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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Pollyanna Pixton on Collaborative Leadership

Pollyanna Pixton on Collaborative Leadership


1. Good day, this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ and I’m here at Agile 2013 and we are privileged to have Pollyanna Pixton talking to us, Pollyanna welcome and thank you for taking the time to come and talk to us today. Your company is Accelernova, could you tell us briefly a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Well I’ve been developing models for Leadership and Agile, I call them Collaborative Leadership Models, and along the way we’ve learned that you have to have trust from leadership and to give to ownership, so people will take to ownership. And then how the leaders take ownership without, or not take ownership, but give ownership without taking it back. It’s so easy to take away ownership from teams, it’s very hard once you do it to let go.


2. I happen to know that you’ve been writing a book on this score with a couple of collaborators, who you’ve been writing with?

Paul Gibson, he worked at IBM and helped in the transition of 26.000 developers to Agile and Niel Nickolaisen , my business partner at my company.


3. And what is the book about, can you give us the skinny?

Basically we found that we need to have a culture change inside companies to be able, for Agile to thrive and it has to be at Leadership level to start and what we discovered is there is a lot of talk about that but no tools on how to do it, so we put together in this book a Trust & Ownership model that deals with how you can get to a high trust and high ownership organization and also discusses how you can honestly deal with ambiguity (because you have to) and how to align business value in your team with the business values of the organization and your customers. So basically it’s an idea but we’ve used it and then we have five chapters and tools so it’s really a tool book, you can pick up these tools and you can apply them to the situations that you are in and try to use them, and we also have a section on dealing with the walls you are going to hit. So we have a whole section on how to deal with, how to collaborate with non collaborators.


4. These are tools for leaders, for managers who are looking to make that or lead that transition, that change? That is a hard change for many organizations?

Yes it is, but if they don’t do it, productivity is probably operating about a half for what they are doing and so there is data from great places to work and other organizations that show, that if you put trust and ownership in your organization you can almost double the productivity, the revenues inside companies.

Shane: That is a big improvement.

It is a big improvement; there is a lot of people that know that this stuff works, but what always people was said to me is: “Well how come people don’t do it?” and I say because they don’t know how, it’s not theory anymore, so the three of us had been doing it. These culture changes in companies like IBM and Pitney Bowes and places like that, and so we started saying: “These are the tools that work”, and we wanted to put them down with stories and say “this is how we did it and may help you do it”.


5. Could you give us an example of a couple of tools?

One tool is how you create culture of trust, reduce the fear, remove the fear in the organizations. People in collaborations fear three things: fear of losing their identity, fear of losing their intellectual mastery and fear of losing their individualism. And if you think about as a leader focusing on those things and moving that fear, then they are free up to collaborate. And the other way you can help with creating a culture of trust is to let the teams evaluate themselves and then if they decide they want to share with the rest of organization, they can, or they can keep it to themselves. So you are creating a culture of trust and if you really want to jump off the end, and create a great Culture Trust is to let organizations or let you teams on the budget, you totally trust them to be able to spend that money in the best way they need to, to reach their goals and objectives.


6. How many organizations can have that sort of courage?

There are some already out there; a car assemblers company does that. I have done it in small groups, some nonprofit groups, it’s fascinating to watch and if you have the courage to make that happen you see productivity and performance that is unbelievable.


7. And this is proof of this?

There is proof of it.


8. You are talking at the conference and your topic is the lighting customers through the Agile Culture, do you want to give us a little bit about of an inside into that?

What I see a lot in Agile is that customer needs get filtered through several people before it get’s the developers. So I talk about: 1) Understand the Customer Journey from end to end. So that means from the customer coming, finding out about your product all the way to support for the product when they decide to buy it; so it’s decision process, the trial, the whole end to end Customer Journey, and if the team understands that, the whole journey, then they start building software that fits in all those pieces. So a lot of people say: “Will get down the pathway of building a great product” and somebody else say: “How we are going to build for this and they go: We forgot” and that is software that they have to build or what about a trial run: “We forgot about that”.

In one company I worked with before you could even shop, they made you log in and set up an account and they said: “If you don’t understand that the customers are going to be really unhappy with that on a Customer Journey, I don’t care what new products you’ve got behind it”. So understand the Customer Journey and making it easy as possible for them, then you have an understanding of customer needs, and we do this by putting the business people, the sales people, marketing, developers, support, everybody in the room and build that customer journey together, so they understand it; of course big sticky notes. Then they talk about decision filters, is this going to help us do these things, then they have a decision filter so everyone on the team can make decisions and the business understands they are not in the business of providing a solution, they are in the business of telling people what they are going to do and why are going to do it. So the culture shift is: “Let the teams have ownership” on how they are going to build it but they need to understand the why including what business value they are delivering to their customers and what is the value that they are delivering to their company, there are both parts.

Shane: So there is this distinction or two elements to value that is the value for the customer who buys the ultimate product and the value to the organization.

Two pieces in, I find we often forget the second one, we are so busy focusing on customers, we say: “There is a trade off here about how much we can give to the customers and if that is going to deliver value back to the business what is the actual profit”. And developers don’t seems to get that information and that is part of the culture, is that we need to get that information and have them totally understand the business value.

Shane: So opening the covers on the financials of the organization. This culture of trust is going to be scary for many organizations.

Yes it is, but it’s free to do, it is scary but the results are unbelievable.


9. How do you help the scared executive overcome their fears and go down this pathway?

First I have to show them the value. Leaders are all about money and so you talk about, we can talk about how you profit from Agile and then you have to talk about how you can improve, how you can profit from high performance teams and high performance teams everybody knows that, but they say “what does that mean?” Well they have ownership, and ownership over efficiency, effectiveness, but the only way they can have ownership is to understand the purpose and the value of the organization and that is what leaders have to be able to do, they (one) have to be able to learn to trust their teams and then let them help them take ownership, because you can’t just walk in and say: “I trust you, see you later, deliver the product”, because a lot of teams don’t have that experience, they don’t know how to do it, so the leaders have to help them take ownership.

So when they come, the team members or some people come and say: “I can’t figure this out”. In old days a leader would say: “Have you tried this”. Now who has the ownership, the leader has the ownership, and the team go often does it because they think the leader is smarter than they are and if they go down the pathway, they found out that there was an error or is not working and they say: “Well, it’s got to work so I got to keep going” instead of correcting. So if teams that have ownership they correct faster because they have their ownership and that deliver what they committed to or when they want or what they think it’s right.

And so you see much higher quality work, you see higher delivery, faster delivery and once you show leaders that this is how it works, a lot of people say to me when they discover this: “I don’t have to tell them the solution all the time anymore, I don’t have to figure that out now?” I said, no! They said: “That’s great”. So they are very thrilled but it has to work both ways, where we get people together to talk about the Customer Journey, they put up a story board or some wire frames and then we ask the whole group together to cut out or mark the minimum viable product, so everybody knows where the value is and what we are doing, and then the teams take ownership on the how.


10. This focus on value comes through a lot?

Why we are in the business? We deliver value to the customer and deliver value to our organization; that is it.

Shane: But for many of this or many organizations that seems that people are in the business just to do work.

I know, that is true and I don’t see them really happy, if you don’t have purpose in your work then you are not really happy with what you are doing, so when you have purpose and you like it, you like getting up in the morning. I heard one talk here by Peter Saddington and he said: “Everything it’s about people and everything it’s about people having fun”, you want to get up in the morning and go to work because you are going to have fun, that is it, and the idea is: “If I’m just working, why am I doing that?” and I believe that everybody wants to do a good job and everybody wants to have enjoy their work, they want to be valued.


11. Turning the whole organizational paradigm on its head?

Yes, that is right, that is what Agile is doing, Agile is doing that, lets still deliver value not just lines of code, that is what they talk about, sometimes it doesn’t end up that way in organizations but you need a culture around it, because the culture around it is keeping Agile from really doing it’s practices efficiently and effectively. You see one really good example of taking away ownership or helping people not be teams - the deterrent to team building is this performance reviews, it’s a hot topic in all around the world and they are not helpful: stack ranking of people, make people work against each other instead of work together to succeed. So we talk a lot about how to give ownership to HR to change that, to help us do better at Agile and better collaboration, but a lot of people don’t go and ask them, and don’t ask them: “Will you fix this for us, we need your help”, instead they just sit around and say: “This is horrible, this is awful, what we are going to do about it?”. Well you go ask them, let them have the ownership, say we need your help to fix this for us.


12. So putting Ownership into the right people’s hands?

That is exactly right.

Pollyanna thank you very much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today, you gives us a lot to think about and we really appreciate it!

I’m delighted to do it, it’s a great organization!

Dec 31, 2013

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