Six Ways to Bring Humility to your Agile Leadership Style
A few months ago I watched Mike Cohn's excellent presentation titled Let Go of Knowing for the first time. Since then, I've gone back and re-watched it several more times. I highly encourage you to watch it as well. It's free over at frontrowagile.com and only takes about an hour to get through. There's no spectacular new technique in it or amazing new tactic for teaching Scrum. What is there is a simple reminder that many Agile leaders, myself included, forget all too often: You might be wrong.
When I attend any gathering of my peers in the Scrum community, there is usually a vocal group among them that are all too anxious to point out their knowledge of all things Agile and more specifically how some of you out there (not me of course) are doing things the wrong way. Think back to your last local Scrum meetup or even the last Global Gathering you attended. If the topic of SAFe came up, you no likely heard groans, boos, or hisses. Why? Because these individuals believe they know for certainty that SAFe is the wrong way to scale Agile. I'm not a huge SAFe proponent but I have taken their SA training course. While I wouldn't sign up for the whole platform, there are very valid portions of it. In fact, there are concepts that are very similar to other more well received frameworks such as Less, DaD, or even the Spotify model.
Since Agile is a set of principals and is more concerned with mindset than an actual set of practices, I began to think about the mindset behind this and came to the conclusion that what is missing in these cases is humility. Not a sexy term but I believe essential to becoming a true servant leader. Humility says that you don't consider yourself to be higher than your coworkers or students. It says that you aren't looking for privilege or recognition for yourself. It says you are willing to put aside these things to achieve the team goal.
There's a solid article on Harvard Business Review written by John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin that discusses just this and has come up with six principals for developing humility as a leader. I found these very relevant to how we view Agile leadership. In the same spirit then, I thought I'd offer my six principals for developing humility as an Agile leader
1. Accept that you could be wrong
Again, see Mike Cohn's presentation. Recognize that we are constantly inspecting and adapting. That's one reason I really enjoy working with Scrum: It's a living, breathing process that is always in search of improvement. Just look at the recent discussions about estimates in Agile for an example. This means you could be wrong about something you are certain about now. That's ok. Learn from it and adapt. There are no sacred cows here. If you find someone else is doing something in a way that works better, co-opt it and move on. It's important to understand though that this means something you are SURE of today might be considered wrong tomorrow.
2. Let the team's success be your primary measure of success
One of the things that makes Agile so different from other processes is that the focus is shifted from individuals to the team. Why should we as Agile leaders then become self centered and focus on ourselves? Our contributions only matter if the team(s) we coach succeed. If they are failing, we are failing. This just cements the concept of servant leadership for us in that we must do everything we can to serve our team(s) and help them succeed.
3. Be open to trying different approaches
You might be the world's foremost expert on Agile and can answer any hypothetical as clearly as an Agile Manifesto co-signer. Guess what though? You are no longer working with hypotheticals. As such, you might need to be flexible to trying new things. Some of these might just go against what you KNOW to be true. As long as you are inspecting and adapting along the way, you can keep what works and throw out what doesn't. If your team wants to try something and they all feel it would improve things, give it a shot!
4. Embrace your role as a servant
Servant leadership is a term that gets thrown out there so much it's likely lost meaning for you. Think of it this way: You know the people that clean your office each night or clean your office bathrooms? They are serving your team. How about the person(s) that make sure there's coffee? Servants. These people aren't looking for thanks for what they do. They do it because it's needed and it's their job. What are you doing to serve your team(s)? Take some time to brainstorm what you can do to serve your team. MAKE time to serve them even in small ways. THEY do the work. We are only there to help that process.
5. Pay attention to HOW you coach
This is key. Think about how you are training, mentoring, and coaching your team(s). Do your conversations come off as confrontational? Are you teach AT people rather than with them? This can often be as simple as adjusting the point of view you use when you are coaching. Rather than say. "Do it this way" try the approach of "What I've seen work better is..." or "Some teams find it easier/better to...". It's a small change but it shows that you don't consider yourself better
6. Always give credit to your team(s)
Our corporate culture of annual reviews has conditioned us to tooting our own horns. We've become accustomed to keeping track of our successes so that we can call on them later to show our worth to the company. I would suggest that this conditioning eats away at how we view our role as Agile leaders. What if instead we bragged about how great our teams are? What if our reviews were more about team accomplishments than personal ones? If you were your manager, wouldn't that be more important to you? Why then do we feel the need to take credit? Again, the TEAM actually does the work. Give the TEAM then the credit for the accomplishments. It's much better to have someone see your teams successes and attribute it to you than to have them think you are trying to steal credit for their work.
As with everything in Agile, it's more about the mindset than any particular rule. I would just suggest that we could all, myself included, use a much heavier dose of humility in how I lead. But of course, I could be wrong.