Mastering the Art of Humble Inquiry

Datetime:2016-08-23 03:35:41          Topic: Software Engineering           Share

In the “Big IT Rising” post on this site, we positioned the challenges facing large, corporate IT shops: rigid planning, ineffective risk management and long lead-times to deliver new functionality.  We introduced  a toolbox of methods and approaches that can be used to even tame this beast is not be found exclusively in the methods and practices employed.

Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and work methods for lunch, I add

The way in wh ich we lead and manage our IT shops creates the environment and systems in which people work. The prevalent approaches have created a working culture characterised by bureaucracy, rigidity, fragility and a work force that is frequently frustrated, disillusioned and even mistrustful of the executives, managers and team leads that run the shop. The Ways of Leadership and Management originate from the early twentieth century, an industrial era, informed by Taylorism and behaviourism. Approaches that may have been effective in the factories and mines of those days but fall short in the twenty-first century, an era of knowledge work. Expecting to create an IT Shop with an effective culture that can thrive in the prevailing climate of hyper competition, rapid change and innovation by dictating goals, promising rewards for achievement and threatening punishment for non-achievement is fundamentally flawed.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them” – Albert Einstein

The revolution to change the IT shop, to adopt the “New Ways of Working” is first and foremost a cultural revolution.  Within a more conducive culture the principles, concepts and practices of Lean, Agile and DevOps will not be still born, they will emerge, evolve and deliver the results and benefits that the poster cases report for the majority.  One may even find that in such a culture, current working practices deemed

ineffective may also deliver far better results. How many methods long discarded may have been fundamentally sound and failed to flourish due to the toxic cultures in which they were applied? Some say that changing culture is the most difficult outcome to achieve. While it may be hard work I don’t believe it is as significantly complex a challenge as many may think. If those same executives, managers and team leads begin to think, talk and act differently they will inevitably shift the culture. As Einstein says, we need to change our thinking to solve the problems we face. But it is true to say that changing thinking to establish new ways of leading and managing is itself easier said than done.

The best engineers don’t necessarily make the best managers and leaders

Wherein lies the difficulty in transforming the way in which we lead and manage the shop?  Is it a lack of information, understanding and options of better ways? Again, much like in the case of the New Ways of Working, there is no shortage of knowledge. Again we must look deeper to understand what prevents people from applying the knowledge, so readily available.

In the world of IT the majority of people begin their careers in technical jobs, either in the infrastructure/technology space or in the delivery of applications/systems. I began my career (long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away …), after completing a Computer Science Honours degree, as a programmer.  I worked in a team where the work was allocated based on skills and experience.  My career developed and, as I learned, I more I was given more responsibility, ultimately earning greater recognition and rewards. Things are much the same today (though many no longer start off in programming, which is a subject for another day).

Within the corporate IT shop, under the direction and governance of its Human Capital partners (today’s label that has become far more fashionable than Human Resources), one’s job grade or level (with associated salary bands) eventually reaches the ceiling for technical job families. At this point many an excellent technical worker opts for a career shift onto the managerial path. While it is true that there are those that have an authentic desire with accompanying aptitude for non-technical work, far too many are ill-suited. This coupled with inadequate training and support leads to poor quality leadership and management at the coalface.

The situation is then exacerbated by a well-intentioned desire to continue to satisfy their needs for belonging and (in particular) esteem that often leads to a situation where they continue to spend time taking the lead, directing and doing technical work. Feeling uncomfortable in their new roles that require them to provide direction, support and guidance, they take-over and effectively dis-empower their teams, building frustration, resentment and mistrust (in severe cases).

Given the necessity to get work delivered, in an environment and culture shaped by outdated industrial era thinking, many also resort to “driving delivery hard”. It is not uncommon at the conclusion of a project that has been deemed successful for team members to vow to never ever working on a project with that manager again. And in the oft prevailing culture the manager is likely to be rewarded for the results achieved (while the longer-term human consequences remain invisible).

It becomes a matter of course that these successful managers are recognised, rewarded and promoted. Thus over time the core of the senior leadership and management of the IT shop is dominated by hard-driving managers. And their leadership and management style of choice becomes the dominant force that shapes the culture of the IT shop. While the drive for achieving results is important, there is, as they say, more than one way to skin the cat. The side-effects of this approach, as evidenced by the generally accepted view of the effectiveness of far too many IT shops, would suggest that this approach is not delivering excellence.

In summary, we are confronted by many a leadership group that is populated by people who lack a genuine passion and aptitude for leading and developing people, who compensate by disempowering technical workers and driving hard for results. Their approach to motivation is usually based on just setting goals and deadlines and using rewards and punishments to achieve goals on time. In this culture the probability of successfully adopting the New Ways of Working is slim.

Leaders must shape a new culture that fosters autonomy and ownership built on genuine trust

In order to be successful in adopting the New Ways of Working we must focus as much attention, if not more, on transforming the leadership group. The factor that is most critical to success is not introducing new work methods such as Extreme Programming or Test Driven Development, management methods such as Scrum or Kanban or organisational frameworks such as the Scaled Agile Framework (though all of those have value) but in changing the mental models and behaviours of the leaders, managers and team leads who provide direction and support to the people doing the work.

We recognise the need to support our technical people through a journey of change.  A journey that begins with a degree of denial and anger, followed by a slow shift towards understanding, commitment and adoption. We expect and accept this. We make plans to try and make this journey as smooth as possible. Seldom do we prepare ourselves for the parallel and equally challenging change journey that must be undertaken by leadership and management if we are to be successful; which, I suggest, explains our frequent lack of success over the years in adopting new and theoretically sound work methods.

Once this is recognised then we are in position to study and learn from the work of people such as Maslow, Hertzberg and McGregor (See our blog post onMotivation).  Our task is made all the easier by the work of Pink and Buckingham who essentially have packaged this foundational thinking and wisdom into practical approaches that we can apply to lead, manage and motivate the members of technical teams.

“Go see. Ask Why. Show respect” – Fujio Chio

Another pointer to success can be gleaned from a study of Lean at Toyota. The concepts of Lean Thinking were distilled from a study of the Toyota Production System. Rightly so, many say that direct application of Lean practices that are based upon manufacturing processes developed in an environment in which work is standard and routine, is not going to be effective in the IT Shop. While we need to think more deeply to understand the general underlying principles of Lean to be able to contextualise and apply them within IT, there are lessons we can learn directly from the way in which Toyota changed their way of working to the Production System. At the highest levels of leadership they committed to the idea that the people on the production line were best positioned to pick up errors and drive improvement. Fujio Cho recognised that to achieve autonomous self-regulation and a drive for mastery on the production line, management behaviour would have to change. He drove this with a simple mantra “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.”

Humble inquiry is a crucial leadership competence to drive the required cultural shifts

Adoption of this simple mantra will shift behaviour of our executives, managers and team leads. “Go see” requires taking the principle that “the people who do the work know” to heart and relying on engaging with team members at their place of work or the “gemba” to gather facts. “Ask why” sounds like an invitation to interrogate team members. Old school managers may resort to quick-fire questioning, a string of “Why …? Why …? Why …?” which may easily be perceived as overtly critical, threatening and seeking people to blame. The intention behind “Ask why” is a sincere intention to understand the situation. Finally, “Show respect” is far deeper than just being polite and treating people with respect. At its heart is the belief that people are fundamentally well-intended, striving to do their best (McGregor Theory Y) and that problems arise from flaws in the system, such as a lack of training or knowledge, overburdening, excessive unintended variability etc. To practice “Show respect” requires executives, managers and team leads to take ownership of the system, accept that it is a significant source of problems and not default to blaming the team. This is not an invitation for team members to become careless, reckless or non-compliant but rather a drive to foster motivation and support teams consistent with the guidelines of Pink, Buckingham, McGregor, Hertzberg and Maslow.

The magnitude of the challenge in adopting this simple mantra should not be under estimated. Many have become addicted to their management reports, of taking decisive action to address problems by firing out instructions and holding people accountable by imposing punitive consequences. And should a desire to adopt this new approach then new competencies will be required to practice the crucial element of “Ask why”. Fortunately (yet again) we do not have to figure out how to do this from a scratch. Edgar Schein, Professor of Management Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has done the work for us. In his book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” he shares practical wisdom gained over fifty years in engaging with numerous organisations. Humble Inquiry is as much about an attitude rooted in humility and curiosity as it is about questioning techniques. Again, totally in sync with all that I have discussed related to motivation, leadership and management.

There is undoubtedly power and benefits in the methods of the New Ways of Working and organisational models aimed at enabling collaboration, autonomy, pursuit of mastery and self-regulation. But without fundamental shifts in the mental models that drive the thinking and behaviour of executives, managers and team leads the structural changes will not reach maturity and deliver the benefits they promise. Reflecting on what drives motivation of people and teams, committing to a change in which teams are given direction, support, feedback, rewards and recognition is crucial to the success of the “New Ways of Working” movement. Living by the simple but powerful mantra “Go see. Ask why. Show respect” is one way to support this change and developing the attitude and competence to practice “Humble Inquiry” a sure-fire way to be able to achieve this.

This is the second of two posts by David Preece . David is a Lean-Agile Maven at Standard Bank South Africa.

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