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Self Leadership for Agility


The Agile Consortium International and Unicom are organizing the Scaling Agile for the Enterprise 2016 congress on February 4 in Brussels, Belgium. InfoQ will cover this event.

It is the second year that this event is held. The Scaling Agile 2015 congress focused on frameworks for and experiences with agile scaling. The topic of the 2016 event is agile leadership:

With this immense growth of organisations adopting the Agile philosophy, more and more organisations realise that Agile’s focus on team delivery alone is not enough. Many of these Agile teams are trying to extend the boundaries of the organisational culture but are facing resistance in bringing about this change.To overcome these barriers to a sustainable Agile adoption, organisations need new leaders. Leaders that have the skills and practices to create an Agile environment for self-organising teams to do their job.

Christopher Avery will give a talk about leading yourself at the Scaling Agile for the Enterprise congress. InfoQ interviewed him about applying self leadership with the responsibility process, his view on self-organizing teams, the role for leadership in agile, and how top leadership differ in a small organization with only a few agile teams and in large organizations with tens or hundreds of agile teams.

InfoQ: Can you explain what you mean with "leading others starts with leading yourself"?

Christopher Avery: Yes. Today’s workers respond to leaders who are authentic, real, principled, responsible, inspired, and courageous. Those are qualities of self-leadership. Leading yourself is 95% of leading others.

True leadership is defined by followership. Would people follow you if they weren’t obligated to do so?

So to be a better leader, focus first on where you are coming from:

  • Are you inspired and on-purpose, being pulled by an extremely interesting problem or opportunity?
  • Can you be you (i.e., authentic)? Or do you need to pretend to be something else?
  • Are you operating from a position of ownership and responsibility for your values and principles as well as for your choices, actions, and consequences?

If not, then correct these things. How? Develop and believe in yourself while finding an opportunity to add value that inspires you. Get these things in place and I won’t be surprised at all to see people wanting to follow you.

Let me acknowledge some of my clients, members of The Leadership Gift Program, who are examples of what I am talking about. Mike Kaufman was a competent software manager. He could do all the managerial things effectively. But it did not inspire him, nor did it inspire those reporting to him. When he discovered what was truly important to him and re-aligned to it, he become far more on-purpose, inspired, and inspiring. He began thriving and so did his team members.

I call it personal leadership development. When you develop yourself you gain great wisdom about how to be a person others want to follow.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate about self leadership and the responsibility process? What are they and how can you apply them in practice?

Christopher Avery: Of course. The essence of leadership is taking responsibility–100% responsibility— for a problem or opportunity and mobilizing effective action. So let’s start with a brief primer on The Responsibility Process. 

It is a pattern in your mind that gets triggered every time something goes wrong. Each position in The Responsibility Process is a mental state with its own logic of cause-and-effect:

  • In Lay Blame we blame others (“we didn’t deliver because QA got behind”),
  • In Justify we blame circumstances (“horrible traffic today made me late”),
  • In Shame we blame ourselves (“I broke the build, I’m a dummy”),
  • In Obligation we feel trapped and have no choice (“I have to go to this dumb meeting”).

The only mental state where you think resourcefully is in the state of Responsibility. Only in this state can you access your complex reasoning abilities to learn, grow, and overcome problems. In all the other mental states you use your intelligence and problem-solving skills to defend yourself and cope with the assumption that there is nothing you can do to effect change.

Let me give you an example. Jessica Soroky, a member of The Leadership Gift Program, committed to documenting her first 365 days practicing The Responsibility Process by blogging weekly about it (see her first post). Then, she was a 21-year-old college intern. Today, Jessica is a 23-year-old agile coach and an in-demand conference presenter with a large and growing following. That is a lot of life progress in a short time. Jessica offers a great example of leading yourself by practicing Responsibility. See for yourself. Check out her latest post titled Courage.

As long as you operate from any of the coping states below Responsibility, you aren’t leading. You are stuck. That’s not self-leadership. That’s not stepping up, it’s stepping down.

How do you apply this in practice? That’s a good question. We’ve learned much about how to practice and even master Responsibility. And the good news is that you are fully equipped to do it.

Here’s the short version of how to practice. There are three keys to Responsibility:

  • Intention,
  • Awareness, and
  • Confront.

When things go wrong—and they go wrong all day everyday—you deliberately intend to operate from Responsibility knowing full well your first thoughts will be coping thoughts of Lay Blame, Justify, Shame, or Obligation. So then you develop your awareness in order to catch yourself laying blame and stop it. When you refuse to operate from a coping mental state you graduate up to the next mental state. Then you confront your own perceptions, assumptions, and expectations to discover what is true that you aren’t yet seeing. This will lead you to breakthroughs and newfound clarity in how you see the world. And that frees you up, generates new choices, and gives you new powers in dealing with the world around you.

Tabatha was a senior director in a large IT organization I supported. She had been underperforming in one area of her role for a few months and the CIO called her on it. Tabatha thought about it over the weekend (i.e., she confronted herself to see what was true) and got on her boss’s calendar early the next week. “You know what boss? You were right. I was doing a poor job, and I figured out why. I was treating it as an obligation, so I was approaching it in the mental state of Obligation. I wasn’t really owning it, so no wonder I just did the bare minimum to get by. I was not aware that I was in Obligation until you called me on it. So, thank you! My intention is to operate from Responsibility. I generated some new clarity this weekend that I did not have before about my inspiration for that part of my role. You can expect to see a marked improvement.”

You are already naturally equipped to do this. You can use The Responsibility Process and the Three Keys to Responsibility to get unstuck and lead yourself (and others) to greater freedom, choice, and power.

InfoQ: The agile manifesto states that "the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams". What is your view on this?

Christopher Avery: It’s true. Self-organizing teams who own their work tend to naturally operate at higher levels of Responsibility. When they do that they are far more resourceful, creative, positive, and inspired.

However, when command and control goes up, Responsibility goes down.

For every degree of freedom or autonomy you take away from people through directives, policies, rules, controls, sign-offs, micro-managing and such, those brilliant and ambitious people transfer Responsibility to you for their actions, choices, and results. How often do you hear “I did exactly what you told me. It’s not my fault.”

Recall the first Q&A above about self-leadership. If you are in a role where you can’t be authentic, i.e., who you are, and you are constantly coping with insanity all around, check to see if you are abdicating Responsibility to “them” in order to cope with the insanity. To lead yourself means to stop coping and start growing.

InfoQ: What is the role that you see for leadership in agile?

Christopher Avery: I see a number of roles for leadership.

First, practice self-leadership by taking responsibility for your actions and consequences, for engaging yourself where you are, or for finding a better place for yourself to engage.

Second, practice integrative leadership (aka, collaborative, peer, or team leadership) by understanding shared responsibility and how to get people to step up to it together. This could be at the level of a team, across teams, or teams of teams. My book Teamwork Is An Individual Skill addresses this.

Another member of The Leadership Gift Program, Ian Brockbank, was a stressed-out software manager when we met. Soon he realized he was taking on all of his team members’ problems and not making room for them to own and solve the problems themselves. When he corrected this and became more of an integrative leader than a manager, his work became easier and his team performed better. Everyone was happier. Ian then found time and attention to lead peer managers in solving some pesky organizational issues. That lead to being recognized for his greater value to the company.

Third, practice inspirational leadership to set the context for groups and organizations by paying attention to the big Why and maintaining focus on it for yourself and others.

Fourth practice shared leadership by allowing anyone and everyone to step up to ownership, Responsibility, and leadership.

InfoQ: How does top-leadership differ in a small organization with only a few agile teams and in large organizations with tens or hundreds of agile teams?

Christopher Avery: That’s a good question. I do believe leadership is Responsibility, plain and simple, regardless of organization size. That means you get to own it all, the structure, the systems, the processes, the culture, and the results, whether intended or not. It’s yours. By owning it all, you get to learn and grow through successively greater challenges.

By the way, this is also the essence of the agile mindset -- that you feel a sense of ownership for the entire value stream, and not just your “piece.” So if you see an impediment up or down the value stream, you confront it.

Let’s look at the issue of agility at scale. In the smaller organization of a few teams, leadership is often more personal, one-to-one, and can be consistent with a culture of agility and responsibility. However in larger organizations leadership and culture are often seen as the primary impediment to greater agility. Why? There is no one reason, but often it has to do with a more traditional management mindset that sees agility as a process to be installed instead of a way of thinking and acting.

I have a lot of empathy for senior leaders in larger organizations. They know that leadership and culture are important, but the solutions for improving leadership and culture are not as crisp and measurable as the solutions for changing process and technology, so they operate within their comfort zone. I am working with the CIO of an auto-maker in the UK who said to me “Christopher, with my doctorate in physics, The Responsibility Process looks like fuzzy logic, but it is less fuzzy than other leadership models!”

InfoQ: Any final advice on leadership that you want to give to InfoQ readers?

Christopher Avery: My final word on leadership is this: No group or level in an organization is going to operate at higher levels of Responsibility than the people to whom they report. What that means is that if you are in a leadership role, and you respond to problems by blaming the suppliers, the market, the customers, or the workers, then your followers will learn to blame. The same is true with the other coping states. However if you respond to problems by saying “this is our mess, let’s figure out what we want to do about it”, then you will have followers who practice Responsibility.

You can do this. You already have what it takes. If you are interested in being a better leader of yourself and others by learning to practice and master Responsibility, I’m here to help.

About the Interviewee

Christopher Avery (website) works with leaders and teams who want to lead themselves and others to freedom, choice, and power while producing results that matter. A popular presenter for agile conferences and co-founder of the Agile Leadership Network, Christopher is the author of Teamwork Is An Individual Skill and of the forthcoming book Mastering Responsibility: Leading Yourself and Others to Freedom, Choice, and Power. He is the CEO of Partnerwerks, Inc., distributor of The Responsibility Process® products and services including The Leadership Gift™ Program.


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