We Create The Politics Ourselves

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Back in June 2013 I was asked to facilitate a discussion exploring one of Red Gate’s company values – No Politics. This was the second in a series of open sessions that the company had initiated to preserve and highlight what they have valued for many years and to get to the bottom of what these values mean, their relevance and impact on individuals and teams around the business. The expanded wording for our “No Politics” value is:

No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.

Many of our staff – myself included – were starting to feel that we were no longer being true to this value.

After an hour’s discussion between about 40 of us including concrete examples of where many of us felt we’d seen or been involved in “politics” we established:

Politics are created when “your needs” conflict in some way with “my needs” and where both “you” and “I” fail to openly communicate.

Taking this further – all the examples of politics we’d seen boiled down to a combination of failures in communication of motive and intent and failure to share conflicting needs. Ironically, we’re usually all trying to achieve the same ultimate goal.

Our encouraged altruistic culture tended to exacerbate the situation further and cause us to wade in when we felt a decision had insufficiently involved those impacted – even when the person taking exception felt the decision was right. (You should have seen the angst when a rapid decision was taken “on high” to move to Github for all product development)

Our values and culture have encouraged this “challenge everything” behaviour for years!

Being on the receiving end of a change or decision we don’t fully understand, agree with or have had no involvement in makes us feel bad, we internalize and build that frustration up and start sharing it in passing conversations, at coffee and in corridors – because we’re entitled to share our opinions. But we’re all pretty gentle and fluffy here. We’re a software company, many of us are shy and conflict-averse. This means we share our worries in private and let them radiate out. (This also means any vocal or forceful minority have much stronger voices)

We create the politics ourselves

Since discussing and recognising this fact I started making a concerted effort to tackle issues head-on again and had a deeply humbling moment when a colleague pulled the “grown up” card on me for my own bad behaviour.

It’s amazing how the weight comes off when you realise that everyone is trying to do the right thing within their own context and needs and often have simply not recognised where this butts up against our own. (And that you have failed to empathize with them!)  Gently calling out those disconnects and addressing them has defused even some of the thorniest conflicts I’ve faced.

Oddly, I hadn’t recognised a link until a serendipitous moment yesterday but my friend Clarke talked me through some aspects of this same challenge a few years ago. He’s since written up his thoughts in detail here.

I also see this same expression and sharing of uncommunicated needs as a cornerstone of non-violent communication.

If you’re still reading, as some background here’s the wording of the full set of values as included in the “Book of Red Gate”  (an earlier 2010 Edition is also available) – we’re reviewing whether these are still the right set and the right words even now but they do capture a lot about working here.

  • You will be reasonable with us. We will be reasonable with you

We’re all trying to treat each other as we would like to be treated in the same circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances are difficult, but we will all still be reasonable.

  • Attempt to do the best work of your life

We’d like you to achieve your own greatness and to be all that you can be. We’ll try hard to allow that to happen and we’d like you to try hard too.

  • Motivation isn’t about carrots and sticks

Constant oversight and the threat of punishment are incompatible with great, fulfilling work. We believe in creating appropriate constraints and then giving people the freedom to excel.

  • Our best work is done in teams 

We work in groups and towards a common goal. The company is more important than the team, and the team is more important than the individual.

  • Don’t be an asshole

No matter how smart you are, or how good you are at narrowly defined tasks, there is no room for you here if you’re an asshole.

  • Get the right stuff done

We admire people who get stuff done.  While there’s a place for planning, thinking and process it is better to try – and try well – and fail than not to try at all.

  • Visible mistakes are a sign that we are a healthy organization

What we do is very difficult, the current situation is hard to understand and the future is uncertain. Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of attempting to get the right stuff done. Unless we can make mistakes visible both individually and collectively we will be doomed to mediocrity.

  • No politics

No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.

  • Do the right things for our customers

We believe that if we do what is right for our customers then we will thrive.

  • Profits are only a way of keeping score, not the game itself

Focusing purely on the numbers is a sure way to kill Red Gate’s culture. We believe that if we focus on the game – building awesome products that people want to buy, and then persuading them to buy them – the success will follow.

  • We will succeed if we build wonderful, useful products

Shipping something amazing is better than creating something average and to budget and on time. We cannot market, sell, manage or account our way to success.

  • We base our decisions on the available evidence

Not on people’s opinions, the volume of their voices or who they are. When the evidence changes, we are prepared to change our minds. We will thank, and never shoot, the messenger.

  • We count contribution, not hours

What you achieve is more important than how long it takes.

Telling Vs Coaching

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Before I start, a thanks to @fatherjack for being the first person to request a topic from the backlog. If any of you want more of the same, just shout!

The Story

Up to a certain point in my career, my success was defined largely due to my ability to find creative and often tangential solutions to difficult problems. For anyone that’s completed a Belbin assessment in the past, I’m mostly classified as a “plant“. My major strength has changed very little in 15 years although my complementary strengths and views have all shifted a lot (I might discuss this in more depth another time).

With this strength in mind, I found that when working with others I often jumped past a lot of the detail and rapidly offered solutions and alternatives. The sheer volume of options I can provide means many did stick and work. However, using this approach risked those seeking support or assistance becoming dependent on my problem-solving rather than developing knowledge and learning to solve problems themselves.

When I became responsible for other staff I recognised that many of the strengths that got me to that point were not appropriate to leading or coaching others.

I spent a little time learning basic coaching skills, the GROW model, coaching through questioning and other simple tips. Pat Kua also steered me toward the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (which in hindsight for me is an important missing link for coaching) but I found that my instinct to solve and help often overrode my learned coaching practices. Coaching others is hard! (or at least it is when you’re normally a problem solver)

Having led a number of teams, managed a full spectrum of technical staff, implemented organizational change programs and most recently being responsible for a company-wide community of practitioners, my coaching skills have become more and more critical to my role. Coaching Dojos have helped significantly – using coaching tools repeatedly as a deliberate practice but there’s still something not quite right. I still have those problem-solving skills going to waste, there must be something I can do with them.

The Lesson

So here’s the thing. Just because you’re coaching doesn’t mean you should only ask questions, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t direct or tell and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to have the fun of solving problems for (or with) others. You just need to understand more clearly when it’s appropriate to do so and when it’s not.

Learn to spot when you’re “telling” when you should be “coaching” and vice-versa. This can be really tricky to achieve when you have all the answers and ideas.

Fortunately for me, my current employer really invests in their staff. All managers are trained and encouraged in doing just this…

The Tools

The coaching and leadership model we use is “Situational Leadership” – in particular “SLII”. (here’s the explanation of  why it’s II)

I can’t cover the full depth of the model in a blog but here’s the basic conceptual framework – this should be plenty to help you recognise when to coach and when to “tell”.

There’s a direct correlation between the style of leadership you (as a coach/leader/mentor/manager/team member/person) use and the development level of the coachee/seeker/mentee/staff/team member/person/team.

Important note – this applies just as much when leading or coaching teams, not just individuals.

We model this as four “Development” levels (D1-D4) and 4 corresponding “Styles” (S1-S4) This might seem a bit jargon-y but putting this into practice really does work (see the diagram below).

The suggested style to use is based on a composite of the motivation of the individual and their competency level.

As an analogy, consider learning to drive a car. Most new drivers are really keen, think this is going to be easy and can’t wait to be out under their own steam (Level D1). As an instructor, you need to let this play out, give them the space to try and succeed (or more often fail) but you do need to be quite prescriptive in what they do for their own safety (and that of others) (Style S1). When things get hard and motivation wanes (Level D2), you continue to tell them what to do but in a coaching style (S2). As competency develops, the trainee becomes more competent (D3) and your style will need to follow. Eventually they will (hopefully) become self-sufficient (D4).

Our regular trainer actually talks us through a lot more than the textbook model. The diagram below is my interpretation of the model with the additional tips we’ve learned.

SLII on a page

Extended representation of Situational Leadership II

There’s a few really important points that help us use this as a thinking tool.

  1. The model applies to each specific task. If a person has never performed that specific task before, re-assess their development level. Some complementary skills may apply but don’t assume competence in one area translates directly to the task at hand.
  2. Watch for transitions in motivation as a guide to levels of support to offer. When individual motivation is low, the coach/leader must be more supportive – more guiding and questioning. When motivation is high, less support is needed.
  3. When individual competency in the specific task is low, the coach/leader should be making the decisions on the course of action (even if leading through questioning). When individual competency is high, the coachee makes the decisions but may still occasionally want to validate these with the coach.
  4. A mismatch between leadership style and development level can be harmful. The further apart the difference, the more dissonant the leadership style will be.

Extensions:

There are a couple of important extensions to the model that need consideration.

In many work environments, there are times when a person may have high expertise in an area but not be motivated to actually work in it. Similarly, someone who reached a high level of competence in an area but is ignored may lose motivation. In these instances, they have actually regressed around the model (from D4 to D3). Your leadership style needs to change!

In other situations, you may have someone with little or no motivation to work on a new task and little or no competency. Rather than starting at development level 1 (D1), you’re actually starting at D2. You need to work with the other person to build motivation and competence. At this point they either develop to “D3” or first to “D1” and then back through the cycle.

And Finally

Like all frameworks, this is a tool only. Use with caution. The more you understand how to use this, the better you’ll manage with it. If you’re interested, get trained properly, don’t just rely on what I’ve presented here.

 

Black Holes & Revelations

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Have you ever had to deal with a black hole on your team?

“As predicted by general relativity, the presence of a large mass deforms spacetime in such a way that the paths taken by particles bend towards the mass. At the event horizon of a black hole, this deformation becomes so strong that there are no paths that lead away from the black hole” – Wikipedia

I’m not a physicist so here’s a simplified view that I can fit in my smaller brain:

Black holes are like huge “gravity traps” sucking in all energy from the surrounding area. Energy and mass are drawn toward the event horizon, sucked in and lost forever. The more they take in, the larger or denser they get.

Here’s some cool stuff I learned from Karl Schoemer a few years ago.

A team undergoing change can be coarsely divided into 3 behaviors: Design, Default and Defiant/Detractor.

• The “Design” population are your role models; your supporters & change agents – but be aware, some may have short attention spans or become zealots. This is up to 20% of your population.
• Those following the “Default” behavior will sit on the fence; “What.. …ever”, “it doesn’t apply to me”, “I’ll carry on as I am thank you” are all common “default” responses. Typically this is 70% of your population!
• “Defiant/Detractor” behavior exhibits extreme symptoms including shouting, arguments, tantrums, sabotage, threatening to leave and pulling everyone else down with them. Less extreme responses include focusing on the minutiae, public cynicism and endless debate without action. In many cases, whilst this may seem prevalent, often this is actually as little as 10% of your population!

Now let’s return to the Black Hole. In space, black holes are invisible – only their effects can be seen. In change management, we simply fail to recognize and identify them.

Human black holes must be understood and handled with extreme caution.

For those inexperienced with black holes, your instinct will be to try and defuse them. You must spot when you are feeding a metaphorical black hole, rewarding negative behavior by pouring your finite energy and resources in. Feeding black holes provides them additional credibility in front of their peers – their gravity trap grows ever-larger.

Lean values time… Eliminate waste! – Where are you wasting your energy?
If you removed the energy feeding a black hole would it eventually burn out?
In human change, detractors usually either get with the program or leave.

If you’ve read some of my prior articles you’ll know that whilst I appreciate good people; if your behavior and attitude isn’t up to scratch, all the technical prowess in the world is unlikely to make me want you on my team.

Some black holes may be an almost permanent rift in space. Work to minimize their impact and sphere of influence rather than offering more fuel. Consider using them as your “professional cynic” – your sounding board for the detractor response – but be aware this is a lot like playing dodgeball with a burning coal. It’s usually safer to move them away from the powder magazine instead.

Where could your wasted energy be better spent?
Simple! Use it to shift the center of gravity on your team away from the black hole.
Partner with your “design” members as a team and swing your population of defaulters toward your chosen direction. Some may be pulled toward or into the black hole but work on the overall gravity shift to bring the team around.

If you don’t have sufficient design weight to adjust the center of gravity right now, go digging for more – one person at a time if needed. At some point you will be able to tip the balance.

(Oh – a nod to Muse for inspiring the title of this post)

Your Leaders Are Not Gods

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It’s lonely at the top, but who makes it that way?

In Large companies there seems to be a myth – often perpetuated at the middle tier – that senior leaders are somehow “gods” that cannot be spoken to or at least not in the same way as mere mortals.

The business leaders that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to have been very smart, politically astute, personable, socially aware and most of all they care what people have to say. Admittedly they’re strapped for free time but they’re still human beings.

A casual conversation, sharing of thoughts and opinions or mail exchange should be possible at any level. In fact that no-nonsense, relaxed, open and honest communication is a breath of fresh air from the political games and data feeds faced most of the day.

In any organization that claims to be lean or agile, isolating communication with our leaders to single PowerPoint slides and 2 minute bursts of data defeats the entire point of a true lean corporate culture.

“Go see” also means listen, share, learn, coach, mentor, teach, act, support and most critically interact.

Most leaders understand this (they all started out somewhere) but you may have to cut through a layer of defense to get there and re-educate along the way.

When your leaders do go see, make sure they really see and understand. It’s not all a parade no matter how your local glitterati might want to make it one.

Remember no matter where you are in the food chain, a truly agile organization values individuals and interactions.

Your Leader Sets The Tone For Your Team

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Recently I quite openly and permanently expressed my deep frustration with another senior manager. What bugged me was the finger pointing, “Over the Wall” behavior when it was clear there was a mutual screw-up.

My response caused a lot of upset and whilst inflammatory and not entirely justified, it did galvanise the groups into just getting on with things.

I’ll reflect on a quote from a recent predecessor.

“It’s up to us to be the grown-ups here”.

I wasn’t, and I should have been but it was hopefully a one-off. (Maybe it was the supermoon),  perhaps necessary this time – who knows. The fact that it still bothers me says I was probably wrong – I continue to learn from my mistakes…

I have quote from a leadership coach I learned from in a former life.

“A leader sets the tone for their organization”.

Her point was that my behavior goes way beyond a single team! I’ve seen this in every large company I’ve worked with so far. At some point a conflict forms between leaders for an unknown and often political reason. Once that rift is in place it becomes a defining part of the organization’s entire culture. The “us & them” barrier is erected and the rock hurling begins.

Teams downstream see this behaviour and believe it’s socially acceptable. They follow suit and perpetuate the problem.  When one or other problematic personality eventually moves on, do you really think that embedded culture will just naturally unwind itself?

It’s up to you at whatever level you’re at to cross the organizational chasm and drive out that attitude, one phone call, face to face conversation or collaborative relationship at a time. (more email is not the answer!)

Furthermore, we are all responsible for teaching our leaders to demonstrate a positive role model to their teams. Call out bad behavior and get all parties to address their conflict. If not for the greater good of the company, at least for the personal and social well-being of the teams.

Work to understand and express the perspectives and motivations on either side of the rift. What’s driving the behaviour, is there any misalignment on priorities and goals? If so, who can help solve them and how? What impact will that alignment have and how soon can we fix it?

Just as with trust, good organizational culture takes years to build and moments to destroy.

If this rings true with your experiences, you may also enjoy “We Create The Politics Ourselves” that digs into these challenges in more detail.