Embracing the Mess

I was cleaning our mud room closet the other day – a big mess of coats, snow pants, toques, mismatched mittens… not to mention mud, salt, sand, and a thriving population of dust bunnies.

I’d been avoiding it.

And as I looked at the mess all around me, I realized the part that I had been avoiding was the inevitable mess making that is involved in sorting it all out. There I stood, amongst the piles of laundry, boots, and various odd things that somehow called our mudroom closet home over the past year – feeling uncomfortable and annoyed about it all.

It was in the mess that I had created that I realized that this feeling of aversion is natural – the yang to the yin of our the desire to see the outcome.

It’s hard to wade into a mess and to knowingly make it more messy. To just be with the pain of it and embrace it as part of the process. And yet, messiness is part of every event where change takes place – whether we chose to embrace the pain of it or not.

When I see all the angst expressed in the workplace as teams adopt new ways of working, I wonder how accepting we all are – as coaches and leaders of change – with embracing this messiness? How can we help others to dive into it all, knowing that it will only get more messy before it gets better?

The closet is now btw – looking fabulous – and while I enjoy this fresh state of things (new beginnings are so full of promise), I do so knowing that I will be encountering dust bunnies and new odd things that will have somehow ventured into our mudroom closet again in a few months time… but maybe this time, I won’t actively avoid what it takes to get it where it needs to be for me and my family.

New Leaders Series – Part 3: Manager vs Coach Stance

Let’s start with a key assumption: Managers and coaches are different roles.

Blending manager with coach can be a source of frustration and confusion for the people you are seeking to help and support as a new leader. As a leader in an Agile organization, it’s important that you clearly understand the difference between manager and coach and clarify for yourself and others your own embodiment of these different roles in the moment. Consider the different roles:

Manager – focused on ensuring balanced investment – focusing the growth of the individual in service to the growth of the business. The manager provides the necessary one-on-one support and work context necessary to meet the needs of the business.

Coach – focused on providing the framework and growing capabilities of the coached individual by meeting them “where they are at”. A coach provides a one-on-one interaction aimed at skills growth based on what is required and important for the coached individual.

Now, consider the impact of confusing coach and manager stance:

  1. As a manager, your reports may view your “coaching stance” as suggestion rather than direction – in which case, you risk being unclear about expectations.
  2. As a coach, coachees may see your “manager stance” as controlling. Your instructions may not resonate with the coachee and they may not choose to challenge this with you.

The danger here is made worse if you interpret the report / coachee behaviour as a challenge to your role when the truth is that your helpful – but unclear – approach has failed.

The only way that I know to remove ambiguity is to be very clear as to the mode you are engaging in. As a manager, I strive to be very clear when I engage as a coach – quite literally framing my questions and suggestions as “coach”. When I do this, I’m checking-in, inviting feedback, and am very open to reframing the suggestion. When I’m engaging as a manager and being more directive – I aim to be equally direct and transparent – in this case framing as “management \ business expectations”. When I do this, I emphasize clarity of expectations, inviting questions, and am not open to reframing the suggestion.

Ultimately, regardless of role / stance, what’s important is how this is received and heard by the other person. Knowing when to coach and when to manage is the next level of this but not truly possible unless the leader is able first to clarify their own stance in the moment.

New Leaders Series – Part 2: The Royal “We”

The first practice I would recommend to any new leader making a shift from “me” to “we” is to understand the deeper implications of what’s meant by “we” – if you’ll allow – what I like to call the royal “we”.

The royal “we” isn’t about blindly worshipping hierarchy – it’s about understanding the much broader context of where your team operates. In order to understand the royal “we”, new leaders need to understand the business…. enough of the business to:

  • be able to appreciate and articulate the value that their team and team members deliver
  • enable them to help the team and business to make good decisions

Blindness to the royal “we” is a serious failure in leadership and is usually most notable in it’s absence, such as…

  1. Not understanding the business value delivered by the team within the context of the needs of the overall business. This can lead to a kind of “white knight” behaviour where the leader champions blindly for issues that are not really important to the business. Such leaders will mistakenly value effort over output – putting the business, their team and themselves at risk.
  2. Favouring “politeness” or “likability” with their team members ahead of ensuring clarity and sound decision making based on business value delivery. Over the long run, the charismatic nature of such leaders won’t be enough to counter balance the overall ineffectiveness of their approach – again, putting the business, the team, and themselves at risk.

To be clear, the practice IS NOT to “stop championing for your team” or to “become impolite / unlikable”; rather, it’s to learn how the business delivers value and how you and your team contributes to this with great and constant clarity.  Balancing the needs of the team with the needs of the business is the true and skillful expression of the royal “we”.

BTW – In writing this blog post, I wish express my deep gratitude to Adam Murray (@AdamRMurray) Mike Kelland (@Mkelland), Mike Nash (@MichaelPNash) as well as Tim Redpath (@tredpath) who patiently worked with me as I slowly practiced this skill for myself… I would humbly submit that I still have a long way to go on this path.

New Leaders Series – Part 1: Shift in Stance

After years of hard work as a software developer and high performing team member, you’ve found yourself facing a whole new set of challenges. You are a leader (architect, team lead, scrum master, mentor, manager) on your team.

Looking back, everything that you’ve done along the way has supported you to get to this point. You’ve never backed down from challenge and have embraced the uncertainty of solving problems in code. You love the focus that comes with being able to tackle these problems with confidence. You’ve enjoyed the satisfaction that comes each and every time you’ve transformed an idea into a solution.

However, all the skills you worked hard to hone in yourself reflect your stance as “expert practitioner” and while expert practitioner skills are foundational to your role, these are not the skills that you will need to grow in order to succeed as a leader.

And no one told you this. When you got the promotion, no doubt your manager told you of the confidence he had in your abilities; however, your leadership up to this point has been fundamentally built on your ability to hone your craft expertly.

Your new role requires a shift in stance. You are now responsible for supporting others to do what you did so well. There is a hidden assumption there; indeed, a fundamental change in how you perceive your value on the team.

Your work is less “about you” and more “about them”.

This shift from “me” to “we” isn’t a small change in thinking and being. It’s one that I’ve seen many new leaders struggle with as they are drawn instinctually back to the joy derived in expressing their craft…. the satisfaction and joy they experienced in being “the guy who solves the problems” rather than “the guy who enables others to solve problems”.

In this series, I plan to explore some of the new skills that young leaders might consider as part of their new practice – assisting them to make this shift from “me” to “we”. It is my sincere hope that my own lessons (sometimes learned the hard way) can be of service to others beginning on this journey.

Death of a “Job Well Done”

The expression of a “job well done” has always been a bit awkward for me  – both on the giving or receiving side.

As I see it, “doing well” should have merit in itself and something we should all strive for – so that it is really a baseline rather than a true accomplishment. As a consequence, I would suggest the expression of a “job well done” could…

  1. Be redundant to satisfaction already experienced by the receiver who is actually “doing well”.
  2. Be perceived as an insincere statement that is more harmful than helpful to the relationship between the giver and receiver of the compliment.

Instead, I would suggest that we all need to dig deeper. This takes time and insight, but is well worth the effort. Consider transforming “job well done” into:

  1. Telling the person how you feel about what they have done. Did it make you happy? Ease your stress? Give you confidence?
  2. Expressing gratitude for their actions. Never underestimate the value of saying thank you sincerely.
  3. Acknowledging the effort that it took for them achieve. Achievements are usually the result of going above and beyond – that’s hard work and worth noting!
  4. Offering your support. How can you help this person go further? True collaboration is a gift.

I therefore call for the immediate death of a “job well done” and would invite a deeper level of insight in its place. The sharing of such insight will in turn meaningfully strengthen and build confidence the person receiving the message.


Retrospectives – Not Just a Team Thing

How often do you take a moment for a personal retrospective?

I try to do this every three months or so and I’ve found this practice to be very revealing and helpful for both my work and my life.

A personal retro  is no different than a team retro:

  1. Start with what happened (collect the data)
  2. Categorize, identify highs and lows, prioritize (curate the data)
  3. Take a moment to analyze and understand what made the highs so good and the lows so difficult (analyze the data)
  4. Take a moment to acknowledge the commitment and effort you put towards your work and life. Consider actions that wish to take towards improvement moving forward (acknowledge and take action)

I’ve learned that taking on the practice of personal retro, over time naturally leads you into a set of personal principles and values – indeed, the practice helps to develop a personal vision for your work and life. Even better, the practice ensures that the principles, values and vision that you live by are continuously improving.


“How do you encourage people to change?”

It’s a question that I’ve been posed more than once. It’s a difficult question to address… entire books have been written on the subject of change. So I won’t pretend to be among the many out there who have researched the subject at length and offer my own simple view on this subject with humility.

Change occurs when an individual accepts that the value of changing is greater than the risk it poses.

That’s it. Expressed as an equation it seems painfully simple…

likelyhood of change = value / risk

There are only two variables then that one can influence to encourage change – one can increase value or reduce risk. Likely the answer is somewhere in the middle.

The hard part of course is that each person has their own view on value and risk – making it difficult to say that there’s one way to address the equation meaningfully and skillfully for many. I think that’s likely what all the books and research on the subject are on about. Here’s the shortest version of the book I would write on this: You need to roll up your sleeves and talk to people and ultimately accept that they may not be able or willing to share with your what they value or what they fear.