Sep 242007

After studying human organizations for more than four decades, organizational learning guru Chris Argyris accurately, if not cynically noted that organizational problems show up worldwide. All cultures create similar dysfunctional organizations. He further notes that the failure for organizations to perform and learn isn’t just an organizational problem, but also an individual problem. In order to develop more effective teams, we have to develop more effective individuals. Individual and group dynamics are intertwined. One cannot fix the group problems without fixing the individual problems.

Jim Highsmith hit a nerve when he wrote “no more self-organizing teams.” From Argyris’ perspective, he was also correct. Without individuals deeply aware of how and why teams become dysfunctional, left to their own devices, individuals will knit together predictably dysfunctional teams.

Leadership involves much more than knowing the difference between delegation and totalitarianism, between a light touch and a heavy hand, between command-control and leadership-collaboration, between anarchy and order. Leadership is about being adaptable — being able to adopt any style depending on the situation. Leaders must be acutely attuned to the symptoms of a dysfunctional team. And above all else, leaders must be aware of when they are part of the problem and capable of adjusting themselves. Argyris has pointed out over and over how leaders, even good ones, are often totally unaware of when their behaviors create the very problems they seek to avoid. Argyris called this “skilled incompetence.” Effective leadership isn’t hard, it’s damned hard.

What this means is that the number one killer of teams is team leadership. And that most leaders will eventually fall into the same traps unless they become acutely aware of their skilled incompetence.

And what leadership behaviors can cause problems? According to Argyris, those would be behaviors motivated by success, avoiding pain, protecting others, being rational, suppressing negative feelings and achieving goals. And what behaviors can avoid problems? Behavior motivated by a desire for valid information, team commitment to a choice, free and informed choice, sharing control, participatory design and implementation of action.

Agile methods have helped. They contain within them patterns of human activity that promote sharing of information, effective feedback loops and more opportunities for teams to face hard truths and multilaterally adjust appropriately. It isn’t enough for leaders to implement agile methods, or to empower others, or to delegate, or to use a light touch, or to advocate, persuade or motivate. Good leaders must know when their own behaviors can cause problems. Since leadership is damned hard, those of us who are good leaders, will at some point fall into bad leadership behaviors — all in pursuit of noble goals.

Certainly we need better leaders. But more specifically we need leaders that possess self-awareness. Leaders with self awareness will predictably knit together self-correcting and by definition, more agile teams. Self organizing teams are often merely lucky.


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