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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Heather Hassebroek and Kent McDonald on Positive Politics, Organisational Change, Leadership Engagement and Sharing Experiences through Stories

Heather Hassebroek and Kent McDonald on Positive Politics, Organisational Change, Leadership Engagement and Sharing Experiences through Stories


1. Good day this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ. We are here at Agile 2014 and I am talking with Heather Hassebroek and Kent McDonald. Heather, Kent, welcome, thank you very much for joining us. We know each other but I suspect that there is a large proportion of our audience that doesn’t so would you mind briefly introducing yourselves? Heather could you start?

Heather: I am Heather Hassebroek and I am really an Agile program manager at FPL financial group, it’s an insurance company in the Midwest and I have spent the past seven years in various capacities from project management, to change management, leadership and in the Agile space coaching and mentoring.

Shane: Cool thank you, and Kent.

Kent: My name is Kent McDonald and right now I am VP product development for B2T Training, a training company and I have spent several years in the Agile community. So heavily engaged with the conference, do a bit of coaching, a bit of training and a lot of writing.


2. Great. Now you two have a talk with a really interesting title: “Positive Politics” isn’t that an oxymoron?

Kent: It is an oxymoron and that is part of the reason we used it, we also used it because we like the alliteration in it, but we picked that title because Heather found through her experience and I have as well working with teams, that politics are pervasive I am really getting on that “p-” theme now I guess, and you have to account for them and use them and they can actually be used in a positive manner to help a transformation happen. And Heather certainly has had a lot of experience doing that over the past year and a half where she is right now.

Heather: I spent a lot of time, I mean so often we loose focus of connecting, networking, relationships, some of the basics and how influential that can be and how we have to leverage that and so there are various techniques where we want to leverage politics in a positive manner, to help our leaders and our executives go through that transformation, and become an advocate of the change, an extension of the team. So it’s a very powerful thing, that we all have the ability to use if we choose to use it.


3. So what do we mean by politics?

Heather: So politics is the art or science of influencing policy. That is the definition of it, and so we are talking about using politics, influencing people and using the relationships and connections and those, there is also a component of art to it as well. So how hard do we push people? We have to be aware of engaging, is that too much for an organization, do we need to soften it up a bit? So we are really applying the art and science and all it boils down to is influencing individuals and helping them through the transformation.

Shane: One of the terms that I heard you use was “coaching upwards”, tell us about that.

Kent: So, one of the big things that I have found in working with teams, starting to do a transition to Agile, or really any organizational transition, is that you often run into the case where you have senior leaders in the organization, say a CIO, and this is actually what happened to Heather, decides we are going to go to Agile. And says I am fully supportive behind it, very direct reports are saying “yes that is a great thing” but they really don’t understand what that means. They get the techniques, they get the practices, most of the time. But what they really don’t is they don’t quite understand there is a huge mindset shift that has to go along with it. And so what the coaching upwards – and one of the techniques we talked about in the talk was micromanagement up, where when you are first getting started with these senior leaders you have to actually be very specific on things that they can do, to help move the transformation forward; often it’s things they can do to help remove the obstacles in the organization, to help give them an idea of what that mindset shift really looks like, because it seams a lot different than what they are used to. So our talk was really for people that are in a position where they have a lot of influence but they don’t have a lot of authority and how you can use some of the techniques to start helping leaders change so that they can help the teams change as well.


4. Ok, so what are some of those techniques? What are some of the things people in that position, because certainly I am seeing as more and more organizations are doing this transformation or Agile transition, and it’s bumping into all sorts of problems. So what are some of the tools?

Heather: Some techniques, micro manage up is one of them, another one is playing by the rules, and so when we are talking about rules we are talking about the way that politics work in that organization, and often times there are some unwritten rules, they are not written down somewhere and so you have to understand what those are, and then follow them and when you follow them you are actually building credibility with people in the organization and once you have that credibility then you can start to gradually change those rules, to the desired future state of the transformation so playing by the rules is one of the techniques. Another technique is cutting a hole in the upward communication filters. So where that becomes a barrier for us is that so often times we share with leaders what we think they need to hear, versus what they really need to hear and that creates a disconnect in communication and those disconnects are magnified under organizational change; it becomes a much larger challenge. And so for that component we recommend just having visibility of work so that the team sees the same thing that the leaders are seeing. Another action or item that you can do is understanding the organizational beliefs so from that perspective what we want to do is to understand the organizational beliefs, because that drives actions which drives results, and so if we understand the organizational beliefs we can focus on how can we change those beliefs. You change those beliefs by creating experiences for people that then change their beliefs and their actions and drive the different results.

Kent: One of the other things that we talked about was the idea of connecting silos, most organizations tend to have them, of course we talked about silos in the Midwest because we live in farm country so it’s highly prevalent there, and one of the ways to do that is establishing a clear shared understanding and vision of where things are heading. And one of the ways that Heather actually approached doing this at her organization was to actually bring all of the direct reports to the CIO the senior leaders, out of their walled offices with doors and actually sitting in a bull-pen area. So she literally was physically changing their environment to connect those silo owners. And it wasn’t just an immediate, just happened like that, it was a progression to get them to that point, she used the play by the rules and then change the rules approach to get there, but she actually did that and keeping in mind this was in an organization where one of their beliefs, that she talked about earlier, was that a person’s worth was measured by the height of his walls. That was a very powerful way to get the senior leadership team in the IT organization working as a cohesive group by actually getting them out so the communication barriers were reduced and she left it open so that you did it and said we’ll try it for eight weeks or so and if you don’t like it you can go back to your offices.

Heather: After eight weeks no one wanted to move back, they loved it and they were connecting and it was just a great environment. So what happened with those offices that were opened, we opened them up, we white boarded the walls, we put tables and chairs and coaches in there, and turned them into unofficial conference rooms for people to use if they did need a closed door, or if they just needed to get together with their team in a group, so it turned out to be a great move and a great opportunity for all the leaders to come together.


5. One of the things you touched on was the concept of organizational beliefs. Kent, you mentioned the height of the wall is the measure of your importance, what are some of the other common beliefs that have to be overcome to enable the mindset shift?

Kent: The beliefs that Heather mentioned was actually part of the techniques that she used to drive information up and so you actually as a team went around and asked other members in the organization what are some shared beliefs, you brainstormed some beliefs and then you confirmed those things. Do you remember what some of them were?

Heather: Some of them were that the decisions were made at the top of the house, instead of those closest to the team.

Kent: Another one if I remember right was that it was better to be nice then truthful.

Heather: So what would happen in that case, be nice or being friends, was more important than being truthful, that would hinder our communication abilities and so we just tried to understand what those were and then see if they resonated with others in the organization, which they did, and then from that perspective we tried to say some of the beliefs are really good and we want to keep them, so you continue to have those experiences here and there were beliefs we knew that they were hindering our ability to move forward, so how can we create a different experience to change those beliefs.

Shane: Changing belief systems is hard.

Kent: And then part of what you were doing is acknowledging that those beliefs existed so I remember you telling me, when you first shared those beliefs with your senior leaders, they were like “Oh no, that’s not the case here”. And you kind of put that in your back pocket, from when you told me, so when you were having discussions and they were starting to go that path you just pulled the card and say “Does this mean that you are exhibiting this particular belief?” In some cases you were not changing as much as just acknowledging and knowing how to go forward.

Heather: Right and so the other thing is that these beliefs didn’t resonate that well with the leaders out of the gate because they weren’t used to hearing that information and so when we talked about cutting a hole in upward filters, this was stuff that was being filtered, it didn’t get to them, it was cut out. So it took a little while to sink in and so, for instance on the belief where the decisions are made by the leaders instead of those in the team, we actually hit an impediment where the teams wanted to make some changes but they said we can’t because our leaders make those decisions. So when those types of situations came up, they provided us an opportunity to connect with the leaders and say “We have this situation, the teams want to change their structure, so do you support them and would you allow them to make the decision to change their structure?” And the leaders agreed to. Which then that provided that team an experience so when they have a challenge they now have the ability to make those changes so that started to reinforce and change their beliefs that next time we have a pain point we can do something about it, we do have a choice, we do have a decision, and so it happens over time by having reinforced those types of situations. So any time another one came up, another challenge, we would associate it and say “Does it connect with this belief?”


6. Tell us a bit more about what’s needed to make this mindset shift?

One of the things that came up when we were deciding about presenting this session, there is a couple things in there, one is that my experience - and I had the opportunity to coach a lot of different teams in a lot of different organizations – so I started seeing patterns in different organizations. And a lot of it is that it is fairly easy for teams to pick up on techniques, practices and things of that nature, but where the complexity or the difficulty always seam to come into play is that the mindset shift doesn’t always happen everywhere where it needs to happen and often it’s not necessarily in the teams, they catch onto the mindset fairly quickly, but as Heather was talking about it’s as if the underlying experience is that their factoring doesn’t point in the belief systems in a way that is beneficial so highly collaborative, opened to uncertain and ambiguity, they start running into big problems that a new technique isn’t going to solve. It really is then looking at how do we start changing the mindset throughout the entire organization at least as far as even within the IT side of things, to help move things forward and sometimes it’s not adding new techniques on top of each other that really makes a difference, it’s really just saying we need to be able to be more opened to experimentation, we need to allow for more ambiguity going on and where that really comes to play is in coaching the leaders, the managers, in fact a friend of mine, who also does a lot of coaching, Chris Matts, had stated “Given an organization wants to transform to Agile when the coach comes in then the first place they should start with is the management”. Because from setting the environment and moving that in a different direction that’s really where the key is and since Agile is really all about collaboration, and how people are working together, that’s probably where you are going to make the biggest impact.

Shane: Thank you very much, really interesting conversations talking about that positive politics. Kent I know there was something you wanted to talk about in terms of stories and practitioners.

Kent: As I mentioned I have been involved with the conference for several years, and throughout the course I have had various different areas where I’ve been able to see where the trends are going, and one of the things I enjoy doing a lot now is helping people share their stories. So one of the reasons we partnered up on this presentation and submitted it was so that it would give a chance for Heather to tell her story, because it’s something I think a lot of people are running into, and a lot of feedback we got about this session has been that people really appreciated hearing the actual real life stories going on so I work with a lot of organizations and have a lot of those small little stories to tell, but I think it was very helpful for people to hear about Heather’s year and a half; living it day in and day out to really get an idea of here is what we tried, some of it worked, some of it didn’t, and it really helped spark some ideas for other people. The conference already has the great program with the experience reports, that are part of the sessions, the Agile Alliance have created the Experience Reports Program to keep those experience reports coming in throughout the year and I think those are huge initiatives that are really going to help share actual practical real life experience but I always like to look for other ways to bring those practical experiences in so other people can hear them, because I think a lot of people get a lot of information and a lot of help out of that because they can relate to it and say “yeah I am going through that same thing so I am not alone, I am not crazy” or “I hadn’t thought about doing it that way so maybe I should try that out”. So it’s very helpful for people to hear those actual experiences.

Shane: Getting the real stories out.

Kent: Getting the real stories out there.

Shane: Heather, Kent thank you very much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ and we look forward to hearing the next round of stories.

Kent: Thank you very much.

Heather: Thank you.

Dec 17, 2014