Lean Thinking

11 April 2017

Lead by Example

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Leadership is crucial to a large scale agile transformation. You can go so far bottom up but to achieve any sort of real scale you need to get some leaders involved. A lot of what I do day to day is get leaders involved and engaged in the transformation process. When talking to leaders, this question inevitably comes up - "What is the single most important thing I can do as a leader to make this work?" For quite some time, my standard answer has been "Set a good example."

Have we ever seen this situation - the boss has just announced a fantastic new agile change program and that he or she is right behind it. "Agile is the most important thing the organisation can be doing" they say. But over the next few weeks it becomes clear that they aren't turning up to the business scrum, are too busy to make the sprint review, can't afford the time to attend backlog refinement. Then other people's attendance starts to drift off. "Too busy" becomes the standard excuse for missing something. The agile transformation falters, struggles on for a while, then vanishes without a trace.

The thing about being a leader is that people take cues from your behaviour in a certain situation about what their behaviour in that same situation should be. So whatever behaviours you want to install in your organisation must be the behaviours that you personally demonstrate day to day. If you want to install agile behaviours, you must behave in an agile way.

In the example above, although the boss's words said that agile was important, their actions said, very loudly, that it wasn't. They said that the day to day activities that took them away from the agile activities were actually the most important thing. It doesn't take long for other people to pick up on that cue and start prioritising their day to day activities above the agile transformation.

How many leaders have you seen set up a process or policy then proceed to ignore it? The prioritisation process for everything except their pet projects? The economy class travel policy for everyone except them?  What cue does the organisation get when the boss says that cutting costs is important but then proceeds to get themselves an expensive new chair and puts lavish lunches on their corporate card? If you want thrift, be thrifty.

As a leader, your words and actions must match. You want people to stop wasting so much time in meetings by having people turn up on time? Try making the effort to always turn up on time yourself. Quite often the more senior the position, the later that person is to meetings and others take their cue from that. "No point turning up early, the boss won't be there and we'll all have to start again anyway." Pretty soon no one turns up on time to anything.

If you want attendance at standups, attend the standups. Want the standups to start on time? Come to the standup on time. If you want all the stakeholders at sprint planning, come to sprint planning.

It's more than just turning up to things. Your behaviour sets the behaviour of others. If you want your organisation to adopt a new behaviour, you better adopt it, visibly. If you want the organisation to value learning, mentioning that you took an hour out to read an article and think about its application sends a very powerful cue to the organisation that this is a valuable thing to do. More often than not, leaders who are pushing learning with their words, demonstrate exactly the opposite behaviour by being always too busy to look at new things. You have to lead by example. If learning is important, force yourself to take time out and learn.

If you want a culture of openness and being safe to fail, set an example by being open about your failures. No one will admit to a failure while the boss is maintaining an aura of perfection around themselves. They will take their cue from you. The most powerful signal you can send that it is safe to fail, is to admit publicly that you have failed, learned and moved on. "Yep, I was wrong, it didn't work, we are correcting to do this instead", will do far more for your "safe to fail" behavioural change than any other action you can take. Better, and far cheaper, than any number of training courses, posters and seminars.

If you want free and open feedback, accept feedback freely and openly. If you want collaboration, collaborate. If you want people to take responsibility, show yourself taking responsibility. Want people to start delegating decisions, then delegate decisions. Want a fun work environment, have fun at work.

"Be the change you want" is a trite and overused cliche, a staple of dozens of awful self-help books and hundreds of terrible motivational posters, but for all that, it is absolutely correct. Organisational change starts, and so often, sadly, ends, with the leader. If you want change, you have to show yourself adopting that change.

This isn't a guarantee of success of course. Even with a leader demonstrating the change, organisational inertia can still drag the change down. But it gives it a chance of success. Without an engaged leader the change is doomed. With an engaged leader it has a chance of success.

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