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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Elastic Leadership

Q&A on the Book Elastic Leadership

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Key Takeaways

  • A team can be either in survival mode, learning mode, or self-organizing mode.  
  • Each mode calls for a different style of leadership.
  • The ultimate goal of an agile leader is to make themselves unneeded (self-organizing teams).
  • Survival mode might leave us feeling helpless, but it’s very easy to stay in our comfort zones and stay in it. There are ways out of it.
  • Getting out of the comfort zone is a key technique for learning new skills. Discomfort comes with the territory. Be happy when you find it uncomfortable, and actively seek it!

The book Elastic Leadership by Roy Osherove shows how teams can have a need for different types of leadership depending on the state that they are in and what can be done to grow teams towards true self-organization. It provides values, techniques, and practices that leaders can use in their daily work.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of Elastic Leadership.

InfoQ interviewed Osherove about elastic leadership and finding out what leadership style would be most effective for a team, what causes teams to end up and remain in survival mode and how to lead teams in that mode, what leaders can do to enable and support learning in teams, how clearing meetings can help teams to progress towards self-organization, and how line managers can work with teams.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Roy Osherove: This book was the book I wish I had when I was starting up as a tech lead. It discusses all the “in between” topics that never make it to the headlines when we learn things. Instead of “what are good agile practices?” it talks about “How do you actually get people to change the behavior to follow practices you believe in?” Instead of another “Here’s what you do with Kanban,” it talks about what metrics that you’re using today might actually hurt you and cause people to not even try to adopt it. It’s the glue that makes the whole thing go.  Leadership and people skills are the killer app that anyone in a key position needs to actually make what they think is the right thing, a reality.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Osherove: Anyone who finds themselves in a "bottleneck" role. Project managers, product owners, tech leads, architects, scrum masters, or technical experts in specific technologies. These are the people who can make or break an organization - but they often don’t realize just how much power they have to change the reality around them for the better.

InfoQ: What is elastic leadership?

Osherove: Elastic Leadership is a model I’ve come up with over the years that helps leaders and experts grow the teams around them towards true self-organization. Keen readers may find there are some similarities with the Tuckman’s "Forming, Norming, Storming" model, but it is not based on it, and has different points of focus.

The Elastic Leadership Model describes three different states that a team can be in (Survival mode, Learning Mode, Self Organizing mode), and for each mode - what type of leadership strategy can be beneficial to move the team towards self-organization, as well as possible actions to take to move the team between modes.

The main takeaways from this model for me are:

  • You have to continuously change your leadership style to match the current reality and skill level of the team
  • Growing people’s skills should be one of the main defining measures of your success as a leader or expert
  • It’s not impossible to get your team out of a bad situation such as survival mode (constantly putting out fires, no time to learn). There is a way to get out of it, and it requires leadership skills and courage

I’m including a picture of the model here:

[Click on the image to enlarge it]

InfoQ: How can you find out what leadership style would be most effective for a team?

Osherove: The key goal is to get the team into self-organization. So at any point in time, you ask yourself, "What mode is my team in?" followed by, "What do I need to do to get them into self-organizing mode?".

For example, you might end up with this series of conclusions:

"To get my team to be self-organizing, they need some skills that are missing today. But we don’t have time to teach and practice those skills since we are in survival mode. So I need to get my team out of survival mode, so that they can learn the missing skills. Which means for now I need to be a more command and control leader, so that we can get out of survival mode and learn new skills."

Here’s another example:

"To get the team to self organize, the team needs to depend less on me. But I seem to be solving everyone’s problems. Since we have time to learn new skills, I’ll choose one skill per person who approaches me, that would allow them to solve a new type of problem without me. Next time that person approaches me about that specific type of problem, I’ll challenge them to try and solve the issue on their own. I’ll just coach from the sidelines - but I want to make sure they understand how I think about the issue so they can learn my thinking process about solving such problems."

InfoQ: What causes teams to end up and remain in survival mode?

Osherove: Survival mode is, surprisingly, a very comfortable place to be in. Many people base their whole careers on being able to navigate and live in total states of survival mode. It’s very comforting to always be the "hero" who comes in late at night to fix a broken build, the "hero" who everyone is waiting for to solve a huge issue that only they can make a decision on. It’s comforting to always be in a “we’re already late so let’s be great at multitasking and handling serious issues and reacting to people” state.

What I’m trying to say is that the first reason to stay in survival mode is psychological - it’s like an addiction. We’re used to solving things in a certain way, and changing that is difficult.

The second huge factor is time, estimations and over-commitment. The best way to break survival mode is to start including learning time in your estimates (especially if you are using time based estimation), and to remove over commitments and multitasking. Being overcommitted means constantly being late, and multitasking means tasks almost always take much longer than they should, due to both context switching and because tasks are broken up and "mixed" over longer periods of time.

It’s very common to hear teams in survival mode say things like, "I know we should do X but we don’t have the time to learn how to do it. So we’ll cut corners until we get some time". The irony is that all the while, learning X could shorten their time commitments and help solve many of the issues that cause them not to have time in the first place.

For example - if we refer to the skills of automated testing instead of manual testing - there is a "spiral" there (see image) - we don’t have time to learn how to automate tests, so we do manual tests, which increases manual testing time, which means even less time to learn new skills etc.:

Now consider this reverse spiral in which we change the top right decision into writing an automated test - manual testing time decreases (for each run which is accumulated over time), thus increasing time to learn other skills, increasing the ability to write an even more automated test.

In the old adage: "It takes money to make money", we can see that sometimes "it takes time to make time".

InfoQ: How can we lead a team that's in survival mode?

Osherove: The focus during survival mode should be on getting out of that mode. Getting out of it requires resetting the expectations of management regarding current commitments - i.e setting a red line in the sand, usually 30 days out, that allows the team to re-estimate with learning built in after that line.

The team only takes in what can fit in those 30 days, without multitasking as much as possible.

In this image - we’re moving from image A to image B, so we can move into learning mode:

[Click on the image to enlarge it]

During survival mode, a more command and control approach allows us to navigate the ship to safety (of learning). As someone once told me, "When the ship is sinking, the captain doesn’t call a meeting. The captain gives orders."

This is, of course, the opposite of the leadership style you’d want in learning mode. But we have to navigate there first.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to enable and support learning in teams?

Osherove: In learning mode you can judge your success as a leader by measuring how many times per day/week you are needed as a "bottleneck" - i.e the only person who can help move things forward.

Your main task is to help the team gain skills so that they need you as little as possible - that is the meaning of self-organization. Not needing others to finish your job, and make your own decisions. Importantly, that also applies to "what do you do when you don’t know what to do" - that’s when leaders are approached the most. In that case, your job is to teach them how to think like you think in those situations and enable them (permission, authority, skills) to make a decision without you slowly, over time.

This could mean getting a team member into meetings that only you as a leader usually go to, so they can start learning the ropes and hopefully replace you in those meetings one day.

InfoQ: In the book, you describe how clearing meetings can help teams progress towards self-organization. Can you elaborate?

Osherove: These meetings are a good way to gauge how self organizing the team is. They are a place where team members can discuss issues, as well as what they plan to do about them. The main idea is to teach people to come to the meeting when they have already started doing something about their problems, without waiting for the meeting to occur. The more that happens, the more it means people are looking to themselves and asking themselves the tough questions, to solve issues they care about, without waiting for permission or an announcement at a prescribed meeting.
It’s not easy, but I don’t know of a better way to get a deep understanding of a team’s maturity without it.

InfoQ: What about teams that are truly self-organized; what do they expect from leaders?

Osherove: To not be in their way. To set goals, instead of telling the team how to do their job. This is a much more "hands off" mod for leaders and it is very hard to not tell people what to do, and setting team goals instead.

This mode also requires constant understanding of the team’s maturity to see whether we’ve switched back from self organizations to a different mode. This can happen if the reality around the team changes, or if the people in the team change. Lack of skills to handle the new reality can bring us back into learning mode or even survival mode.

This movement can happen in a matter of days sometimes, because reality can change pretty fast.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for line managers when working with teams who are in survival mode, learning mode, or self-organization mode?

Osherove: It takes courage to get out of survival mode. Realize that this difficulty of changing the reality your team is in is part of the job. Jerry weinberg wrote a great book called "Managing Teams Congruently" in which he says (paraphrasing): "Management is a tough job. That’s why you get paid more. But a lot of managers like to take the money and not do all the hard parts."

The hard parts are exactly this - working with people, changing realities by talking to your own leadership and paving a path forward.

It comes with the territory. If you feel a bit scared or worried - realize that it means you’re probably doing your job! The same for learning mode. If everything feels dandy and safe, you might not be pushing anything or anyone out of their comfort zone. If the team feels completely “safe” and in their comfort zone, if nobody feels even a bit annoyed or frustrated, it might mean they are not learning new skills.

Discomfort comes with the territory - seek it and be happy when you find it. It means you’re moving.

About the Author

Roy Osherove is the author of "Elastic Leadership: Growing Self Organizing Teams", "The Art of Unit Testing", and the upcoming "Pipeline Driven Organization" books. He is a freelance consultant and trainer, and coaches companies around the world on topics such as test-driven development, agile tech leadership, continuous delivery and effective metrics for pipeline based organizations.
You can read Osherove’s blog and can find out more info on him on his website.


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