Leading from where you stand

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn, more, do more and become more, then you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

One thing that I have never been accused of is not leading from where I stand in an organization. I have been one that is constantly thinking “fringe” ideas that may not have dropped into mainstream just quite yet. I often describe it as a lone person shouting into the wind waiting for the others to show up, which on occasion, they do.

I think this is something that many of us are aware of in our own personal makeup. I truly believe that a great deal of people often out of sheer curiosity investigate something, see a need, a possibility of change and work to make a difference. I also feel that in the face of poor or no leadership that there are others who will rise to the call. These are often the leaders from within the organization that through sheer desire to do something amazing inspire people to join them.

I am known to say frequently “if you drop 5 people on a desert island, someone will rise to lead the others. And it is not necessarily the one with the title to do so”. So I wanted to discuss this idea in this post. How, no matter where you are, you have the opportunity to lead. It’s usually a matter of inspiration and context that define how that unfolds.

I just don’t have enough power.

I have spoken with a lot of people over the  years who try and convince me that they are unable to affect change in the organization as they do not hold a position of power or influence within an organization. While I believe fully that there are organizations that are so entrenched in hierarchy that impact on a broad level can be very difficult, what about affecting change at a local level, a micro-level, a personal level?

I guess what I am getting at here is that nobody is completely powerless to the random acts of circumstance. There has to be a realm for each of us in which we have the potential to influence. If not, you are most likely a lemming; watch out for that cliff coming up, that first step is going to be a doozy.

What I am really asserting is that sometimes there is absolutely no one who is going to sanction what you know needs to be done or can impact a positive change. In most cases, if you are waiting for that to happen, it may be a very long wait. I am not advocating that you proceed in an anarchistic manner to “do whatever you want to do”. But as Ghandi said, “be part of the solution”.

It’s really easy to identify problems. If I put my mind to it right now, I could create a list of 20 problems in no time flat. But here’s the harder part … is solving the problem.

Or even better, just come up with a potential solution, any possible solution, that can be immediately actionable. Not something that depends on a funding stream, 14 departments to change their process or the CEO to be fired in scandal. What is the simplest possible solution that you could try today? Have one in mind? Willing to try and implement it?

Are you a little worried? Good. You probably should be.

Most of the time fear of failure or putting ourselves out there with an idea that is different to make something better is deeply nested in a heavy dose of fear. It’s what inspires some and crushes others from even getting started. That fear usually reminds us that there are consequences to our actions, which is a good thing. Leaders often take risk. It’s what they do.

Please do not feel alone in this idea of fear. I have it. Each and every time I take a small risk and try something new, I have that fear inside me. It’s just part of who I am. It has stopped me as much as it has inspired me. It’s not unnatural.

However, true leaders may often be so consumed and impassioned by an idea or the potential of change that they feel compelled to champion thi cause in the face of potential failure. This is what often inspires other in these leaders to listen and follow them. They are on a mission and we just want to be part of it because we want to be part of something great.

Their unwavering belief in what they are seeking to change can be truly inspirational! So fear is not necessarily a bad thing, it just reminds us to consider how impassioned we may be to solve a particular problem or champion a cause as balanced to the risk we are willing to take for our vision.

Where you stand today.

So back to our original idea, can you lead where you are now? Are there immediate problems or opportunities that you can tackle and make things better? Are you willing to take these on with passion no matter in anyone joins you in your quest?  Then you may actually be ready to start leading from where you stand right now.

It’s not a difficult thing to do but we often get overwhelmed by the idea of change on a grand scale. We perhaps see the larger issue and often stand the risk of getting bogged down  with those items that far beyond our scope of influence and can take the wind out of our sails. I have done it times myself.

Seeing the sheer amount of effort that lies ahead of us to run a marathon can often keep us on the couch. Don’t fall into this trap. One of the supporting agile values is the “value in the work not done”. You have to be willing to make changes where you can. This often takes a prioritization approach, which is hard. Most people agree that having 3-5 priorities is manageable. Even Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” indicates that “if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority”.

But what if we could step back from the grand “save the world” solution and perhaps take a moment to reflect on those tiny pain points that might make things a little bit easier, more productive, more visible or solve some small problem; wouldn’t that be a good thing? I think it might.

But shouldn’t we set really big goals for ourselves? Sure, why not. Let’s not forget they exist but let’s put them into perspective They are often called BHAGs.

BHAGS

BHAG stands for “big hairy audacious goals” and are those things that may drive the small actions we take to get there. This term comes from the book “Built to Last”, authors Jim Collins, and Jerry Porras (Jim Collins being known for his follow-up book “Good to Great”) when they examine successful visionary companies. A BHAG, as described in the book, encourages companies to define visionary goals that are emotionally compelling. Whereas a lot of companies set goals in months, quarters or years, the target of a BHAG is a 10-30 year goal to progress to an envisioned future.

The  book defines a true BHAG as:

A BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.

Here are a few examples of BHAGs:

Google:  Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Microsoft: Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

Amazon: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company.

Facebook: To make the world more open and connected.

JFK’s Moon Challenge: This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

So having a “big hairy audacious goal” is, in itself, a  good thing. An envisionment of the future that inspires on an emotional level. But we must ensure that we do not become overwhelmed by trying to continually compare our short term achievements to that BHAG directly as a measurement of progress as not to underwhelm us to our achievements and impact we are making today. Look at it as a roadmap, not a measuring stick.

So let’s get our leadership on!

So we talked about several things that help point us in the direction of leading from where we stand. Let’s recap.

Questions we might ask ourselves:

  1. Do I have or need a BHAG for what we want to do? Is it something that emotionally connects for me and potentially for others? Am I seeking a broader future goal or simply a local immediate change?
  2. Where is my level of influence? What things can I impact today to make a difference to help me get move towards my perceived future? Is the change I want to make within that level of influence?
  3. One thing we did not really discuss, Am I being responsible to (myself, my co-workers, my organization) and reasonable (again to the same parties) in what I am trying to do? Am I being self-servant or “serving” in my actions?
  4. Does the thought of failure concern me more than the positive impact of change itself? Am I willing to accept the consequences of the actions I take, good or bad?
  5. Am I waiting for the authority to enact change or am I using this as a mechanism to not instigate the change myself?
  6. Whom does this change impact? What are their motivations?
  7. Am I willing to accept failure and learn from it?

So we have examine the items surrounding the change, now is  the time to put things into action. If we have indicators that we are willing to champion this change, accept the consequences and seek to rally additional champions of impact, we should get things into motion.

The CEO of PureWow, Ryan Harwood states that “the worst decision is indecision”. This is a modern restatement of a battle strategy that indicates “when confronted with an enemy on two possible hills, the worst decision is to not charge either hill”.

So if you make the decision to affect change from where you stand today, make it happen!

 

Using Agile Outside of Software

“There is a better way to do it. Find it.” – Thomas Edison

One of the core principles of the agile manifesto is the response to change in opposition to following a plan. That is not to say that development and following a plan is not valuable but there is a heightened value in remaining responsive to change.

I was approached this week by a colleague and friend who asked my opinion on a very structured change management framework for organizational initiatives. They have personally really grown to appreciate the idea of approaching things in an agile manner and the use of collaborative teams to find innovative solutions so the idea of this highly structured process framework seemed to raise some concern them. I thought about this a great deal and speculated that “change” could be managed just like a sprint or use of a kanban pull system just as easily.

I think that at its core, the agile manifesto (if taken out of the context of software) guides us to:

  • Value collaboration with people to solve a problem over rigid processes or elaborate tooling.
  • Produce a working value item as opposed to documentation defining what the items is to be produced so we can inspect and adapt a tangible item.
  • Remain close and communication often with customers to again help us reflect and review on progress to date and gauge possible improvement.
  • Embrace change and be open to adaptation when change occurs.

I postulated the following approach to them based on the scrum framework (these are not really new ideas, just a rehash of those before me but I find the idea of applying agile frameworks outside of software fascinating):

The Artifacts

  • A change initiative backlog consisting of specific items of change sought by the organization. This should be prioritized with highest value change initiatives first and lesser valued items much lower in the backlog. I might create these very similar to user stories with a persona who will gain value, a business value need and an expected benefit. In place of the typical acceptance criteria of a story, I might use something like expected result from change (maybe a benchmark) or maybe even some other type of indicator. Unsure there but think the key takeaway would be to split the concepts so that they could be delivered in one to two weeks but no more than a month to keep the inspect and adaptation horizon low enough to “pivot or persevere”.
  • Tasks could be decomposed by the team to address the change initiatives, again like you would with a typical backlog item and provide them an insight into progress during the change sprint.
  • In development of the initiative, I might even develop personas reflecting the target impact audience and their perceived benefits and perhaps even develop an initiative roadmap that reflected where logical “releases” of the initiative made sense.

The Rituals

  • You might perform some base forecasting to get a shared sizing indicator but I would probably forgo fibonacci and opt for t-shirt sizes, animals, etc. I would let the team determine the appropriate sizing rubric. I am really not sure that this would be necessary as you might better employ a pull system to visualize work process for something like this.
  • I would only consider keep sprint planning so that the team could make the commitment to the change owner if I were to use more of a scrum process than kanban. I think either could work effectively here although I do personally appreciate creating a sense of urgency and team buy-in with a stated commitment.
  • I would definitely keep a timebox  of 1-4 weeks to allow the team to remain focused and keep the end goals in mind. I think that this review horizon for progress with the team is essential so that they are invested and reflect the realistic amount of work that can be accomplished.
  • I would keep the concept of a stand-up and work to set the timeframe in relation to the need for risk mitigation of not meeting the commitment. I would probably stick with daily as it tends to level set people for things they have accomplished and remaining tasks to be performed. I also think that this helps reinforce the ideas of self-organization and self-management by allowing the team to reflect together on items done and undone and organize themselves accordingly. Even if using a “pull system”, I would use this opportunity to have a guided “walk of the board” so that the team could reflect on bottleneck areas, self-organize to impact them and visualize the overall flow. I would start simply with a “To Do, In Progress, Done” approach and tailor as the team learned more about its general workflow states possibly.
  • As I stated earlier, I would define a timebox for progress demonstration of the initiative items and team reflection like the scrum framework review and retrospective.

The Roles

  • A “change owner” (just like a product owner) represents a group of stakeholders for the organization and is the single voice to the team when it becomes stuck, needs clarification or needs an immediate decision. This person would need to be empowered by the business to own this change effort as they will have the ability to provide iterative feedback to adjust course accordingly at the review.
  • A cross-functional team. One of my favorite design firms is known for this idea. In applying this to the concept of of an organizational change initiative, I believe that you would need to ask yourself some clarifying questions:
    • Is it more important that I have all the skills necessary for the delivery of a change item?
    • Is it more important that I get a good cross section of my organization of all types of roles that are critical thinkers and “doers”so that I can get a better reflection of the organization as a whole and to provide broader context?
  • I would also use the concept of a scrum master type role to help keep the team focused and productive. I might tag them more as a team coach focused on helping them through the process, teach them heightened skills to work as a team, assisting with impediment removal and assisting them to reflect on the process for continual improvement of the team.

I think the key components to making this work in a non-software situation is to still be value and customer focused and treat the initiative like a product so that it could be developed.

Folks who typically read my blog may be saying to themselves “yeah, this just makes sense” but for people outside the world of software, sometimes the concepts of iterative building seem foreign and they see things in “final state”. This is just an idea for them to see how they might apply this to their domains of business. I do think that providing the team the concept of focused effort would make this more productive but in the context of business domains this might be difficult. Capacity management strategies, micro teams or just allowing them to suspend their daily effort and focus for a timebox (by having others manage the daily activities) could be an option. I do think using a pull system might allow for an interrupt driven process but I also would be concerned that most might have difficulty determining true criticality of work they typically are expected to perform today. Being an agile leader and allowing this focus may draw some criticism but you might treat it like an experiment, run a few sprints with focused effort, reflect on the work accomplished and adjust as needed.

One thing that I told my bosses when I pitched my first scrum pilot to help secure buy-in was “you will review progress every 2 weeks. At this time, you can choose to continue, adjust or stop funding the project altogether and abandon the effort. Failure should be an option but the goal should be to fail as fast as possible if we do so.”

We are already seeing this done a great deal in many industries, automotive, design, marketing, education and even in areas such as program development at NPR. So this is definitely not a new phenomena but it is interesting to take a step back away from the world of software and ask ourselves how might we harness what we know already about agile principles and processes and apply them in a unique way to build something other than software. It fascinates me. So take a moment, is there somewhere that you see complexity in an effort that would benefit from an empirical approach. Maybe you should be a catalyst to help someone try something new.

I leave you with this quote that I have always appreciated …

“Success isn’t about what you accomplish in your life. It’s about what you inspire others to do” – Unknown

 

 

 

 

Driving your Outcomes

If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome. – Michael Jordan

This won’t be a long post but I have been reading Jon Gordon’s “The Energy Bus” lately (he has a lot of good short lesson driven books) and came across a passage that really made me think.

In the book, the “teacher” (in this case a bus driver named Joy) postulates the following formula:

E + P + R = O

This formula is “Events plus our perception coupled with our reaction creates the outcome”. Let that sink in for a moment.

Events happen and we often cannot control that they occur. Cars break down, people get sick, the Sith make a comeback (sorry for the  Star Wars reference). But most times, an event is outside the scope of our direct control. But what we do actually control are our perceptions of the event (why it happened, the severity of the impact) and how we react accordingly (negatively or positively). These variables lead to what outcome gets produced.

I really thought about this a lot and applied it to situations in which past negative events became negative outcomes through my perception and reaction and the inverse in which taking a bad situation and making it into an opportunity through my perception and reaction to it. Or how even in the face of a difficult event, my reaction can actually impact the reaction of those around me.

Does this mean, I can logically pull this formula out every time I am presented with an event? Probably not. However, it gives me one more tool in my toolbox to stop and use when I encounter a situation. I realized that if I approach an event with a negative perception and therefore react negatively, I am probably going to get back the same kind of energy I put out as a result.

So, base logic seems to be that if I manage my perception and find the most positive reaction to the challenge, that I may just radiate positive energy behind the event or at least moderate my response, especially in the face of negative reactions around me.

So, the next time we find ourselves in a situational event, maybe we can take a moment, a breath, a second to internally reflect and then allow a controlled reaction (the thing we can control) to take shape and be expressed. It may result in an amazing outcome! 😀