The 5 Traits of Real Workplace Leadership

Inspiring Lessons From the Life Journey of Mr. Warrick Dunn

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As many of us prepare for the big college football rivalry weekend, let’s take a moment to learn about leadership from Warrick Dunn, retired USA football star with a storied career in college and the National Football League. Although there is much to celebrate from his sporting success, Mr. Dunn’s real impact is now on full display through his inspiring and selfless service to society in present day.

His life journey inspires me to become a better person and leader. My hope is that his story will do the same for you.

For those who might not know of Mr. Dunn, his non-profit (Warrick Dunn Charities) is dedicated to giving the gift of homes to struggling single parents across the United States. A few weeks ago, his organization reached a heartwarming milestone by giving the 144th gift of homeownership to another single-parent family. Kudos to Mr. Dunn for making a difference in so many lives around the country.

The deepest part of human nature is that which urges people to rise above our present circumstances and to *transcend* our common nature. ~ Stephen R. Covey

Mr. Dunn first made an impact on me over 22 years ago, when…

…as a University of Florida graduate, I had a chance to experience Mr. Dunn at our annual rivalry game against Florida State in November 1993. With the game on the line and the odds stacked against his team, Dunn and the Florida State Seminoles broke my Florida Gator-faithful heart with this jaw dropping 80-yard touchdown reception that can be experienced through the YouTube replay of this classic game (starting at 3:09:19).

If you look closely enough, I think you can actually see me (and 80,000 other Florida Gator fans) shedding tears during this heart-wrenching moment. As I watched him race down the sideline for the game winning score, I remember thinking:

Wow, this guy is something special.

As we’ll learn in a moment, special is a gross understatement. I struggle to find words to describe Mr. Dunn’s humble servant-leadership and the impact he is making in our world today.

This is what makes Warrick Dunn such an inspirational leader

Sure, college football fans love ‘the game’ and yes, I was disappointed to watch my team lose that day. At the time, however, Mr. Dunn was dealing with unimaginable heartbreak and responsibilities off the field.

Earlier that year (in January 1993), his Mom (Betty Smothers, a single parent) was ambushed and killed while serving as an off-duty police officer. This terrible family tragedy put Warrick, at only 18 years of age, into the role of head of household by assuming the responsibility of raising his two siblings. As much as I try to empathize, I am unable to comprehend how difficult it was for Warrick and his family.

Looking back on that day, I am ashamed at myself for being so upset over the outcome of a college football game, especially while Mr. Dunn was dealing with real struggles that actually matter in life. If I could hit the rewind button, I would have responded very differently. Instead of tears of despair, I would’ve shed tears of joy for a young man who deserved that timeless highlight for the benefit of his family, his football team and his proud institution.

Just imagine the level of courage this young man showed as he faced the loss of his only parent and the tremendous responsibilities he had to assume as the Father figure for his family. Throughout that ordeal, he still found a way to continue his studies at Florida State and prepare for the upcoming football season. And it doesn’t end there — as fate would have it, he went on to help lead Florida State to its first National Championship that season.

Warrick Dunn’s relentless focus, purpose and selfless leadership have since elevated his life journey to inspiring levels of success, including:

  • A successful 12-year career in the NFL.
  • Founder of the Homes for the Holidays program, which has made home ownership a reality for over 144 single parents and their families since 1997.
  • Expansion of his mission into Warrick Dunn Charities. Since 2002, his organization has awarded millions in home furnishings, food and other donations to single-parent families and children across the nation.

All I can say is … wow.

What can Warrick Dunn teach us about real workplace leadership?

Within organizations small and large, there are many people who have a job title proclaiming themselves as leaders, but real leadership has nothing to do with our place in an organizational boss-subordinate hierarchy or a powerful job title.

Warrick Dunn is a living example of real leadership, and I encourage all of us to learn from him.

My professional journey continues to reinforce a powerful insight:

We need more REAL leaders in the workplace, especially in the Fortune 500 space.

To be clear, there are many great leaders on display in these big companies now. It’s wonderful and inspirational when I get the chance to witness the emergence of real leadership within the challenging corporate cultures that still exist within many Fortune 500-esque companies today.

However………I believe there is an opportunity to encourage even more REAL leaders in the workplace; leaders who are:

1. Selfless

Let’s all learn from Mr. Dunn’s leadership and what it means to give away a personal ego for a larger purpose. Despite making millions in the NFL, Mr. Dunn has chosen to invest his good fortune into others…lifting struggling single parents to new heights. What does it take for each of us to give away our personal egos at work, so we can mentor and grow others to become better than us?

2. Courageous

Imagine the level of courage Mr. Dunn showed in 1993 as he faced the loss of his only parent. His newfound Father figure responsibilities would’ve overwhelmed almost anyone, but not Warrick Dunn. He faced the moment with the courage to move forward, and look at where that took his life journey.

Workplace courage pales in comparison, but it’s still an essential element of real leadership in an organization. Exemplifying courage allows you to create conditions where your teammates can speak freely when it matters most. What challenges do you face at work? Are there certain situations where you feel scared to tell the truth? Courage is your ability to confront those fears directly, so you can lead your organization toward its larger goals on a daily basis.

3. Focused

Great leaders inspire others, but this inspiration is razor-focused on a shared purpose – which is the vision & mission of the organization. One look at Mr. Dunn’s charity website and you’ll feel the purpose that it serves. In your organization, great leaders understand how to translate the vision & mission into a focused set of business objectives that people achieve…not because they have to, but because they WANT to.

4. Humble

Mr. Dunn does not garner the spotlight. He celebrates the continued success of his work by deflecting the praise toward his charity’s Board of Directors (who are also quite inspiring people). This is a profound trait of great leaders; the ability to melt behind the scenes as others are celebrated for their success.

5. Masters of Their Craft

Great leaders bring a deep level of skills, knowledge and experience in an organization. Like Mr. Dunn, real leaders have lived in the arena (and might still play in the arena), and they use their knowledge and experience to thoughtfully mentor and grow others toward their full potential.

 

 

What does it take to become a *real* Leader?

What makes Warrick Dunn an inspiring leader to you? What other lessons can we learn from Mr. Dunn’s life journey? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below so we can all learn from each other.

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

The 1 Mistake Every Scrum Master Makes At Least Once

As we briefly explore this common Scrum Master pitfall, let me take you back to my earlier career for a moment. A number of years ago, I made a professional transition away from the role of a software development Project Manager and shifted paradigms into the role of a Scrum Master. Seemed easy enough at the time, yes?

Actually, not really.

As I shared in the post entitled ‘Are You a Scrum Master or a Project Manager?’, I struggled to discard the command & control mindset, and it proved difficult for the Teams that I was trying to serve. I had much to learn.

I made a ton of mistakes during this (sometimes painful) transition, but there was one particular “learning moment” that tripped me up the most:

Fast forward to present day, where I have since trained and coached many professionals to grow and flourish in the Scrum Master role, often by learning directly from my own role-transition “storytelling”. Even then, I still encounter plenty of job-titled Scrum Masters in practice who have not yet anchored their understanding of the Daily Scrum and its purpose, which often hampers an organization’s pursuit toward business Agility.

Have you made this mistake before?

If you’re a Scrum Master, it’s okay to admit it — you’ve gotten into the “Daily Scrum status meeting” habit at least once, right?

Some of the common symptoms include (but not limited to):

  • Each Developer is telling the Scrum Master: “Yesterday, I did this. Today, I’m going to do that. No blocks.”
  • The Scrum Master is moving sticky notes around the Sprint Backlog and telling people what to do.
  • The Scrum Master is asking closed-ended questions, like: “Are you done with this task yet?”, or “When will you be done with your work?”

If this describes you (or some of the Scrum Masters in your organization), then I can’t stress how important it is to unwind this behavior immediately, so that Development Teams can learn (ideally, from the Scrum Master) how to monitor their own progress and conduct their own planning in a highly collaborative and focused manner.

The Daily Scrum might not be what you think it is

Understanding the intent of the Daily Scrum is more difficult than it sounds. I know this because I observe and help undo the “status meeting” behavior in virtually every organization that I coach. I encourage you to do the same.

Reflecting back on my own transition, I was clearly confused at first. I mean, here was a simple, 15-minute daily event that replaced my old project manager status meetings. But now … rather than waiting to hold a status meeting every Friday, I could now “check in” with the Team every single day.

Everything looked so familiar – a sticky board to track the Development Team’s progress, a meeting with the Teams (usually every morning), and the infamous “three questions” that each Developer would have to answer. And best of all, I could run it, so they could provide their status to me.

I couldn’t have been any more wrong about the purpose and intent of this event.

To unlock the real power in Scrum…

I had to come to terms with my own behavior and how it needed to change. In a real Daily Scrum, my role was not to run this meeting at all; instead, my responsibility was to teach and coach the Development Teams on how to review their own progress, conduct their own daily planning, how to deal with their own issues, how to collaborate with the Scrum Product Owner, and how to escalate larger issues in an influential way.

In short, I had to mentor them on self-organization.

Once I understood this, it allowed me to adapt my own behavior away from a management stance and into a mentoring stance. As my mentoring stance improved, Development Teams improved. Once Development Teams started collaborating effectively in their Daily Scrums, I would gradually fade away – to the point where I rarely attended this event (if at all).

In my recent post entitled ‘5 Beliefs Every Agile Journey Must Avoid‘, consider digging into flawed Belief #4 – the “Daily Stand-up”. I offer sage advice to consider changing the name back to the Daily Scrum. Sometimes a simple Scrum Guide name-alignment (and some coaching) can activate the reboot switch that launches self-organization to a higher level.

If you’re a Scrum Master, I invite you to challenge your own desire to attend the Daily Scrum. Are you there to manage or to mentor?

In Closing

What are your Daily Scrums like? What will you do differently next week to enable this event to reach high performance without your presence?

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

7 Ways to Boost Your Ability as a Team Member

Where do you spend your days in the workplace? Are you living in the trenches of your organization, like the vast majority of us? If so, then I celebrate *you* — as a real Team Member — the person who does the actual work that delivers value for your business.

Allow me the humbling honor to present this Kudo Card to you and your Teammates for a job well done in 2015!

 

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So much blogging is about leadership and how to become a great “leader”, and ‘leader this leader that’, so let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about the workplace reality for the vast majority of us, which lies in the art and skill of being a great Team Member in the trenches.

How many of us actually live in the Fortune 500 C-Suite anyway? Instead, we are the ones who live in the trenches of an organization and do the hard work needed to meet a critical set of business objectives that are borne out of the C-Suite. And doing this well requires all of us to act less as individuals and more as Team Members. But what does this actually mean?

Is your annual performance review coming up?

In fact, as we approach our end-of-year annual performance reviews, consider turning the table on this often soul-draining meeting by offering your manager a valuable set of learnings about great Teamwork and what it means to add value in your organization. The meeting could transform into a meaningful feedback exchange that helps you and your manager learn and grow together as workplace professionals.

What is the difference between an individual and a Team Member?

Showing the strength, humility and confidence as a Team Member isn’t as easy as it might sound. It takes a lot for someone to transform from an individual contributor and into a real Team Member. Sure, I could sit in an office cube all day and code apps by myself, but the reality is that we work on much larger and complex projects that require me to work effectively on a Team. Great Teamwork becomes even more essential when my Team has to collaborate and integrate with other Teams in the organization. Does this describe your workplace?

The following are seven recommendations that I offer individuals to help them grow into high performing Team Members. These suggestions represent growth opportunities for many of us, as it requires skills and emotional awareness to develop into a collaborative, cross-skilled and authentic Team Member.

As you read through each suggestion, try pausing for a moment and ask the following self-reflective questions in preparation for your annual performance review:

Where am I on the Team Member spectrum?

Where do I see opportunities for personal Team Member growth heading into next year?

1 – Show Vulnerability in Front of Your Teammates.

To become a great Team Member, we have to feel comfortable in our own skin, which includes admitting our weaknesses and shortcomings in front of our Teammates. As a Software Developer myself, I had days where I was just plain stuck and frustrated. I would look at a piece of defective code and couldn’t figure out the root of the problem. However, I wouldn’t just sit there and stare at my computer screen all day in defeat – I would reach out to a fellow Team Member, admit my frustration, and ask for help. Oftentimes, two heads are much better than one when solving a problem, and it’s okay to let your guard down if you’re struggling. Plus, when you’re willing to be vulnerable, it encourages your Teammates to follow suit.

If you have downtime over the holiday season, then I strongly recommend reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. It’s a life changing book that helps each of us discover the power and strength when being vulnerable in front of others.

2 – Accept That You’re Going to Fail.

In a recent post about failure, I shared a real story about a Team Member who experienced a visible and costly moment of failure on a software development project. Look – we’re ALL human and we make mistakes all the time. This might sound cliché, but a great Team Member accepts responsible failure as a reality and uses every failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. In addition, great Team Members understand that our fellow Teammates are also going to experience failure, so we must handle those situations with respect and compassion by offering a helping hand – all in the interest of learning and growth.

3 – Be Honest About Who You Are.

Don’t be someone you’re not. For example, you are not the invincible-hero Software Developer who has all of the answers to every software development challenge. You are a real person who offers skillfulness and passion to help solve tough problems directly with your Teammates. Authenticity (i.e., your ability to be real and genuine) allows your Teammates to feel comfortable being authentic and real as well. If you walk into the office with more energy than usual, show it! Or if you’re feeling sluggish on a Wednesday, admit it to your Teammates, so they can help you through the day. Great Teams ooze authenticity, which allows the Team to adapt and optimize its performance every single day.

4 – Don’t Accept the Status Quo.

Great Teams constantly (and respectfully) challenge the larger organization to change and improve for the Teams’ benefit. As a Team Member, you can lead the charge by taking ownership of a difficult organizational issue and facilitate a broader conversation that shines the light on the issue, the impact it has on your Team, and ideas for how to solve for it.

No more ho-hum: “This is just the way things are going to be and nothing will ever change” attitude.

To evolve into a great Team Member, you have to be willing to respectfully & politely challenge the status quo and show some leadership for the organization’s benefit. Leadership is not a job title – rather, it’s the ability to inspire and influence positive changes that align with the vision and mission of your organization. You can do this!

5 – Stop Trying to Reach Consensus on Decisions.

Teams make countless numbers of decisions every single day. Software Development Teams, for example, make decisions on clean-code policies, design choices, ownership of work, etc. However, be wary of consensus-based decision protocols. If every Team Member has to completely agree with a decision to move forward, then your Team could get locked in consensus paralysis and endless debates.

Instead, learn how to make decisions using consent, which allows every Team Member’s voice to be heard and genuinely considered, while not having to completely agree 100% with the decision. In consent, I know that my opinion matters, so I am willing to support a decision and live by it (even if I don’t completely agree with it). This technique allows great Teams to make decisions faster and with the collective intelligence of the entire Team.

6 – Demand Clarity.

As a great Team Member, tune your communication skills so you can help establish clarity behind the Team’s goals and decisions. Teams often falter when they realize they’re lacking clarity (uhhhh, what did we decide again??), and this can hamper the pursuit of high performance.

Instead, show some leadership as a Team Member by carefully articulating a goal, a decision, etc. in clear and well-understood language for everyone to consume. Make sure this clarity is made visible and transparent for the entire Team (on a wall or in the electronic tools you use for managing content). This is how a shared commitment works in a great Team. For example, I can’t commit to a certain Team ritual unless we all have clarity on what it is, when it’s held, and most importantly, “why” it’s essential for reaching our goals together.

7 – Stop Passing Judgment.

Truly genuine Team Members bring an open-minded stance into the workplace, which makes you more approachable by your Teammates. If I’m on your Team and you’ve already formed a (negative?) opinion about me, then you won’t be willing to listen when I come to you with a thought or idea.

Your ability to have an open mind is an essential and necessary dynamic in a high performance Team environment. How approachable are you if you constantly assume that your Teammates ideas aren’t as good as yours? To rid yourself of Team-destructive judgment, you must be willing to look at everything through the eyes of your fellow Teammates. You don’t have to completely believe what others believe, and you might even be offended by how another Team Member is behaving, but that doesn’t mean that you have to assume and judge that person indefinitely.

Rather than passing judgment, open your mind long enough to understand how that Team Member thinks, which will drive productive and non-judgmental conversation that helps that Team Member, and the whole Team, learn and grow together.

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In Closing

What opportunities do you see for yourself to grow into an outstanding Team Member? What other qualities do you feel makes a person a great Team Member? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below so we can all learn from each other.

 

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

6 Tips For Mastering Workplace Courage

Have you ever been in a situation where you were afraid to share a difficult, but truthful statement? Was “the obvious” in the room the whole time, but no one would speak up and talk about it? If so, then the time has come for your organization’s leadership to embrace the importance of workplace courage.

Organizations that appear Agile and responsive on the outside usually have inspiring leadership dynamics on the inside. One essential behavior is when senior leaders support the role of courageous communicators. These emerging workplace leaders bring a mastery of skills and emotions to bear when circumstances are difficult and will surface the “hard truth” that is necessary for the success (or perhaps survival) of the organization.

For a culture of courage to thrive, however, an organization’s senior leadership must be supportive of open and honest behavior in the workplace.

What do you think of this courageous situation?

What if a software company ships a broken feature to your smartphone prematurely and it causes you (the customer) a big headache. Application Developers might have known that the quality was suspect, but perhaps they felt management pressure to ship it because of a competitive threat or a customer obligation. Or even worse, maybe the Developers have a financial bonus that will only be awarded if they ship the feature immediately.

If you were a Team Member in this situation, consider the answers to these questions:

How would this management pressure make you feel?

How would your fellow Team members feel about all of this?

What is important to both the Team *and* Management in this situation?

How can you be truthful to management without getting in trouble, losing your bonus, or getting fired?

This situation can be avoided with Courageous Communication. Perhaps someone would respectfully and calmly step up to senior management and say something like:

I feel like the management approach is forcing us to do something that could be damaging to our customers and our company’s reputation. This feature doesn’t meet our mutually-agreed standards of quality and completeness. If it isn’t “done”, what will happen if we ship it now?

What is Courage?

Courage is a profound value of great leadership, but it requires skillful communication, emotional awareness and a degree of professional safety to be effective in the workplace. Let’s use an abbreviated definition from Wikipedia to dive a bit deeper:

Courage – the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, uncertainty or intimidation.

I’ve seen many great moments of courage unfold in the workplace, especially in organizations that experience a breakthrough moment in the pursuit of higher performance. Someone steps up and makes a truthful (and possibly painful) statement, but at the same time, this person fosters alignment from everyone and creates a better outcome for all. Have you ever seen this play out in your organization?

Try practicing with this situation

Okay — let’s try this one out:

Imagine you’re invited by a Team to observe a critical lessons-learned meeting at the end of a 3-week software delivery effort. This meeting, called a Retrospective, is part of The Scrum Framework – it’s where a Scrum Team inspects its own ‘ways of working’ and examines its performance for improvement opportunities. It can be a powerful learning event if the conditions are healthy, but sometimes, it becomes another wasteful meeting where nothing is accomplished. In a productive Retrospective, Courageous Communication is critical.

As you are observing as a fly-on-the-wall, the servant-leader of the group (called a Scrum Master) intentionally breaks (or bends?) an important rule of this event & invites senior technology managers to participate, so that the Team’s performance can be “evaluated”. You sense that the environment is uncomfortable for the Team, so when it’s time for the Team to examine its own challenges, the room becomes eerily silent – you could drop a pin on the floor. The managers break the silence with feedback: “We have evaluated each Developer’s performance and here’s where you all can improve ….”

<silence gripping the room>

Now what? Where’s the real leadership in the room?

Out of nowhere, a leadership moment emerges from one of the Team Members that sounds like:

I feel like we all understand the importance of this work and the impact it will have on our company’s success. However, I am afraid to admit that none of us understands how The Scrum Framework is really supposed to work. To be successful, we must acknowledge this and commit to a better understanding of Scrum and how we can all work together for a great outcome.

This person goes on to share the issues with an individual-driven performance evaluation process and how it is putting the Team on the defensive. Suddenly, the other Team members come out of their shells and nod their heads in agreement. This person even admitted a fear of being fired right on the spot for honesty, but felt that it was the right thing to do for the organization.

Wow … I mean … Whoa.

That incredible moment of courage shattered the current reality for the managers, but it opened the door for a shared understanding of the real problem (judging individuals), so they could move forward in the right way (empowering and trusting the Team). It changed everything for this Scrum Team’s performance and the relationship with senior management.

 

6 Tips For Mastering Workplace Courage

This type of communication isn’t easy, but with practice, you can elevate your own leadership ability and exemplify courage to benefit yourself and others around you. Here are a few tips to consider as you examine your own capacity for courage:

1 – Establish a mutual purpose with everyone.

When you’re presented with a fearful situation, first communicate the purpose or goal that’s driving your need for honesty. For example, if we all care about delivering an outstanding customer experience, then we should be willing to accept your thoughts and views (no matter how difficult the truth might be to accept). In addition, if you confirm mutual purpose with an open-ended question, then it encourages open dialogue from others. Silence can also be quite telling, because it could mean that someone does not share the same purpose that you do (e.g., someone’s upcoming job promotion might be more important to them than delivering quality Product to customers).

I’ll sometimes start a difficult conversation with something like: “Since the quality of the Product is of urgency to us and our customers, then I feel that I must share the <reality>. How do others see this?”.

2 – Be open and honest about your own fears.

Courage requires a leader to be vulnerable in front of others. If there is something about the situation that scares you, be honest and say it — respectfully. If you do this, you will help others feel safe to speak their own views in an honest and open manner.

3 – Do not judge.

Read through the example above (again). Notice that the person did not point fingers or verbally attack anyone. Rather, this individual took a non-judgmental stance and did not blame the stakeholders. Point a finger at an issue and not at a person. If it’s a sensitive conversation with your manager, point a finger at your fears and the behaviors that are making you feel that way. Then, seek a common purpose between both of you (see Tip #1), so you can open the door to a fruitful dialogue.

4 – Stay calm.

Don’t let emotions get the best of you. I have seen many situations where someone tried to show courage in the workplace, but emotions were out of control and everyone tuned out. A Courageous Communicator can state “the obvious” in a calm and seasoned manner that helps everyone accept the reality and move forward.

5 – Don’t wait.

The worst thing you can do is go silent and wait until later. If a situation has escalated and the “hard truth” needs to be understood by all, then a great leader will step in on the spot and communicate the truth and foster alignment. The time is now, not later. Just make sure your skills and emotions are in check first.

6 – Encourage and celebrate moments of courage from others.

Courageous Communicators are influential leaders that live in all levels of an organization. Be on the lookout for well-timed and skilled moments of courage, and if you witness courage in action, show some appreciation and praise it! This is a demonstration of your own leadership when you celebrate and encourage others to be courageous in the right way.

 

Are you a senior leader who just read this post?

If so, then Courageous Communication starts with your willingness to lead by example. If you embody this value within your organization, then you will encourage a healthy environment of professional safety where people are completely comfortable to be open and honest when it matters most. If you don’t, then you will hear what you want to hear, but it might not be the truth that you need to make effective business decisions. Agile leaders constantly reflect the mirror on themselves in an effort to continuously learn & improve. Are *you* a Courageous Communicator? Are you fostering a culture where courage is valued?

Have you witnessed Courageous Communication in action recently? What was it like? I invite you to share your experience in the comments section below.

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

How Powerful is Empowerment at Microsoft?

As you skim this oddly-titled post on your iPhone or Android device, you might be wondering what’s happening at that “other” company — Microsoft. Remember them?

Although it’s tempting to reduce Microsoft to a mere afterthought, I am quickly proven wrong simply by looking within my own household. While I edited this weekend post on a Microsoft Surface, I tested it using the LinkedIn flagship app – on an Apple iPhone and an Amazon Kindle (sorry Microsoft, but I dumped Windows Phone a while ago). Oh, and as I was writing this very sentence, my son informed me that our Microsoft Xbox One awakened with a magically improved User Experience. And I just had to ask my younger son to turn down the volume on Minecraft (purchased by Microsoft in 2014). And when I asked my oldest why she prefers an iPad over a Surface, her answer was “Because iPads are cool”.

Welcome to the innovation economy of today, where the technology market is as turbulent and competitive as ever.

How should Microsoft deal with this?

For the past couple of years, the software giant has been on an urgent pursuit to transform within a fiercely competitive environment – attempting to rise above companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and others. The company recognizes that it must reinvent itself to maintain relevancy over the long haul.

The question is ……… how?

What’s been going on inside the company?

This underlying sense of urgency has fueled a significant organizational transformation under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, which started in late 2014. My career has carried me in and out of Microsoft’s corporate culture many times over the past 20 years, and I’ve witnessed so many internal “re-orgs” that it leaves my head spinning. However, something about this re-organization “feels” different. Why?

One of the earliest changes was driven by Nadella’s philosophy to extend beyond the traditional, big-company hierarchy by empowering executives to work across previously-siloed divisions. Putting empowerment into action last year, Nadella appointed Julie Larson-Green (former EVP of Xbox and Surface) to the newly-created role of Chief Experience Officer, which crosses all of Microsoft’s product lines – from Office to Surface to Xbox and beyond. Great idea in theory, but how do you get past the silo’ed mentality that drives disconnection and hallway politics within an organization as big as Microsoft?

As part of the company’s journey into Organizational Agility, Mrs. Green sheds light on her own leadership style and the results achieved through Team-level empowerment and ownership. This gives some idea of how she is able to break down these silos and get people working toward toward a shared vision.

What is empowerment?

As we dive deeper, it begs this question: what does empowerment mean in an organizational context?

Empowerment – Power or authority given from one person (Team) to another person (Team).

Straightforward enough, yes? Actually — not really — because the implications of empowerment can be quite interesting. For example, if I empower others in an organization to own decisions that used to be my responsibility, then where does that leave me? Does it put my job and/or salary at risk?

Connecting empowerment to the “new” Microsoft

How do you feel about Larson-Green’s recent statement that Teams will walk over coals for a vision they own? Her views around Agile Leadership are well-aligned, purposeful and insightful – I invite everyone to give her post a read. For those of you who work at Microsoft, I am genuinely excited for the future of your organization under this type of leadership.

Let’s explore how Larson-Green has (and continues) to put an Agile Leadership stance into meaningful action within the company. A few [lightly paraphrased] highlights strongly resonated with me, including:

1. The ability to constantly look for new ways to do things and continue to evolve is a necessary part of any organization’s success.

This is certainly an imperative at a company like Microsoft – innovate & evolve, or risk becoming irrelevant. There are several high-profile examples of companies that did not do this effectively – like Blockbuster Video and Research In Motion. Where are they now?

2. People perform better when they are empowered to own the process and feel responsible for its outcome.

There is science that backs this up (consider Daniel Pink’s DRIVE, which has curated a lot of this research). To build further on this declaration – Agile organizations empower small, self-organizing Teams (and Teams of Teams) to completely own “how” they choose to plan and execute their work in a way that optimizes the outcome.

In this empowered situation, senior leaders have a profound responsibility, which is…

3. Leading…means creating an environment where each person has a voice and is working toward a vision that’s greater than themselves.

Creating this environment sounds simple on the surface, but it’s enormously complex – especially in big companies that foster challenging cultural belief systems that only value the voice of ‘experts’ (for example). In an Agile organization, everyone’s voice matters – the collective intelligence of the people offers incredible thinking power toward innovation and execution of the company’s vision.

How does a leader connect this collective intelligence to a larger vision? This recent post about Purpose at Work (from LinkedIn Influencer, Josh Bersin) sheds some light on this question.

4. If changes to projects and the work are necessary, you must be clear on (the) “why”.

When teaching and coaching within Agile organizations, I mentor heavily on the “why” behind everything. For example, if your organization is using Scrum or Kanban with your Teams, it’s not enough for people to learn the “what” (e.g., here are the meetings, how long they need to be, etc.). To truly anchor high performing behaviors, everyone must have a deeper understanding of “why” the meetings exist, the purpose & intent they serve, etc. More importantly, if an organization makes a strategic change in course, Agile leaders will help everyone understand “why” this change is necessary, which fosters an increased level of engagement across the workplace.

5. Leaders can struggle to let go of direct decision-making.

Empowerment is more than a buzzword – it means that leaders actually give their power away to other parts of the organization. In Agile organizations, the highest level of strategic (portfolio-level) decisions still live at the executive level (like at Microsoft), but what we’re finding is that Agile executives actively listen to the collective intelligence of the organization to inform their decisions – this is a powerful concept that’s playing out effectively, even in big companies like Microsoft. But as these broad decisions are made, senior executives give the direct decision-making power away to the parts of the organization that are closer to the delivery work. This empowerment continues down and through the organizational hierarchy, so that the countless number of detailed daily decisions can be made at the point of execution (i.e., within the Agile Delivery Teams and its alignment with Product Ownership).

The irony is that, as an Agile Leader, the more power I give away (responsibly, of course), the more effective I become as a leader. But what does that really mean? How much risk am I taking when I empower others to make direct decisions?

To better understand this new form of power, consider an insightful article from the Harvard Business Review that examines the shift from centralized power to decentralized empowerment in an organization.

Is this happening in your workplace?

6. Passing on day-to-day decisions allows leaders to really lead, focusing on creating the conditions for the team to make the right decisions.

Do you think that Microsoft CEO Nadella embraces this statement fully? Do you believe that he’s empowered Chief Experience Officer Larson-Green to lead in this way?

In Closing

How do you feel about Microsoft’s new leadership style? Will empowerment lead the organization toward a stronger market position in the future? Consider sharing your thoughts in the comments section below, so we can all learn from each other.

 

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5 Beliefs Every Agile Journey Must Avoid

What are the beliefs that are guiding your organization’s Agile journey? As you’ve probably witnessed, those underlying beliefs influence how people behave on a daily basis, and when they are well aligned with Agile principles, then the pursuit can prove quite beneficial. When there is a stark misalignment, flawed beliefs in Agile can (and will likely) result in a challenging pursuit and even a failed Agile adoption.

What have you experienced in your organization?

High performance Agile organizations share a powerful and principled belief system that leads to increased value, innovation, vibrancy and a healthy element of delivery predictability within the workplace. I’ve also found that these inspiring companies are able to identify and address flawed Agile beliefs that introduce friction against the organization’s pursuit.

Here are a few that I’ve seen play out in a number of organizational contexts:

5 Beliefs Every Agile Journey Must Avoid

Belief #1 to Avoid

We need to compare waterfall and Agile to see which is better.

This belief can lead an organization down a fruitless path of endless opinion-littered debates that waste time, money and energy. When an organization has a sense of urgency for change, then it must invest its resources into changing, not trying to compare and prove that one approach is better than another. Besides, an organization can quickly examine a number of publicly-available comparisons that are available for review and learning.

To better understand the comparison of business outcomes between sequential delivery (waterfall phases with delivery at the end) and Agile (iterative, incremental, continuous value delivery), consider turning to insight-filled works like The New New Product Development Game, this flexible vs. sequential development approach study, and the latest research from The Standish Group. The groups behind these studies have done all of the hard work of comparison for us. Use the conclusions in these (and other) works to decide if an Agile Journey is the right pursuit for addressing your organization’s sense of urgency.

Belief #2 to Avoid

Agile Teams must ‘commit’ to their User Stories at the beginning of a Sprint.

I once encountered a skeptical manager who told me something like: “I believe that *my* Teams must deliver all the User Stories that are ‘committed’.” Careful  … this is a dangerous belief that often leads to challenged business outcomes. When I first encountered this supposedly “Agile” setup, I quickly discovered that the manager was pressuring the Teams to make scope commitments each Sprint. In this situation, no one actually committed to anything except for the manager (who, under organizational pressures, made an unrealistic promise on the scope).

Not only were the Teams consistently falling short of the “commitment” (thus deteriorating Team morale and eroding the predictability element of Agile), the evolving Product was littered with increasing numbers of defects and mounting technical debt.

How do you see this? Is it a recipe for Agile failure?

This flawed belief is in direct conflict with the 3rd value statement from the Agile Manifesto:

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

In Agile Teams, commitment is a shared value between Team Members —- not a rigid contract between the Teams and management. Once this is understood, it opens the door toward a goal-oriented way of working.

What’s so great about Goals?

In Scrum, for example, Teams craft and strive to meet a clear short-term business Goal each Sprint, which informs mid and long-term Roadmap Goals – all with full alignment to the Vision of the Product (or Project or Program – depending on your organization’s terminology). Goals introduce an element of flexibility, which guides Teams to deliver meaningful and valuable business outcomes on a consistent (i.e., predictable) basis. Most organizations tend to click the “like” button on this delightful rhythm – customers, users, business stakeholders, technology stakeholders, and the great Teams that are empowered with delivery responsibilities.

Continuing on the Scrum example, Teams share a commitment to each other to operate and behave in a way that maximizes their chances of reaching these Goals. When commitment is embraced as a value, then Teams are much better positioned to consistently meet the incremental Goals that ultimately realize the Product’s Vision.

How do you feel about this?

Belief #3 to Avoid

Agile Teams do not have fixed constraint contracts.

We should not confuse Disbelief #2 with the lack of contracts. Agile organizations are often faced with a contract (or an urgent situation) that has either a timeline or scope constraint.

For example, one company I coached had an urgency to deliver the first release of a next-generation app before its competitors, so they had a time-constrained Release Goal. In that situation, they invested extra up-front effort understanding the essential Features needed to deliver a competitive and cohesive first Release into the market. Once the Agile Teams were formed, they worked under the contractual constraint to deliver the first Release within the understood timeframe. To make this work, however, they had a high degree of flexibility to collaborate with the business on two fronts:

(1) the flexibility to deliver essential Features at varying levels of maturity — depending on what was possible within the time frame.

(2) the flexibility to change the Feature list in the Release Backlog — as everyone learned more, they worked together to adapt the Release Backlog to ensure that the highest-valued Features would ship with the first Release.

This flexibility was essential for delivering the first Release within the constrained time frame. I encourage your organization to learn more about the notion of Agile Contracting and how you can structure contractual relationships to operate in this manner.

How do your contractual relationships look right now?

Belief #4 to Avoid

A Daily Stand-up requires the Agile Team to stand, so the meeting will be short and focused.

At first glance, this might sound reasonable. In fact, many organizations’ Agile cultures have adopted this ubiquitous behavior. However, I have observed an alarming number of organizations where the Daily “Stand-up” was nothing more than a group of Developers standing in a circle and reporting their status to a manager who authoritatively stands in the middle of the circle. If this describes your Daily Stand-up, then watch out – because the person in the middle of the circle is not behaving as a Scrum Master and you’re missing out on the pursuit toward high performance, self-organizing Team behavior.

One of the big organizational changes in an Agile journey is the profound shift away from Team-level command & control project management and toward the emergence of small, empowered and self-organizing Delivery Teams. In Agile, daily progress & planning responsibilities shift to the actual Delivery Teams who are doing the work. In a Daily Stand-up event, the Teams don’t have to stand to maintain focus and discipline. Rather, the Teams must fully understand the purpose and intent of this event, which in turn guides their focused and disciplined behaviors during the event.

So, what is the purpose of a Daily Stand-up? It’s designed to provide a transparent and focused environment for Delivery Teams (i.e., Scrum Development Teams) to inspect their progress and adapt their plans in a way that maximizes their chances of reaching their shared Goal with the days that are left in the Sprint. The idea is to reach this outcome in roughly 15 minutes or less. If they choose to physically stand up to do this, great. If not, that’s fine too. In this event, a Scrum Master’s job is to teach and mentor Agile Delivery Teams on how to facilitate this event on their own … to the point where the Scrum Master doesn’t even need to attend.

What do you think of this?

I invite all of us to fully understand The Scrum Guide, which is the official definition of Scrum from the written words of the co-creators, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. This will help avoid anchoring Disbelief #4 in your organization. As stated in the guide, this empirical event is called a Daily Scrum, not a Daily Stand-up – although it’s not the name that matters; what matters is fully understanding the purpose and intent of the event (i.e., the “why” behind a Daily Scrum).

If this daily event feels like a wasteful status meeting in your Teams, then consider re-aligning the name of the event and start mentoring around the actual purpose/intent as defined in the Scrum Guide. You might be surprised how quickly it can take hold and launch your Teams to a higher level of delivery performance.

Belief #5 to Avoid

<Insert a common misconception here>

What have you all learned about the beliefs that guide a successful Agile journey? What beliefs pose a danger toward that pursuit? Please share your thoughts on the 5th Belief That Every Agile Journey Must Avoid in the comments section below, so we can all learn from each other.

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

What Does The Volkswagen Scandal Mean to Agile?

As a new week emerges in our global workplaces, we continue to discover more revelations behind Volkswagen’s emissions testing scandal.

As reported in the New York Times last weekend, internal investigators have been challenged to unearth the truth due to an organizational culture of “fear” where employees are afraid to deliver bad news to their superiors – despite the fact that Bad News Doesn’t Get Better With Time. Fortunately, under the organization’s new management, employees are feeling more comfortable speaking out.

One thing is for sure – Agile organizations must promote workplace courage. It’s the only way a company can make informed decisions to effectively compete in the marketplace. How do you feel about this?

Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. ~ Brené Brown

Why is workplace courage so important in Agile?

According to this recent survey, almost 70% of organizations are now using the Scrum Framework (or a form of Scrum with XP) for delivering software to customers. This popular framework is based on the three pillars of empirical process control (inspection, adaptation, transparency). When Scrum Teams operate in a healthy corporate culture, then they can exemplify the courage to be fully transparent about their progress and issues, which allows for the changes (i.e., adaptations) needed to deliver valuable business outcomes. Without courage, then there is little (if any) transparency – and when that happens, the organization makes business decisions that often result in poor business outcomes.

What does this latest news mean to your organization?

Today, I invite everyone to ask some tough questions within your organizations. This latest VW news is fresh and full of coffee shop chatter. A few questions come to my mind, like:

What does this mean to our organization’s pursuit toward lasting Agility?

What are the lessons that can be learned and applied in our company?

How can our organization uphold Agile values?

 

What does this mean to your organization’s Agile journey? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, so we can all learn from each other.

 

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If my writings resonate with you, please consider spreading this message so we can energize and inspire the entire professional world together. I invite you to ‘Follow’ my professional journey through LinkedIn. I am also on Twitter.

Image Credit: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters