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Q&A with David Marquet on Applying Intent-based Leadership in Agile

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Nov 26, 2015. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

Software engineers can really do a tremendous service to themselves, their co-workers, and the world by stepping up and being a leader from the position they are in. Agile is essentially building a leader-leader model in software organizations says David Marquet, author of the book "Turn the Ship Around!".

The Agile Consortium is hosting an evening seminar on leadership fit for the 21st century on December 1 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. David Marquet, will give a keynote on intent-based leadership and Jenni Jepsen will talk about Making People Feel Empowered with Intent-based Leadership. InfoQ will cover this event.

InfoQ interviewed Marquet about having leadership at all levels in the organization and intent-based leadership, and about applying the leader-leader model in agile.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write the book "Turn the Ship Around"?

Marquet: We had a powerful story which I felt was out of the ordinary. Too often we read turn-around stories that are done by take-control, "charismatic" leaders. It’s all about the leaders. We hear little about the team and little about what happened afterward. The story I wanted to tell was about a team that achieved great things in the moment, but also over the next 10 years, creating the most subsequent leaders on record including 10 officers selected to command their own submarines.

InfoQ: In your book you described the leader-leader model and explored how you can have leadership at all levels in the organization. Can you briefly describe this model?

Marquet: The idea behind leader-leader is that each person is thought of, and thinks of himself or herself, as a leader. That means they make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. At the same time, everyone is a following of the principles and purpose of the organization, including the "leader." This differs from many organizations where the idea is I follow you and you follow the boss and the boss decides what is best. With Leader-Leader the boss is accountable for following the organizational principles just as much as everyone else.

InfoQ: Can you give an example showing things that you did to developed effective leadership on the USS Santa Fe?

Marquet: We changed the way we talked to each other. Here’s an example: instead of asking permission, we would say "I intend to..." This sounds like a subtle shift but it has a huge impact. In a permission based organization (which is almost all organizations) an idea or initiative will NOT happen if any one says no. In an intent based organization, the idea or initiative WILL happen unless the boss says no. It biases the organization toward action and engages everyone in thinking.

InfoQ: When people share what they intent to do, isn’t there a risk that it might look like they are asking for permission?

Marquet: I hope not. When we say "I intend to..." and I don’t say no, let’s say I don’t even respond, then I expect you to take that action. In my company now, we have a daily intent email which we all send to each other in the morning. If I don’t veto someone’s intentions, they are moving forward. By the way, there are many days which I don’t get to those emails till late because I’m on a plane or giving a speech, and yes, they have already moved out. Occasionally people do things I wish they hadn’t, but the cost is minimal compared to the benefits of an organization where people are doing things, smart things, without waiting for permission.

InfoQ: What’s the greatest barrier for leaders implementing Intent-Based Leadership?

Marquet: Giving up control. Most leaders think that first people demonstrate competence and clarity and then we’ll give them a modicum of control. I found that the opposite is more effective. First, give people a bit of control and see what they do with it. Have conversations. For example, if they come to you with a problem and are not yet at the "I intend to..." stage, ask them what they would do if they had to decide how to solve that problem on their own and let them tussle with the problem for a bit -- if even only 30 seconds. That’s when you’ll learn what the gaps in competence and clarity are.

InfoQ: A lot has been published about effective leadership styles for organizations that are adopting agile ways of working for software development. What are your thoughts about applying the leader-leader model for agile?

Marquet: Agile is essentially building a leader-leader model in software organizations. I believe Agile methodologies have a lot to offer to management. At the same time, when the agile cell bumps into the bureaucracy of the organization, we help by instilling leader-leader practices in the remainder of the organization.

InfoQ: What would be your advice to software engineers?

Marquet: Don’t be afraid of being a leader. I see very talented, gifted, and pro-active software engineers who tell me "oh, I don’t want to be a leader...I just want to code." Well, they are thinking of the old-fashioned, "tell people what to do" leadership. They can really do a tremendous service to themselves, their co-workers, and the world by stepping up and being a leader from the position they are in. Support those around you, welcome warmly new members to the team and make them feel safe, be transparent about how things are going with those above you, and work on something that matters.

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