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Articulating Leadership through Nemawashi and Collaborative Boards

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High performance teams don’t need to be managed, but led. Collaborative boards is where leadership and teams meet to align direction and initiatives. Nemawashi can be used to separate conversations from meetings.

Fernando Guigou spoke about articulating leadership using an approach that he calls ZenSum at Agile Tour London 2020.

In the last two centuries, organizations have prioritized control over everything else, through a division initially between "thinkers" and "doers," and today between "control" and "execution", Guigou explained:

Everyone agrees that Taylor is outdated but we continue using the same principles. We need to be aware of this and get over it. People are not resources. We need to move from managing individuals, to leading teams.

We can move from agile teams to a fully-agile organization by removing friction points that teams experience today and by having the organization thinking in the same way, Guigou argued.

Guigou suggested separating meetings into three types: kick-off, support, and acceptance, and organizing them with collaborative boards consisting of teams and leaders. With Nemawashi, meetings remain focused, shorter and to the point, with clear outcomes. Discussions can take the required time and involve only those actively participating. This approach promotes empowerment and autonomy, while keeping alignment.

New organizations will have teams that flourish and thrive, thinking and making decisions, where leaders support these teams by creating the right conditions for them, Guigou mentioned. ZenSum helps leadership teams to create this environment.

InfoQ interviewed Fernando Guigou about becoming an agile organization, ZenSum, Nemawashi, and collaborative boards.

InfoQ: What’s blocking organizations in moving from having agile teams to becoming an agile organization?

Fernando Guigou: In short, everything (a.k.a. "the mindset").

The old mindset is still there when we try to incorporate agility by paying for it, be it in the form of consulting, new hires, or certifications. You can pay for the best university, but you cannot buy knowledge.

It is more like when you go to a therapist. You still need to pay but more importantly, you need to put a lot of effort from your side and change habits. The organization is reinvented, as Frederic Laloux said. It is a new identity, a clearer purpose, a whole way of working.

InfoQ: What is ZenSum and what does it aim to deliver?

Guigou: ZenSum is an approach to facing the transformation of an agile organization, helping in multiple ways.

This includes:

  • An integrated view of different agile approaches.
  • A clear context for agile teams to thrive.
  • A consistent use of the same principles across the whole organization

ZenSum brings together different frameworks that today seem disconnected from each other. I describe this in the "Agile Tetris" video.

ZenSum puts a lot of emphasis on what really matters, promotes two-way communication and defines a clear context (purpose, restrictions, solution space) so autonomy, servant leadership and value creation can flourish. Autonomy is not "laissez-faire" or chaos. It is ownership and accountability within the agreed boundaries of a time-boxed approach.

InfoQ: How do ZenSum and DevOps relate?

Guigou: DevOps is two-fold. On one side there is the cultural aspect of collaboration, which is essential and also a core value in ZenSum; and on the other side, there is a solid base on an amazing progress in technology that makes possible things that were unthinkable before.

We need both. The idea is to combine in a "big picture" different approaches that are fully-compatible.

For example, you cannot implement Scrum properly if you need to test everything manually sprint after sprint. Not having a deployment pipeline for software development today is like not having desks, chairs or electricity. If you still run projects, instead of dedicating so much time to upfront planning, use it to start building your pipeline.

InfoQ: How does ZenSum support Nemawashi and what purpose does that serve?

Guigou: I hear people complaining about meetings since the 90s. Too often they are like a tennis game: two people exchange arguments and the rest look from one side to another.

Many meetings are just conversations with no conclusion and it seems that we cannot get over that. The point is that we need both: meetings and conversations, but we shouldn’t mix them.

Nemawashi puts order here, separating conversations and meetings, similar to what Scrum does with the different events, where each one has a clear purpose.

Meetings are formal, concrete, to the point; and there should be no surprises. It is the official acknowledgement of everything previously discussed and we just get together to have everyone on the same page. It is the formal moment when decisions are communicated and officially agreed on.

Conversations instead take place ad-hoc, as often and as long as needed, involving only the necessary (and engaged) participants. This is where focused discussions take place.

This separation is Nemawashi and although simple, the results are powerful.

InfoQ: How do collaborative boards work and how do they help to achieve alignment in organizations?

Guigou: Alignment is foremost a leadership responsibility.

Too often however, leaders act like managers, making too many decisions, like old "thinkers".

Instead, leaders should create the conditions for high performance teams to think and decide, making clear the criteria to make these decisions autonomously and aligned.

People are deciding on things anyway all the time, but on the wrong things. One clear symptom is too much effort on details and important points being missed or late, while everyone is "busy".

Collaborative Boards is where teams and leaders meet. They articulate top-down challenges through bottom-up proposals, keeping them aligned towards the vision and focusing on what really matters.

Nemawashi helps to ensure approval. Leadership decides based on cost, benefit and risk, while keeping alignment across different teams.

There are three types of meetings: kick-off, support and acceptance.

Instead of assigning activities to the teams, Leadership comes with problems and/or a vision of how things could be. Then, the teams raise their own proposals to move in this direction, that are approved in a Kick-off meeting, initiating the whole cycle.

Support meetings are key. They are for the teams to ask for feedback and support. They are not a status report, because status reports tend to present things in a positive way. Support meetings are for the opposite purpose: to raise risks and problems, with leadership helping teams to succeed.

Finally, acceptance meetings should mean no surprises and results are flawlessly accepted. Risks should be detected early enough, so leadership can help. Nemawashi, again, helps to keep it short and simple.

The whole system works like a natural ecosystem where those teams (and teams of teams, when we include leadership) that deliver value and thrive, prosper, grow and multiply. Those who fail will see the scope reduced, and eventually, the team members join other teams to learn.

Teams are built on their own, elaborate proposals for those leaders they choose to work with, and for the challenges that they have selected among those presented.

All this happens within a context of full transparency, ensuring that information is available anywhere needed.

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