The future of agility 1/2 – Leadership soft skills

On 22 and 23 September the first Agile Get-Together glocal Agile conference took place in Budapest and thanks to online streaming worldwide, organised by Sprint Consulting and UST. The main sponsor of the event was Morgan Stanley. The conference keynote speakers Diana Larsen, Linda Rising and Mary Poppendieck are renowned Agile experts. Their presentations foresaw the future of Agile and introduced new approaches beyond Agile. In the first half of our two-part article, we summarise the talks of Diana Larsen and Linda Rising.

Knowledge- vs. learning-based work

The underlying thesis of Diana Larsen’s enlightening presentation is that alongside the now naturalised notions of manual work and knowledge work, a new, previously unrecognised category of work, learning work, has emerged. It is not news to those familiar with Agile thinking that some of the management practices established and proven in manual labour (relatively easy to learn, repetitive, physical work processes) are not effective for managing people who work in areas requiring creativity, autonomy and deep knowledge. Similarly, managing people in learning-based work requires a new approach.

Learning work is any work that requires the discovery of new knowledge that does not yet exist, rather than building on knowledge that is already available in the world. The most obvious examples of learning work are of course research tasks. Diana observes that the proportion of such tasks outside research institutions is becoming increasingly important in product development for the market.

In Diana’s latest book (Lead without Blame: Building Resilient Learning Teams), published in September this year, co-written with Tricia Broderick, Dan Pink’s theory of Motivation 3.0 (which you can read more about in our blog article or learn more about in our Advanced ScrumMaster and Agile Leadership training) is extended from individuals to teams.

Key elements to motivate teams in learning work:

Purpose: a clear common goal. Focus on “why” instead of “what”.
Autonomy. Internal sense of responsibility for achieving common goals.
Co-intelligence: knowledge sharing. Continuous learning is the key to continuous improvement.

In addition to these motivators, four so-called “resilience factors” have also been identified, which provide the team’s resilience and immune system:

– Collaborative connections: making the team a real team, a sense of community.
Embracing conflict / conflict resilience: recognising the usefulness of conflict, learning to manage conflict openly and constructively, and developing a culture of feedback.
Inclusive collaboration: recognising and exploiting the value of diversity, whether personal, cultural or professional.
Transparent power dynamics: in every human community, formal and informal power relations emerge, and their transparent and conscious transformation into a common force, where the “stronger” is not strong against the “weaker”, but they become strong together.

It is therefore the task of the leaders of learning-based work teams to create and maintain these motivators and resilience factors, which you can read more about in the book.

Figure 1.: Diana Larsen: Building resilient learning teams, Agile Get-Together Conference 22.09.2022.

The recognition of the existence of knowledge-based work and the emergence of new management approaches did not mean that traditional techniques became obsolete. Thus, traditional management methods are still useful and valuable today – applied in the right areas. At the same time, even these areas can learn from agility, drawing on the ideas of new approaches and ways of thinking. Likewise, the exploration of learning-based work, the new techniques presented by Diana Larsen and Tricia Broderick, do not replace but rather complement our existing knowledge. For product development managers, it is now obvious how the work their teams perform differs from manual labour. However, it is worth reflecting on whether these creative tasks require ‘just’ in-depth knowledge or also an outstanding ability to learn together, to create new knowledge on a regular basis.

It’s important to point out that when Diana talks about leaders, she is never just talking about formally appointed people in leadership positions. Everyone at their own level and in their own field can act as a leader, setting a good example. We are all leaders if we choose to be

Talking to the elephant

As usual, Linda Rising brought us a psychological topic to the conference that, although completely unrelated to agility, can be an excellent part of an Agile leader’s toolkit and even be very useful in our everyday lives.

One of the biggest differences between the skills required of leaders in manual and knowledge-based work is that the latter have a much greater emphasis on soft skills such as communication, motivation, conflict management, etc. (Read more about Agile leadership competencies in our blog article.)

Such a soft skill is the communication technique that Linda Rising’s presentation (How to Talk to the Elephant) was all about. The presentation, based on Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow, compared the two systems of the human mind, the deep, fast, constantly operating, remembering-everything-but-not-directly-accessible unconscious (the elephant in Linda’s analogy) and the slow, single-focus, rational, linear, working-only-when-awake-but-accessible conscious (the rider on the elephant’s back). The former is based on emotions, the latter on facts and (at least apparently) rationality. The sad message of the performance for some might be that, however much we might like to believe that the rider is in control, it is in fact the elephant. If you have ever experienced a situation as a leader or even as a private person where you have fired off rational arguments one after the other to resolve a conflict, with zero success, you have experienced what it is like to try to speak to the elephant in the language of the rider.

Figure 2.: Linda Rising: How to Talk to the Elephant, Agile Get-Together Conference 22.09.2022.

Linda’s suggestion for leaders is to try to understand what the rider is thinking and at the same time try to understand what the elephant is feeling when communication is challenged.

So how can you reason with the elephant? Some tips from Linda:

 – The elephant loves stories. It’s no coincidence that storytelling techniques suddenly became popular in politics and business years ago, because stories appeal to our emotions – and therefore to the elephant. This simple insight is also behind the basic technique of Agile requirements analysis, the User Story concept: telling how the product should work is only interesting for the rider. Telling what the customer wants and why the product will be good for them goes much deeper. (You can learn about Agile requirements analysis and good User Stories in our Advanced Product Owner training.)
 – Attention. It is very important for the elephant to be listened to. Until you listen to the elephant, the elephant cannot listen to you. This is of course time-consuming, but it is one of the first steps in building trust.
 – Small results. Thinking big is sometimes motivating, but often daunting. To use Linda’s example, driving eight and a half hours to get to grandma’s is a long way, we get tired just from thinking about the trip, even though we haven’t even started yet. However, if we set ourselves milestones on the way to grandma’s, such as promising ourselves to stop for coffee after 100 kilometres, the project becomes much easier: we only have to go 100 kilometres and we can have a nice cup of coffee. Break big goals down into small steps, small results. It’s no surprise that agility does the same, regularly built deliverable, valuable product increments are very valuable not only for the quick feedback, possible quick change of direction, but also for their motivating power, the possibility of many predictable small successes.
 – And even if the road ahead is long, sometimes it’s worth looking back and seeing how far we’ve come. Grandma is a long way off, but we’re already halfway there.
 – The elephant loves peanuts :) Because of the many benefits of food and snacking together, it is also often mentioned in Agile trainings as a basic technique to create a common voice, to ease the mood, to improve retrospectives, and even for team building, as sharing “common resources” has a really unifying power. (You can learn more about retrospectives and team building in our Advanced ScrumMaster and Agile Leadership trainings.)

Diana’s and Linda’s presentations thus confirmed the importance of the so-called soft skills for managers working in product development, and fortunately they also gave concrete suggestions for their development.