Einstein said “insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. If this is true, then I must be insane at times. I also wonder given this definition, how many others around me are insane given I see leaders leading the same way and expecting a different result from teams. 

Falling into my old habits

Recently, a client of my had a team running into significant challenges. By the time the client talked to me about this team, I would say the team was in the midst of a crisis. It wasn’t a real crisis, though, rather one manufactured by the organisation (i.e.,. it’s not as if lives were at stake). The details of what was going on for the team are not relevant here. Instead, it’s my actions I want to explore.

As things started to heat up for this team, I was asked to step in and help this team cross the finish line. To help the team build a baseline product they can get out the door. Helping the team do this would require digging into the details of creating a software product and leading them towards getting it delivered on time. If you’re wondering if I have the ability to do that; yes, I do. Do I want to do this work anymore? Nope!

So what did I do? At that moment, I thought the right thing to do was to compromise and do the thing the client wants, even though I don’t want to be working in this way any longer. So I agreed and started to dig in. Here’s where things get interesting. 

Suddenly, I came to realise how I was compromising what is important to me. I was falling into an old habit of mine, and just doing what I’m being asked to do out of some need to please someone. Wanting to be seen as helpful, or a team player, or whatever it is that was driving me. Perhaps it’s about wanting to be seen as helpful.

Whatever it is, I just know this is an old habit which doesn’t serve me anymore. I’m not sure it ever served me, I just didn’t see it back then. I can now see when I get into such habits; it’s hard to be in a mindset of responsibility. I’m more likely to fall into some other mindset which has me acting out of compliance rather than purpose or growth.

Acting from a mindset other than Responsibility means I’m going to go through the motions of working with this team, without caring about creating a great outcome. For example, a typical mindset for me to fall into in similar situations is obligation. Given the nature of the mindset of obligation, I am highly likely to find myself in the mindset of quit. In quit, I am highly likely to accept weak results from the team as perhaps “that’s the best they can hope for”, or “what choice do we have but to go through the motions.”  

When you get right down to it, the unintended consequence of falling into this habit of compromise, is I’ve also come to see I was quickly starting to blend into the fabric of this organisation. I was beginning to be seen as one of their leaders, and starting even to see myself in that way. While that may sound good, the problem is as I become increasingly a part of the fabric my effectiveness as an agent of change becomes diminished. 

Thankful for friends

I was talking with a friend shortly after I fell into this old habit. She noticed I was feeling somewhat lacklustre, as I was explaining that something wasn’t right about the engagement I’m on. I told her numerous things, one of which is I don’t care about helping teams create software, and yet that is what I was doing. I do care about helping teams be a great team, but just don’t care about what it takes to build great software. 

Her response was simple; “WTF?!? If you don’t care about helping them build great software, then why are you doing that work?!?”  Which was her way of telling me to just “Stop it!”  

(Note: for those reading this wondering if I’m bailing from the Agile community the answer is “no”. I am going to focus on Leadership and people matters, which for the purpose of building great software, is only part of a complete picture. I’m going to allow people who are good at and want to create software take care of this space.)

Why do I keep doing these things?

I have spent a lifetime building and strengthening my habits much like strengthening muscles. It means I can flex these habits without even thinking about what I’m doing. Like everyone, I have many well-developed habits, and when I see them clearly, I have the opportunity to choose whether I want to keep doing them. To change a habit though means starting to work a different habit much like working on a different muscle. Over time I know I can build strength in that new muscle which makes it the new habit.

To change a habit though means starting to work a different habit much like working on a different muscle. Over time I know I can build strength in that new muscle which makes it the new habit.

When you put me under pressure, there’s a chance I’m going to respond without thinking. Without thinking, it means I’m more likely to use the better-developed muscle, even though I don’t want to. The new muscle I’m building isn’t strong enough to be the automatic response yet. Responding is an unconscious thought as it’s what I know best. 

With time and conscious choice, I know I can change my old habits into habits I want to have.

Leading for Change

As a leader in the world, it is important for you to see your own habits as well. Most corporate leaders are taught through conformity that they need to have all the answers. Corporate leaders often see their role as providing direction on what to do and when to do it. At times this can devolve into meddling with teams by providing command and control style management, in particular at times of crisis. 

Then at some point, often, leaders come to realise their command and control management style is a problem. It’s not allowing the teams to act from a mindset of responsibility. Leaders come to understand they need to create an environment to enable their teams to own and deliver great outcomes. I often see this realisation show up as a part of a larger initiative to improve the results of the organisation. So the leaders start to change their habits, moving away from command and control and  trying to do the right thing for their teams. 

Then at some point, the pressure will increase, and they will revert to old habits. They start to act from a place of believing they have all the right answers, and that they need to tell the teams what to do through command and control management styles. 

If you find yourself doing this, please stop it and ask yourself. If these management stances were not allowing the teams to produce the outcome you wanted in the past, then why do you think it’s a good idea to do them now? According to Einstein, that’s insane!

See it then choose

So you fall into old habits. Welcome to what it means to be human. Just notice that you’ve done it and what brought you to this place again. Then, choose how you will move forward from here. The cool part is leaders do not need to have all the answers. The truth is the people who you lead, and who do the work know the work better than you do (that’s a different topic). 

So as a leader, why not create an environment which makes it possible for them to be awesome? 

Throughout this post, I’ve talked about mindsets such as Responsibility and Obligation. If you want to learn more about these and other mindsets, I suggest you visit http://ChristopherAvery.com

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