Empowering Teams Instead of Telling Them What to Do

In the context of organizational change, whether it’s part of a formal “Agile Transformation” or just trying to make things better, one behaviour I frequently have to deal with is when Directors or VPs, who I’ll refer to as management, tell me something along the lines of “The teams need to do this.” They might think my role as an Agile Coach is to deliver their instructions to their different teams and ensure they get carried out.

Firstly, what types of scenarios are we talking about? These are the kinds of situations where management decides they want their teams to adopt some process or produce a specific artifact as part of their work. The second is when management’s directions or feedback to teams go through an intermediary (like an Agile Coach) to guide a team’s actions rather than directly engaging with the teams.

 I’m going to explain what’s wrong with that approach and some of the alternatives that I’ve found helpful in turning these requests into opportunities to strengthen the organization.

“Do this” doesn’t work if management can’t see what’s happening

One of the root causes of many of these interactions between management and the multiple teams reporting to them is their position in the system.

Individuals in management roles who are too far away from the team level in their organizations to see what’s happening can only act or make decisions based on the information they have. Instead of seeing how work is happening through direct experience, artifacts like reports or status updates travel up. One problem that can occur is management makes assumptions about how work is happening based on these artifacts. If a team hasn’t prepared and shared a formal vision statement, does that mean the team isn’t working towards a clear objective?

“Do this” makes it easy to lose sight of what’s important

Creating a vision statement can be a valuable output of discussions about why a team exists, but focusing too much on the output by making it a requirement for each team will turn it into a checkbox for teams to complete, and you’ll lose the value you were seeking in the first place.

The organization I’m currently working with uses a portfolio kanban system with cards to track all their initiatives. On this board, they have cards representing everything they’re working on and everything they plan to deliver next year. One request management has made a couple of times is that they want all of their teams to make sure each card on that kanban system contains a statement capturing what value the work brings to the organization.

In this case, management evaluating teams on whether they’re capturing value statements can create more focus on the output than on whether teams are working with desirable mindsets and goals.

  • Are the teams thinking about the value of their work?
  • Are they making good prioritization decisions to maximize value delivery?
  • Are they building things that customers want?

“Do this” creates busyness and adds complexity

Another side effect of Directors giving “do this” type-instructions when they are too far away from the teams is that they won’t see all the busyness their directions cause.

Busyness has an escalating and destructive effect on the rest of the system. Busyness always has a higher cost. When Directors give a “do this” instruction, it doesn’t get converted into an equally sized “doing that” activity. There are meetings to share those instructions, meetings to understand what and how each team should do, meetings for teams to coordinate doing the thing, and meetings to do the thing.

This busyness adds WIP; it reduces slack and has the opportunity cost of whatever other work the team could have done.

Managing systems by adding practices is what I call “Additive Management.” It’s managing a system by keeping everything else the same and introducing a new process. Each new process adds another layer of complexity and a tax to the people in the system.

“Do this” is a low-quality interaction

“Do this” directions generally follow a similar pattern: People making decisions about what others should do. In most of the situations I’m describing, they follow a slightly modified version: A person with power or authority making decisions about what others with less power should do.

Why is that pattern problematic?

  • People up the hierarchy with little visibility about what’s happening at the team level have a higher chance of being wrong, inconsistent, or unhelpful.
  • It moves decision-making up the hierarchy, draining decision-making power and learning potential from teams.
  • It relies on the organizational structure and hierarchy, so you lose the opportunity to develop or leverage the informal networks in your organization.

What to do instead

Leverage these asks as opportunities to strengthen the system

When I coach Scrum Masters, one piece of advice I commonly have to give is to fight the urge to say “Yes.” I often tell them, “When someone tells you to do X, that doesn’t mean you have to do X.” Scrum Masters can sometimes associate their role too strongly with being a servant-leader in the way that it’s their job to do what people tell them. 

Instead of adding value by implementing the first direction that comes to you, look at them more as an opportunity to move the system forward. In situations where directors give instructions, even if they initially sound reasonable, don’t say “Yes.” The worst kind of change agent you can be is one that parrots senior managers’ instructions across the organization.

These tasks from Directors are more productive as opportunities to change the system.

Some possible such opportunities include:

  • Forming new social connections and relationships within the organization.
  • Bringing together different levels of the hierarchy.
  • Increasing people’s awareness of organizational needs or goals
  • Allowing teams and people to grow by taking on new challenges and the freedom to develop their own solutions rather than assigning them tasks.

Good ideas come from the people who are closest to the work. More resilience comes from increasing the informal network density in a system. Instead of focusing on what management wants, look for opportunities to collaborate across the hierarchy to develop even better solutions. Involve team members in the process to solve the problems management cares about.

Identify gaps between management and the teams

Notice how much feedback about what a team should or shouldn’t do is getting shared directly with the team. In the cases when a manager or director is sharing instructions about what teams should be doing through a proxy like an Agile Coach, there are a couple of questions you could ask:

  • Why is there a difference between what management wants and what teams are doing?
  • Why aren’t these instructions being shared directly with the teams?
  • If it’s a good idea that addresses a problem, why isn’t it coming from the team?

In the context of management making decisions about what teams should do, my first objection is always, “If the team is the one that is going to have to do this thing, why aren’t they the ones coming up with the idea?”

Start by looking for opportunities to bring management and teams together. That’s often the biggest thing that’s missing.

  • Kanban’s cadences, like the Service Delivery Review and Operations Review is one place to start.
  • For Scrum teams, management can start attending a team’s sprint review
  • Big-room planning workshops can also be an opportunity to bring different groups together and discuss strategic issues

Map it out

I talk with my teams about not thinking about the request as “the thing.” I encourage them to change their perspective. The request is not the thing; the request is one element connected to many other things in a bigger network of things.

The most fun and interesting work happens when I explore where requests come from. It may seem counter-intuitive but don’t start by seeking an answer. It’s less helpful to ask, “Why do you want the teams to do this new thing?” You’ll create far more learning for all parties when you start by exploring without judgment.

To illustrate what you can find from exploration, here are some examples in the context of an organization of what could be motivating management to give new directions you might come across:

  • There’s some goal they want to achieve.
  • There’s a local or personal pain they are trying to avoid.
  • A problem happened once, and now the whole organization is over-correcting.
  • Executives issued a new mandate that management now find themselves responsible for delivering.
  • They heard about another company doing something and now they want to copy them.

In any business, countless causes can drive decisions about how teams work that have nothing to do with customers and everything to do with how people decide to run the organization.

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