Successful agile teams require timely leadership to help the team work together, make decisions and progress. A team leader may have a job associated with leadership like a scrum master, or a team leader may emerge when the opportunity presents itself. Making leadership work on an agile team requires that you learn to lead and to follow. Early in my career as a manager, I partnered with a leader from another team to design and build a new product. I was full of energy and excitement and I wanted my team to accomplish great things. However I was aggressive, a lot of the time. I was quick to pass out assignments, check on progress, and be impatient. My new partner had a very different personality and I noticed that she had a particular trait that I lacked. She was very good at working with teams in real time to solve a problem. I told myself to stop and pay attention. How does she do it?
She came to each discussion prepared. She did her homework in advance so that she had knowledge of the topic and often an opinion. At the beginning of the meeting she set the tone to one of knowledge sharing, respectful discussions, and decision making. She started by reviewing the problem at hand and made sure that everyone in the meeting was on the same page. And then the real difference came, when others offered their thoughts, she listened. I mean she really listened and paid attention to what they were saying. She would read back the thoughts to make sure that she understood and let the team know that she understood. She did not allow herself to get distracted. Her focus on a topic helped to keep the meeting on course. Her natural ability to hear everyone’s input and respond to it let them know their input was valuable. Finally, she was always calm. This was the deal breaker.
After watching her run very successful discussions, I paid attention to my own behavior. I worked harder to make sure that I came prepared. But when I disagreed with an opinion my heart beat would increase, and my impulse was to jump in fast and offer my opinion. That kind of rapid response can seem like an interruption and result in sparring. Sometimes sparring leads to successful results but it often discourages others from participating. Problem solving usually requires thoughtful debate and compromise. Pushing ideas back and forth allows teams to think together. But it is important to keep the tone to one of debate not sparring; otherwise good thinkers may shut down and not offer their input. What I learned to do was to fight the impulse to react and instead stay grounded and stay calm. Now when I participate in a problem solving discussion and that impulse to jump in strikes, I try to take a deep breath and wait to speak. I speak only after my pulse drops. This behavior has saved me many times because waiting allowed me to appreciate that my thoughts were not always well considered. Listening to others and leveraging their input enabled me to work out a more constructive comment.
I learned more from my old partner and many other leaders then they will ever know. Now, as a more mature leader, I have a set of personas, each of which is good at some aspect of leadership. Now when I get into trouble, I think, “What would she have done in this situation?” And I try her approach. My point is that some days you have to lead and some days you should follow and learn. As a leader, this is how you can foster the agile practice of continuous improvement.