Geoff Watts is a renowned thought leader in the fields of leadership coaching and agile development. He is the author of the award-winning coaching book The Coach’s Casebook and the #1 best-selling agile book Scrum Mastery. We had a chance to talk with Geoff about leadership development, especially among leaders of self-organizing teams.
Why did you name your leadership development company “Inspect and Adapt?”
We operate in a complicated and ever-changing world, where what was relevant last year may not be applicable today. Leaders who flourish (and products that succeed) are those that recognize this reality and have the discipline to continuously improve. The best way to improve – be it a product, a process, or ourselves – is to regularly inspect what we are doing, how we are doing it, and what is happening around us and then adapt accordingly.
Inspect and Adapt seemed an appropriate name for a company that is built around helping leaders, teams, and organizations grow from good to great by doing just that.
What are some of the main problems that your clients are bringing to you regarding their career paths?
Interestingly, the most common problem that clients are bringing to me is that the skills they acquired to help them succeed in the past are no longer working as well for them now. Historically, products were largely built in a waterfall manner, going through a number of phased delivery gates from requirements gathering through to analysis and design, and then development, testing and eventually delivery.
Nowadays, though, it is rare that we have the luxury of time or the ability to predict the future well enough to indulge ourselves in that process; and so organizations are adopting a more “agile” way of delivering which requires regular delivery of increments of value, short batches of delivery, and feedback. This more agile way of working requires a completely different leadership style and engagement model – one that encourages people to proactively engage as members of highly collaborative teams. This is a hard adjustment for many, since it often requires people to change deep-seated (sometimes even subconscious) habits.
Since you try to help clients “master the traits that trap them,” could you tell us precisely what that means?
What I mean by this is that our strengths can easily become our weaknesses. Here’s an example: many leaders happily define themselves as “a bit of a perfectionist.” After all, perfectionism as a trait has a number of advantages that many leaders have used successfully over their careers to help them achieve success. For instance, being “a bit of a perfectionist” might help leaders develop a reputation of quality and integrity, as perfectionists tend to set high standards for themselves and those around them. Holding themselves and others accountable often yields great results, typically at a fast pace.
However, this same perfectionism can be overdone so that the very trait that helped them become successful can suddenly start holding them back. Too much perfectionism can lead to burnout and to procrastination. At the same time, when team members feel daunted by the high standards that are being set by a perfectionist leader, it can hinder their creativity and level of engagement.
When I’m helping admitted perfectionists master the traits that trap them, I don’t ask them to stop being perfectionists, but instead encourage them to bring that trait back into balance and to harness the positive effects while limiting the harmful aspects.
Interestingly, the most common trait that traps people is what has become known as the “impostor syndrome.” In fact, studies have shown that up to 70% of people have experienced this feeling at some point in their careers. People with an overdone impostor syndrome tend to feel like frauds, as if they have gotten to where they are primarily based on circumstance, luck, and other people’s contributions. People who feel like imposters rarely give themselves credit for their own positive qualities or successes; they genuinely believe that any day now they will be “found out.”
I would want to emphasize the positive aspects of this trait – most notably, humility and a strong sense of diligence and hard work – while encouraging them to internalize their successes to help mitigate the more negative consequences, including a chronic anxiety caused by insecurity and a lack of self-confidence that would accompany this misconception.
“Servant-leadership” is an emerging buzzword in business today. What advantages does this approach to leadership have as compared to leadership styles that were common in the past?
Great leaders are servant leaders – those who enable those around them to be proactive, to take responsibility, and to make decisions – as opposed to those who primarily rely on authority or power to get things done. You can force people to comply, but you cannot force commitment. Servant-leaders are more able to harness the engagement, motivation, and creativity of those they lead. In a world where we are better able to choose who we follow – from the products we buy to the organizations we work for – leaders who lead through authority are less attractive to those than leaders who enable and encourage autonomy.
What are the traits of a self-organizing team, and what does it need in order to be effective and efficient?
A self-organizing team contains all the skills necessary to deliver value; they don’t have external dependencies. They solve problems collaboratively rather than simply focusing on each person “doing his or her bit.” They have shared values and explicitly manage themselves against both an external definition of quality as well as their own working practices. They don’t go looking for an external rule-enforcer, but rather hold themselves to account when they slip up. They are constantly looking both to deliver value and also to improve.
Great self-organizing teams have more people who tend to be a little “T-Shaped.” This means that they have a broader skillset overall while still maintaining a specialty, as opposed to functional specialists (or those who are I-Shaped). Cultivating broader skillsets increases the agility and resilience of the team as a whole.
What’s the role of the leader of a self-organized team? What should he or she do or refrain from doing to help ensure the success of the team?
Self-organizing teams provide much of the management that previously came from “higher up” in the organization. So self-organizing teams primarily look to their leaders for two kinds of guidance.
The first is direction, as in “Where are we headed?” This can be strategic in terms of “What kind of company are we becoming?” or tactical in terms of “What type of product are we going to build?”
The second form of leadership is cultural. “What values do we have in our organization? What do we stand for? What is acceptable and what is not?” Of course, teams can be involved in deciding and reinforcing these aspects, but they expect their leaders to set the standards and role-model expectations here.
Great leaders of self-organizing teams typically act in very specific ways to help ensure their teams’ success:
- They hire for integrity and character.
- They assume that people want to do a good job – and trust them to do it.
- They give teams the environment and support they need to succeed.
- They assume that those actually doing the work know best about how it is to be done.
- They ask teams what they need to be successful and then try to provide that, and they endeavor to clear any impediments standing in their way.
- They allow teams to solve their own problems and make their own decisions whenever possible in order to avoid bursting the bubble of the team’s autonomy.
Generally speaking, what do today’s employees and subordinates expect from their leaders?
In short, employees expect integrity, trust, and vision. More specifically, they expect a supportive environment that enables them to realize their potential. They expect to be involved, engaged, and listened to, and never patronized or talked down to. They want to be given problems to solve, not solutions to implement.
What will be some of the essential leadership skills needed for managers and executives in the future?
Leaders used to be expected to know the right answers. Now – and in the future as well – great leaders are expected to know the right questions, namely those questions that:
- create empowerment, curiosity, and engagement
- demonstrate trust, faith, and belief in the ability and potential of their people
- encourage exploration of possibilities and creative solutions through trial and error
- show it is OK not to know the answer, that it is OK to start with incomplete information, and that it is OK to try something and learn from the results.
In the future, leaders also will need to develop greater self-awareness to know how they are impacting others and how to empathize with those around them. Great leaders of the future will need to accept complexity and change as givens, and learn to not only roll with the punches themselves but also to create an environment where everyone in the organization becomes more comfortable with that reality.