Learning from Problems is the Key to Great Leadership

An important theme across agile project management discussions is how critical dealing with reality is — discovering the truth about code, customer, competition, control, or calendar, and acting on it quickly. To sum it up: speed and relevance are key and the essence of agility.

Investing in systems to collect, store, and forward information is not the problem — the problem is whether the information is recognized and acted on in time to make a difference. That’s a human thought process having to do with problem ownership. You and I are loaded with mental programming for avoiding ownership when things go wrong, that’s why problem ownership (i.e., commitment to personal responsibility) is a sought-after qualities in employees because it is such a rare quality.

Organizations that deal with reality the fastest are those that acknowledge and foster what it takes for their leaders, teams, and workers to own problems. Managerially speaking, this is a huge, untapped opportunity. Information flow follows social pathways and how knowledge-workers are managed makes a competitive difference, for better or worse.

How to increase the opportunity for people to own their problems:

  • Master the Responsibility Process top-down. I teach that there are five distinct mental traps you fall prey to that keep you from owning problems. Learn them and master how to counter them. This falls under the heading of “don’t ask others to do anything you won’t do.” It will also keep you from unnecessarily accusing others for problems that are really yours to own. When management passes the buck, employees follow suit.
  • Model the growth process. Acknowledge your own mistakes and upsets. Understand the lesson and forgive yourself. Demonstrate how you learn, correct, and improve. Show that it is okay to grow and expand as a person.
  • Pursue important work. People take ownership for things that make a difference. What difference does your workflow make and for whom? Is that meaningful for the people and teams doing the work?
  • Tell the truth. Your employees are much too smart to be fooled. If you are playing them, they’ll play you too by vastly reducing the set of everyday organizational problems they are willing to own.
  • Include versus exclude. People generate commitment toward that which they have a voice in creating. Every time you think about whom to include or exclude from a meeting, a management process, or a communication, ask this question: “How is this likely to effect people’s willingness to own problems?”
  • Clarify decisions as yours, mine, and ours. Are people at each level of your enterprise absolutely clear about which decisions are yours to take, which decisions are theirs to take, and which decisions deserve consensus? Create a list of the last five decisions you took on behalf of your organization. Did those decisions surprise anyone who felt they weren’t yours to take? How did that affect the problem ownership in your organization?

These six tips really point to a single principle you can adopt to practice problem ownership:

Start two — not one — problem resolution cycles when things go wrong

When something is out of control and it’s up to you to get it back under control, do two things:

  1. launch a containment effort to regain control
  2. initiate a second, simultaneous effort, a discovery process examining your assumptions, presumptions, and projections in order to learn the truth about how your situation got out of control to begin with

If you are willing to be reflective, you will discover something you did to choose, create, or attract the very problem you are attempting to control. And that gives you the opportunity for true learning you can act on. The first cycle regains control, and — more importantly — the second cycle embraces the power of leadership.

Christopher Avery helps enlightened leaders around the globe operate their business — and lives — far more productively and successfully. To find additional resources to master leadership or build a responsible team (or family), please explore ChristopherAvery.com.

Posted in Agile, Leadership, Responsibility on 09/24/2010 04:30 am
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