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Creating an Agile Culture through Trust and Ownership: An Interview with Pollyanna Pixton and Niel Nickolaisen

Phil Windley talks to Pollyanna Pixton and Niel Nickolaisen about their book, The Agile Culture: Leading through Trust and Ownership, why command and control management doesn't work with software teams, and why really trusting your team can make all the difference in your products, your work environment, and employee quality, satisfaction, and retention.
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Phil Windley: Out of all the possible goals an organization might pick for their teams, you say “energy and innovation” is what companies should be striving for. What are the attributes of a team or organization that has achieved nirvana and has moved completely away from command and control to energy and innovation? Why is this the ideal?

Pollyanna Pixton and Niel Nickolaisen, Co-authors of The Agile Culture: Leading through Trust and Ownership: We can think of at least two reasons why a move away from command and control and towards trust and ownership is important. First, in today’s fast-paced environment, there is no way a single person (or a few people)—the commander and controller—can keep up with the pace, deal with all of the options, handle the ambiguity, know all the answers, and know the best way to get things done. Second, history shows that the best chance for innovation is through collaboration. By its very nature, command and control is non-collaborative. If we want to innovate the best solutions and do it in a way the not only keeps up with but also leads the marketplace, replace command and control with trust and ownership.

If a team—including the leader—achieves this nirvana, it has energy. It has passion. It deals with issues without blame. It understands organizational goals and aligns its efforts to those goals. In a partial knock-off of Jim Collins’ Good to Great, everyone becomes the right people in the right seats on the bus and the bus is driving in the right direction.

This is ideal because we think it is the only chance we have for sustained success. It is a dangerous world out there with personal and organizational obsolescence just a competitor or competitive product away. The entire organization has to be at the top of its game and that no longer comes from command and control.

Additionally, command and control organizations operate a significantly reduced productivity. Teams that are trusted and take ownership are high performing. So, even what we call parity projects get to market as fast as possible

Phil: The trust-ownership model is the heart of this book. You point out that trust and ownership have to be balanced for a team or company to be stable. That seems to suggest an iterative approach, moving along the diagonal in steps. Giving a little more ownership, gaining a little more trust. Does that work or do we need to embrace ownership and trust in larger doses?

Pollyanna and Niel: That is a great question. In the book we talk about first finding out where in trust / ownership realm you and your team exist. You can then take steps to iterate towards high trust and high ownership. But in some areas you can do this in a more direct approach. For example, we can show high levels of trust almost immediately. We tell our teams, “I trust you. You do not have to prove to me that I can trust you. I will trust you from day one. Of course, you can always prove to me that I cannot trust you, but I start from a position of trust.” And this “trust first” approach shows up in many ways.

Niel: If someone tells me they need to take some time off, I believe that they do. On my second day with a new team, one of my inherited managers came to me with a purchase order for a large amount of money. He asked for my signature. I took out my pen and signed the purchase order. He asked, “Aren’t you going to grill me on this large purchase?” I answered, “Is this something we need?” He replied, “Yes.” I then asked, “Is this the right solution to our need?” He replied, “Yes.” I then asked, “Do you know what you are doing?” He answered, “Yes.” I then explained to him that I, too, thought he knew what he was doing. If he was not sure if this was the right solution, he could come to me with questions. But he had done the work and this was the right thing, so he never needed by permission to do the right thing— just my signature. I trusted first rather than treating him as if he had to first earn my trust. “Trust first” is optimistic. “Prove I can trust you” is pessimistic.

Pollyanna: We can also do larger things with ownership, but that sometimes takes a bit longer because we, as leaders, have to understand what needs to be owned, what results we need to achieve to help the organization achieve its goals. And if a team has not felt ownership before, their processes sometimes need to mature so that they can confidently own delivery.

Phil: When people talk of “command and control” I think of hierarchy and chains of command. Does your methodology envision a breaking down of these rigid organizations and creating a work environment that is flatter and more egalitarian?

Pollyanna and Niel: To our way of thinking, command and control can be hierarchical but can also be a state of mind and a team or organizational culture. And there can be command and control in a flat structure. If decision-making is tightly controlled by a hierarchy or a person, there is a command and control structure. If people are being told how to do their work, this is a command and control culture. If the supposed leader of a team tracks activities rather than results, this is a command and control culture.

On the other hand, there can be trust and ownership in a hierarchical structure. At first glance you might not agree, but if the hierarchical leaders focus their attention on the results the organization and team need to generate and not on how to generate those results, there is trust and ownership.

Phil: What does the trust-ownership model portend for the ways we work? Less meetings? More flexibility with schedules? What is the future of work in organizations based on trust and ownership?

Niel: Hmmm. It could be. In my leadership roles, we spend a lot less time in things like staff meetings and status reporting meetings. Why? The need is less because the entire focus of my leadership role is creating a culture of trust and helping people take ownership for results. I don’t need to know how they are getting their work done, just that the work is getting done. If the work is not getting done, I need to intervene. But, how do I intervene? In ways that do not take away their ownership.

In terms of schedule flexibility, I leave that to how each leader and organization wants to deal with it. In my roles, I tell my teams that I do not care when they work or where they work. All I care is that the works gets done. I then leave it to the teams to sort out how they will interact as there is no good replacement for close-quarters, face-to-face interaction. So, I let my teams figure out their own schedules and schedule flexibility.  But that does not work for everyone. In some cases, I and my teams had to earn such flexibility through improved delivery.

Phil: Trust is the expectation of future behavior and is usually based on what we call “reputation,” our perception of past behavior. What tools can leaders use to manage these perceptions and overcome reputational bias in future interactions?

Niel: This is a tough one, but it seems we have two choices. We can require people to earn our trust or we can trust them and, if they cannot be trusted, earn our distrust. We have made a conscious choice to take the second approach. Let me share a personal example. I had just started a new leadership role and was meeting with the company controller—the person who makes sure that I and my department don’t go over budget. The controller asked me what spending approval levels I wanted for the members of my staff. My personal approval level was $250,000. Had I taken the approach that my staff needed to earn my trust, I would have set their approval levels low—say around $10,000—so that I could monitor them and make sure they were not blowing their budgets. Instead, I asked the controller if I could set their approval levels at $250,000. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. He wanted to know why I wanted to do such a thing. I asked him if my newly inherited staff had built their own departmental budgets. Yes they had. Then they knew their budgets? Yes they did. Then they could manage their own budgets and expenses. But, he said, company policy would not allow them to have such high approval levels. And so I asked how high they could be without violating any policy. He hemmed and hawed a bit and said $100,000. I accepted that and told him we needed to work on the policy.

This might all sound like heresy but if we, as leaders, are engaged with our teams, it has never caused any problems. On the contrary, it we treat people as if we trust them, they behave as if we can trust them. We have rarely had anyone work for us who came to work bound and determined to do lousy work. The vast majority want to do great work, and so we figure we should let them do great work—once we define what constitutes great work so that they can own it.

Phil: What are the differences between leaders and managers in terms of the trust-ownership model?

Pollyanna: We are not smart enough to offer a treatise on the differences between leaders and managers. To our way of thinking, processes are managed and people are led. Our roles often include both leadership and management, but at its core, leadership is about getting people to want to move from where they are to a better place. Along the way, there are processes we manage. As leaders, we manage the processes that create a culture of trust and ownership. We focus our attention on improving these processes while helping people to want to get to a constantly improving culture of trust and ownership. At a lower level, there are leaders who manage the engineering process or the manufacturing process while leading people to improve those processes and getting to a better place with better results. And so it goes. But if someone is focused entirely on managing, they will fall short. Management does not get people to a better place—it tends to maintain the status quo. In our fast-paced world, no one can succeed by maintaining the status quo. So, we need to change what we do and transform ourselves into leaders (who also manage processes).

Phil: Good employees can choose where they work. This is especially true of software developers. They work on the things that are interesting and fulfilling. What is the impact of the trust-ownership model on the kind of employee an organization can hire and retain?

Pollyanna and Niel: We feel strongly that everyone, and the good employees in particular, want to do meaningful, interesting work. Nothing sucks the meaningful and interesting out of work than being micro-managed by persons and processes that command and control. Likewise, if the employees have a clear idea as to why their work is important—the difference it will make for the organization and its customers—the works becomes more meaningful and interesting. We suppose we are saying that trust / ownership is an approach that builds to interesting / fulfilling work.

Pollyanna: When people own a solution, they feel they are making a valuable contribution to the company where they work. It is no longer just doing what you are told. This is much more motivating and satisfying.

Phil: Embracing ambiguity seems like a tall order for most organizations. Ambiguity is uncomfortable. What are some tools leaders can use to build tolerance for ambiguity?

Pollyanna and Niel: As we mention in the book, one of the first steps is to recognize the reality that we are now immersed in ambiguity. If we are in a world that changes quickly, it is an ambiguous world. Technologies change, business models change, customer expectations change. And there is likely no way we can know how all of these will change. So just accept this reality and operate assuming ambiguity. In terms of tools, we encourage leaders to get good at experimentation. Try things at a small scale and then ramp up as uncertainty shrinks. At its core, practices such as Stage-Gate, minimum viable product (from Lean Start Up), agile, and lean teach us to start small, reduce ambiguity as we hit certain milestones, and then ramp up our investments as we cross proof points.

Pollyanna: Transparency on all progress can help. In the book, we introduce a tool called “Proactive Risk Management.” An important part of dealing with the risks associated with ambiguity is making visible the ambiguity and our progress in getting closer to certainty. This approach also asks that we stop making commitments until our risks have reached an acceptable level, a level the whole team collaboratively defines. 

Phil: Being honest with employees requires a great deal of them. Many managers buffer uncertainty in an effort to ensure that “production” doesn’t suffer. We’ve taken the factory model into the IT shop. How can managers prepare employees to be trusted with some of the truly frightening stuff that they might hear in a culture of trust?

Pollyanna and Niel: What ”truly frightening stuff”? What is truly frightening is making decisions and operating without all of the information and in the absence of the facts. If we commit to creating a culture of trust and ownership, we ourselves become transparent. There is certainly information about others that we robably should not share (for example, telling one person on my team the compensation of another member of my team) but what else should we withhold? If we want the entire team engaged, aligned and committed to the desired results, what benefit comes from being opaque or even translucent? Everyone should know the goals and why they matter. Everyone should know the issues we must resolve in order to progress. So, to finally answer your question, if we trust first, there is no need to prepare employees for the frightening stuff. In fact, it might be very important to share the truly frightening stuff with our employees—we need their help, their innovation and their motivation to find solutions. We have found that, in the absence of information, we humans assume the worst. If we know the facts, we, as a team and organization, can confront and deal with the reality. We do not believe that only leaders can or should deal with the frightening things.

Phil: The book suggests iterative methods as a tool for dealing with uncertainty. Yet iterative methods rarely yield big leaps. How do you get innovation when you’re iterating?

Pollyanna and Niel: We are not proposing that innovation comes through iterative methods. We believe that innovation comes through a collaboration process—independent of where the collaboration process comes into being. And sometimes an iteration might generate an innovative branch. What we are saying is that once you have used some type of collaborative process to generate an idea, use iterative methods to test the hypothesis of your innovation. 

If we come up with an amazing new product, there is a lot of uncertainty between the idea and the successful launch. We are proposing that iterative methods are the best current way to deal with that uncertainty. We might iterate on certain design features as we do early prototypes and get market feedback. We might iterate on the business model of the product. We might iterate on the target markets for the product. And so it goes. If, on the other hand, we were to come up with the great idea and immediately finalize our product, market, launch, and support plans, we would almost certainly be wrong.

Phil: I’ll be a lot of people on learning of these ideas will think, “This could work, except we’d have to get rid of John, Cathy, and Ted…” How can leaders and team members overcome the obstacles presented by recalcitrant coworkers?

Pollyanna and Niel: The only way to find out is to try the methods and see how John, Cathy, and Ted respond. Sometimes, one, two or all three of them will surprise you.

Niel: I once inherited a senior engineer who everyone warned would reject this trust / ownership approach to life. Once he got a taste of the experience, once I confirmed to him that I trusted him to do great work, he rose like a phoenix and ended up being one of our leaders. In parallel with that, I had another member of my staff who could not adjust to this culture and selected out of the organization.

Pollyanna: The people who will not thrive in a trust / ownership culture show themselves pretty quickly, and we have never believed that we should navigate around such people in leading our teams to a better place. Such people get uncomfortable all by themselves and either engage in the new culture or opt out. If they are the type to opt out, deal with them as best you can but don’t let them define the culture or wait for them to engage—there is too much great work out there to wait for the “anti-bodies” that seek to destroy—either passively or aggressively—trust and ownership.

In one chapter of the book, we spend quite a bit of time on how to collaborate with non-collaborators. In this chapter, we describe the possible “anti-body” behaviors—both inside and outside of your teams—and describe approaches we have used that have worked to change the situation. As an example, passive / aggressive people are the most difficult to work with, but you can wrap them in process and make sure the only step they can take is the one that leads towards trust and ownership.  

Phil: What’s one thing someone can do today that will help their team or organization move closer to energy and innovation?

Pollyanna and Niel: Start by assuming that this there is ambiguity in heading down the path to trust and ownership. And how do we best deal with ambiguity? By using iterative methods. So, take an agile approach to creating a culture of trust and ownership. You might want to start with some trust-ownership experiments. Pick a team or a project and try out the tools we describe in the book. Find a few influencers and influence them into brainstorming with you on how to increase trust and ownership. Worst case, start with yourself—what can you do to increase your trustworthiness? Your ownership for results? Be open and honest about how things are right now and how they might need to change.

Niel: I recently interviewed a candidate for a high-level role. I asked this candidate about his approach to leadership. He explained how he made sure that he had a detailed, intimate knowledge of everything every member of his team was doing. Somewhat flippantly, I said, “It sounds like you are something of a micro-manager.” With pride in his voice, he replied, “I prefer to call it micro-enablement.” If that is you, stop it and stop it right now! Transform how you think about your work.

Our job is to create a culture in which people succeed and thrive. A place where they want to work not have to work. What does that mean for you? Would you thrive and succeed in a place where you were never trusted and never felt ownership for results?

Pollyanna: At a personal level, one place to start is to stop giving answers. Once you have given someone the answer, you now have ownership of the solution. Ask questions that help teams and individuals discover their own solutions. One such questions is, “How do you want to solve it?” or “What do you want me to do?”

Pollyanna and Niel: Working and living in a culture of trust and ownership is incredible. We would not talk about or ask you to seek it if we did not know, personally, that it works. It does. Teams achieve amazing, sustained results in a culture of trust and ownership, so let’s stop talking and start building trust and ownership—we don’t have time to wait!

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