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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Gil Broza on Individuals and Interactions, Empathic Leadership and Growing solid Teams

Gil Broza on Individuals and Interactions, Empathic Leadership and Growing solid Teams


1. Hello. This is Shane Hastie with InfoQ and we are here at Agile 2013 and I am talking to Gil Broza. Gil, you and I have met each other a couple of times, but would you mind briefly introducing yourself for the audience, please?

Yes. What I do, what I am dedicating my life to, is to make the world of software development effective, humane and responsible and that typically takes the form of helping organizations build solid teams and really pick up where Scrum left off which often means focusing on the human side of Agile and the technical side of Agile.

Shane: You did in fact, have written a book called “The Human Side of Agile”.



2. Please hold it up. Thank you. You are at the conference and talking. What is the topic of your talk?

Today I am giving a session called “The Curious, Present and Empathetic Agile Leader”.


3. Can you summarize that for us?

Oh, this long title is not enough. It is how to get the most out of leadership interaction, so the conversations that you have when you are leading, coaching, facilitating, inspiring, encouraging and so on. The conversations may not quite go as you would like. I have learned from a good friend David Spanwood, whom I first gave this session three years ago, that when I am curious and I am present and I am empathetic, then the results are astonishing and I want to give that gift to other people who show up.


4. Curiosity, I sort of understand, but what does it mean for a leader to be present?

Present means that I am in the here and now. I am now engaged in the conversation with you, I am not worried about the ding in my smart phone, I am not worried about “Oh, I should be meeting somebody at 11. What am I going to tell them?” No, I am here with you. So, I am really focusing on our interaction, our relationship, the stakes, the objective of this conversation and it truly means that I am giving you my undivided attention. It also means that if I know that I cannot do that, maybe I am preoccupied or maybe I do have something else to take care of, it is my responsibility to say “We should probably speak later. Right now is probably not the best time.”

Shane: So it is understanding, knowing yourself and being honest with yourself.

And with the other person because if I cannot be present in our conversation I do not want to waste your time.


5. Coming back to your book, there are a number of themes that go through it. The first one: “every team needs leadership”. Well, isn’t that obvious?

Yes. Well, every team needs many obvious things, but the thing with leadership is that – leadership is about achieving valuable outcomes and it is about getting to those outcomes while inspiring and encouraging the team to do what it takes to get there. In my experience, having coached and trained hundreds of people, I have seen that once you get 7,10,12 people in a room and they can be perfectly engaged and intelligent and self-organizing, they are still a group of people and they do need some sort of glue – for lack of a better word – to help them keep their eyes on the ball, see where they are going, somebody who notices where things break down, somebody who helps them take themselves where they need to go. So, that is leadership.

It can be distributed. We do want everybody on the team to show some level of leadership. You can think of it as taking responsibility – I am good friends with Cristopher Avery who wrote one of the forewords – and there is a lot of that going on. But in fact, one of the points I make in the book is that most teams out there, and probably not many of the teams represented at this conference, but most of the teams out there in the corporations and the smaller companies, they could really use a dedicated leader. Now, if you use Scrum, you already have a Scrum master. The team leader that I describe here is a stronger form of the Scrum master. He or she does not just focus on process or project administration or – as some people call it – secretarial activities, it is putting people first.


6. Another topic that you have in the book is “growing a solid team”. What is a solid team?

Yes. A solid team is one that you can leave alone and know that they will get the goods. It actually means that the more solid, the more reliable they get, the less dedicated leadership they need, they can take care of themselves and a lot of the leadership is in fact situational. Once the team is solid enough, you know that they will deliver. You know that they will respond to change. If the change is not dramatic, then they will figure it out, they will work with it. A lot of people speak about high performance teams. I use that term myself, but I find that a solid team is probably better because it means that you sustain that performance over time. High performance is not a stable state. So if you are able to sustain it over time, that is where the money is. That is when it becomes worth the time and investment of energy and emotional energy to actually have a team as opposed to a bunch of individuals with a boss.

Shane: To achieve that, you talk about “powerful conversations”.

Yes. To everybody out there who has ever been to a meeting that you prefer to be anywhere but in that meeting, there is a whole chapter on just what you need to know to make meetings matter in an Agile context. There is also a chapter on communicating one-on-one. So, the topic of my conversation, of my session today, is very closely tied to that. But, if you go to many communication skills trainings, what not, the big deal there will be act of listening. Act of listening is just one small part of the thing. So there is a whole lot more in here.

Shane: You also have what seemed quite pragmatic advice in the book in terms of how to be this leader.

Yes. There is this statement in the Agile manifesto - “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” – but there is very little guidance out there on what that actually means in practice and specifically when you are being a leader, what do you do, how do you see yourself, what do you believe in order to be effective. There is a good deal of advice in the book on how you can adopt behaviors that will be suitable when you are leading an Agile team. So this is not a generic leadership book, it is specifically for people who are leading from within a team without being a delivery team member.

Shane: And then you end with discussing sustaining this team.

Yes. Many organizations have really gotten the message that teams should be fairly stable over a time. There will be a natural turnover, you can’t avoid that, but we want the teams to pull the work as opposed to form teams on whom we push to work. But when teams stay together, the challenges are a whole lot different than the challenges that most people who are new to Agile expect when they just get the team together. So the first few months of a team’s life cycle don’t look anything like the later year, two, three or five. The challenges are different and for instance, one thing that tends to come up, is a certain individual preference that people apply subconsciously, plays itself out. Some of us really like stability. We can take 100 iterations. That is just fine. We are happy, we are delivering, it is all good. Other people tend to like change and like differences. I am like this which is why I became a coach and consultant to many companies. So every month or two I have a different type of challenge. You want both types of preferences present on the team. So you have people who like this and people who like that because they notice different things, they complement each other. But over time, some people get antsy, some people want to move out, some people want more challenge, the people who prefer stability say “No. Not so fast.” This is tension that plays itself out and you have to reckon with it.

Shane: Great. Coming back to that concept – individuals and interactions – I know that you have recently run a series of virtual workshops.ccInterviews, actually.


7. Interviews. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Yes. That was a virtual training, really in a teleconference format. I go together eleven brilliant people - many of whom I am sure you interviewed, folks like Johanna Rothman and Christopher Avery and David Span, Rick Cross, Ellen Gottesdiener and several other - and we talked about what it is like to, in fact, put people before process. I chose guests who have been doing this or have been teaching others to do it over – well, every one of them has been doing it for twenty or more years and the idea was to contribute to the body of knowledge around the human style of work, specifically in a technology Agile development type of environment and we have – what is it? – ten hours of interviews and 150 pages of transcripts of practical advice on how they have done it. So, it is not just me saying it.

Shane: So you pulled together a group of “best minds”.



8. Wonderful. And this is available for people to access?

Yes. At It is even worth PDUs, it turns out.

Shane: Oh, wonderful.

I had no idea initially, but it turns out there is nine PDUs.

Shane: Wonderful. Gil, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today. We really appreciate it. Enjoy the rest of the conference.

Thank you so much, Shane.

Jan 09, 2014