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Your Request to Improve is Denied!

A few weeks back, I was at the Agile Testing Days conference in Germany, and I had a great conversation with one of the attendees about what they learned. This included things like how to do automation, exploratory testing, driving transformation, and many other ways to improve as an engineer. The person said they could not wait to go back to work and ask their manager for approval to try some of the things they learned. I was shocked to hear this–approval?

This was partly because having been a manager for about two decades, I had never put myself in the middle of people improving the way we build a product or in someone improving themself. That is not Agile. I have long seen the manager’s role as growing talent so that as a team, group, or company, we can outlearn or outperform our competitors. People, including myself, should keep our skills and practices up to date so that we can meet that challenge.

This is not to say that I haven’t been asked the “can I improve” question as a manager. People who came from other groups or outside the company have looked me up to ask my permission, and each time I have reinforced that improving your skills is not my decision. Furthermore, improving how the team delivers is also not my decision. Those decisions belong to you and the team.

I came to this stance in how I lead people and teams long before I learned about the Agile mindset or methods. Perhaps that is why it felt so right to add Agile to my toolkit of how I practice management and leadership. I know a lot of career managers who think like this as well, but, as we know, the problem with feeling that you need to seek permission like we are discussing does not come from managers like me–they come from the darker side of command-and-control management that creates an environment of low trust.

Unempowering Behaviors

One of the hallmarks of a low trust/non-Agile environment is little empowerment. People are subjected to having to justify and get approval for everything they do around the company. If subjected to this long enough, the behavior of learned helplessness emerges and takes root. In this state, regardless of high degrees of empowerment, individuals feel that control over their work is not possible because of past overly controlling or abusive environments. In the corporate environment, this may not be directly seen in day-to-day work and could be in the folklore of the organization.

As an example, when I was working in a large Fortune 100 company, we had the folklore of our founder sending out what was deemed Grove-a-Grams. Receiving one of these was rarely a nice thing. It would say something like, “you are fu**ing up my business. -a.” This all low cap call out with a vague signature indicated that you were about to lose your job if you did not fix your mistake. It was also very much folklore in the business 15 years past the last Grove-a-Gram went out. Still, the emotional effect of the lore keeps smart people from crossing an invisible boundary of not moving forward with ideas unless it was low risk to the business and was approved by somebody higher in the company–ultimately reducing personal risk-taking and innovation in the business. This is something that even the founder did not intend with the original “love” notes he sent to people.

So as a change agent and leader in an emergent Agile business, it is crucial to identify the patterns of learned helplessness and take action to rehabilitate the work environment. Here are some things that you can do.

Rehabilitation with Flexible Boundaries

Flexible boundaries in companies allow employees to have more control in their day-to-day work. One example of a flexible boundary can be seen in your company values when you call out something like “Do no evil” or “Respect to the customer.” Companies utilizing flexible boundaries don’t write 700+-page employee guidelines around both of those phrases, but they give the employees the power to make those choices in their work themselves. No need to go to a “This is not evil” review and approval meeting.

So for change agents and leaders, it is your responsibility to call out what the flexible boundaries are and the rituals and roles around them. Declare what being in the boundary looks like to people. In the case of people coming to you to seek your approval for improving their job or product, let them know that they don’t need your permission to do that. I would typically tell people who asked me that it is expected in this company that you do that, and not improving the way you work is where you get in trouble. For people who are uncomfortable with that empowerment, I gave them an open invitation to seek my advice but not my approval. This is letting smart people be smart.

Upgrade the Folklore

As I called out earlier, myth and folklore are powerful in hindering your transformation. Still, they are also powerful tools in changing the environmental narrative to move you in a better direction. Stories about people embracing their empowerment and doing a better job for your customers are a great way to amplify the environment you want. Change agents and leaders can call out those stories in company newsletters, business update/all-hands meetings, on the company website, etc. Take every opportunity to create a new narrative that reinforces the emergent culture that moves you past the learned helplessness of the past.

What Do Others Have to Say?

We brought this topic into the last Agile Coaching Network (ACN), and you can hear what change agents and leaders from across the world think about this subject. We also talk about other things around what is the right framework for different types of work and ways to measure agility. Let me know what you think.

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