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Q&A on the Book Inviting Leadership

Key Takeaways

  • Real change starts with changing how decisions are made. Culture is an emergent property of the decision-making schema
  • Leadership is the ability to participate and/or influence any decisions that affect the group  
  • Authority is the right or permission to do a specific kind of work; participating in making decisions that affect the group is a specific kind of authorized work 
  • Employee engagement is essential to any lasting change; making decisions is engaging. Top talent want to make decisions, and inviting triggers decision-making
  • Receivers of invitations are in control of how they respond 

The book Inviting Leadership by Daniel Mezick and Mark Sheffield explores how using an invitational leadership approach can increase employee engagement and self-organization. It shows how changing the decision-making process influences culture and can lead to lasting change.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of Inviting Leadership.

InfoQ interviewed Mezick and Sheffield about different kinds of authority, the inviting leadership approach, the main difference between invitation and delegation, how inviting leadership can support the adoption of an agile way of working, how to enlist people using an invitational approach, and asked them if the world is ready for adopting an inviting leadership approach and self-management.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Daniel Mezick: Many executive leaders are actively disengaging their best people and losing them to competitors by forcing and imposing change. By definition, the best people have career options and they do exercise those options when they grow disillusioned.

We wrote the book to offer a workable alternative to forcing or imposing change in organizations. We wrote the book to warn executives that forcing or imposing change has big risks. We wrote the book in part to question, and in fact invalidate, the status quo of forcing and imposing change in organizations. The book is a manual on how to attract and retain top talent as you implement organizational change.

We had the book in the works for a while, because through our work in organizations and with executives, we came to understand the incredible utility of leadership invitations in organizational-change programs. Invitations from executives generate a tremendous volume of feedback in a way that delegations do not. Improvement runs on feedback. With the feedback from invitations, you are not guessing. You are acting on real data.

We completed and published the book in 2018, in part because we observed that the time was right to introduce this material. Previous to 2018, we felt that the time for publication had not yet arrived.

The book is part of a progression. I wrote THE CULTURE GAME in 2012. That book defined 16 local optimizations for team and departments. Chapter 21 was entitled “Open the Space.” After more experience with client organizations, that chapter was later elaborated into THE OPENSPACE AGILITY HANDBOOK which published in 2015. This book describes a method for achieving enterprise-level change by engaging the people affected by the change. OpenSpace Agility is an engagement model based on Open Space. It helps engage people.  The hypothesis is that employee engagement is essential for any lasting change. 

After doing several iterations of OpenSpace Agility in organizations, we realized the importance of leadership invitations. That realization led to this book.

The Inviting Leadership book has a central hypothesis and this is it: the way decisions get made is usually the biggest impediment to improvement. The business environment changes, and the way decisions get made becomes out of alignment with maximizing value flow. Getting the decision-making re-aligned to support maximizing value flow is a primary focus of this book.

The rules for decision-making are the primary levers for changing culture. Changing decision-making rules and decision-rights directly influences culture. Consider Scrum: “For the Product Owner to be successful, everyone in the organization must respect his or her decisions.” When this rule is implemented, culture changes quickly. When decision-making does not change, culture does not change. Culture is actually an emergent property of the current decision-rights schema. That’s because company policies and modes of communication must support the overall decision-making schema. If you implement the decision-rights defined in Scrum, before long the policies and the way communication occurs does change. The key point here is that culture changes when decision-rights change.

It’s not like organizations have a choice. The business world is rapidly changing and invalidating the way decisions are being made. Too slow!

Mark Sheffield: Organizations are facing increasing pressure to adapt and innovate faster in order to be competitive and successful. Many of the necessary changes depend on leaders having a good understanding of authority dynamics, decision-making boundaries, and the power of invitation in increasing employee engagement in the support of organizational change. We wrote Inviting Leadership to share our understanding of the power of leadership invitations in organizations and other social systems.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Sheffield: Inviting Leadership is intended for company leaders, mid-level executives, informally authorized leaders, employees who serve teams, and coaches and consultants who provide guidance, teaching, and mentoring. In other words, anyone in a position of formal or informal authority in an organization or social system.

Mezick: The book is intended for anyone with any level of authority in any organization. The book is especially suitable for individuals occupying roles with very high levels of decision-making authority: C-level executives and those who are in roles who report in to the C-level. 

Culture is an emergent property of the way decisions are authorized in the organization. Which roles are making which decisions is key. This schema is the primary input into policy definition. The policies created are designed to support the overall decision-rights set up. You do not see policies that invalidate the the way decisions are authorized in the organization. If they do, then those policies need to change. Likewise, the vectors for communication and communication protocols are designed to support the way decisions are authorized in the organization. “Don’t go around me” is something bosses often say to subordinates. This means “if you convey information to others at my level or higher, make sure I know about it first.” Culture rides on top of these communication protocols. To change culture, change the way decisions are being made. Culture naturally changes when you do this. The authority to make decisions drives everything. The authority distribution schema drives policies, communications and ultimately, culture itself.

InfoQ: What different kinds of authority exist?

Mezick:  In general, authority, and hierarchy by extension, are misunderstood. The root word in latin is “auctoritas”The latin root of auctoritas is aucto, which translates to “author” in English. So someone with authority is the originator of something- the source of something. The author of something.

In the book, we describe authority in detail. We devote a whole chapter to this. Authority always has a source and can be ceded or abandoned. In the book we focus on the authority to make decisions that affect the group. We distinguish between some primary authority types, and the source of each:

  1. Formal authoritycomes from the organization and is usually a property of a defined role such as manager, director, or CEO.
  2. Informal authority comes from peers and colleagues, and is often called “credibility” or “respect,” or “influence.” 
  3. Natural authority,or what we call self-authorization,comes from yourself. When you self-authorize, you need to be prepared to “ask for forgiveness, not permission.” Self-authorization can be risky in organizations since some kind of boundary is being tested when this takes place. Fuzzy or vaguely defined authority boundaries invite testing.

In the book, we zero in on the authority to make decisions, specifically decisions that affect the entire group as a whole. We define leadershipas the ability to influence any decision that affects the group. 

Authority and the related subject of boundaries are essential topics to focus on when discussing, planning and implementing change in organizations. Success in this endeavor does depend on a focus on authority and authorization boundaries. 

Authority is a loaded term, and deeply misunderstood. 

Sheffield: We define authority as the right or permission to do a specific kind of work, such as making decisions that affect the members of a group, or as status within a social system that confers one’s right to do work. 

A person or organization that has authority can transfer some or all of that authority down to someone else without the “consent of the governed.” That is formal authority. It tends to be granted slowly and revoked slowly. An organizational chart is a map of the formal authority within an organization.

Inside every group there is another kind of authority. It is often referred to as “the way things get done around here.” It arises solely by the “consent of the governed” and can be granted or revoked in an instant. We call it informal authority. Informal authority is best mapped as a network.

Natural authority is the set of rights and permissions that one receives as a result of being in the world and interacting with it on one’s own terms. It is expressed by self-authorization, giving yourself permission to do something, like disregarding a “Lot Full” sign and entering a parking lot. 

We explore all three types of authority in detail in the book and in our classes and workshops.

InfoQ: What makes breaching agreed-upon decision-making boundaries of teams, departments, and cultural divisions a bad idea?

Sheffield: Predictability and reliability build trust, and trust builds engagement, which is essential for any lasting change. If people believe that someone has intentionally overstepped a decision-making boundary, they lose trust in that person. If the overstepping appears to be unintentional, they lose trust in the boundary. In either case, engagement suffers.

Mezick: If you look at nature and natural science and in particular biological science, what you notice rather quickly is that all the action is “at the boundary.” Especially in organizations and especially with respect to decision-making, rules that are clearly specified, agreed upon and adhered to are essential. Clear rules reduce the waste associated with the need for more negotiations. If there is a breaching of agreed-upon decision-making boundaries of a team or a department, what ensues is the following:

  1. The rules we all agreed to are no longer being honored;
  2. The sense of whole-group membership in those agreements is now breached;
  3. Waste is created by the need to renegotiate existing agreements or form new agreements

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that the inviting leadership approach requires leaders to engage in the sending of requests, rather than the sending of commands or directives. How does this work in practice?

Mezick: In the book, we contrast delegation with invitation and advocate for a higher percentage of invitations in the delegation/invitation mix. So it’s not one or the other, but rather a mix of both, depending on factors like context. Your best employees have career options; this is part of what defines your high-performing or top-talent employees. Talented employees with career options are in fact at-will volunteers who can and will go elsewhere when things start to sour. With invitations, this type of talent experiences a greater sense of perceived control over their work and that sense can and will tend to engage and retain them. 

Another reason for favoring an invitational approach is the simple fact that invitations from leaders generate a tremendous amount of feedback in a way that delegations cannot. Truly responsive organizations run on feedback. How will we generate actionable feedback? Leadership invitations are a great way to do this.

Pure delegation also has potential problems and pitfalls that invitations do not. For example, a delegation of responsibility can be made without also delegating the “requisite authority” needed to actually execute. The delegation of responsibility without authority is a huge problem in most organizations. 

In practice, the invitational style of leadership is easy to implement. Executives and others in high-authorized roles can (for example) apply the invitational approach to employee training. Contract some specific training for teams, describe the opportunity, and signal that there are two sections of 20 students each. Set some ground rules like an RSVP date, and some other boundaries and rules. Send out the invitation and watch the responses. 

Now the students that are in the classes actually want to be there, and the leadership team has a way to gauge org-level willingness to move in a new direction as teams and individuals self-select into some training in that domain area. 

Sheffield: Commands require compliance, even when the receiver has valuable contradictory information. Requests encourage the recipient to share their knowledge and ideas and actually participate in discovering the best decisions. An inviting leader states a desired direction and trusts the receivers to figure out how to achieve it.

Making a meeting optional is a great way to experiment with inviting leadership. Doing so tells everyone that you trust the invitees to dedicate their valuable time where it can do the most good. Optional attendance gets the truly interested people in the room, generates data on who is most interested, and encourages self-management. You can issue a well-defined invitation, define who must attend, and explicitly state that everyone else’s presence is optional.

InfoQ: What are the elements of a well-structured invitation?

Sheffield: An invitation is a written or verbal offer for someone to go somewhere or to do something. It transfers decision-making authority to the recipient. In order for the recipient to make a well-informed decision about whether to accept or decline, it must be a well-structured, good invitation. 

We include multiple examples of well-structured invitations in the Inviting Leadership book, classes, and workshops. 

Mezick: In the book we explain the properties of a good invitation, which coincidentally are also the properties of a good game: 

  1. Clear goals; a clear description of what the aim of the activity is
  2. Clear and uniformly applied rules: the time boundaries, task boundaries and other constraints
  3. A clear way to experience progress and/or get feedback on it: a clear description of how progress can be experienced
  4. Opt-in participation

If you want great results, engage your people. Leadership invitations are a great way to do that, because the invitation triggers decision-making and deciding is engaging. And engagement leads to great results. So, if you want great results, issue a great leadership invitation. That invitation can and will trigger a chain reaction leading to positive outcomes for the business.

InfoQ: How can a receiver react to an invitation?

Sheffield: The receiver decides whether and how to respond. If the invitation is well-formed, including opt-in participation, the receiver is more likely to respond based on their honest preference. If the recipient is scared of retribution for declining, you lose a valuable opportunity for rich and nuanced feedback.

Mezick: Receivers of invitations are in control of how they respond. This includes: 

  1. A “yes,” a “no,” a “maybe,” or “no response” ( “no response” is in effect a passive “no” response)
  2. The timing of the response (note even with an RSVP deadline, the receiver has choices about timing, right up to the RSVP deadline)
  3. The medium for carrying the response: phone call, text message, email, face-to-face conversation, etc

In general, invitations create the conditions for rich and nuanced feedback.

InfoQ: What's the main difference between an invitation and a delegation?

Sheffield: Delegation is the formal assignment of responsibility and/or authority to someone in a lower-authority role. Invitation is the act of offering someone the opportunity to go somewhere or do something. The primary difference is that delegation implies that the recipient must accept. With invitation, the receiver decides whether and how to respond. When people are authorized to make decisions, they tend to engage more fully.

Mezick: With a genuine invitation, the receiver can opt-out. That’s simply not true in the case of a delegation from a higher-authorized to a lower-authorized individual.

InfoQ: How can inviting leadership support the adoption of an agile way of working? And how do frameworks like Scrum or SAFe fit in?

Mezick: Well, the frameworks are actually silent on employee engagement. SAFe offers some data that says employee engagement scores go up when it is used, but there is no guidance inside SAFe about how to get that improvement. SAFe is silent on that. The assumption is that the use of the framework generates engagement of employees. 

However, if the framework- anyframework, such as LeSS, DaD, Nexus, S@S etc is forced, sustained improvement in employee engagement scores is at best highly unlikely. Why? Because making decisions is very engaging, which implies that not making decisions is quite disengaging. So when a framework is “rolled out” in a delegated way rather than in an invited way, we can expect weak employee engagement since those affected are being compelled and are not deciding. Low levels of decision-making are correlated with a low sense of control, and a low sense of control is correlated with disengagement. And employee disengagement is not good.

The assumptions with Inviting Leadership™ and Invitation-based Change™ are as follows: 

  1. Employee engagement is essential to any lasting change
  2. Making decisions is engaging
  3. Invitation triggers a decision

If these assumptions are correct, it means that leadership invitations can substantially raise both employee engagement scores, and the odds of real success, with agile ways of working.

Sheffield: An agile way of working values people and interactions over processes and tools. Inviting leadership demonstrates that leaders respect and value everyone’s contributions.

Inviting leadership supports organizational change by:

  • Gauging organizational willingness to participate in the change
  • Including people in making decisions that affect them
  • Increasing engagement by allowing people to participate in writing the next chapter of the organization’s story
  • Uncovering what would need to happen to increase willingness to participate in the change

Wouldn’t you like to know early on whether the organization is ready and willing to accept the change you have in mind?

Inviting leadership and increased employee engagement support the Scrum values (commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect) and the core values of SAFe (alignment, built-in quality, transparency, and programs execution).

InfoQ: You mentioned that for change to happen, you need to enlist everyone, especially those with a big stake and a vested interest in the way things are. How can we do that based on invitation where people have the option to decline?

Sheffield: You want to engage the support and cooperation of everyone in the organization who is willing to help. You also want to find out who does not yet support the change, and what it would take for them to be willing. 

  • Invite them to participate in designing and introducing the change
  • Honor and validate the past and describe the vision for the future 
  • Work with and through the willing participants as they emerge

When people say "no," reduce the ask by half. 

  • Propose running an experiment for a specific, limited amount of time, after which its results will be examined to determine how to proceed. 
  • Watch and observe how they respond. 
  • If they still decline, reduce the ask by about half again. 
  • Continue until they say "yes" and participate in the experiment, or they refuse to do any experimenting. 

The key point is that you are testing their willingness to try something, get experience, and learn. Having the option to decline actually increases engagement, as they see that the willing participants are the ones who are writing the next chapter of the organization's history.

Mezick: Also, people do change their minds. Changing culture involves, changing how some decisions are being made. When the change happens, people slow to engage start considering whether to stay or go. If they stay, they engage positively if they wish to avoid looking resistant. 

Some of the most vocal and energetic resisters can and will become vocal and energetic supporters when they change their minds. They have energy around the topic. When they change their mind, that energy becomes a actively supportive energy. 

And there are some that will never support the change. This type of person tends to vacate the organization when they realize the org is changing and/or has changed.

InfoQ: What “tools” do you recommend for successful transitions?

Mezick: The main tool is in the book title: Inviting Leadership and Invitation-Based Change™. Change based on invitation instead of imposition is what actually sticks. If there is one thing readers of the book need to know, it is that forcing change by “rolling out” new practices does not actually work. But using an invitational approach actually does. 

Sheffield: We recommend and describe several tools in the book, including:

  • "Ready for Agile" Checklist, to identify whether the organization is ready for change
    • Socialize and set agreements on the terminology
    • Discuss the rules of the methods that will be used
    • Prepare executive leaders for what is about to happen and what is expected of them
  • Authority Circle™, to identify emergent leaders who are led to speak to authority or speak as authorities on the most important issues
  • Open Space Technology, to allow interested and committed people and their ideas to emerge
  • The OpenSpace Agility and Prime/OS employee engagement models

InfoQ: Is the world ready for adopting inviting leadership and self-management?

Sheffield: Organizations are becoming more complex and must be more flexible to succeed. Inviting leadership and self-management increase employee engagement, which is essential for successful, lasting change. The time is right for Inviting Leadership.

Mezick: Workers are in fact volunteers, and the best workers have options and will exercise those career options. When we lose the top talent we have, we lose in three ways: we lose a great employee, the competition gets that talent, and the change or transition underway in our own company loses a potential in-house champion. The inviting approach is a strategy for retaining top talent. If the competition for top talent is real, then business leaders need to start looking at top talent as “at will” employees or volunteers. Our book is a tool for doing exactly that.

About the Book Author

Daniel Mezick: Coaching executives and teams since 2006, DANIEL MEZICKis an expert on extending adaptive agile culture beyond software. Mezick is a frequent keynote speaker on self-management and business agility at industry conferences worldwide. Mezick’s list of clients include Capital One, INTUIT, Adobe, CIGNA, Pitney Bowes, SIEMENS Healthcare, Harvard University, and dozens of smaller enterprises.

Mark Sheffield: As an enterprise Agile coach and Open Space Technology facilitator, Mark Sheffield delivers leadership consulting and training programs worldwide. He is recognized as a pioneer in the field of Invitation-Based Change and an expert in the field of business agility transformation. Sheffield is a co-author of the groundbreaking OpenSpace Agility Handbook, which published in 2015.

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