What are you leading?

Differences Between Classes of Leadership

What are the essential differences between the act of leading an initiative and the act of leading a staff, a team, or an organization.

Hypothesis: the differences center around the goal against which that leadership is expressed.

Leading work requires that you understand how to organize a specific volume of work or a stream of work through a fixed capacity organization.

The goal of leading work is to ensure that the body of work requested gets done as expected. This type of leadership requires some tactical compromise, some manipulation – as we say some “Yanking and Cranking”. The goal is the goal, directed by the authority who commissioned the work.

Leading people requires a broader understanding of organizational priorities, factors affecting demand, and the ability to assess talent and capacity of individuals and groups. Leading people requires an ability to forecast, and to grow the organization to meet increased demand.

The goal of leading people is to ensure that the capacity of the organization is sufficient to meet the demand(s) for work. It requires the ability to understand the forecast of demand when will the demand grow or shrink, but also the forecast of organizational capacity; how far in front of the demand do I need to be to be ready when it comes.

A third variety of leadership emerges:

Leading process or practice – It is a hybrid form, requiring a deep understanding of the relationship of the people to the work and the factors that make some people more or less effective than others. It also requires a deeper understanding of the work, and an ability to distill essential principles that increase effectiveness.

The goal of leading process or practice is to increase the effectiveness (probability of success in delivering product or service) of the larger organization across specific organizational units or bodies of work (neither project or team). This increased effectiveness has an impact of making the organization’s ability to accomplish work more predictable. This is valuable in that it provides a greater ability to manage customer expectations. This must also be constrained by the maintenance of a reasonable profit margin – that is being predictable cannot come at the cost of the bottom line.

I have thought about Leading change as a fourth type, but it shares goals with leading process and leading work. It does not have a goal that is distinct from these two. In reality, most leadership roles are amalgams of all of these types. I think that the goals embodied in these roles are often in conflict, so a single leader who is expected to do more than one of these, finds his own goals in conflict.

Expressing Leadership in Different Roles

From my experience leading application delivery teams, I recognize that different roles within a team can express leadership differently. An architect or tech lead role can lead from within the team by providing direction to the developers, and by proposing solutions to the unknowns in the technical space. A project manager or scrum master or other form of delivery leader can organize the work and express leadership by asking the questions about sequence, and helping to divide the work reasonably among the team members. A product manager or requirements specialist can express leadership by focusing the team on the value that is being delivered, and by negotiating with the customer when the value and risk aspects of the project recommend different sequences of value delivery.

Common Trait and Problem of Leadership

The leaders have one thing in common, they can “see ahead” and envision difficulties that the team will encounter on their path, and steer around them, or prepare the team for the challenge. They can also be a focus point for decision making, without becoming a bottleneck for the team. When a leader become a bottleneck, they have reached their capacity and additional leadership must be added to the team, otherwise, the pace will deteriorate behind the bottleneck – so some members will get ahead, and others will be stuck waiting for the leader. This problem is exacerbated by resources that are incompetent for the level of work they must deliver, as they demand more of the leaders time and energy.

Pitfall for Developing Leaders

Sometimes budding leaders fall into the trap of having the team come to them for everything. They feel the need to control the teams output as if it were their own, and if it isn’t the way they would do it, it isn’t right. Most times, a leader must be coached through this tendency and learn to delegate or they will not scale their leadership effectively. They think of leadership as telling, rather than asking. I spend a lot of time mentoring younger leaders who burn themselves out and get frustrated because they start out like this.

Application To Staffing Strategy and Organization Design

When you are thinking about the leadership structure of your organization you want to think about these three aspects of leadership.  You can choose to delegate responsibility for defining, planning and pushing work forward.  Does the person to whom this responsibility is delegated also have decision rights over staffing – is that person responsible for forming the team?  For hiring staff?  How many initiatives need to run concurrently, how many initiatives can one leader direct?  Is there other leadership talent within the team that the main leader can delegate to?

Who does your overall staff plan and forecast?  Hiring and team assignments?  What relationship is that person the the person running the work?  Same person?  Manager of that person?  Peer of that person?  Dotted Line?  How will those two people collaborate to work through staff and capacity issues?

Who is responsible for building your practices/processes?  Who is responsible for technical architecture?  Who leads the design process for your team(s)?  Is it a team member?  Is that per initiative or across many initiatives?  What about project management process?  Is it ad hoc?  Per initiative?  Each work leader can define their own?  Or is there some common process that your organization follows?  Who keeps the work leaders accountable for following the common process?  Who is responsible for improving the common process?  What is this person’s relationship to the work leaders?  Boss?  Dotted line?  Peer?  What decision rights do work leaders have to short cut practice standards?

If the decision rights are not clearly delegated, by default you have all the decision rights.  But the leaders who work for you will take liberties and make decisions in the name of getting things done.  They will come and get forgiveness rather than permission.  They will feel guilty about usurping your decision rights, but they will fear what will happen if no decision is made.  You are not available enough to make all the decisions that you have not delegated rights to make.  Projects will fail, practices will bog down, staff positions will be empty.  Or everyone will do what seems right in their own eyes, and the boss lays on you the iniquity of them all.

What I am implying is that if you don’t define the leadership structure, it will ultimately define itself, for better or worse.  Your boss will still hold you accountable for the results.  This is the lowest basis of staffing strategy, if management doesn’t have a plan in place, it simply flows down hill, until the lowest level leaders, fearing that they will be blamed for failure,simply do what needs to be done to be successful, and if your lucky, they will save your bacon. No middle manager will admit that that is how it works, but in reality, some of the time, that is the way it works.

No Comments

Leave a Reply