Not Knowing is Not Bad

“The best way you can find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”          – Ernest Hemingway

I had an interesting experience at work this week that I wanted to share. I had been out of the office with some personal matters and upon my return I was catching up on emails, issues, etc. During a few meetings I had that day an issue came up in which one of my direct colleagues who during the conversation expressed “but I am sure that you are aware of this issue” to which I replied “no, I actually am not”.

They looked puzzled with an expression of “your teams are not informing you of this issue”? I went on to explain to them that from my perspective that the teams were acting as I hoped they would. They were addressing the issue with the people that could help them solve the problem and given it was not an issue that had significant repercussions, they were handling it at their level of ownership.

Two core concepts for Agile Leaders to become comfortable with (and they can be hard)

There are two core components that I believe in when leading a team, a group of teams or an organization:

  1. People use concepts of “reasonable and responsible” in decision-making and knowing when to escalate an issue.
  2. Problems should get solved at the lowest level of responsibility.


Being Reasonable and Responsible

For me, this is a core litmus test that I use when making a decision and my goal has to been to instill in within the culture of the organization I lead. This sounds great and very positive thinking but how do I actually pull this off?

  1. Stop assuming that people’s actions are the result of them trying to do something bad or the wrong thing or some other evil motivation. For the most part, people want to succeed and do what they need to do. But given knowledge, motivation, lack of understanding or maybe difficulty of the obstacle, they’ll make a bad decision. Have a general faith in this and when evidence seems to the contrary stop and ask “why did they make that decision” or (and this is truly groundbreaking) maybe ask the person themselves. You may find that they had no idea of your perception in that decision.
  2. Explain it, repeat it, explain it, repeat it and then do it again. Don’t just tell people to be reasonable and responsible as that is absolute rubbish. It means absolutely nothing. If anything it gives carte blanche to make really stupid decisions. Explain what reasonable and responsible means to you to them and don’t make it a “one and done” scenario. Use this concept in things you talk about, weave it into cultural values and if possible give detailed examples. For example, when I explain to my leadership team and our product teams this idea, I use the following base concept

Reasonable and Responsible is the litmus test for every decision we make. And when I say these words I do not mean being reasonable and responsible to just yourself and your own opinions and thoughts, I mean stopping to consider if the decision or action you are undertaking is reasonable and responsible to your team, your company, your customers. As an example:

I want to take off this week as this product sprint has been difficult and we are struggling to complete the value we committed to for the sprint. I need a break!

Ask yourself:

  • Is it reasonable and responsible for me to take time off (I’m stressed)?
  • Is it reasonable and responsible for me to leave my team during a difficult sprint leaving them to finish with one less team member (therefore creating more stress)?
  • Is it reasonable or responsible to my company for me to take this time when their product may be put in jeopardy as a result?
  • Is it reasonable or responsible to our customers to continue to delay our product?

Asking these sorts of questions gets us outside of ourselves and makes us at least consider the impact that we have upon others. This is not a solution provider, just a way to expand your thoughts outside of just you.

Using the concept of the lowest level of responsibility

This is one that I have seen is one of the most difficult things for leaders to embrace for a multitude of reasons. The idea is that when work or an issue occurs, the actual ownership of that problem should be at the level closest to getting the work done or solving the issue (coupled with reasonable and responsible considerations right?)

How many times have you seen a C-level leader or even a line leader come into a meeting and “decide” an approach or solution for which they in absolutely no way will be involved in the work? Or a leader who has “all decisions” run through them so that they can give the nod of leadership before proceeding? This is not an uncommon top down leadership style, even if it is antiquated.

This can occur for many reasons; the leader has had a bad experience in the past in which a decision of which he was unaware resulted in a severe “posterior gnawing”(another future topic I’ll get into), a leader has risen to the ranks of their position from the line level and has not really let go of wanting to be more deeply involved in the daily work itself or a leader has made poor hiring decisions or has a fear of trust in staff making decisions perhaps based on a fear of repercussions from their leadership. Whatever the reason, be it control or mistrust, this can a very difficult thing for people to overcome. This often times works itself out as an organization grows as the mere ability to have that much involvement is difficult, although I have seen, and coached, many leaders who become so stressed by the level of micromanagement that place upon themselves.

When I started leading teams, the former manager was the first person to receive a call when there was a software outage and so they assumed that I would just take over that role.

When asked for my number to do this, I asked “why would you want to first call the person with the least amount of possibility to actually solve the problem”? I instead, told them to provide my teams with rotational phones so that the primary on-call contact could be notified first and worked out a plan of issue communication based on severity, length and resolution. I wanted the people that could actually “fix” the problem to be the people called, not their boss who would turn around and call them and say “hey, there is a problem, I need you to fix it”. I later learned that this was because the former manager had risen from the ranks as a developer so it gave him a chance to stay really technical.

Ensuring that people are empowered to solve problems at the lowest level possible is healthy for an organization.


So in the situation I started this post with, I responded my “lack of knowledge” about a situation based on the two concepts I have outlined. First, I had trust and confidence that my leadership team and my staff members would be reasonable and responsible in the things they requested and the decisions they make. Secondly, I support and believe in the ability to solve problems at the lowest possible level as it promotes responsibility, reinforces problem solving skills and shows trust in your team to remove their own impediments. I express to my teams and hopefully demonstrate through my actions a full support of them that if they need to escalate a situation beyond their capability or capacity to address a problem that I will handle anything they need. But they also know that they are empowered to own the work that they do as they are the people that get the work done.

I hope these small concepts can help any new leader or leader looking to change the way they address problems.


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