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.

Not Project Management

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my work identified as part of “Project Management”. And I can tell you that every single time, this stings.

I would never call what I do “Project Management” and there are many reasons for this but the most important are these two:

  1. I’m not bound by projects. Projects have a beginning, middle and end. They are defined and measured carefully by people who don’t do the work. Projects have Gantt Charts, and road maps and expensive tools that require a lot of care and feeding to tell you how the project is progressing. This is in exact contradiction to what I aim to do when I engage with a team. Together we experiment, we learn, we apply our learning. We do this quickly and respectfully of the people who trust us to deliver. If you want to know how work is progressing, you have actual working software to take a look at. If you want to know how things are going, you need go no further than ask the people doing the work.
  2. I don’t manage anything. And I mean this. Your plan is only as good as the team who can deliver on the work. If your focus isn’t around enablement, support and engagement of those team members – then I wouldn’t put much money on your ability to deliver. Project management will never, ever resolve issues around capability and capacity – at *best* they will only identify them. Resolving these problems doesn’t require project management. It requires something else entirely. It requires listening to the people doing the work. Engaging them in making shifts towards their own and the team’s improvement.

Now, some people out there may call projects iterative and management supportive, and wash their hands of the whole thing. For my own part, I feel it’s time for a whole new language around this work. I call this role “Engagement Leadership” … and (with mixed feelings) I’ve been called by some people “the best damn Project Manager that they have ever met” –  though I would never use these words to describe myself.



A few weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in ages… I went to a yoga class.**

Having settled on my mat, I felt good about finally getting myself to class and focused on connecting with the flow. Paying attention to all the details provided by the teacher, I tried hard to listen to my body while being as precise as possible to her instructions. Being a good teacher, at one point during class, she stepped away from her own mat to help adjust the positions of some of her students. At that moment, something surprising happened…

Deep inside me a small but desperate voice cried out: “Oh no! Not me!”

WTF? Or – as @eegrove would say – Where’s that from? I thought. After all, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to be open to and accept feedback. And yet… I could not ignore this voice… there it was…

This moment was a reminder to me of the courage it takes to receive feedback openly. I feel lucky to be connected to people who are open to feedback and it’s a skill that I’m growing with mindful attention.

It’s my goal to be aware of the small voice inside myself and to recognize that the same voice lives in others as well…


**The reasons why I haven’t been to yoga and why I haven’t written a blog post in ages are uninteresting. The journey back from all that is far more interesting. Thank you for encouraging me to write this post –@simbourk

Agile Coach Camp – Making Space

Last weekend, I was privileged to participate in Agile Coach Camp East. This is an event that I try very hard to attend every year… and every year, a theme emerges for me through the weekend.

This year’s theme for me was “making space” and it’s a theme that I want to keep exploring. However, in the interest of sharing, here are my first thoughts based on what happened at camp…

“Making space” means:

1. Creating an environment where things can happen.

Open Space and Unconference are wonderful examples of the power of making space. I’ve attended Coach Camp 3 times already… each time I am a little surprised at the depth and breadth of sessions that come out of such an event. It reminds me: this is the spirit of self organization; of trusting a group (in this case 70 individuals) to pull together and create something amazing collaboratively.

2. Leaving room to breathe between all the things that happen.

Some of the best group conversations I had during coach camp this year were during a jam session that went late into the night. I believe the quality of the conversations was directly connected to the ability of the group to disengage from these talks and do something else – something fun, something creative – in the space between the conversations. It reminds me that we are all better and happier people when we take time to connect with each other on a level that doesn’t directly relate to a specific or measurable outcome.

My intention then is to go forth and “make space” for myself and others. I look forward to seeing what else emerges from this theme in the days to come…

Thank you to the organizers and volunteers who make the space possible for Agile Coach Camp every year… and to all the participants who make space in their lives to connect. Looking forward to next year already!

Great Teams

Having recently gone through a round of recruitment at my work… I am surprised by how many people out there have yet to fully appreciate or experience the benefits of working on a great team.

To begin, let’s be clear… a team (by definition) is a group of individuals who work towards a common goal. From this point of view, most people have experienced this particular circumstance at some point in their life.

However, a great team fully appreciates the fact that they depend on each other in order to achieve this goal. They understand that they cannot achieve the goal alone and nurture the connections required to support the inherent dependency that comes with working on a team.

They understand their role and responsibilities. They understand the role and responsibilities of their team mates. This means that they don’t “throw problems over the wall” at their team mates. Rather they are proactive about sharing what they are up to, especially if this will impact their team mates. In return, they are empathetic and interested in what’s going on with their team mates. Respecting each other’s craft, they trust each other in a healthy and balanced fashion. Being open to constructive conflict in order to ensure that the team is indeed driving towards their common goal.

While this may sound like an idealized situation, I can tell you first hand that I have been privileged and lucky to work on great teams. The Agile coaching community is my extended team (my tribe!) who has helped me stay steady over the years in the belief that not only are great team members possible… they are worthwhile seeking out.

So if you are looking for work and we happen to meet in an interview… don’t be surprised when I ask about your most recent experience with a great team.

Why We Play…

It’s not uncommon for Agile coaches to engage their teams in games in order to experiment with new ideas. If you have ever participated in such activities, it’s likely that you have encountered individuals who dislike the idea of anything work related being transformed into a “game”.

So… why do we play?

We play to prototype and experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving. We play to open our minds to possibilities. Indeed, engaging in an activity “as play” actually helps us to explore many new ideas quickly and effectively as a team.

In short, playing brings us to a “personal edge” in a friendly and joyful way.

That being said, for some of us, the edge is simply to engage in play at all… and that’s an edge that I’m learning to see and understand better. In these situations, I would invite the individual to simply try the game and then to reflect on why we play… rather than focus on whatever other agenda I’m hoping to bring to the table by engaging in a game.

After all, when we play, we explore many ideas at the same time… and one of those ideas can certainly be “why do we play?”

Powerful Questions

There are many things that I’ve learned since becoming a mom… but there is nothing more powerful for me to date than learning to see the world through very young eyes.

The beauty behind a child’s approach to the world is that it is so fundamentally based in observation rather than judgement. When my daughter asks questions, she seeks to better understand what she observes. In so doing, she rarely asks “why?” but is more focused on “what?” in her line of inquiry.

From this, I’ve realized that “what?” is actually a very powerful way to question the world. Consider these examples for a moment…

Rather than asking: “Why is that?” …ask instead: “What does that mean?”

Rather than asking: “Why is she (or he) like that?” …ask instead: “What happened to her (or him)?”

Changing your stance from “Why?” to “What?” opens up your line of inquiry. You automatically move away from a place of judgement to a place of understanding. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child isn’t for every occasion… but if you are aspiring to understand and accept, it’s not a bad place to start.