Leading Self-Organizing Teams

Having trouble getting your self-organized, self-directed teams to be productive? I recently was in a leadership workshop where they provided this very handy reference of typical personality traits that influence one’s leadership and communication style. Unlike other personality evaluation tools, this one does not require a lengthy test…just keen observation.

Using this model you can evaluated someone’s behavior along 4 dimensions: 

  1. Asking vs. Telling. The way they form statements. Are they asking a question to obtain more information? Or are they telling you how they think “we” should proceed.
  2. Task Orientation vs People Focused. Are they oriented more towards getting the particular task at hand completed? Or, are they more consensus driven?

If you are experiencing some strife on your team, it might help to take a moment to observe the interactions between your team members by using this rubric which enables you to readily diagnose the dynamics in play.

Perhaps, what is really happening is that the team doesn’t understand the personalities at play and moreover, doesn’t have this framework to help them gain a level of group and self-awareness that can help them work it out.

For example, imagine the situation of Paula – the Expressive – who has a clear vision and has a great idea for a new product feature.

In the next team meeting, Paula stands up (off agenda) and starts to share this exciting new idea with her team. Mary (an Amiable) tacitly likes the idea, but really thinks that the team should weigh in. Phil (an Analytical) likes the concept, but he didn’t know anything about it before the meeting and needs a bit more data before he can sign on. John, The Driver, has some concerns about the financial model. The meeting adjourns and Paula is left feeling that no one was really responding to her leadership. She is upset and starts questioning whether she belongs at this company.

The sad part is that Paula really DOES belong at this company because of her background and unique skill set. The problem is that Paula isn’t picking up on some critical queues that will help her be more successful.   Seeking some clarity about how she fits in, she arranges to meet up with her boss, Hao the Scrum Master in the morning.

During their meeting, Paula relates to Hao what happened the day before.

“Hao, I don’t understand, I had finally solved what our client needed. I knew exactly what we needed to build in the next release and no one would listen to me. I feel like my ideas are just not welcome here.”

Hao takes Paula through the Leadership and Communication Style framework.

“Paula. You are what we call an Expressive. You have a keen sense of vision. You quickly get to what the customer needs and wants and are really good at communicating that vision. But, this also means you really get discouraged when your ideas aren’t accepted right out of the gate.  You take it personally.  

But, let’s take a look at the rest of the team and see where they fall. You met with Mary, our Product Owner, John our Project Manager and Phil, our Solution Architect. Mary has been burned by one too many projects and now won’t move unless she sees that Phil is on-board and has enough data to proceed with his code. She’s what I call the “All-Hands-On-The-Murder-Weapon” type. She needs to know that everyone is on-board before she will spend her time digging into the requirements and working with the business to detail out the storyboards.

John, our Project Manager is, more of a Driver. He just likes getting things done. But, he’s also responsible for the budget, so he needs to balance whatever we need to do with whatever we can afford to do.

Paula, I think you should take another pass. But this time, try it this way…”

Hao walks Paula through the various personalities on the team and explains to Paula how he would have approached the same situation.

The next day, Paula schedules a meeting with Phil. Instead of telling Phil what he needs to do, she prefaces the conversation with “Hey Phil, this idea that I presented the other day, I’d like to review it with you and see what your thoughts are….”

Phil really listens intently and immediately his mind is a flurry of questions about the viability of the solution. Together they whiteboard out how the function will work and discuss some of the inter-dependencies architecture wise. By the time the meeting is over, Phil is really excited about this new capability and can’t wait to get started. Success!

Paula’s next step is to take this solidified vision and review it with John who really likes the level of detail, but asks a few questions about the rationale and financial justification. Luckily, Paula – knowing now that John is a Driver – came prepared with some preliminary financial models that she was ready to review. John made some minor tweaks, but signaled that he was good to go.

Now it’s time for the meeting with Mary. For this meeting, Paula has invited both Phil and John. Paula has prepared a few slides that outline the vision, the rationale, the budget, the technical details and the high-level objectives for the development of this feature.

Mary looks to her buddy Phil who says, “Yup, this is a good idea.”

Phil looks to John and says, “Hey John, are you good with this?”

“Absolutely!” says John.

Mary takes a moment to review and says, “Well, if everyone is aligned I am good with this! Let’s go! Hey Paula, this is awesome! Great job!”

Wooh! Ok. That might have taken Paula a few more cycles than she wanted, but she really enjoyed the accolades for a job well done!

On any given team, having a strong presence of all these personality traits can be critical to your team’s success. Each personality trait is constantly at play. Helping your team have a higher degree of awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of their communication and leadership styles can potentially smooth over any consternation in your team’s dynamic.   That’s not to say that the hard edge of an Expressive or the analysis paralysis tendency of an Analytical will go away. But, understanding why someone is acting a certain away may help them find another way to communicate or derive a more successful strategy.  The alternative is team strife, which leads to retention issues and really smart people leaving the company.  We want to avoid that! 

One final note: In moments of stress, it is common to find people retreating to the anti-case of their dominant tendency. A frustrated Analytical may edge more towards a Driver for the selfish need to get to a point where they can retreat back to the structure they need. Expressive may retreat toward Amiable so they can ensure the idea they throw out results in the acceptance they need to feel good about themselves. This is natural and even more reason to use this framework to diagnose what might be bringing your team down. It may be that over-compensation is occurring or some external factor needs to be dealt with. The responsibility for resolving this ultimately is going to fall on the Scrum Master or the product owner. If left unresolved, especially in the agile world of self-organized teams, you might find some team change requests at the end of the sprint. It will be the wise (and successful) Scrum Master who recognizes personality clashes and helps the team gain a higher state of enlightenment, which ultimately leads to the zen of higher productivity and continuous innovation.

This rubric is by no means perfect, but I have found it to be a very valuable tool.

Check it out and send me your feedback. Let me know what works and doesn’t work and how you might tweak the way it is used. And, I hope you find your zen or chi or whatever the heck it is we are supposed to try and find.

Jonathan P. Goldstein, PMP
McKinney, TX