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.

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?”

Creating a Culture of Learning

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” – Socrates

For Agile teams to meaningfully embrace change, they should also embrace a culture of learning. This idea is not unique to Agile, Lean also explicitly makes mention to the importance of learning by making it one of its’ principles.

So what can we do to create a culture of learning on our teams?

I would suggest that while it’s important to encourage learning and to create learning opportunities on the team, doing so may not be enough to truly embrace a culture of learning.

For this to happen, we first must first create the capacity for learning on the team. This means honouring the time and energy that it takes to set aside our own agendas and then divert this time and energy to learning. It also means allowing ourselves to acknowledge and dare to speak three simple words: “I don’t know.”  This can be tricky because we don’t often reward or encourage a culture of “I don’t know” in our work and personal lives. It’s unlikely that Socrates would have climbed high up the corporate ladder with his approach of “I know nothing”.

So if you are seeking to create a culture of learning on your team consider…

…do you ever hear team mates asking for help?

…is it ok for the team to acknowledge what they don’t know?

…do we honour learning on the team in the same way we do “solutions” and “results”?

The key here is to be able to accept what we don’t know and then move on to “what do we need to do to learn?” while being comfortable with the reality that we may never have perfect answers.  However, by not acknowledging what we don’t know, we risk buying into answers that don’t deliver value.