Tag Archives: Leadership

Striving to be a Son of Light

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter” — Yoda

I was watching Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back and this quote struck me given the scenes of Obi Wan and Qui-Gon as spirits in various episodes. What struck me is the following: our bodies are made of comic dust from stars that essential subatomic particles fused together due to gravitational forces. Yet we are sentient beings. How is that possible? Atheists have no reasonable explanation. As such, a certain “top of the food chain” pride sometimes creeps into our culture. Take the following example from a former Christian zealot:

“No one can stop us now ‘Cause we are all made of stars” — Moby

Me… I’m going to make it a point of not being prideful. Instead, I shall recognize my place in the universe as explained by the following passage.

27 “ Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. 34 So the crowd answered him, “ We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.
(John 12:27-36 ESVST)

“A Musician Must Make Music…”

 “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” — Abraham Maslow

I had the rich pleasure to hear the William Peace University Peace Singers and Florida College Saturday night. That evening the Florida College students were spread amongst many volunteers hosts for lodging. Music has always been a part of my life. Music is largely why I love anything or anyone. In our home I have several percussive instruments, a piano, an electronic keyboard, a synthesizer, and a violin. We made sure that our guests understood just how important is in our lives as we drove from the theater to home. This morning, we had the distinct pleasure of hearing our guests playing our piano and fiddling around with various pieces of music in Jennifer’s deep locker of sheet music.

What struck me is that the guests were nervous staying with complete strangers. The way that they coped with the stress of being on the road and staying in the homes of complete strangers was by doing what comes natural… making music. The words of Maslow never became so real to me than at that point.

Turning to work, I realized if business leaders would let people do what gives them peace, then those leaders will always be rewarded with the sweet sounds of people at their best.

The implications are inescapable. Business leaders have to find people who’s passion is the work they are to perform. You must place people in positions that play to their strengths, not just making up for weaknesses. You must place people in cultures that encourages them to do that which they love to do. You must place people in physical environments that support the kind of work they love. And the work has to be the kind of work that creates intrinsic reward, the kind that fuels that passion within them. But it’s more than that, you have to create situations that let people make mistakes that they can learn and recover from.

Are you trying to make sure you create an environment where people can just be the best at what they do? Have you hired people that actually want to be best at what you need done? If you haven’t done these two things, I suggest you make a plan to course correct. You are missing out on the best parts of work life: watching people become fascinated with being the best. Fuel the passion!

The Space In Between

Who Owns the Space In Between?



Stuart Scott  “Making space for powerful conversations” 

After 20+ years in the software business, Stuart tends to look at software development in terms of human interactions.  After all, most of the effort that goes into creating, selling, and using software consists of people working with people to serve people.  And most of the challenges we face with software have to do with working together, making mistakes together, and learning together.  He keeps finding new ways to help people learn together how to work together in ways that amplify their effectiveness – and their enjoyment of the work!  He is looking for people who are persisting in deliberate practice of new positive change behaviors to keep projects “Fun Until Done” and restart the joy of new beginnings with each iteration.

Elinor Slomba’s stories at the interstices of art, business and agility can be found at artsinterstices.wordpress.com.

The Space In Between

The Space In Between


SS: Any human system exists because individuals are interacting. A company, an organization, lives and breathes inside those interactions. So, if I’m in the process improvement business, I’m actually intent on improving the quality of human interactions.

When there’s a process problem, it’s a good bet that either a conversation isn’t happening or isn’t focused on the right issues or isn’t including all the right people. For example, people in one department will often get together to discuss how they wish people in another department would interact with them. But they don’t actually reach out to the people in the other department to include them in the conversation about how the two groups will interact.

How do we break this? I like to help groups focus on improving their interactions with other groups, and one tool I like is the “business interaction model.” It helps people identify the other groups they regularly interact with, and examine the quality of each of those relationships.

ES: Yes, because most human interactions seem to live in the interstices, the places where various groups come together in an organization, not inside the bounded categories. I’ve applied the old SWOT exercise of mapping out Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to these in-between spaces. Inviting subcultures or groups within the organization to consider how to improve their interactions through this kind of Interstitial Planning (all rights reserved) seems critical to organizational pathfinding and sensemaking.

SS: I see enormous value in that. First you draw a line on the diagram to represent the connection or interaction between two groups. And then have a conversation about what’s working and what’s not working inside that interaction. This calls to mind a model of human relationships that helped me understand what I’m responsible for in a relationship with another person.

Imagine a piece of paper with two circles for the individuals and a line connecting them. How do we share responsibility for the relationship represented by that line? How much of that relationship am I responsible for, and how much are you responsible for? Most people I’ve asked have suggested that each party is responsible for 50% of the relationship. The person represented by the circle on the left is thus responsible for the left half of the line up to its midpoint, while the person represented by the circle on the right is responsible for the right half of the line. The goal, it seems, is to meet halfway.

The Mid-Point

The Mid-Point

In practice though, this approach doesn’t work very well. On any given day, I might feel you aren’t owning your full 50% of the relationship. So I might get annoyed with you because you’re forcing me to do more than my share. The only way the relationship can work is if we always believe the other person is doing his or her 50%.

Clearly there are pitfalls. How about this instead? Instead of saying that “we have a relationship” represented in our diagram by a single line, we can say that I have a relationship with you represented by a line from me to you, and you have a relationship with me, represented by another line from you to me.

Bi-Directional Communication

Bi-Directional Communication

In this model, I take on 100% responsibility for my thinking and behaviors in my relationship with you. That’s my line across the white space. My own creation. That means I can have a productive relationship with you without depending upon you for a certain percentage. Similarly, you are 100% responsible for how you choose to relate to me, regardless of my treatment of you.

Now imagine if you brought that conversation into an interdepartmental squabble. It might help those human relationships, which are so often filled with confusion and disappointment.

ES: You might bring the conversation directly into the conflicted space, or you might set it up outside the structure. In the spaces between departments, systems, and cultures, people can dip into a new way of relating, fill up and then return to their respective positions with greater clarity and perspective. Like a support group for people trying to find positive ways to handle interactions at work.

You almost need to be in a different space physically, where you can feel a new energy. That allows you to create what [our mutual friend and colleague] Devin [Hedge] describes as new neural and muscular patterns, in order to go beyond the situations in which the problems originally got created.

“In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas. They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear. To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives.”

SS: Yes, it can help a lot to set up a different kind of “space” for the conversation if you want the nature of the conversation to change. That reminds me of how a group of my process improvement colleagues and I set up a weekly conference call so we could stay in a conversation about our efforts to get the right people involved in the right conversations. Our focus was on how we could contribute in any positive way. That was five years ago, and we still meet and talk even though we now work for different companies. People seem to find a lot of valuable in creating this kind of space for sharing interpersonal experiences and challenges within a business. We remember the power of being honest with peers on a regular basis. Indeed, it’s quite powerful.

ES: You mention positive contributions. With all the focus on organizational cultures, I’m often wondering how we could create structures that identify and support individuals who are good culture-builders. I’m working on one now, Scrum of One, which I’ve been invited to bring to Agile India. It’s a set of practices inspired by my work over the years with artists and arts organizations. These practices don’t depend upon a whole enterprise being oriented in any particular way. It’s both ongoing preparation for the creative individuals who get it as well as a way for enlightened organizations to find them so they can work with them.

What if positive culture-builders became fearless at work? How would business look if we could trust that if a system penalizes them for being authentic, another will be waiting that values them more and is a better match?

SS: You’re talking about raising the levels of personal responsibility. In other words, it’s about deciding what I bring to my relationship with you, regardless of how you are behaving toward me. It’s about reaching across the “white space” between the two circles in our diagram above, instead of just trying to meet you halfway. The motivation for that is not, of course, inside the system.

In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas. They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear. To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives. I sometimes call this “creating space for the conversations that aren’t happening yet.”

ES: I can’t wait to see the energy and cohesion that will come when that occurs.

Overcoming the role of cognitive bias in critical decision making

Folks attending Agile 2013 got a treat this yesterday. Former colleague Manoj Vadakkan and Agilist Bob Payne are going to address how cognitive bias plays a role in Agile Adoption

English: GCOM Cognitive Schemata

English: GCOM Cognitive Schemata (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

. In researching and garnering feedback, Manoj and I were swapping anecdotal stories of cognitive bias. I’m going to share two here. If you happen to be at Agile 2013, try to catch this session as I know it will be great.

The two examples I want to share where I have seen cognitive bias preventing Agile Adoption are what I’ll call Hourly Estimation Bias and Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. It sounds fancy, but your see it is just a situation we take for granted not knowing its adverse effects in catalyzing necessary changes.


This bias can be defined as the need for managers who have not fulling embraced “The Agile Way” of Empirical Evidence in planning and tracking. In Agile practices we tend to shift away from hourly estimation of way, relying instead on relative estimation based on NUTS and Throughput Account measures such as Velocity, Cycle-Time and Lead-Time. While it is often dangerous to apply Lean Manufacturing metrics to Product Development due to the vast variation in effort from Product Feature to Product Feature, when sufficiently broken-down into work units that can be completed in 2-3 days, the law of averages in large datasets takes over giving you a nice Guassian Curve.

The anecdotal story I’ll share here is that managers, being unfamiliar with empirical evidence and having relying on vanity metrics so long, they suffer bias towards the vanity metrics even when we have proven that the Paredo Principle applies to these estimations and metrics… they are only correct ~20% of the time. Or stated another way, vanity metrics of Scope, Schedule and Cost in a complex human system are invariably WRONG roughly 80% of the time.

So why would a manager bet their bonus and possibly their job on something that it WRONG 80% of the time? Familiarity. The brain naturally filters and reduces the world around us into simples terms in order to perform sensemaking. This works when you need to know if a Lion is a threat while walking across the Serenghetti. It works poorly in estimation of complex systems and complex human system. Yet, time and again I have managers that ask: “What is your percent complete?” and “How many hows do you have left?” Why? Cognitive Bias towards the familiar. It turns out we favor five-to-one something we are familiar with over something we are unfamiliar with. Paredo’s Principle strikes again (One-Fifth = 20%).

So how can Managers overcome their natural bias towards the familiar? Managers should be required to read and peer-review two books that span a large body of knowledge about neuroscience, critical analysis and decision making. These two books are, “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” by David Rock, and “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. In both books the skills of mindfulness (understanding when your brain is reacting again reason in its need for the familiar), and how to form new habits so that the unfamiliar becomes familiar.


The second cognitive bias I’ll discuss is a phrase I’m hijacking and twisting, called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. In a study about diversity in the workplace and the hiring habits of managers, it has been found that managers subconsciously hire people that act and look like themselves (homosocial mirrors), and that they favor candidates that are homosocial mirrors over candidates that are more qualified.

I have seen this behavior present itself in the following more times than I am even aware of. For example, say a manager needs to fill a position with someone that has Agile skills. Together, we look to hire someone internally first because it is seemingly less risky as a person is likely to already understand the political landscape and challenges facing the position. But, what often happens in a command and control environment shifting towards a collaborative environment? We look around the company for a likely candidate and don’t find the right mix of technical skills, domain knowledge and soft skills. We have to hire someone from outside. However, when faced with a marginally competent internal candidate and strong external candidate, managers favor an internal candidate over the outside candidate. Thus, the command and control culture is further cemented into place and change becomes that much more difficult if not impossible.

Soft skills (people skills) in an Agile environment are typically the more important than technical skills and domain knowledge. That is not to say that a person should not have a base competency in the requisite technical skills or domain knowledge; however, we have found that a person with the soft skills of mentoring, servant leadership and lifelong learning can overcome not having strong technical skills or domain knowledge.

So why would a manager purposely choose the lesser qualified candidate?

It’s called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction: a cognitive bias that favors hiring people that are “just like me” in order to make you feel good. This feeling of comfort comes from patterns of familiarity in the Superior Parietal Lobe combined with the fear of the unfamiliar in the Amygdala overriding our ability to reason using logic in the Pre-Frontal Cortex.

Unfortunately, knowing this is mostly useless. Typically, the people that need to know how to steer around this Cognitive Bias the most, are the least likely to know that they need to steer around this Cognitive Bias.

Русский: Cognitive Hazard by Arenamontanus

Русский: Cognitive Hazard by Arenamontanus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is also the single, most-challenging, and most-obvious “problem to everyone but the person suffering this bias” that I face when coaching.

We all naturally suffer from it in some small way because it is a natural defense mechanism built into the brain against wild animal attacks. It is also the root of racism, prejudice, and class (Caste?) politics.

The bias is that strong. There is one way to overcome this bias, but it is quite ugly.

Generally, the only way out of hiring bias is through judicious use of external recruiting, allowing internal wannabes to apply for the position through an external vetting agency. Corporate recruiters hate this strategy because they feel they don’t have control over the vetting process, so a certain “make HR feel part of the process” tactic has to be employed. Properly engaged, HR becomes your strongest ally in the process.

I’ve successfully used this technique for overcoming my own bias. The result was being able to work some of the most brilliant people in the business.

What examples of cognitive bias in decision making have you seen?

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John Baldoni in Leadership

“Leadership is an active, living process. It is rooted in character, forged by experience, and communicated by example.”

John Baldoni

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