Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Agile works with three leadership roles in autonomous teams

In an agile work environment team members are encouraged to take on informal leadership roles. In addition, there are three leadership roles: the product owner (PO), chapter lead (CL) and the agile coach (AC). Replacing the team leader, task, content and people/group focused leadership is filled out by several people. That is smart; people do what they are good at and where they have talent. They learn organically in work to excel. By this organization structure the initial need to train people is eliminated. An agile environment works as a network of fast learning and experimenting start-ups within one organization. 

Together with Jeroen Molenaar, agile consultant for the INGbank, I wrote in our previous blog post about the agile work environment as an example of a work & and learn ecosystem. An agile work environment is designed based on values and culture, where trust and autonomy of employees and teams are of paramount importance. On this basis, you design a context bound organization structure, which grows organically. In this blog I write about the role of team leadership in an agile environment, inspired by the agile environment in Spotify and ING. I refer to my previous blog regarding a description of the tribes, squads and chapters.
Figure 1: Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson (2012) at Spotify
Spotify encourages employees to show personal leadership. When you promote entrepreneurship, you also opt for informal leadership. This is also in line with an approach where self-reliance and responsibility are of paramount importance. In addition, there are also a few people who have leadership roles. And I am not talking about positions; you would finally want to ensure that someone contributes: the meritocracy (Hamel, 2012). In self-managing teams with entrepreneurial team members and with a good view of tasks and roles in a work & learn ecosystem, team members ideally also have something to say about who carries out certain leadership roles.

In my previous blog posts I described the key ingredients of excellent teams (Google research and MIT). In summary:

  • Dense face-to-face communication and equality of conversational turn taking; 
  • Team members experience psychological security (holding environment): inside and from outside the team; 
  • A few team members are socially sensitive, mindful about the mental state (well-being) of other team members and do something with it as well; 
  • Team members can count on support from other teammembers; 
  • There is an appropriate structure (OKR, processes, behaviour and codes of conduct, meetings). 

To be able and willing to excel you ensure that the above mentioned ' ingredients ' flourish in each team. There are people that monitor if team members pick-up, try and develop these ingredients. And if they receive a signal that a team member or team does not master these competences, they give support allowing team members to develop it further. Team members are encouraged and supported to take responsibility for the group process, the results, for each other and for their own development. As people with a leadership role you do everything that the team learns in an optimal learning climate.

Leadership roles in an agile work environment
The squads (teams) at Spotify/ING are a fine example for leadership roles in a work & learn Ecosystem. In this blog I will not go into the role and tasks of the tribe leadership team.

Problem owner
Each squad has a productowner (PO), who is responsible for what a squad does appropriate to the purpose; you may call that task-and goal-oriented leadership. How the squad realizes its purpose, is up to the squad itself. From the performance point of view, the product owner seems to have an obvious well-known job and I suspect here is a real snag. For example everyone thinks they may interfere with the 'purpose '. Or when tribe management is not pleased with the results, they might address the product owner instead of the team ,...I think product owners must have emotional maturity in order to properly navigate; selling "no" to external requests is one of their most difficult and perhaps most crucial tasks. They will experience pressure from outside or pressure they impose on themselves and should dare to discuss it with the other team members. Social sensitivity of a few team members and support of the agile coach is often important.

Chapter lead
Coordination in a discipline or competence happens in ' chapters '; people from different teams (squads) of a particular discipline or competence meet regularly. You can think of IT engineers with
front-end expertise and customer journey experts with intermediate specialisation. The chapter lead (CL) is responsible for the performance cycle and for the personal development of chapter members on their journey to mastery. This is pretty remarkable because when you approach this from the performance point of view and you would expect this would be a problemowners’ task. However in the agile matrix organization, this is consciously separated. This requires the product owner to choose for his or her craftsmanship and prioritize it (work from the chapter should be prioritized through the PO; ‘the chapter ' does not work '). The chapter lead carries out its leadership tasks next to his or her duties in his or her own squad, say 40% of his/her time.

Agile coach
The agile coach (AC) has a special position. The agile coach guides the retrospectives, stand-ups, demo and planning sessions (sprints) and supports 3-5 teams to collaborate and apply the (new) rules of conduct. The AC monitors above mentioned ' ingredients ' that are critical for excelling teams. The AC monitors the team process, helps the team proactively with her development and interferes with disruptions. He/she coaches, monitors, stimulates and motivates. You may call that also people-
oriented and team focused leadership. The AC buzzes like a bee, mindful with antennas, continually looking for opportunities to support squads or squad members, to give a helping hand, to draw their attention to …... etc. Support is provided informally and formally (the sessions). Agile coaches are carefully selected and using among others personality tests (big five); the dimensions extraversion, openness, emotional stability and service orientation are important to them. See also my blog about the profile of a Work & Learn consultant (concierge).

An agile coach is not a part of the squad and that distance is helpful to be able to perceive for appropriate interventions. This role is also vulnerable, since you as a coach do not carry out regular team tasks, in contrast to what the product owner and chapter lead do. A ‘blue’ (structure) manager will quickly ask questions whether the coach still has added value, because it is so hard to trace the output of an agile coach. In the core, it is up to the squad members to periodically give feedback if the coach is of value or not. A positive case would be if team members contact the agile coach spontaneously and regularly whenever there is a dilemma because he/she is such a good listener and gives such good advice. And perhaps more importantly, it is the agile coach that supports the team in the development and use of the above mentioned ingredients that have everything to do with excellence or high performance. The MT should be well aware what matters to be able to excel. When the way of working as process is well understood, the AC has the task to make this transparent.

In addition to the team members the agile coach supports the product owner and the chapter lead. For example, it is not obvious that a chapterlead knows how to guide other chapter members in their development, in knowledge generation and knowledge sharing.

Leadership is a team (and consists of 3 roles)
The product owner, agile coach and chapter lead regularly come together: the POCLAC meeting. They discuss how the squad operates and what they might do to make the squad work better. The chapter lead is responsible for the assessment of chapter members and will get information from the product owner (what someone contributes to the purpose) and the agile coach (how does a squad member collaborate, provide feedback, etc.). And even more importantly, in a self-organizing team this information will come from the squad members themselves.
Figure 2: Three Leadership roles: POCLAC (adapted from Spotify, 2013) 

The design with three leadership roles is remarkable. In recent decades, businesses and training agencies have been busy strengthening the roles of task-oriented and people/group aimed leadership in one person and in an agile work environment it is separated by person. This sounds so much more logical; let people do what they're naturally good at, strengthen and select people on it. It is not necessary anymore to invest much effort asking task-oriented leaders to carry out coaching leadership. Agile people with a leadership role learn while working how to excel and you get rid of the need to have to train people first: agile in itself creates learning. The fact that people have different roles also creates more clarity and that gives peace.

(Project) managers are not natural problem owners
In a young organization working with these three leadership roles is a choice. To work in such way in an 'old ' organization is entirely something else. For example, former (project) managers won’t be automatically the new product owners. In that case there is a high risk that work patterns and practices do not change. Managers will not easily just say good-bye to their carefully crafted position and then a careful process approach for change is not sufficient. Also a kick-off with a tempting perspective in a large venue with the CEO is not enough. If you depart with new values and a new culture and build up a new organizational structure, you will need to make a clear breaking point. ING was well aware of this and from hundreds of management functions, for example, only a few remained. A result may be that an experienced manager as chapter lead works together with a young dynamic product owner. This could lead to some friction naturally and that little inconvenience may also be helpful. Rationally you might want to agree to say goodbye to your position as an experienced manager, however your feelings and your attitude are often not yet ready, certainly when it is tense. It will take time for collaboration and an open working climate with guidance on-the-job by an experienced agile coach will help. Conversations with people in the same position are also helpful. Perhaps this blog too gives some perspective.

For more information on a work and learning ecosystem: see my blog. I am writing a book about a work and learning Ecosystem in times of great change, with the case of the Agile work environment.

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