirty laundry” with the project sponsors

Overall Summary

There is generally a direct relationship between risk and opportunity:

  • Completely avoiding risks may lead to a very mediocre solution
  • An Agile approach provides an excellent environment for taking calculated risks that may be necessary to maximize the value of the solution
  • In an Agile environment, a partnership approach where the business and the project team mutually agree on the project risks and how they will be managed is essential

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Managing Team Conflict in Agile Teams – Is Conflict Normal?

I recently saw a LinkedIn post from someone who was requesting advice on managing conflict in Agile teams. One response was to remove the people who are causing the conflict from the team.

  • That may not be an appropriate solution – some level of conflict is necessary and healthy in a high performance team
  • A team where everyone always agrees with everyone else would probably not be a very high performance team
  • In this particular situation, the conflict was occurring over estimation. In that area, you certainly want to bring out opposing views and attempt to resolve them. You don’t want to suppress conflicting opinions
Managing Team Conflict in Agile Teams

How Do You Manage Conflict in Agile Teams?

The right way to manage conflict on an Agile team is not to try to stifle conflict. An important value is to listen to the views of others and treat them with respect and consideration even if you disagree with them.

  • Each person on the team also needs to put their own ego and emotions aside. Instead of focusing on who’s right and wrong; focus on working collaboratively with others towards what is in the best interest of the team and the business
  • Some times people become argumentative and pursue an argument just to have the last word. They may also try to prove that they’re right and others are wrong. That behavior can be very counter-productive
  • A good way to minimize that kind of behavior is to have a clearly-defined set of values that everyone on the team agrees to

Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

“Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development” is an excellent model for understanding team performance. The model consists of four stages that teams go through in the journey to becoming a high performance team. Here’s a brief summary.

1. Forming

The first stage is called “Forming”. In this stage, “Individual behavior is driven by a desire to be accepted by the others and avoid controversy or conflict:

  • Serious issues and feelings are avoided and people focus on being busy with routines such as team organization, who does what, when to meet, etc.
  • However, individuals are also gathering information and impressions about each other an
  • d about the scope of the task and how to approach it
  • This is a comfortable stage to be in, but the avoidance of conflict and threat means that not much actually gets done.”

2. Storming

The next stage is called “Storming”. During this stage, “Individuals in the group can only remain nice to each other for so long, as important issues start to be addressed.

  • “Some people’s patience will break early, and minor confrontations will arise that are quickly dealt with or glossed over
  • These may relate to tIndent1he work of the group itself, or to roles and responsibilities within the group
  • Some will observe that it’s good to be getting into the real issues, while others will wish to remain in the comfort and security of stage 1
  • Depending on the culture of the organization and individuals, the conflict will be more or less suppressed, but it’ll be there, under the surface
  • To deal with the conflict, individuals may feel they are winning or losing battles, and will look for structural clarity and rules to prevent the conflict persisting.”

3. Norming

As Stage 2 evolves, the “rules of engagement” for the group become established, and the scope of the group’s tasks or responsibilities are clear and agreed.

  • “Having had their arguments, they now understand each other better, and can appreciate each other’s skills and experience. Individuals listen to each other, appreciate and support each other, and are prepared to change pre-conceived views: they feel they’re part of a cohesive, effective group.
  • However, individuals have had to work hard to attain this stage, and may resist any pressure to change – especially from the outside – for fear that the group will break up, or revert to a storm.”

4. Performing

The final stage is called “Performing”. “Not all groups reach this stage, characterized by a state of interdependence and flexibility.

  • “Everyone knows each other well enough to be able to work together, and trusts each other enough to allow independent activity. Roles and responsibilities change according to need in an almost seamless way.
  • Group identity, loyalty and morale are all high, and everyone is equally task-orientated and people-orientated. This high degree of comfort means that all the energy of the group can be directed towards the task(s) in hand.”

Important Points to Recognize

There are several important things to recognize about this model:

Jumping Past Stages

You can’t just jump past the “Storming” stage and go right to the “Performing” stage

  • The only way that might happen is the people on the team have a lot of maturity on working in other teams
  • You have to progress through these stages to some extent to make progress
  • For that reason, conflict should be viewed as a sign of progress that you’ve moved past the “forming” stage

Sequential Progression

You don’t necessarily always proceed through these stages in a strict sequential order.

  • Sometimes a team will regress and fall back to an earlier stage and start over from that point and
  • You might go back-and-forth like that over a period of time.

Moving to the Norming Stage

The natural progression for a team that is in conflict is to move to the “norming” stage:

  • You do that by adopting rules and values of how the team interacts with each other.
  • Those rules and values are like “training wheels on a bike”.
  • After teams have reached a point of maturity, those rules become just a natural part of people’s behavior and the team reaches the “performing” stage which is similar to riding a bike without the “training wheels”.

Source: “Stages of Group Development”

Overall Summary

One of the key points in this model is that conflict is a normal and necessary stage of progression on the journey to becoming a high-performance team. For that reason, you shouldn’t try to stifle conflict – the best approach is to manage it by setting values so that it doesn’t become destructive.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader?

Was Steve Jobs an effective Agile leader? I watched the movie “Jobs” this weekend about the life of Steve Jobs and his career at Apple and it was very thought-provoking. 

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader?

Steve Jobs was absolutely brilliant, embodied a lot of Agile values, and he was enormously successful in developing some very innovative products in a relatively short amount of time that made Apple very successful;  but he was ruthless, tyrannical, and very insensitive in his relationships with people. 

I was thinking – is that style of leadership really consistent with Agile and is it an effective style of leadership for an Agile environment?

  • Much of the thinking behind Agile is based on the idea of empowered and self-organizing teams where the product definition bubbles up rather than being driven down from above,  Steve Jobs’ leadership style doesn’t seem to be very consistent with that model, but he was very successful in getting things done.
  • Another thing that seems to be not entirely consistent with Agile is that Agile is based on the idea of teams working at a “sustainable pace” and it was apparent that many of the teams that worked under Steve’s direction at Apple worked incredible hours to get things done but they were very passionate and dedicated to their work.

Here are some quotes from Steve Jobs that indicate his values that are related to Agile:

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader? – Higher-level Values

Area>Quote
Focus and Simplicity“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things… “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Leadership Style“It’s not about charisma and personality, it’s about results and products and those very bedrock things that are why people at Apple and outside of Apple are getting more excited about the company and what Apple stands for and what its potential is to contribute to the industry…The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”
Planning“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Seeing the “Big Picture”“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have…To turn really interesting ideas and fledgling technologies into a company that can continue to innovate for years, it requires a lot of disciplines.”

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader? Project-level Values

Area>Quote
Requirements and Customer Needs“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”
Innovation“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”
Quality“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
Continuous Improvement“I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why. Because they’re harder. They’re much more stressful emotionally. And you usually go through a period where everybody tells you that you’ve completely failed.”
Tools“It’s not the tools that you have faith in – tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.”

And one of his most famous quotes that really sums up his values is “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. 

Was Steve Jobs an Agile Leader? Overall Summary

My thoughts on this are that:

  • Steve Jobs definitely had some “rough edges” in his relationships with people but he embodies many of the characteristics of an effective Agile leader
  • There probably isn’t one leadership style that is effective in all situations and some “out of the box” thinking is definitely worthwhile rather than implementing some kind of “textbook” Agile approach in all situations

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Emotional Intelligence in Agile – Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important?

The role of emotional intelligence in Agile is important to understand. It is a skill that is very difficult to master for many people.

Emotional Intelligence in Agile

What is Emotional Intelligence?

HelpGuide.org defines “emotional intelligence as follows:

“Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. Emotional intelligence impacts many different aspects of your daily life, such as the way you behave and the way you interact with others.”

Why is that so important in an Agile environment? It’s important because:

  • Agile relies so heavily on teamwork and open, honest, and
  • Transparent communication both within the team and with other stakeholders outside of the team.

Key Attributes Associated with Emotional Intelligence

HelpGuide.org goes on to define four key attributes associated with “emotional intelligence”:

CharacteristicDescription
Self-AwarenessYou recognize your own emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior, know your strengths and weaknesses, and have self-confidence
Self-ManagementYou’re able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances
Social AwarenessYou can understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, pick up on emotional cues, feel comfortable socially, and recognize the power dynamics in a group or organization
Relationship ManagementYou know how to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict

Source: www.helpguide.org/mental/eq5_raising_emotional_intelligence.htm

The easiest way to see how this impacts the performance of Agile teams is to observe the behavior of someone who has a low level of emotional intelligence. Here is an example:

  • On an Agile team I’ve worked with, there was one particular individual who was very bright and intelligent but
  • He had a very strong and dominating personality and what I would consider a low level of emotional intelligence.

Here are some characteristics I saw – He:

  • Liked to be in control of everything. He wanted to be seen as the “hero” who is leading the entire effort. There was a saying on the team that if it’s not XX’s idea, it sucks
  • Was opinionated and confrontational, didn’t value other people’s perspective, and attacked other people openly in emails
  • Had a strong vested interest in his own ideas and proving himself “right”. He lost objectivity and wasn’t able to see different sides of a decision

Impact on an Agile Team

How does that impact the effectiveness of an Agile team?

  • It can stifle the contribution of others on the team. It’s well known that more minds can work better than one and the performance of a team is maximized when everyone on the team is fully engaged and actively contributing to decisions and the work of the team.
  • It can lead to poor decisions. Decisions may be biased in favor of one person’s point of view and may not objectively consider all aspects of the problem

Here’s some excellent additional reading on this subject:

http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eq5_raising_emotional_intelligence.htm

How Do You Acquire Emotional Intelligence?

I believe that the first and most important step is self-awareness. You have to be somewhat introspective and be able to look at yourself openly and honestly and also learn to be comfortable being open and transparent with others.

  • That doesn’t come naturally to all people and requires a certain amount of self-confidence to develop. Many people have a “shell” that they operate within and that “shell” can be either thick or thin.
  • There’s a concept that I learned a long time ago called the “Johari Window” that is still valid today.

The Johari Window

The Johari Window is a tool that is used to analyze someone’s level of self-awareness. It breaks up people’s self awareness into four quadrants:

AreaDescription
Open/Free AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that are known to yourself and to others
Blind AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that are known to others but not by yourself
Hidden AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that are known by yourself but not by others
Unknown AreaPersonality attributes and characteristics that you are not fully aware of and others are also not aware of

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window

Alan Chapman has created a very nice diagram that shows the relationship of these four quadrants:

Johari Window Model

Source: http://www.businessballs.com/johariwindowmodeldiagram.pdf

Key Points

The key points are:

  • People who have a high level of self-awareness and who are also open and transparent in their behavior with others:
    • Have a relatively large quadrant one (Open/Free Area)
    • The other quadrants are relatively small
  • The objective of increasing your self-awareness, openness, and transparency is to:
    • Increase the size of quadrant one (Open/Free Area)
    • Relative to the size of the “Blind” and “Hidden” quadrants.
  • Another objective is to more fully develop your true potential through self-discovery of skills, attributes, and characteristics in the “Unknown” area that neither you or others you interact with are fully aware of.

How Do You Develop Self Awareness?

Years ago, I can remember many companies made self-awareness training a key part of their management development curriculum for new managers:

  • The principle behind that was that you couldn’t be very effective as a manager if you had a hidden personal agenda and
  • You weren’t open and transparent in your relationships with other people
  • Your employees will recognize the external veneer that you put on, see right through it, and lose respect for you

Unfortunately, over the years, many companies have cut back on that kind of training.

  • It was perceived as too “touchy-feely” and when times got tough, it was one of the first things that got cut because it was not seen to have a direct contribution to company profitability.
  • The relationship to company profitability may be indirect, but I think it is just as essential today for managers and even more important for people participating in Agile teams.

There are some exercises that can be done with Agile teams to develop higher levels of self awareness. For example, here’s a Johari Window self-assessment tool:

http://kevan.org/johari

Overall Summary

Emotional Intelligence is important in an Agile environment.

  • It is essential for creating an environment of trust where people feel comfortable with being open and honest with others in a small group
  • Once people have become comfortable with doing that in a small group, they can then take more risks and practice the same behavior outside of that small protected group environment
  • Self-awareness is a very important skill for achieving emotional intelligence. You must be able to see yourself openly and honestly in order to improve

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

Using an Adaptive Leadership Style in Agile

Adaptive Leadership in Agile

My answer to that is:

What is the importance of adaptive leadership in Agile? I’ve been a Project Manager for many years and, over the years, I’ve gone through a lot of job interviews, particularly as a consultant where you might change roles every 3-6 months. One of the questions I’ve been asked in interviews is “What is your leadership style?”.

  • I use an “adaptive leadership” approach. That is, I think that’s there’s not just one leadership style that works all the time
  • That is particularly true in an Agile environment
  • You have to adopt an adaptive leadership style in Agile that is appropriate for the situation.

I think that’s there’s not just one leadership style that works all the time and that is particularly true in an Agile environment. You have to adopt an adaptive leadership style in Agile that is appropriate for the situation.

Adaptive Leadership in Agile
Leadership Business Management Teamwork Motivation Skills concept on the hexagons and transparent honeycomb structure presentation screen. Man pressing button on display with word in modern office

How does Adaptive Leadership apply to Agile Project Management?

  • There is a popular stereotype in the Agile community that all project managers are only capable of operating in a “Command and Control” leadership style. I’m sure that is an exaggeration, but it is true that many project managers have a tendency to assume a somewhat directive leadership style
  • For years, that has been an essential characteristic of many project managers – you can’t just sit on the sidelines and let a project run its course without some kind of direction and leadership
  • Agile changes that paradigm dramatically by emphasizing self-organization and empowerment of the team and positions the Scrum Master in the role of a “Servant Leader” to support the team rather than leading and directing the team

What’s the Impact of Adaptive Leadership on Project Managers?

So, where does that leave the project manager? What value does he/she provide to an Agile team? I think the appropriate answer to those questions is that “it depends”.

  • A lot of people will say that a project manager can’t possibly play the role of a Scrum Master because the roles are so different. I don’t necessarily agree with that perspective…that perspective is based largely on the stereotype that all project managers are only capable of operating in “command and control” mode
  • I believe a good project manager has learned over the years to develop an adaptive leadership approach that’s appropriate for the situation and I think that’s very appropriate in an Agile environment

Overall Summary

There is an idealistic Agile view that all Agile teams are totally self-organizing, completely empowered, and require little or no direction or leadership.

  • The team, as a whole, should function on its own without much direction at all – that’s true to some extent, but a more pragmatic view is that all teams aren’t necessarily at that level of maturity and some leadership is needed to help them get to that point.
  • “Adaptive leadership” is an important skill in this kind of environment…a good Project Manager or Scrum Master should be capable of providing a sufficient level of leadership to get the team to a level of self-sufficiency and progressively back out as the team reaches that level

“Adaptive Leadership” or learning to adapt your leadership style to the situation is a very important characteristic for project managers to be successful in an Agile environment.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.