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Interview with Bruno Sbille about Leadership Styles and Visual Management

Posted by Ben Linders on Feb 12, 2013 |

Bruno Sbille, a trainer and coach who lives in Belgium, did a session at the XP Days Benelux 2012 conference, on the topic: learn different leadership styles with Star Wars coaches. InfoQ interviewed him on using leadership styles, visual management, and agile coaching.

InfoQ: Your session at XP Days Benelux 2012 was about leadership styles. Which styles did you discuss in that session?

Bruno: During the XP Days Benelux 2012 session, I’ve presented the following leadership (and management) styles: 

  • Blame culture (and how to avoid it)
  • Directive management
  • Personal consideration
  • Management by objectives

InfoQ: Why did you pick these leadership styles?

Bruno: These leadership and management styles are applicable for agile teams and organizations. Let’s take a look at them:

  • Blame culture means: In case of a major issue, someone is to blame and should be identified and reprimanded. I wanted to emphasize that this leadership style should be avoided, but we all tend to use it. While debriefing in the session at XP Days Benelux, some participants said we sometimes tend to blame in the Agile community, for instance, the Manager is to be blamed, or the Waterfall methodology.
  • Directive Management means: “I tell you What to do and How. Please proceed as if you were me” This management style is the most common but often less efficient. Nevertheless, in some situation, it is well appropriate.

  • Personal consideration means: Doing something especially and uniquely for the person. Consider the person as sole and unique. I like this leadership style. It comes from the NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) theory and is less known in the Agile community.

  • Management by Objectives means: "I give you an objective and we discuss the why and the benefits if we achieve it. The objectives need to be defined and agreed by both parties. The Manager is more interested in final results than in the method. I like this management style as it increases creativity and initiatives taking. It is used in defining User Stories. 

InfoQ: It seems that you use some terms such as leadership and management by objectives different as others use it?

Bruno: I agree with you. First of all, summarizing these terms in just a few lines can seem a shortcut. In my session, I start by explaining all terms, so that the audience and I can agree on a common wording, which we can practice quickly.

If you discuss terms with managers from companies, or with other coaches (inside or outside the Agile community), or check on blogs, you will notice that according to their background and experience, people tend to use different terms. For instance:

  • some talk about 'leadership' styles, when others would rather speak about 'management' styles. Some even use the term : 'coaching' or 'communication' styles
  • some use the term: 'Participative management', for what I call 'Management by objectives'
  • some use the term : 'Situational leadership' others use the term "delegation"

My session isn’t about defining a wording agreed by all (because there'll always be a discussion). The goal of the session is to:

  • learn different technique (styles) to people
  • improve awareness on the importance to identify and adapt different styles according to a situation or a person

InfoQ: How important is it to use a suitable leadership style, for instance when doing agile coaching?

Bruno: In my session at the XP Days Benelux conference, all participants experimented with the use of different leadership styles in a role play. Some played the ‘manager’ when others were ‘managed’, or were just ‘observer’.
While debriefing, participants shared their preference, and discussed which leadership style was more adequate for them: Which style would they rather use as a manager, or receive by their management? So it appears that each person has their own leadership and management preference style.  
It is however important to consider the working environment and rationale to determine which leadership style is more appropriate to use. The directive management, though less appreciated, can be more efficient when managing a junior team at a Scrum starting phase or when managing an emergency situation.
In conclusion, the different leadership and management styles are powerful ways to communicate and can be used by all involved (not only top management, but also within team members), and we need to learn how to use one or another according to the person and to a situation.

InfoQ: How can people learn different leadership styles, and get better in using them?

Bruno: Personally, I suggest reading books and articles from authors such as Robert Dilts and Mike Cohn. Also, I would recommend training, and practicing to build up experience. There are different types of training available and I am also a trainer on this topic. Jurgen Appelo also gives a training ‘Management 3.0’ which includes topics on management and leadership
There are also exercises that people can do to self study and practice leadership styles. As an example, let’s look at an exercise on communication:

  • On a piece of paper, draw one column titled “Good communicator”, and another one titled “Bad Communicator”
  • In each column, name people (maximum 5) you know professionally or personally that are best or worst communicator.
  • For each name, think of a concrete experience, try to identify the process the person used with you, and write it down (e.g. Does it ask for your opinion? Impose you something? Use its hierarchical power? Is he/she a good listener?)
  • Also try to identify the channel of communication, media, the person used with you (email, face-2-face, meeting)
  • Think about the context when the situation occurred (business as usual, crisis, kick-off of a new project)
  • Once you’ve done, try to identify the leadership style the person used with you and how you felt about it. You may find out that ‘Bad communicator” use leadership style that doesn’t suit you

You can try these different leadership styles as defined in the slide set and exercise them to discover your and the person’s preferences.

InfoQ: On your blog, you also wrote about visual management. Can you explain what it is?

Bruno: Usually people know 2 things about a Scrum Team: They do stand-up meetings and stick post-it notes on walls :-)
I would define visual management as a way to present information visually on a physical material (paper, post-it notes, ...) and in a strategic location (a wall close to the team or a whiteboard) where impacted people can reach the information easily. The most common visual tool is known as the ‘Scrum Board’ with 3 columns: ‘To do’, ‘In progress, and ‘Done’
Most of the time, we tend to put all information in IT tools for multiple reasons and benefits: backup storage, history status, generate reports, etc. Visual management gives immediate access to the information, and encourages commitment from team members.
I’m not in favor of one or another method, best is to have a good balance between IT tools and visual management.

InfoQ: How can agile teams and organizations benefit from using visual management? Can you give an example?

Bruno: At first, visual management can look odd, especially when everything today is numeric. I often hear “Hey, I don’t make crafts, I’m done with kindergarten”. But here it is, the challenge of visual management is just... to try it. You can test it on a team or an organization. Ask yourself: What important information would you like to communicate? It can be: the next application release date, the date of arrival of a new employee, a database scheme, or the announcement of a new customer contract. Next, find a visual way to present the information and try it.

As an example, I have seen that visual management attracts people, even from other teams. Some teams that weren’t necessarily involved in our project, stopped by our wall, and commented, providing interesting feedback.

Despite its ‘low-tech’ or ‘basic’ aspect, visual management appears to be an excellent tool of communication and collaboration. It improves team’s ability to take ownership of a task, and it gives immediate view on tasks’ progress. Moreover, it increases communication and sharing of information.

An example: Imagine you need to put 20 things in order (for example: projects or requirements to prioritize). A classical way of working would be to set up a meeting with decision-makers. One person would be in charge, and use a laptop and a beamer with an excel sheet. People would then discuss, when the one in charge would take notes on the excel sheet. With visual management, the approach can be to arrange a meeting where you write the 20 things to put in order on post-it notes (one idea per post-it note), Stick them randomly on a wall and ask the group to order them by priority. You will notice team collaboration and a totally different energy in the group (see picture).

(Click on the image to enlarge it) 

 

As far as I know, there is no scientific explanation specifically on visual management benefits. In my opinion, it can be explained with Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), a psychological branch. NLP demonstrates there are different ‘learning styles’: visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners. When a daily meeting takes places next to a wall, where there is visual management, it recalls all “learning styles’, there is an auditive, visual and kinesthetic dimension that would suit all team members.

Here are 2 examples of applying Visual Management:

InfoQ: You are referring to NLP, can you elaborate about how you use it?

Bruno: NLP (Neuro-linguistic-programming) is a psychology branch that can be used for communication, personal development, and psychotherapy. Whereas other kind of approach would analyse 'where the problem stands'; NLP analyses 'why it works"? It is interesting to see that NLP, such as Scrum stands on empiricism, to observe what is efficient and provides results.

As any other psychological or scientific approach, NLP gathers strong believer or non-believer. I'm not a defender or opposed to NLP, I get inspiration of what exists and works, I combine and use it in order to achieve objectives and get benefits.

Certainly, NLP proposes interesting tools to improve communication and a part of it is also dedicated to improve training techniques. As other psychology branches, NLP has a strict deontology and ethic. In conclusion, NLP is a good toolbox to use with benevolence and with professionalism

InfoQ: As an agile coach, is there a specific agile practice that you like most? Why?

Bruno: As an Agile Coach, I consider that most of my job is to help improving communication and collaboration within a team or an organization. I’m satisfied when I see people feeling confident enough to play their part in a team. Then the magic works and wonderful achievements happen. Two of my favorite tools are Give and Take feedback, and Team-building workshops. They are powerful tools that I regularly use, and I’ve witnessed interesting experience, and concrete improvements within teams.

About the Interviewee

Bruno Sbille is a Trainer (Agile, Soft Skills) and a Coach (Agile, Life Coach). He has been working in IT and Business consultancy since 1999. In addition to his experience as developer and project manager, he had the opportunity to discover a lot of new techniques to add in his "toolbox": Scrum, Agile but also NLP, coaching, people management, creativity techniques, serious games, etc. He is passionate about "making things happen".
Bruno regularly blogs in English and French about Scrum, Agile and Management on Scrum and Agile blog.  He tweets @BrunoSbille.

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