Trust, Ownership, and Vision: Necessary Conditions for Great Team Performance

white-water-11272128Three rivers – Trust, Ownership, and Vision – flow and converge into a confluence that helps create the necessary conditions for high performance, self-managing teams. Teams that adapt quickly to what their customers want. Teams that deliver great business value at a sustainable pace. Teams that are filled with happy people.

It doesn’t matter the industry, the geographic location or the organization’s size. And if you’re in software development field like me, it makes no difference which methodology / framework your team is using: XP, Scrum, Kanban, Scrumbut, Scrumban, Kanfall or some agile invention of your own “new thing.”

Sure the waters can be choppy and the currents unpredictable at times. But one thing is certain: Disrupt any of the three flows and look out:  the crew will start thinking about mutiny or abandoning ship, or if they stay onboard the boat will run aground on one of two shallows: command_control or anarchy_chaos …

odysseus-sirensBeware the Twin Sirens:  Command and Control

Why is it that so often the biggest challenge for leaders is to move away from command and control?

As Ricardo Semler asks in his book The Seven-Day Weekend,

If you don’t trust the people on your team, why are they on your team? For that matter, why are they in your organization?

I think there’s another aspect to the issue: many of the difficulties leaders face with the paradigm shift required by high performance self-managing teams results from the fact that the leader can no longer play the role of “the hero with all the answers.”

Or as Edgar Schein puts it in his great book Humble Inquiry

Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction, and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask.

To overcome this trap, leaders must choose to “give away their power.” They have to learn to ask the right questions instead of telling folks what to do. And in passing control and ownership they multiply greatly the potential of their organization – provided they can articulate a clear vision. Yes, it can be a huge leap of faith into the rapids. Yet it can mean the difference between success and failure.

The leader who doesn’t provide trust and ownership, at both the individual- and team-level, pushing decision making closer and closer to those who can “take action,” creating leaders at every level instead of forging followers will never achieve the greatness that can come from the power provided by the combination of trust, ownership and vision.

Trust Trumps Everything

I believe that trust – which will be the focus of this post – has the biggest influence the journey of talented teams. (I plan on covering ownership and vision in the future.)

I’m not alone on the importance of this factor: as Stephen M.R. Covey says in his book, The Speed of Trust,

It [trust] is the one thing that changes everything. If you promote a high-trust environment where you have capable people who do what they say they are going to do, in my experience, anything is possible. If there is not a high-trust environment in place, virtually everything, including the most mundane activities, can feel like an ordeal for the group and impede progress. Over time, I have found that trust, based on competence and character, trumps all other attributes.

How Filled with Trust is Your Organization?

I’ve observed that the lack of trust in organizations manifests itself by the presence of a multitude of artifacts:

  • Deadlines, forced commitments – (instead of targets or goals)
  • Roadmaps by leadership by dictate, created but hardly ever updated – (instead of vision, inspect and adapt)
  • Waterfall over the wall / It’s not my job / us and them / barriers – (instead of collaboration, cross functionality)
  • Individual KPI’s or individual performance metrics / rewards / bonuses / metrics imposed from above – (instead of team selected accountability systems)
  • Manager/subordinate performance reviews, stacked ranking – (instead of 360’s / team and peer reviews)
  • Small “Inner Circle” of governance / information / lack of vulnerability in “leadership” – (instead of transparency, and an extended circle of safety to the “outer edges” of the organization)
  • Focus on performance by numbers, MBO – (instead of people first – inner work life, team happiness/morale, OKR’s)
  • Lack of mutual respect / leadership replying on “authority” / back channel communications / Disengaged workforce / just tell me what to do, I will comply – (instead of individuals and teams giving it their all)

Observations on the existence of the above are generally qualitative. For the quants, there’s a nice two-part assessment that an organization can conduct. It comes from Pollyanna Pixton’s book Agile Culture

Assessment Part 1: Leadership

The first part of Pixton’s survey gets to the root of what leadership trusts their team to “own.”

The prompt is: As a leader, indicate a score between 1 and 10 which response best reflects where you are for each row in the table:

Low (1-3) Medium (4-7) High (8-10) Score
I trust no one on my team. I trust some of my team. I trust my entire team.
I require that everything must be defined before the team can do anything. The big things, such as cost, schedule, and scope, must be defined before the team can do anything. I honestly accept and allow genuine ambiguity and uncertainty from my team.
My team cannot take risks without my approval. I let my team take risks – but only when the risks are low. I encourage my team to take risks in order to deliver value more effectively.
My Average Score (total / 3)

Results: Average the results across all leaders. This will tell where leadership believes it is on the Scale of Trust (max = 10)

Assessment Part 2: Team Members

The second prompt is for the team members – and gets to the roots of how they feel about the level of trust coming from their leader and the organization.

Prompt: As a team member, indicate a score between 1 and 10 that best reflects how you feel about each row.

Low (1-3) Medium (4-7) High (8-10) Score
 I have to get permission to do anything. Managers and processes sometimes get in my way. I am trusted to do my work.
 I am told what to do and how to do it. I can sometimes find my own solution. I am trusted to always be able to find my own solution.
 If I don’t do things the approved way, I am at risk. There are certain low-risk things I can do. I can take chances without feeling at risk.
 I always must give the organization exact numbers. I sometime can tell the organization when I am uncertain. I can honestly tell the organization when I am uncertain without risk.
My Average Score (total / 4)

Results: Average the scores across all team members.  This will tell where the team thinks it is on the Scale of Trust. (Max = 10)

What is Revealed?

  1. Compare the leadership and the team member overall average trust scores. Is there a gap? (If leadership and team scores are identical, congrats! Everyone shares the same view!)
  2. How close to “10″ are things? Could the organization move everything up a notch or two…? (You’re all at 10? Sweet. How’d you get there? Share the secret sauce, please)

Gaps on either consideration typically indicate a cultural problem. Big gaps are likely to change only with powerful allies from high up in an organization. While leaders at all levels can influence an organization’s culture, it is the “top of the organization” whose behavior contributes the loudest. With small gaps it will likely be easier to move towards a space of increasing trust, honesty and openness.

Where to Point the Boat

Well here’s a fine dilemma: if there are any gaps at all (team view vs leader view, or overall levels):

  • How can folks have a open discussion to bring to light causes for conflict that center around trust?
  • How can leaders and team members develop a shared understanding of their expectations around trust?
  • How can anyone generate new practices and agreements regarding trust?

First the good news: there are tools and exercises that can help guide the way –  by enabling teams to paint a picture of what “Trust” really means to them.

Now the bad news: You can’t magically change things overnight.  It will take time and work. Everyone will learn as they travel on the journey.

Start with Understanding What Trust Means to the Team

Alexey Pikulev has run numerous divergent exercises over the years with agile teams to explore elements that influence trust. He has identified the most frequently occurring themes:



Painting the Picture

Pikulev has put the above themes together in the form of a “canvas” that teams can use to paint a portrait what trust means to them:

team trust canvas

To get started, participants add items to each theme. A team can fill out of the canvas in a couple of different ways:

  • Silent brainstorming on all the themes
  • Rotating flip charts, one group per theme

I’d like to overlay two suggestions to Alexey’s approach. The first overlay comes by way of Jurgen Appelo and his ideas from Management 3.0: as the team is filling out the canvas with specific items in each theme, participants consider four discrete aspects or layers for each of the themes:

  1. Trust from leader(s) to the team (Part 1 assessment “measures” this)
  2. Trust from the team to leaders (Part 2 assessment )
  3. Trust between team members
  4. Trust in oneself

The other overlay I’d like to add is that participants label each item with “+” or “-“ thus creating a force field analysis where “+” indicates driving factors (catalysts/nourishers) and “-” marks items considered restraining factors (toxins/detractors) in regard to trust.

Once the canvas or flip charts have been populated with ideas, the team groups like items, dedupes ‘em, etc. (convergence).  They then run a voting/ranking exercise on two characteristics:

  • Importance: Rank the relative importance of each converged item via dot voting
  • Influence: Rank the team’s ability to impact a change in each converged item

At this point the team will have constructed a pretty clear image of what they mean by “Trust”:

  • Things that add to trust and those that take it away.
  • What’s important collectively to creating trust
  • What the team feels is within their current sphere of influence to change. And what lives outside their control.

Avoiding Scylla and Charybdis

scylla-and-charybdis-bookpalaceWhat picture emerges? Are underlying reasons for any gaps now clear? Gaps between leaders and team members … Between team members themselves. Have areas of current or future conflict reared their heads?

In the light of the assessment (which shows where things currently are) and the canvas which shows where things could be (if only we enhance the catalysts/nourishers and reduced the toxins/detractors) what are possible next-action items?

If there are important issues that the team feels they currently have little or no ability to impact change, what might they propose? With whom would they need to consult or seek advice from?

Explore all of these thru the lenses of “start, stop, continue” or “keep, add, less, more” (or any other retrospective technique.)

And then make changes in small steps. Ensure continuous feedback. Inspect and adapt.

In short, go krusing the agile way … and you’ll make it past all the treacheries without loosing any crew.

The End Result: Delighting All the Peoples

The right kind of organizational and team environment – filled with mutual and ever-growing trust at all levels – creates a flow of energy and innovation. One that can respond quickly to changing currents and obstacles. One that delivers delight not only to an organization’s customers but to all members of the company as well. It will be a productive and joyful journey. One where everyone knows and owns the results of their efforts. And that is the promise of truly being agile.

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