Take the Bread Out of the Oven or Watch It Burn


Imagine you're hosting friends at a dinner party and you leave the kitchen to answer the door. Meanwhile, the oven timer goes off while the bread is baking. Do your guests take the bread out of the oven, or do they sit there and watch it burn? This question is a metaphor for leading people, especially in a remote context. To succeed, leaders and high-functioning teams must form a symbiotic relationship. Leading without collaboration is like a wheel with a hub and spokes. The leader sits in the middle and interacts with various people (the spokes) independently. The spokes don't interact. Any new message or direction has to come from the hub. This can be exhausting and time consuming for the leader. To make things even worse: It doesn't scale.

On the other hand, a group of people or collection of teams that are collaborating without leadership have a different set of problems. They can fiercely collaborate. Or run swiftly in any direction they choose. Thus, the dilemma for the absent leader - Yes, there is energy and passion. But without common goals and direction, a lot of waste is created.

In essence: Leadership without collaboration doesn't scale. Collaboration without leadership is wasteful.

So how do we create engagement to the extent that remote people and teams are able to lead themselves when needed? In the book “Host”, Mark Mckergow explains that the concept of leadership is very similar to the dinner party example. The leader is the host, and the teams her guests. The host doesn't boss the guests around. The guests know why they've gathered and the host has set expectations for what will happen. Everyone knows how to interact and behave in the context of the event. They've chosen to attend. Thus, when the bread starts to burn, no one says "It's not my job to take the bread out of the oven, it's the host’s". They jump into action and solve the problem. Without being asked. Without the leader being in the room. Alistair Cockburn refers to this behavior as  "guest leadership".

Striking a balance between leadership and collaboration, especially when the teams are remote, can be addressed with a simple recipe:

  • Let people know what is expected of them

  • Give them a framework to base discussions and decisions

  • Visualize and communicate everything that is important

Commander's Intent

In the mid 19th century Helmuth Von Moltke famously stated: "No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy".  150+ years later that statement still resonates and over time this notion has been condensed to a more palatable "No plan survives contact with the enemy". Some have reduced it even further to a basal motto: "S*** happens". Thus, the military devised the concept of "Commander's Intent". You can make a battle plan to capture a bridge. The overall objective (Commander's Intent) is to take that bridge. Often when teams execute the mission things don't happen like they were drawn up in the war room. Things can change quickly. The mission is in progress and teams don't have time to phone home and ask for updated plans. Commander's Intent lays out the overarching purpose for our mission: "Take the bridge. Here's a plan. Maybe it will help. If the plan fails, figure out another way. We trust you and you're empowered to make decisions based on the feedback you experience".

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a framework that can be used as the "Commander's Intent" of any organization. In short, OKRs are a way to define and track Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG). OKRs lay out what needs to be done, the steps to do it, and how to measure the outcome. People and teams lay out a few objectives that they want to achieve (BHAG), and then define the key results (usually number based or boolean) that will inform the success of the objective. All OKRs are visible to everyone; therefore it is also a great way to provide alignment and visibility across entire organizations.

Contrary to some other goal setting methods, OKRs encourage people to be audacious and stretch beyond what may seem capable. By potentially "biting off more than you can chew" it ensures that the most important things get done, and gives people direction and milestones should one or more objectives stall. As a result, when scoring OKRs at the end of the timebox (Usually a quarter) the target range of success is about 60%. If you get 100% of what you set out to do, the bar was too low. If you get 20% of what you set out to do, there is fertile ground to retrospect and learn what went wrong.

Basically we use OKRs to describe what success looks like. We encourage people to be creative and take steps to reach this pinnacle. OKRs ensure that the most important and relevant items bubble to the top. They are Commander's Intent for the business. They are objectives that people are aware of even if the leader is not in the room. "Take the bridge. You are empowered to do what needs to be done. Let others know where you are going, what goes well, and what you learn."

Foul Balls and Spectacular Saves

To balance leadership and collaboration it is critical to have a common footing that people can use to make decisions, navigate conflict, and benchmark successes. Frederic Laloux's "Reinventing Organizations" provides a case study on Buurtzorg, a neighborhood nursing company based in The Netherlands. They provide home-care nursing to people in a low-cost, high quality manner. There is no hierarchical  management structure. Although the teams are distributed and autonomous they do have one thing in common: Buurtzorg trains each new member in a specific method of decision making. It's a democratic method that involves consensus and not necessarily unanimity. So the teams may operate very differently but every member has a commonality: They all agree on the principles that inform decision-making. Teams and people are still empowered to solve problems as they see fit, just as long as the group decision making progress is followed.

Ailstair Cockburn's Heart of Agile is another example of providing a framework that teams use to make decisions and improve their collaboration. It is elegant in its simplicity, consisting of only 4 words: Deliver, Improve, Collaborate, Reflect.  Organizations that adopt the Heart of Agile coach their leaders and teams in these four areas.

Each of those areas requires complex skills and mindsets to master. For instance, instead of asking teams to "get better", we're asking them to get better at delivery and all that may entail:

  • Are we managing expectations?
  • Are we producing something that is high quality?
  • Is it being built as quickly as it could be?
  • Is it solving the right problem?
  • Etc. etc. etc.

The Heart of Agile provides a basis for conversations; a template for collaboration and continual improvement.

The sports of baseball and cricket are in some ways similar and in other ways quite different. In both, batters hit balls with bats. Both have runners. However, in cricket the batter plays in the middle of the field and the 'fence' is 360 degrees around him. So it is a perfectly fine thing for the batter to 'swing for the fences' and hit the ball directly behind him as far as he can. In baseball that would be considered a foul ball and a wasted opportunity. When leading teams you need to let them know what the boundaries are and what constitutes a great play. Once they know the rules of the sport, they can determine on their own what is out of bounds, what makes a great save, and what needs to happen to "knock it out of the park".  

Virtuous Metrics

The purpose of any metric should be to show what's important and how close we are to achieving it. Metrics are not intended to be weaponized or used as tools of destruction and dehumanization. Metrics should be beneficial in some way, regardless of the outcome. Adam Weisbart describes these as virtuous metrics. They help create positive behaviors and generate positive results. They can also show us exactly where we went wrong so we can correct it and prevent it happening in the future.

On top of that, people by their very nature seek ways to game the system. Whether you call that efficiency, or pragmatism, or lazy, the fact remains that it's happening in your organization right now. Virtuous metrics can be designed in such a way that gaming the system actually helps you achieve your goals.

Here's an example to illustrate the difference:

Weaponized goal: Increase the number of project hours completed.

  • Gamed reaction: Team inflates estimates to make numbers appear to grow. Managers demand longer hours and overtime. People do work for a project that isn't necessarily prioritized or valuable.

  • Result: Quality can decrease, team morale can suffer, waste may be introduced into a project simply to pad the numbers.

Virtuous goal: increase the number of useful features delivered to a customer every 2 weeks

  • Gamed reaction: Team starts writing smaller features to increase the feature count. Team interacts with customers to figure out which ones are useful. Team avoids wasteful distractions.

  • Result: When team creates smaller features they are reducing complexity, increasing collaboration, interacting with stakeholders, iterating quicker, and minimizing distractions. Even the gamed results generate positive outcomes.

Virtuous metrics show your people what is important. They are the visualization of our Commander's Intent, our OKRs, our behavioral and predictive trends. Visuals that show trends and predictive outcomes are much more valuable than vanity metrics that appear to make something look good when it actually serves no benefit to the business. Another thing to keep in mind with metrics - If everything is important, nothing is important. Having a slew of different charts and graphs doesn't mean we're better prepared. More isn't necessarily better. Show what’s important on a dashboard and make it visible and accessible to everyone. There's an old adage about teaching a man to fish. With people working in a remote context there will be a time when a decision needs to be made and the leader isn't available. Use a dashboard so decisions can be made while others are asleep.  

Make People Awesome

Middle school geometry tells us what happens when 2 lines extend into space. If they are even one degree off from each other, their endpoints end up being infinitely far apart. Great leaders create environments where people collaborate and solve challenging problems. Collaborative people generate ideas and foster a sense of guest leadership. Again, this recipe for “making people awesome” is a great way to foster leadership and collaboration, especially in a distributed context:

  • Make sure people know where the business is going and what is expected of them to help it succeed

  • Give them tools and a framework to measure progress and demonstrate successes

  • Visualize what is important in a way that anyone can see where things stand at any time

Along the way, reinforce the importance of these concepts with a relentless collection of feedback loops. Fostering guest leadership helps your business avoid leadership vacuums. This, in turn, helps ensure that you have leadership and direction throughout the organization, regardless of where people sit.  


Homework / Further Reading

Book: Host, by Mark Mckergow

Book: Reinventing Organizations, by Frederic Laloux

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

Commander’s Intent

Heart of Agile

Modern Agile Framework