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Designing an Environment for Leadership at All Levels

Esther Derby talked about leaders at all levels at the Lean Kanban Central Europe 2014 Conference. She showed how you can create a more flexible organization with improved communication and decision taking by working on the conditions for leadership at all levels in the organization.

Esther stated that to support leadership three aspects are important:

  • Clarity for people to know what to work on and to understand how their work fits into the big picture.
  • Conditions that enable people to do the work, supported by organization structures and policies.
  • Constraints to understand what always needs to be done and what should never be done. People have to know the amount of freedom that they have in the organization, their bounded autonomy.

You can recognize three levels in organizations: Steering, enabling and front line. At each level the three aspects can be addressed said Esther. For example at the steering level clarity can be provided with a vision and by communicating market and product positions. At the enabling level priorities can be communicated together with goals to provide clarity to people. Conditions for people to work in teams can be set at the enabling level which can be further detailed into micro conditions at the front line level.

There are things which change slowly in organizations, while other may be more dynamic. Things at the steering usually are more stable like the key policies and the guiding principles. On the front line level local teams or departments can be more flexible and adaptive by defining their working agreements and doing their own planning.

What we don’t want in organizations is separation of heads and hands said Esther. To have leadership at all levels it must be possible for people to make decisions regarding the work that they are doing. 

When an organization adopts agile changes may be needed in all three aspects to maintain consistency. Esther gave an example of an organization that stated: “We are going to be agile and everybody will be working in teams.” But then they did no changes to their rewarding system. “If you still do individual bonuses when people work in teams, that is not coherent”, said Esther.

To enable leadership you don’t want silo’s and coordinating roles. If constraints become too tight, people can’t do their work anymore. People need to get the information needed to do their work to have them become leaders.

According to Esther leaders at all levels must be able to:

  • Observe individual, group and system interactions
  • interpret observations against validated models (not ideologies)
  • act to adapt the environment based on observation and interpretation
  • evaluate the effect of their actions, and adapt

“Self-managing, self-organizing teams teams are 30-50% more productive than traditional teams” said Esther. If you have leaders at all levels decision making becomes better and faster, flexibility and engagement increases and there will be a reduced need for supervision.

It comes at a price as there will be complexity, redundancy and slack as Esther mentioned. People might initially perceive a loss of control and there is no prescription or one right way to do it. You will need to experiment, discuss and learn to create a more flexible organization.

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