Are you asking the right questions?

Or how to be a good leader in the time of continuous change?
Bar Schwartz is an Organisational Excellence and Agile Leadership consultant and Сoach. Currently, she heads the technology department at Medneo, where she supports the leadership in simplifying ways of working, building digital product development capabilities, and enabling further company growth. Furthermore, she works together with AgileLAB to deliver professional, hands-on Agile trainings. Recently Bar published a new book "Leadership in a Time of Continuous Technological Change".
"The main reason for writing this book was that I noticed that more and more transformations tend to fail. The book is about my experience and my work. It has concrete case studies based on real-life situations where I worked with leaders throughout different challenges in different organisations. In addition, the book contains "Leader's question guide" with questions that you can ask your people and yourself to build clarity."
Bar Schwartz
Organisational Excellence and Agile Leadership consultant and Сoach.
What is the reason so many transformations fail? And how can we enable ourselves as leaders to better support employees during times of change? How can we as coaches support our leaders in developing those capabilities?
What is a transformation?
Transformation is actually a buzzword that a lot of organisations are using to describe an extremely big change that is happening in the organisation that goes across all the different layers of it. People are usually used to working in a specific way, and there are considerable changes in the course of the transformation. New questions arise: What is expected of me as an individual? What is the level of authority and control? What is the level of power?

When we talk about agile and agile transformation, we usually mean changing the way people think about their work, how they plan their work, product, or service that they deliver. The big change in agile is that instead of making a plan in advance, it is worth focusing on an iterative planning approach, integrating a much faster feedback loop into the work process.

We live in a world of technological change. Every second day there is a change coming up. Due to a major challenge that has forced many organisations to become more digital, to learn how to work remotely, with the technological advances and changing customer expectations. Everything that used to be considered a luxury is becoming commonplace. If a business is unable to provide a certain level of service, its competitiveness declines. All of this requires businesses to change continuously.

Companies want to remain dynamic not only externally, but also internally, and enable employees to change and improve their capabilities more dynamically. The main theme here is alignment and how we as leaders can enable people to gain clarity and focus not on creating agility, but on bridging the communication gap between the expectations we set and the day-to-day reality. People are different and to understand them, we need to ask better questions and be more curious and understanding.

The ACE Model

The book goes through a framework that is called the ACE model. The ACE model is standing for autonomy, capability, and emancipation. Why?
Autonomy is a foundation for allowing people to feel empowered to do the work. By having autonomy we are delegating the ownership of something to the employee. And that's critical. When things are changing very quickly you don't have the time to start centralising all the control into one person. Autonomy is the basis for this. When changing an organization we should never take it for granted, we need to start building trust with the people we've moved into the new role (e.g. product manager became product owner). And they also need to build confidence that they can fulfill this role.
We can not assume that if a person had all the capabilities in their previous role they can just by default have all the capability in the new role and it will only be enough to switch the title. We have to sit down with each person and understand what they do that is already great, that is connected to that new role, what is the information and knowledge that they are missing. And how can we build a structure that enables them to do the work. Because if I have a lot of expectations but the structure is blocking you from doing your work I need to be able to have this conversation. And most of the time as a manager, because I'm too far away I will not necessarily know for each individual one-to-one what is required of them to do the work.
The last aspect of ACE is emancipation, and this is a big change. Because emancipation is to stop thinking that you need to empower people. People are already empowered. We need to emancipate them. Emancipating people means intentionally giving them freedom. We need to reduce the centralisation of information on one person. One person having all the information will never allow an organisation to change fast enough.
What we need to do is to start trusting. To do this, we give this umbrella of information, setting a purpose by answering the following questions:

  • Why do we want to become agile?
  • What are we trying to achieve in this world that might have meaning and value for our clients?
  • What is the type of culture we have?
  • What values do we expect from people?
  • Are they expected to be collaborative, adaptable to failure, outgoing?
The next point is the mission. We need to find what is the main focus of the company. Money? If we are not going to transform, we are not going to pivot our product and keep our organisation. Maybe it has to do with sales and going to market? Understanding the big picture and answering these questions will create an umbrella for the person. Without an understanding of the expectations and the work context, it is difficult to know if this company is right for me.

As leaders, we can not support the change that we are not buying into ourselves. It will be difficult for you to follow any of the things that you preach if you don't believe this is the right way to go. It doesn't mean that you necessarily need to be agile already but it does mean that you need to think that this is the right way for you to work. Very often people don't want to see their boss being a superhero or an expert who knows everything, all they want is someone who is approachable, vulnerable, and goes through the change with them.
So ask yourselves the same questions that you are asking your people to build clarity. Is this organization the right place for me to work? Is it a place where I can develop my capabilities? Do I believe that the organisation is right for me in terms of purpose, culture, and mission?
If you ask these questions you will see that people start to understand what they are getting into. When they understand what they are getting into, they can commit to it. And if they've committed, then they're aligned and can work together to achieve specific changes in the organisation. So, the reason why organisations fail in their transformation is that they don't align, don't invest enough time in asking the right questions, reducing ambiguity, and supporting the commitment to make that change happen.
— How to make people follow you as a leader?
— People follow you when they share your vision and values. They have to believe in what you preach. Before starting any work with others as a leader, it is crucial to be clear about what exactly you are standing for. First of all, as a leader, you need to align yourself with what you care about in this organisation. Once you understand this, you can find people who care about similar things. Next, it is important to ask the right questions. Talk to people, help them identify what is important to them and they will start following you.
— What are the first skills that people need to develop as a leader?
— First of all, you need to learn to simplify your language. Speak very clearly and simply about the concepts that you're introducing. Don't use fancy words. The second is asking questions and listening. Asking questions means be curious, seek to understand, and then listen. We need to actively listen to what people say and notice what is the status quo of a person and what are the emotional spikes. When you identify that while you're listening, then you can create really a lot of awareness to people and understand them better.?
How to work with old-school leaders?
— So when we work with such types of leaders that are controlling and focused on traditional management and need to become servant leaders we need to really go into the fears. What are they afraid of? What story do they tell themselves about the situation? And then we need to show them the consequences of the behaviors that are exhibiting.
If you're just talking all the time and not listening, how do people feel about you? If you are super controlling and do not let anyone have the autonomy, what does it create in your team? If you never trust anyone, what's the impact on you? You cannot go on vacation and you cannot be sick. Get them to look at themselves and when they have that self-awareness they start to shifting their mindset to be more agile
Our upcoming trainings on Agile Leadership