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Interview with Ole Jepsen on Leadership in Agile

Good leaders create an environment where self-organizing teams can thrive and create great products and services to delight their customers: that is what Ole Jepsen explained in this interview. At the XP Days Benelux conference he talked about truly leading people and the subtle but important differences between taking and giving control.

InfoQ interviewed Ole on leadership in agile, self organizing teams and focusing on people. 

InfoQ: What in your opinion is great leadership?

Ole: I think, that most leaders have (and should have?) their own beliefs about what great leadership is.

Here is the essence of what I personally believe:

“Don’t tell people what to do”. Rather “involve and engage people” and create an environment, where people are motivated, take ownership and unleash their full potential – not because they are told to, but because they want to.

In other words, I believe, that if you understand people – if you understand human nature – then you have a much better chance of becoming a great leader.

Obviously you can only do this, if everybody understand how your organization is aiming to delight your customers (organizational clarity) – and if people have the competence needed to do so. So rather than telling people what to do – leaders should spend most of their time creating organizational clarity and supporting people in their life-long journey of building and increasing their competence.

InfoQ: What is the importance of leadership in agile? Why do we need leaders, when we aim to have self organizing team?

Ole: I believe that true leaders are the ones building great organizations that are creating great products and services to delight their customers. While self organizing teams are a very important part of this, somebody needs to set up and maintain the environment where these self organizing teams thrive. Furthermore – there is much more for the leaders to do…

So any team need someone to

  • support them in being self organizing teams
  • help them remove impediments, and
  • challenge the status quo and help them keep improving

Good leaders are doing exactly that. Good leaders are not telling people what to do, but rather creating an environment, where each team and each individual know what to do – by getting everybody to understand how their organization want to delight their customers (“organizational clarity”) and by helping everybody understand how they individually can contribute to that goal. Also good leaders take on the responsibility of the competence within the organization. I have worked with many “leaders” with the belief, that education and personal growth is the responsibility of each individual. I strongly disagree. Personally I have made my biggest professional and personal leaps, when leaders and other people around me have challenged me to get our of my comfort zone, and live up to my full potential. And I have seen people around me grow, when I have challenged them and supported them on their own professional journeys. To me, nothing beats helping and seeing people evolve and get better at what they do. And nothing gives me more joy than seeing people discover that they are capable of doing things that they had not even been dreaming about before.

On a side-note, telling people what to do comes in many disguises. Company policies and process descriptions is one of these disguises. And I’m not arguing, that a few general guidelines are bad – but a lot of companies have way too many detailed instructions on how people need to do their work. Another example is Bonus systems. First you hire people for their experience, knowledge and energy trusting that they will do a great job in your company – and then you try to “specify” their behavior by telling them how you will measure them by e.g. KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators or Kill Performance Instantly – you pick ;-). I’m sure that you can think of many other ways of “telling people what to do - in disguise”…

In other words, leaders should

  • set direction by creating organizational clarity (how do we delight our customers)
  • work with people to help them get the individual competence they need to do their job – including making the majority of the decisions
  • give control to individuals and teams – not take control (and ownership) away from them

InfoQ: In your session you talk about truly leading people. Can you explain what that mean? And how it differs from what you call "leadership in disguise"?

Ole: When I talk about “leadership in disguise”, I’m thinking about “leaders”, who are telling people what to do most of the time. There are several issues with this approach:

The biggest problem about telling people what to do is, that you take away their opportunity to feel that they matter – and that they are clever enough to figure out what to do by themselves. You are jeopardizing one of the fundamental elements of motivation: Influencing your own (work-)life. This is also known as “autonomy”.

This goes hand in hand with Daniel Pinks work (“Drive”) – uncovering, that all knowledge workers on the Planet are pretty much only motivated by “Purpose” (knowing and agreeing to organizational goals), “Autonomy” (making most day-to-day decisions) and “Mastery” (getting really good at what you are doing). The autonomy part is also supported by the neuroscience and David Rocks “Neural Leadership”, where an important element is the SCARF model, describing that social behavior is driven by the SCARF elements: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

So leaders that are spending most their time making decisions and telling people what to do – they mean well, and they are taking peoples uncertainty and doubts away by telling everybody what to do. What they do not realize is, that while they are doing so, that are actually taking autonomy and thereby motivation and ownership away from people. If leaders want to move from “leadership in disguise” to true leadership, they need to stop telling people what to do and rather help everybody understand the “organizational clarity” and “individual competence”, so that everybody know what should be done and how to do it in collaboration with their peers.

An other problem about telling people what to do is: What if you are wrong? Or what if they just know better than you? Since they are (or should be) closer to the actual work and to the customers, there’s a fairly good chance, that this is the case.

The last problem that I want to bring up here is: What when you are not around? I have personally experienced this over and over again. My worst experience is probably from a smartphone service company that had one of the most visionary founders that I have ever worked with. This guy had the gift of getting every customer to see new opportunities for their business, just by talking to them for a couple of hours. This was amazing, really amazing. However, there was a problem: He would always come back from his meetings start telling everybody to stop whatever they were doing (usually yesterdays fantastic idea) and get them to start working on something completely different. After a while nobody was really motivated to start of finish anything, because they would probably get a new “order” later in the day, when the founder came back from a customer with a new fantastic and very important idea…

To wrap it up – if you want to truly lead people, you need to stop running around and “being nice to people” by telling them what to do – but rather to keep searching for what delight the customers and keep reminding people by discussing this organizational clarity. Also you need to help people with their individual competences AND last but not the least – to motivate people and let them take ownership by letting them – and helping them – plan, make decisions and then perform their work accordingly.

InfoQ: You mentioned that the book "Turn the Ship Around" by David Marquet’s has inspired you. Can you elaborate on that?

Ole: I discovered (not just read – but discovered ;-) David Marquet’s award winning book in the fall of 2012. Then we promptly decided to buy 100 copies and give away to our goAgile clients and people in our network. Then I told my goAgile colleges, that I would create a relationship to David Marquet because I admired his experiences and his thinking, and I wanted to learn more from him. They all laughed and made fun of me for wanting to “become friends” with an award winning and famous author. Since then we have become friends and are now working together on seminars, trainings courses etc. Very inspiring!!!

What fascinated me was, that pretty much everything I believe in around leadership was right there in one story – in one person.

The short version of the story is the following: David Marquet was trained for one submarine in the US Navy, but became captain of a different submarine – the Santa Fee, which was rated worst on all ratings at the time. David on-boarded Santa Fee, started to take control and giving orders, like captains of submarines are supposed to do. Unfortunately many of the orders that David was barking could not be carried out, simply because Santa Fee was not the submarine he was trained for. So here David Marquet was captain of a submarine that he did not know – with a crew who were trained to do what they were told. A deadly combination..!!

David realized that he had to do something completely different. So instead of taking control of the Santa Fee and the crew – he started giving control. Asking people what they thought should be done, and then go ahead and do it. Since this was a little scary at first, they implemented the “I intend to…” rule, so people would 1. say what they intended to do and then 2. do it (unless somebody – David or somebody else – disagreed).

This may sound like a subtle difference to how captains (and leaders) are usually performing their leadership – but the difference was huge. People began to feel that they mattered. They started thinking a lot more than they used to – to figure out what to do, and to what degree their intentions would support their mission. The officers (middle managers) starting to copy David way of performing leadership – and pretty soon leadership was performed at every level in the organization – including people with no subordinates, who would begin to plan their own work together with their peers.

After two years the Santa Fee was rated the best submarine ever in the US Navy, and people from Davis crew are now serving as captains on other submarines – increasing the quality of life for the people they lead.

David Marquet and his story Turn the Ship Around made me realize how subtle the difference is between true leadership and telling people what to do. It starting me to think about how we can get leaders – including myself – to see the difference between “helping people by telling them what to do” and helping people to understand the bigger picture (organizational clarity), and that their knowledge and their competence and their experience and least but not last their opinion matters.

And I’m still thinking…!!! (Thanks, David)

InfoQ: How can good leadership contribute to agile adoption in enterprises?

Ole: Let me start with a little story: At an Agile conference some year ago, I was at a bar with my friend Mike. We were having a great time, and then Mikes boss Brian came and had a beer with us. He told me about the training, he was doing – and I got confused, and asked “What training? Are you not Mikes boss?”. Brian then told me how he saw his most important job as a leader – to lead change, help people and the company to change things, so they could serve their customers better. I nodded and asked: “So how much of you time do you spend leading – and how much of your time do you spend changing?” – and he almost got upset with me. He lectured me, that LEADING IS CHANGING, which has been one of my most important mantras since.

Adapting to Agile is a very big challenge for enterprises. I’m not just talking about having a Scrum team or two in a corner of the organization, but real wall-to-wall and top-to-bottom Agile adoption, where you harvest all the benefits of Agile – including getting people at every level feeling happier and more motivated and hence better at delighting the customers.

In day to day life, we know that leaders should not tell people what to do. It decreases motivation and is not good in many other ways. Leaders should rather involve and engage people and create the space for them to take ownership. This is even more true, when it comes to doing things in a different way. When it comes to leading change.

So to answer the question – leadership is not only contributing to Agile adoption in enterprises. Leadership IS adopting enterprises to become the best at delighting the customers of your business.

InfoQ: What inspires you – around leadership?

Ole: Personally I am currently mostly inspired by the following great leaders and their work – probably because they all focus on people.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

Alexander Kjerulf – people experience Happiness at Work if they

  • have good Relationships with people they work with and
  • are creating Results with their co-workers

Barbara Fredrickson and her science on Positivity

  • Positive emotions increases our awareness
  • Positivity change us – it even change our physiology

Daniel Pink – people are Intrinsically motivated by:

  • Knowing and agreeing to the Purpose of their organization
  • Autonomy – having influence over their work-life
  • Mastery – having the chance to get really good at what they do

David Rock and his Neural Leadership with these drivers for social behavior – the SCARF model:

  • Status – where am I compared to others
  • Certainty – do I know what will happen next
  • Autonomy – do I have influence (same as Pink)
  • Relatedness – do I have relationships with others (same as Kjerulf)
  • Fairness – do I get what I deserve, and do others

And last but not least David Marquet and his Leader-Leader model

  • Create leaders at every level by…
  • Give control – don’t take control
  • Communicate Organizational Clarity (Purpose – same as Pink) and nourish Individual Competence

About the Interviewee

Ole Jepsen is an Agile transformation coach working with organizations to create lasting change. Ole is a founder of the Agile Leadership Network (ALN), the Danish Agile User Group and Agile Coach Camp Denmark – and he is active in international Agile and Leadership communities, speaking at conferences and consulting worldwide.

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