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Empowering people: the sandbox

People need to feel safe in order to experiment

Say the company finally “got” that the decision-making process needs to be decentralized in order to:

  • Make decisions more quickly
  • Make more decisions
  • Make better decisions

Awesome they figured that out, right?

But how to make it happen?

Time for an agile transformation, of course!

Great! So we see big time changes like focusing on product and users, adding UX designers in teams, rolling out Scrum…

And how did it go? Let’s give the mic to a top-level executive:

Teams hardly take any decision!

The transformation is a failure!

Ouch. Yeah, well, it happens.

What did go wrong?

In order to decentralize the decision-making process, you obviously need to empower people and teams to make decisions. In this case, such an empowerment did not take place. Scrum, Product Management and UX will not magically fix the issue.

The only magic ingredient is empowerment.

In short, the company kept operating the same as before.

What does empowerment failure look like?

Decision overriding

Team takes a decision. Management reverts team decision and enforce their own.

Manager feedback in Product Review: “Come on guys, how come you don’t know that — let’s do it this way”

Lack of responsibilities definition

Responsibilites are barely defined:

Team facing a decision to make: “Are we allowed to take this decision? Should we consult stakeholders?”

Actions not matching words

… And when responsibilities are defined, the reality contradicts them:

Manager to Product Owner: “Yes, you are the owner of the product vision. Make sure we have topics X, Y and Z in your roadmap.”

Focus on output, not outcomes

Teams are focused on being busy rather than on creating value:

Manager challenging team: “Are the time estimates correct? Is that the time you actually spent on this?”

Blaming for failure

Failure is not acceptable. When a bad decision is made, the resulting backlash can be devastating:

Manager feedback in Product Review: “How can you be happy with what you’ve shown us? This is useless. You’ve just wasted the company’s money.”

Some keys to empowerment

Managers build culture by their attitude and actions

Want it or not, the attitude of managers has a real impact on the company’s culture. Actions specifically define what really matters.

What you measure is what will improve — choose wisefully what you measure.

When a manager asks for better time estimates, he makes a point that what matters most are predictibility and time management. If he asks instead whether it was time well spent, then he makes a point that what matters most are creating value and being effective.

Another example would be about rewarding personal effort vs. team effort. Rewarding as a team makes a point that what matters is to have an awesome team working together to deliver team objectives. Rewarding as a person values heroes and specialization — blaming the rest of the team is not that far either when personal rewards conflicts and team objectives conflict with each other.

Psychological safety and how to give feedback

Feedback is critical. But the way it is given is also critical or else it might go south.

This is about psychological safety.

People must be safe to argue and thus to experiment and to fail.

For this, there are many techniques to improve the way feedback is given. In particular we can cite Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and Core Protocols.

But maybe the most important part is to properly channel the target of feedbacks. This means that feedback should be pretty much never given to a specific person but almost always to a team of people.

Feedback can be harsh, but harsh feedback can be useful by moving people out of their comfort zone and forcing them to fix issues. But that works only if it helps teams bond and work better.

Define and respect a sandbox for the team

Maybe the most important part is creating the team’s sandbox.

That is making clear what is the team’s reponsibility and what’s not. Management 3.0 activities are useful for this purpose. For instance Delegation Poker can be easily adapted to model the various topics and to agree on the level of responsibility carried by each part.

And of course, once defined, the management team is bound to respect this agreement.

If they don’t respect this agreement… Things might get really ugly.

That means that failure is OK on the topics fully given to the team. Of course feedback should be given to the team to help them learn. But that’s OK. And stick with the agreement. Don’t break the sandbox and let the team experiment.

Sources and further reading

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