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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Gil Broza on the Human Side of Agile Management

Gil Broza on the Human Side of Agile Management


1. Good day, this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ, we are here at Agile 2014 and I am with Gil Broza. Gil, good to see you again.

Hello. Good to see you too, Shane.

Shane: It’s been a little while. I suppose you and I know each other, but perhaps you could introduce yourself briefly for the audience.

Briefly, I am going to mention Diana Larsen’s Best Job Ever keynote and say that I do have a five word purpose, it is an effective humane and responsible software development world, well, that’s six.

Shane: So, supporting and effective humane responsible software development work, that’s a nice purpose.

Yes. And I do this through coaching, consulting, writing, facilitation, training and I get to work with amazing people. In this conference alone, this is Thursday, I’ve already crossed paths with more than 100 interesting people, I know because I actually count (I’m a geek). So, I am part of a community and my part of the community is to help people work better and feel good about the work as they do it, and really grow.

Shane: I know one of things you’ve done is written a book called The Human Side of Agile and I believe your talk at the conference was very much delving into that.

Yes. So the talk was called The Human Side of Agile Management and the audience I had was about 100 people who manage teams, lead teams, manage projects, some directors and the point was how can you be a servant leader. In agile we say servant leadership is the way to go as opposed to traditional style management, well what does that actually mean in practice? And so, we looked at the meaning of servant leadership, what makes great teams, what makes teams tick, what you can do as a servant leader and not do, what you probably should avoid doing because it gets you short term results and then it was the specifics of three skills that make the most difference, that’s communication, coaching and facilitation.


2. What makes servant leadership?

You are being a servant leader when you support a team in doing their work and becoming stronger along the way, becoming more powerful as a team. Just becoming solid, when you have a team and you can trust them to get the job done even when you are on vacation; we probably want you back from vacation at some point, but we want the team to be able to make decisions for themselves, be able to make progress, not second guess themselves; support each other, have a culture of learning, build feedback loops that they actually do something with. So, servant leadership cultivates all of that and it cultivates that through the "ask, don’t tell" approach, you cultivate this by helping the group reach consensus easily and without pain; one of the things I teach is how to have effective meetings, I don’t expect you to turn into a professional facilitator, but let’s get away from meetings that suck.

Shane: Certainly a lot of meetings do suck.

Or even basic coaching. So, I am not in the business of developing agile coaches, I am in the business of developing the thousands of professionals who need to coach as part of their role. Again, the team leads, ScrumMasters, managers, PMs, and a lot of people have a very hazy sense of what coaching actually is, they confuse it with general helpfulness and when you coach you are being a certain way and you do certain things.


3. What are some of those key coaching characteristics that a manager or a servant leader needs to pick up?

In order to coach well you need several things. You need basic skills, yes, like listening and asking questions and being observant and all of that. You also need the desire to actually help, you can’t coach someone if you’re just doing them a favor or you feel like you have to, that doesn’t work. You need permission to coach, when I said this in my session there was actually a gasp in the audience because it hasn’t occurred to many people to think that if I’m full of good intents and I have the skills and abilities, then wouldn’t you want my suggestions? Well, it turns out that unless you ask for the permission to coach and allow the other person to open his or her mind to being helped, no, they will be polite with you, you’ll have a conversation, they will wait patiently for you to go away and subsequently ignore everything you said. So, you need the permission and having positional authority doesn’t grant you that permission, that permission doesn’t extend from one session to another, so you need to develop that too. You need self-awareness, so you know how to come across, you need empathy, there’s a few more things.


4. Why is servant leadership so important in the agile world?

Because the agile world is team centric, agile without teams is meaningless, you can do agile with one person, that’s not interesting, that’s easy, anyone given the flexibility to do something will choose an agile-minded style of work, but once you expect a team to produce the result, the whole game changes, because now we have human dynamics and now we have motivation, now we have rewards and recognition, now we have agreements and coordination and communication, and oh, I thought you said this, no, you didn’t, oh, sorry, and doing the same thing twice and jockeying for position and the whole spectrum of human behavior. And it turns out the traditional style of approaching that, which is to manage the workers and manage the work, as you would run a machine, just doesn’t quite handle human dynamics properly. So we say it’s often better to lead rather than manage and you don’t just lead, you’re being a servant leader, in other words what you do is on behalf of your team, you’re invested in your team’s growth not just in the results. That’s the big deal.


5. Why is this so hard?

Because we are human. Look, there are 2,000 people here at the conference, everyone is bright and dedicated and interesting and full of experiences that make them what they are and becoming a great servant leader is a journey of a lifetime, if I were to meet the exact same set of people ten years from now, they’d be all different and you cannot just teach this over a few days at a conference with a workshop and all of a sudden turn people into the thing they want to be. So I do that type of teaching and that type of workshop, but I do this to plant the seed, to open people’s minds, to help them adopt a mindset and have foundational skills to get them started, but I have no illusions that in two days somebody just completely morphs into a new being. You need an open mind, you need to have the beginnings of wanting to become that and then you put yourself on a journey. I know for most people here it’s no less than three years, for some it’s five, for some it’s ten, maybe it’s the 10,000 hour thing.


6. So, where to next? In terms of, I suppose there are two elements of where to next, for people who’ve been on the workshop, who’ve been through your session at the conference, what do they need to do to become that servant leader that they want to be?

A lot of deliberate practice. Everyone I know who is inside an organization, the urgent trumps the important, and people don’t have enough opportunities to learn and grow and get feedback and try things out and the key thing is to overcome that so that you can actually engage in deliberate practice so you can actually demonstrate to the team when and how you trust them, so you can actually support your team through coaching and facilitation and such and be truly mindful of it. So, I like to support the people who receive my work through additional communication and they come back and they get the book or whatever, but everybody needs that feedback and awareness and that constant cycle of improvement and that must come from outside, very few people are able to become awesome servant leaders just through internal conviction of doing it right. So it really helps to have a support network, a few people that you turn to, so I like to be part of that.


7. And where to next for Gil?

Where to next for Gil? I’ve really stepped up in terms of bringing my workshops to many cities and taking them on tours, because there is only so much good I can do in my own city and people need help everywhere, so I run several of them a year, both on the human side and the technical side and the other thing is the next book. A book that should have been written 15 years ago but still hasn’t, The Agile Mindset.


8. The Agile Mindset?

The Agile Mindset, how does an agilist think and act. It’s not about process, it’s not about Scrum, it’s not about tools, and it’s not only about the human side either. It’s about when I am being an agilist what goes through my mind, what are the sort of things I pay attention to, what I avoid, what are my driving values, what do I believe, what sort of principles do I draw from this, that’s the next book.


9. What’s the preview? What are some of the keys to that agile mindset?

The preview? The mindset is really this aggregate of your role and motivation, who you’re being when you are doing the work, I am a servant leader, I am a cultivator of people, I am somebody who delivers software. The values, what's important to you, there are the five scrum values and the four XP values, most teams have some of these and some others that are aligned, but each individual has a few more. The third element in this aggregate is your beliefs, again what do you assume about the work, what do you assume about people, what do you assume about your own abilities. So, for instance, one of the beliefs that come along for the ride with agile is that teams made up of good people, who are professionals, if you put them in an environment that allows them to work and you trust them, they will get the job done, that’s a belief in agile, it’s not a belief in waterfall, waterfall is based on a different set of beliefs. So, it’s the aggregate of all of these, it’s not about what you can do, you can do TDD, it’s not about your behaviors such as you don’t move without a test, it’s about how do you approach the work. So the chapters in the book really have to do with how do you know what to work on, how do you plan the work, how do you do the work, how do you have people do the work, how do you have teams do the work, and how do you get better at their work, which is really what agile is all about. So that’s the quick preview, the table of contents.


10. Wonderful. And to put you on the spot, when is the book going to be ready?

By my Gantt charts? The book is on LeanPub because I want to release an MVP for feedback, there are going to be several feedback cycles, I am hoping for truly meaningful feedback cycles by the end of the year and if our audience wants to be part of that, the link is, and they can sign up for that and any time there are updates they get pushed out and I will take any feedback I can get.

Shane: Great. Gil, thank you for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today, it’s been great to see you. Good luck with the book.

Thank you very much.

Sep 11, 2014