Don’t Panic Rule Of Leadership

“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

You may have recognized the quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. I love the book and the words “Don’t panic” somehow stuck with me. It may come from comedy science fiction genre but it has so much meaning in everyday life of a leader.

Society that enjoys panicking

Human beings just love panicking. It has been encoded in our brains for eons. If something surprising, unexpected, or unknown comes, the first reaction is to fight or flee. It is a matter of survival. Unfortunately, we carry this reaction with us also to workplace. Someone gives you a harsh feedback, sends you an agitated email, or mentions an unpleasant rumor and your first reaction is to over-react. Fight or flee. You immediately believe the worst possible outcome. You immediately see the others around you in the worst possible way. In your mind, they have the worst possible intentions. They have no skills, no honor, they are here to take advantage of you, and they care only about themselves. You are the hero that has to “do something” immediately or the world will end.

Don’t react, but respond

Luckily, the nature has expanded the brain over the years and aside of the limbic system responsible for your survival instincts it provides you also with a neocortex that allows you to dissociate yourself from the situation, step on a higher ground and think before you act. You don’t need to react in a given situation automatically under the influence of environment. You can chose to respond on your own terms.

There are couple of components you need to understand before you decide to respond. These components will inform you and let you make the right decision with clear mind and without emotional attachment. You should ask yourself:

  1. Do I understand the whole picture? – This is an obvious question. Let me illustrate on a simple example. You just got an email where the sender trashes work of bunch of other people on the team. It essentially states that the whole project the team works on doesn’t make sense, is done badly, the participants are incompetent, and at the end questions why we would spend so much money on it. What triggered that email? It was a simple request for final review of a document the team worked on. The document itself is quite fine. There are few sentences to change, but ultimately it shows a solid work of the team. So why such a violent reaction? If you would react just on what the email says you would delete the document, start from scratch, or even look for a new team. Obviously, you don’t have the whole picture. The reaction is not about the document. It is about something else. Before you chose to respond, you need to understand what you are responding to.
  2. Do I understand the emotions involved? – It is not only about facts. It would be great if the business was just about facts, but it is not. Businesses are run by people and people have emotions. People have needs, and cares, and dreams, and worries. You need to understand those before you respond. Who are the people involved in the particular incident and what are their motivations, and what emotions are involved? Maybe the person is not after your job but is worried about his own. Maybe the person yelling at you is not angry with you but was just yelled at by angry customer, feels deeply frustrated and you are just an innocent bystander who takes the heat. I strongly believe that people in their heart want to do the best job possible. They care not only about themselves but also about the others. We all want to be loved, respected, being taken seriously. When we act with hostility, it usually means we feel that either we, our reputation, believes, or values are being threatened.
  3. Do I understand my own emotions? – Now comes the most important question. If you react under the influence of fight or flee instinct you don’t understand why. You just act. You may act in a way that you will regret later since it may not solve the problem but may add up to it. If you chose to respond it means you also reflected on your own emotions. You understand not just the facts, but you also realized the emotions involved and what triggered your own reaction. You may feel angry with the person, not with the situation. You may believe that the person is attacking you and you are defensive, even though it may not be about you. To understand your own internal reaction and being able to step back and clear your own emotions before responding is the critical part of not panicking rule.

After you have successfully answered the questions above you can finally respond. But do you need to? Is your response actually needed? Very often, we feel the need to respond even when no response is sought or expected. We just want to be heard and forget to ask ourselves whether we have something useful to say. Sometimes no response or just a quiet acknowledgement is all what is needed.

When you finally decide to respond keep in mind this one basic question that allow you to defuse potentially disastrous situations where emotions run high: What do I want the outcome to be for me, for the other people involved, for the common goal, and for our mutual relationships?

Leaders don’t panic

Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean you have to contribute to every single conversation or that you have to solve every single problem. It means that you are the calm harbor in the midst of storms. You are here to lead by example, to set the tone that things are under control and they are not that bad, as they seem to be. You are here to keep focus of the team on the end goal and not get distracted along the way by relatively unimportant issues. And if you want to know more about keeping cool under stressful conditions you may want to read Leadership In The Age Of Duck.

So next time you are confronted with new unpleasant situation, or feel like you are getting angry, just stop. Step back, think about the facts, try to understand the whole picture, don’t make assumptions, and don’t try to mind read others. Rather think about your own motivation, your own emotions, your own reactions, and above all DON’T PANIC.

 

What is your first rule of leadership? How important “staying calm” is for a leader

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

How To Influence Others To Act

What defines a leader? You have as many definitions as there are people. I would argue that one of the best ways to define a leader is “someone who can influence others to unite for a common goal and get it done”. To be able to influence others you don’t need to be formally in charge. In fact, leaders often emerge through the ranks of employees naturally and are getting more their power formalized only after they showed their leadership abilities.

Some time ago I wrote a set of articles about influence: The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1, Lesson 2, and Lesson 3. I talked about how you can exert influence with people around you and how you can push change that is needed to move your team in a direction that the business requires by working directly with them, through other people and by shaping the physical environment. Today I would like to introduce couple of principles outlined by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. They present a framework, a set of principles, that when used can greatly enhance your message and help you influence others and change the environment around you. These principles deal only with the message in forms of stories you tell to influence others and extend what I wrote in Lesson 1. The six principles are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotions
  6. Stories

1. Simplicity

You might have heard about the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Originally used in the US Navy the principle states that most systems work best when we keep them as simple as possible (less things to break and easier to fix), so the goal of any design should be removing unnecessary complexity and keeping things as simple as possible.

The same applies to communication. If you want your message to be understood and remembered (leaving impact) you need to work on making it as simple as possible. When you communicate an idea focus on few critical aspects and leave out all the other points that are not critical to your message.

Let’s say you want to explain a difference between a whale and a cat. They are both animals, mammals, one is bigger than the other, one has fur the other doesn’t, one eats mostly plankton, the other eats bunch of stuff including meat, one is being kept as a pet, the other roams free, and so on. But how would you design a message that would be easy to remember? What about, a whale weights 150 tons and lives in the ocean while a five kilograms cat lives in your bedroom.

It is about finding the “core” message and making it really “compact”. Proverbs work like that. You get a key wisdom compressed into a short soundbite that is easy to remember. Just look at these examples:

  • “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (Trying to convince people with words and ideas is often more effective than forcing them to do what you want.)
  • “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” (Very useful advice when you travel or even join a new company with different culture. Observe and learn from others around you to adapt and fit in.)
  • “Easy come, easy go.” (Usually related to money. When you get something without expending much effort you don’t value it and you often lose it quickly.)

The core message, in the army called the Commander’s intent summarizes the goal you are trying to achieve. “Commander’s intent (CSI) plays a central role in military decision making and planning. CSI acts as a basis for staffs and subordinates to develop their own plans and orders to transform thought into action, while maintaining the overall intention of their commander. The commander’s intent links the mission and concept of operations. It describes the end state and key tasks that, along with the mission, are the basis for subordinates’ initiative.”

“We will take the enemy’s position 182 by noon tomorrow”. It is clear and concise enough that it cannot be miscommunicated or misunderstood and can provide enough guidance even for units (teams) that become suddenly cut from their chain of command (management).

2. Unexpectedness

It is not just simplicity that will help you to get the message across to your audience and influence the right outcome. Before you can even attempt this you need to get attention of the people you want to influence. How do you do it? By violating people’s expectations. By doing or saying something unexpected or even counterintuitive. Humans are curious by nature so making people curious about where you are heading with your message is a powerful tool. Just think about why so many people love detective stories and will stick with the book or movie to the very end to learn who’s done it.

Within the professional circles a great way to pick up an interest and make people curious is to highlight the knowledge gap. Start with something that people have general understanding of and interest in and make it clear that they don’t know the whole story and there is some interesting fact coming up. “You all know that we had a good year but you would be surprised on how much we actually grew. Before I get to the numbers let me remind you some of the key successes that got us here.” Now, if you are at least little big curious human being you will listen with interest and to wait till the end to learn the actual numbers.

3. Concreteness

Abstract ideas are really difficult to get across and to be remembered. If you want your message to stick you need to make it as concrete as possible. Let’s look again at proverbs. Just compare these two statements both describing the same concept. First being very literary but too abstract “People from different cultures, different educational background, different positions and wealth may have different priorities and ideas about what is valuable and what not.” The other being a proverb making the abstract idea very tangible and concrete “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Which one will you remember?

Curiously enough talking about numbers may not make the message concrete enough but, in fact, the opposite. “We have spent one thousand dollars on snacks for the office this year.” What does it tell you? Yes, you know it was thousand dollars but what exactly does it mean? Compare it to “The team consumed a thousand chocolate bars this year. That is a hundred for each of you.” In this case the dollar value even though correct and precise is less tangible than the actual number of chocolate bars in your hand.

4. Credibility

People won’t believe a message unless they feel it comes from a credible source and sounds sort of credible. Let’s say that two people come to you and make this announcement “orange juice is really bad to your health”. One would be a medical doctor in white while the other is an accountant from your company. Who would you believe more readily? You would of course make bunch of assumptions about the guy in white. He is a doctor, studied for it, practices the craft, follows the latest research, and knows what he is talking about. You would follow his advice rather than the pale guy from finance department. You would again make an assumption. What does an accountant know about health and oranges?

There is the same danger as in previous principle. Most of us see hard numbers as a proof that you know what you are talking about, that you did your research and have your facts straight. However, there is still the danger of losing the message in numbers that are too abstract for others to follow or remember.

5. Emotions

You might think that emotions have no place in business but you couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to leadership. You just need to use emotions strategically. How do you ensure others care about you and your idea? Well, caring means feeling something. Why do you think so many politicians start hugging children before an election day? They are trying to show that they care. But how do you show that you care about a nation? That is a too abstract concept, rather you hug a single child which will symbolize that you care about everyone. For people it is easier to feel something when it gets very specific, a single cute child, rather than a nation.

This tactics works very well in many charitable endeavors. Hearing about thousands dead in some conflict or natural disaster is too difficult to grasp and it doesn’t have the same emotional impact (it is just a statistics) as a picture of a single child crying over his dead mother. This will immediately trigger emotions since you can picture yourself in the same position and it will immediately move you into an action. Something must be done!

There are also many other ways how to involve emotions in pushing your message. In the professional world there are couple of tactics that often work. You can appeal to self-interest of your audience or even better to their identity. Let’s say you talk with your management team and you need to eliminate a habit of people changing their minds all the time that is spreading through the company and makes it an environment full of uncertainty. The message you may want to go with would be along the lines “great managers stand by their decisions”. The emotion you would play at is the fact that all your managers believe that they are great managers and would feel offended that someone would think otherwise. Because of that emotion they would start paying more attention to this behavior and get better at it.

6. Stories

The best way to get people not only hear the message but to act on it is a combination of invoking emotion while telling a compelling story. Hearing a story helps people visualize the action and the ultimate outcome. This then leads to reducing worry that they don’t know what to do or that things may not go as planned. This type of story will help people to understand how to act. Imagine you are in a technical support department. Every customer who call will have a slightly different problem, will explain it in a different way, will have a different environment or the way to use your product. But the underlying technology is the same and these problems often have lots in common. By regularly talking with your fellow support engineers and exchanging stories about what problem customers had and how you solved it will help the whole group to learn from each other in a way that is very natural. You can influence the quality of work your colleagues and you provide just by telling stories.

The other type of story you may employ is a story to energize the team, to explain why to act. For a story to be truly inspiring it should be somehow relevant and relatable to the audience. This is often used in mentoring discussions when more experienced mentor tells a story about how he dealt with a difficult situation and succeeded to inspire his mentee to get the courage and deal with the problem at hand. Real leaders would also use the inspiring stories to rally the forces to march towards the same vision. They will create in your head a picture of the outcome that makes you excited to follow them.

So how does it all come together?

Regardless of your formal position you can have a huge impact if you learn to communicate the way that will touch both the hearts and minds of those you want to convince. You can use this framework during one on one conversations, in your writing or in big public presentations. The key is to understand who your audience is and to tweak the message accordingly. You also need to realize that it is not just the message but also the messenger who counts. Even the best message delivered by a leader who has no credibility, who regularly misleads his followers, or who is known to say one thing and do the other will not have the desired effect.

 

What are your thoughts on how to influence others? What do you do when asked to present an important proposal to get approval, push through some idea, or when marshalling your team to perform a task they are not too keen on?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Trust And Credibility Beats Vision And Strategy

Vision. Strategy. Roadmap. These are the words you hear often in corporate environment. They are supposed to help everyone, employees, customers, and other various stakeholders to understand why we are here. They are important, since without a clear direction and purpose nothing really great can be build.

In Strategy Is Overrated, Execution Is What Leads To Success I argued that even though strategy and vision are important what really matters is execution. Today I will look at these from another perspective. Have you ever wondered why even within out company with the same vision and strategy some teams vastly over-perform other team? Why some leaders are able to rally the team to execute on the strategy while others fail to do so?

Having a great vision

When you search the internet you will see many mission statements, bold visions of companies, growth strategies and worthy causes. But who really decides whether a certain vision, strategy or cause is worth following? It is you. And how do you make your decisions? Well, you may not like it but you decide based on the information you have about the cause and emotions it and people around it trigger in you. Just imagine this mission statement: “The company was founded to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”

It is an incredibly bold statement and if I told you that I’m CEO of that company would you join me in this endeavor and help me to achieve that vision? Chances are that you would not. Why should you? I have no credibility with you, I haven’t showed you that I’m able to achieve that goal, I didn’t build enough trust with you and so you will not join me.

What if I told you that the name of the company in question is SpaceX and the leader to follow is Elon Musk? And to quote from SpaceX official website it is the only private company ever to return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit, which it first accomplished in December 2010. The company made history again in May 2012 when its Dragon spacecraft attached to the International Space Station, exchanged cargo payloads, and returned safely to Earth — a technically challenging feat previously accomplished only by governments. And what if I told you that Elon Musk is also CEO of Tesla Motors building some cool cars? You would probably say, yep, I would follow that guy, because he has already shown he can do it. He has built enough credibility with you even though you never met him.

Trust and credibility must come first

John C. Maxwell coined the term The Law of the Buy-in, claiming that people buy into the leader and only then buy into the vision and strategy. And as we saw in the example above it makes a complete sense. But how do you build that trust and credibility when you don’t have massive rockets and electric cars to show off? You get back to basics and focus on your core values and the way you interact with the world around you. Just answer these questions and be brutally honest with yourself (or maybe ask some people who know you well to do it for you). And for every question the answer is not just yes or no, but try hard to come up with several examples to illustrate.

  • Do you know what your core values are? – This is a rather critical piece in the whole puzzle. How can you expect others to follow you and trust you if even you don’t know what you stand for? So the step number one is to identify what are your core values. What is really important to you? Who are you? How do you want to act? How do you want to be perceived? What you stand for? If you have no idea you can browse through The Ultimate Question Of Life, The Universe And Everything to get some tips on how to find out.
  • Do people around you know what you stand for? – I talked about this in Life is not fair! So what. The key is to be transparent and consistent. If you repeatedly show certain behavior people will associate it with you and will understand what you stand for and what is important to you. The worst thing you can do as a manager is to be erratic and unpredictable. No one can trust to or follow such a leader since it is just unclear where to follow and why.
  • Are you willing to fight for what you believe is right? – What is the point of having clear values and principles when you ignore them on the first sign of trouble? If you truly believe in something then you show it by being willing to put your skin in the game. From my own experience it is surprisingly easy to stick with your principles if people around you actually know what they are. I’m generally very open minded individual trying to find common ground in whatever situation but the moment someone stomps on my principles I get very black and white in my responses. In the rare situations when this happened my team or even superiors proactively disclosed their actions to me before I found out in other ways as they knew what my reaction will be. Related to this is also a willingness to fight for your team as I wrote in The Real Leadership Shows When You Are Not The Boss.
  • Are you willing to admit when you are wrong? – It may be a bit counterintuitive. Why would anyone follow a leader who is wrong? Well, no one will follow you if you are wrong all the time, but chances are that is not the case. Unwillingness, to admit mistake even though everyone around you see that mistake was made is the easiest way to lose credibility with the team. At the other hand to be bold enough to get in front of the team and be very open about the mistake you made, what you learned from it, and how you fix it can boost the trust the team will have in you. At the end of the day we are all just humans and we make mistakes. Read through Real Leaders Own Their Mistakes and The Case Of Loyalty for more on the topic.
  • Are your words and actions aligned? – This one is obvious. You need to walk your talk, lead by example, and (fill in your favorite leadership cliché). It is great to be a great orator but ultimately the real trust and credibility is only build by being the first one to charge and show not by talking but by doing.
  • Do you trust others? – Trust starts with you. If you don’t trust your team you can hardly expect the team to trust you. For some people being trusting comes naturally, some are more cautious, some just don’t trust anyone at all. The fact is, if you are a manager and a leader trusting others is part of your job and you need to learn that if you want to be successful. You can read more on the topic in The Ugly Truth Behind Having Secrets.

These are some of the basic questions that can guide you on your journey to find how credible and trustworthy you really are. They can also give you a feel on what areas you need to work on. The good news is that pretty much anything can be improved. The bad news is that when we talk about trustworthiness and core values we talk about something very personal, deeply ingrained and often impossible to change without lots of conscious effort and external help.

So what is the takeaway? If you are in any management or leadership positions don’t expect that all you have to do is to put on paper a vision statement and couple of pages of strategy and that people will buy into it and will follow. The very first thing you need to do is to build the trust of the team. Only when they believe you as a human being and when you show by your actions that you can be trusted, only then your vision and strategy will be credible for the organization and you will be able to rally the team around you to execute the vision.

 

What is your take on issue of trust and credibility? Do you believe that a rock solid vision and strategy communicated by a leader with trust issues will still work and bring the team together to execute on it?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Not My Fault! It’s The Traffic…

You hear it over and over again. In fact, you might be using the tactic yourself without even realizing it. Blaming others or the environment for your inability to get things done, keep your promises and duties.

Let’s blame someone else

Have you ever worked with a colleague who would be constantly showing up ten minutes late for meetings with an excuse like “sorry I’m late, but there was a traffic jam”? As if this would explain everything and make it right. Well, yes, there was a traffic jam, so what? If there is one every day then it is just not relevant. If you would continue that line of reasoning you could come up with: “Sorry I’m late, but there was a traffic jam. Police should make sure there are no traffic jams. In fact, it is police fault that I’m late. Or even better others should be banned from using cars. That way I wouldn’t get stuck and came right on time.” Rather ridiculous, isn’t it? So why are we all saying it?

What are the things under your control?

One of the challenges you have to learn when managing others (and yourself) is the tendency of trying to look good and blame others for our mistakes. If you want to move things forward and want the person in question to grow and build strong sense of ownership you need to make sure this is not happening. Always bring the attention and focus of the person to things that are under his control.

Let’s say you come to your teammate with something you want him to solve and his response is “No problem. We will need IT to prepare the proposal and finance team will have to approve it.” These couple of words are full of red flags. At this point you just need to stop him and say “Yes, I see your point and I know that other people will have to be involved. What are the things that YOU will do? What is it you have under your control?” Even if there is a part that needs to be done by someone else there are always things you have under your control and that is where your focus needs to be.

The best way to increase satisfaction with your life is to learn to distinguish what are the things you can influence. Those you should focus on and constantly improve. This works also the other way around. Learn what in your life is out of your control, what you cannot influence and stop worrying about it. If you cannot change something then it is just a distraction that makes you less productive, unhappy and dissatisfied with your life.

There is no try

As the Grand Jedi Master Yoda, the oldest and most powerful known Jedi Master in the Star Wars universe said “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Once you realize what you do have under control, and decide to do something about it, you need to make yourself believe that you will succeed. And since we shape our reality by the words we use you need to learn to set yourself for success. “I will try better next time,” is your archenemy. “This will never happen again,” gives you much more power to actually change your behavior as it means you have no doubt and are fully committed to succeed.

It’s not the traffic, it’s you…

And to get back to our example from the beginning and look at alternative scenario where you don’t try to blame the universe for being late but you take ownership of your life. Understand the natural consequences of this repeated behavior of tardiness (in the form of others having to wait for you or you not being informed about or part of important decisions). And ultimately ask yourself the obvious question: “What is under my control that I will do so this doesn’t happen again?”

 

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

12 Principles Of Agile For HR Professionals

Are you a manager or an HR professional working for a software development organization that is moving towards agile way of developing software? Have you considered what you need to do not only to change your processes but also to change the minds and hearts of people on your team? Last week I talked about The Agile Manifesto and how does it translate to people management Agile Manifesto For HR Professionals. This week I will dig a bit deeper into practical details using The Twelve Principles of Agile Software as a guiding force:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software – for the purpose of people management you can translate “customer” into “employee”. So what are the needs your employees have that you should satisfy? It starts with fair salary and considerate treatment and leads to career opportunities and continuous development. When employee leaves your company she should be better than when she joined. More knowledgeable, with bigger value on the job market, and better equipped to deal with the world out there. This all means you need to lead by example, instill the right values and let (and encourage) people to grow. Consider what is written in Don’t Manage. Empower!, One Question You Should Never Ask and The Real Leadership Shows When You Are Not The Boss.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage – always be ready to challenge your team to do better and/or new work. At the same time be ready to adjust your HR practices in a way the business needs. This means that you cannot have too many heavyweight processes that are difficult to change and you cannot have everything documented. Just document the minimum required by law (keep in mind different labor laws in different countries) and then use (and encourage others to use) a common sense in dealing with daily problems.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale – what is the most critical work you as a manager or HR professional need to deliver to your team? Feedback! To enable your team to grow you need to continuously deliver feedback. Don’t wait for big yearly performance review but offer small pieces in a timely manner. This is the way you will help your employees growing. For some tips on how to deliver feedback check Now, How May I Help You?, and you can check what to do when you have to deal with underperformers The Art Of Giving Second Chances.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project – don’t pretend you know all the answers. If you want to introduce new policies or to change a strategy just talk to your team. Working together will ensure that you are not making rush decisions and will help you to introduce changes. By involving others and getting their buy-in you make any transition much smoother. There are many ways how to work with the team in such a way that at the end of the conversation you have a clarity and common understating of why something needs to be done, what is the ultimate goal and how to get there. Try to use tips described in What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done – you need to get the right people. You can always train skills but you cannot really teach attitude and motivation. These need to come from within and your job is to ensure the right people are joining the team. Once you have these people on board, give them a vision and tools they need and then just be there to listen, provide feedback and help removing obstacles. You can get some tips on how to hire great people in these articles Hire For Strengths, Not Lack Of Weaknesses, Getting The Perfect Hire, and Effort And Attitude Beats Talent And Knowledge.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation – spent us much time with your team as possible. It is not that you want to micromanage, it is that you need to be around to help. Your role is to serve the team by providing means to create value and help dealing with problems. Regardless whether you are located in one location or have the team spread geographically your job is to over-communicate. You can check some tips and follow some of the practices described in Communication Shouldn’t Be Efficient and It Doesn’t Matter What You Say.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress – let’s translate this to people management speak as “working and motivated team is a primary measure of management/HR success”. The business goals will be delivered only by those who have a mission, understand the end goals, have the skills, are motivated and are able to work well together to reach these goals. If you are a manager who “manages processes” then you have no place in having any subordinates. The real managers and leaders don’t spend their time by managing processes but rather they spend majority of their time managing and helping the people they are responsible for. More on this in You Manage Things, You Lead People.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely – understand that even the most loyal and hardworking person will break eventually if not given chance to recuperate. You may ask your team to go above and beyond every now and then putting them under undue pressure every single day will just lead to their burn out, low morale and nonexistent productivity. Challenging the team to do a bit more than yesterday is fine since that is the way to grow but it needs to be done carefully and within reason. This goes to all aspects of managing teams. It is great to be flexible and change often but there is a threshold beyond which more changes and challenges are not sustainable and will just wear people down. Everyone needs time to recuperate by slowing down a bit and having some level of stability. You can find more thoughts on moving fast while maintaining your sanity in Want To Be Seen As A Leader? Be Fast!
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility – leading by example and promoting the right values by refusing mediocrity is the key. Once you start tolerating or even worse doing a sloppy work others will see it and consider it acceptable. Mediocrity is the ultimate enemy of greatness. If you want your teams to be great you need to show them what great means (lead by example). You also need to constantly work with the team members and identify those who are not buying into the vision, who don’t want to collaborate with the team, who don’t have the skills or who decided to they don’t really want to contribute. Once identified you need to deal with them quickly. Help them up level their skills, help them to understand the goals, help them to connect with the right people or if these don’t work help them out of the company. Even one bad apple can spoil the rest and it is your role as a manager or HR professional to act swiftly. Consider some of the thoughts in Your Heart Is Not In It Anymore and How Can You Motivate Others? You Can’t!
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential – as Albert Einstein said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. When it comes to HR practices it teaches you to avoid micromanagement, to avoid unnecessary red tape and comprehensive regulations. Finding the minimum of things that should be documented to satisfy the law and the need of the organization is one of the most difficult tasks HR person can have. It is way too easy to succumb to the mindset “we should have a policy for this” every time a people problem comes up. Resist this and rather spend the effort of educating the teams on what fair treatment, open and honest communication, transparency, and collaboration actually means. If you spend all your time on writing and enforcing policies than you have no time to actually help others to learn, no time for providing feedback and helping to build the culture of getting things done. This is a very tricky proposition especially in distributed teams coming from various cultural backgrounds but everything is possible. You can check some tips in So You’ve Got A Remote Team. Tricky… part I., part II., and part III.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams – one of the most controversial (to some) and difficult aspects of the agile movement. Once you hire great people you need to let them do their job. Self-organizing teams are a way to prevent undue pressure from people who should have no say in what is being worked on. It doesn’t mean you need to introduce holacracy or similar concepts. It means you need to create a clarity around who is responsible for what and not mess with it every time a small issue comes up. To be able to let the teams run free and get the job done you need to have the right mix of people in the team. Building meshed organization where each cell contains all the skills necessary to get the work done is the key. Extensive reliance on collaboration across different departments who may have competing goals is not the way to go if you want to have highly agile environment. Some thoughts on how to build such a team are share in this article How To Build A Team And Not A Random Group Of People and How To Hire A Strong Software Development Team.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly – and we are back to feedback. One of the key services any manager or HR professional can provide to the organization is to provide or at least facilitate regular, frequent, and constructive feedback. This can mean helping to resolve any communication issues within the team, help people to grow or to help the team to act as a cohesive unit. For a healthy organization it is not only about feedback flowing from top to bottom but also about frequent feedback from the lower levels of the organization back to the top. Only by this you ensure that top management has good understanding of where the organization is and what to do to move it in the right direction. You can find some thoughts on dealing with communication issues and feedback in these articles How To Deal With Communication Issues, How To Deal With Broken Promises.

When you put it all together you will find that people management in agile environments is not about processes or a devote attention to a particular development and management ideology but rather about flexibility, trust, frequent feedback, transparency, and lots of communication between all the stakeholders.

 

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

You Are A Leader, Not A Messenger. Act Like It!

We live in a global, incredibly complex and fast paced world. In most organizations of bigger than small size you can see the complexity of interaction increasing with every new employee, every new product and every new customer. If you are a manager in such environment you may sooner or later find yourself in a position that your decisions are actually not yours to make. Or at least, you feel that way.

You can’t just add a new benefit for your team, you need to talk to HR and finance teams. You cannot just add a feature to your product, you need to talk to product management, marketing, sales, and customers. You cannot just set your own working hours as they depend on when the rest of your team or your customers are around. There are so many constrains that you feel you are no longer a manager but just a proxy for decisions made by someone else. Guess what, you and only you are responsible for this! You are responsible for your own actions and more importantly you are responsible for your own feelings.

To make things worse, your feelings, words and actions have a direct impact on your team. If you get to the habit of blaming others for your inability to make things happen it will reflect on the team spirit. “He doesn’t have the power to make decisions.” “Everything needs to be decided in HQ.” “We told them this won’t work and they don’t listen.” “Customers have no clue what they want.” Before you know it you have a culture of “us against them”, with “them” being another team, another department, location, or even customers.

So what can you do to change things and to make sure you and your team don’t end up with senseless negative self-talk that will prevent you from enjoying your work and deliver great results?

Not your decision? Then do your best to influence it

Very few decisions are yours only. Most of the time you need to cooperate with others to get their buy-in, acceptance and to ensure there are as few negative consequences as possible. If you want to feel like a king and make unilateral decisions impacting lives of all the peasants in your kingdom than bad news. You were born couple of hundred years too late.

Today, it is all about influence. You don’t need formal power to make things happen. Yes, it takes a bit more time and way more communication with way more people but ultimately you can “make decisions” through other people. I would suggest you check out these articles to get some tips and tricks on how to influence the environment around you: The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3. So it is just for you to get comfortable with this mode of working.

Don’t be just a messenger but own the message

You should never communicate a message to your team unless you understand what is behind it and can present it as “our decision”. If you constantly talk to your team about “someone decided something and we have to live with it” then you are the one who is spoiling the mood in the team.

If you need to communicate to the team a decision that you don’t understand then talk to the actual decision maker to learn “why”. What is behind the decision and why it was done? Even if you disagree with the decision, the time to influence it was before it was made. Once decision is done, it is done. Now your job is to implement it.

When you learned “why” it is your job to present it to your team in a way that will make sense to them. Yes, it can be sometimes tricky since the context in which the original decision maker lives is very different from the context in which your team lives (eg. CEO versus engineers). But that is exactly why you are here. You are the translator, you are the sense maker, and you are the one who needs to lead your team to implement the decision and feel good about it.

“As a leader, the biggest value you bring to your team is helping them make sense of the world around them @GeekyLeader [Tweet this]

Spend your effort and focus on things you can change

And if you really want to make some decisions solely on your own, or you want to give your team this ability to simply decide something without the need to ask half of the planet for permission then consider what are the aspects of your job that are fully under your control. If you think about it you will most likely discover that there are tons of things that you can decide and in fact that you are deciding every day without even realizing it. Then focus your attention and the attention of your team on these. After a while you will see that the mood in the team improved even though the external circumstances are the same.

Human brain is a great help in this since we get more of those things that we focus on. I’m sure you heard the example with the yellow car. If I ask you right now how many yellow cars you saw over the last week when commuting to the office you might be hard pressed to remember more than a few (assuming the cabs in your city are not yellow). But since I just focused your attention on yellow cars you will tell me tomorrow that you counted ten yellow cars on your way home. More than you saw in the previous month. Must be some sort of yellow cars outbreak, right?

When you really think about it all these things boil down to two basic themes: communication and attitude. Communication will form how you are perceived externally by your team (so they trust you and follow you) and the rest of the stakeholders in whatever decision needs to be done (so you can properly influence things). Attitude or mindset is how you perceive your role internally (how you feel about your role, your impact and your successes and failures) and what you focus your attention on.

So next time when you start feeling hopeless and feeling that all the decisions are done for you, just think about how much it is “them” and how much it is “you”. Maybe this introspection will help you find a way how to have a good feeling, greater success and bigger impact on the world.

 

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

It Doesn’t Matter What You Say

Communication is a marvelous thing. It requires at least two parties to participate. One that is sending the message and the other receiving. It sounds straightforward enough. What can go wrong with such a simple concept? And still, every single day we are part of miscommunications and misunderstandings. Why? Because things are more complex than they appear. So what is going on and how do you improve your communication style and ensure your message is being understood the way you wanted to?

The chicken soup

It all starts with idea in your mind. “Oh, I would love to get chicken soup for lunch today,” you think. You don’t really usually eat soup with the exception of chicken soup. You just love it and for some reason today crave it since the morning. Unfortunately you don’t have time to get to the restaurant due to workload so you ask a colleague to bring it when he goes for his lunch. “Jim can you do me a favor and bring me a bowl of chicken soup from the cafeteria?” “Sure, no problem,” says Jim. And after an hour comes back from his lunch with bowl of beef soup. “Here you go. They didn’t have chicken so I took beef soup instead.” You hate beef soup. “You can keep that! As always you are not able to follow even the easiest request,” you snap at Jim and he strides away angry resolved to never talk to you again and complains about you to other coworkers.

Silly? Well, it happens all the time. A small misunderstanding caused by poor communication turns into huge issue down the road. So what actually happened here? Several things:

  • You didn’t mean what you said
  • The listener understood the words and not the meaning
  • You misinterpreted initiative as incompetence

Always say what you mean

If you want a chicken soup because you love it and you are looking forward to its taste more than to its nourishment value you should say so. “Jim, can I ask you to bring me bowl of chicken soup? I just crave it and cannot think of anything else. If they don’t have it in the canteen then don’t bring anything and just let me know.” You communicated not only what you want but also why you want it. This “big picture” or the context of your request is vitally important for proper understanding. In fact, based on my experience, majority of misunderstandings come from people not explaining “why” something needs to be done or “why” it was done the certain way. Without context things are open to interpretation.

Always verify what the other party understood

It is probably silly with our chicken soup example but to have the person repeat in his own words what she understood is a good strategy especially in asking for a complex deliverables. “Jim just so we are on the same page and there is no room for error, can you summarize how you understood the next steps we just agreed on?” Asking someone to tell in their own words what was agreed is a great way to hear how they understand the situation. Just be careful and don’t take things for granted. Listen for details.

Imagine that on the meeting you agreed that you need to schedule business review meeting. You expected Jim to do it. When you ask him to summarize the next steps he says “we will schedule business review.” Because you expect him to do it, you hear that he will take care of it when in fact that is not what he is saying. The statement should immediately trigger an alarm. “Jim, just to be clear, I expect you will schedule the business review.” “Oh yes, that is what I meant. I will schedule it.” Only now we have enough clarity to be reasonably sure the message was understood.

Always verify your interpretation of events

We tend to read too much meaning into random actions of others. And if we care enough about a particular topic and we don’t like the way something is being handled we tend to immediately assume a malicious intentions of the other party. The mentality often is “I’m the one who means well for everyone and others have only their own interests in mind.” Unfortunately, since many of us have this mindset in many various situations you can see the logical problem with it.

Consider these statements:

  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. You never listen to what I say.”
  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. It appears to me that you haven’t listen to what I said. Can you verify my interpretation is correct?”
  • “Jim, I see you brought me beef soup when I wanted chicken soup. I’m not sure how to understand this, can you help me out and explain why?”

How different will these things sound to Jim? First one is a clear attack and puts Jim to defensive position. Second one is much better, you are asking for explanation, but the underlying feeling is still that you are assuming Jim is no good. The third one is completely neutral. It just states facts and leaves everything else open to discussion. “They didn’t have chicken soup so to make sure you are not without lunch I brought you at least beef one, even though that is not what you requested.” “Much appreciated the effort and that you care for me. You are right, beef is not my favorite, but it will do. Thanks again.”

How little it takes to have completely different outcome of the conversation. Just keep an open mind, don’t automatically interpret things without seeking clarity, and always assume that others mean well. If you keep these in mind your ability to communicate, understand, and be understood will improve dramatically. At the end it doesn’t matter what you say, but what is being understood.

 

How often does it happen to you that your thoughts are misunderstood? Who do you blame? How do you try to resolve these misunderstandings?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.