Agile leadership as a team sport

In my previous post, I alluded to the idea that I prefer thinking of teams rather than individuals when it comes to work. I strongly believe that a team, even if it is just two individuals, is stronger than the individual. I also believe that diversity in a team is great for innovation, but not necessarily for performance.

The concept is familiar to many people in business, whereby you create additional value at various stages in a process. Leadership can be seen as a process and the more places that can create value in the process the better. Or is it? With small teams this will hold true. Each individual in the team should have some say in the direction of the leadership. They should feel comfortable inputting their opinions into the direction of the leadership for the team and thereby creating value. There is of-course the leader that would have final say over everyone’s opinions. He is also crucial in fostering the environment whereby the team members feel comfortable enough to share their opinions, without reprimand.

This starts becoming increasingly difficult the more people you add into the mix. This is not related to complexity or “too many hands in the pie”. It has to do with how poor in general our communication is, as human beings. We find it difficult to communicate effectively with our spouses, children, boss’s, friends, etc. Those are generally one-on-one communication channels. When you start adding more team members, the amount of communication increases. This has the effect of increasing time to make decisions, difficulty in keeping everyone happy, too much information to filter through, many stakeholders can make things considerably more complex. I stand firmly that it is not really the complexity that breaks the process but more to do with the break down in communication.

Even if you were to get this right for large teams, I wonder how much value can be created with further additional members. The value created is obviously diminishing. Otherwise we would have infinitely increased team size to add value to projects. So what is the optimal structure and size? I would rather leave that question to debate than try answer it here.

In practice I have seen this approach to be extremely effective. My MBA syndicate group consists of 7 members. According to our insight profiles we are each in a different pie slice, except for two of us. We are therefore a rather diverse team. We do not formally have a leader and allow the team to have different chairs for various activities and goals we need to achieve. We have shared leadership on assignments with the chair having final say and taking ownership for the activity for which he/she has been assigned. I am finding that this way of leading within our group, allows us to remain rather calm and share the load relatively equally. We are one of the more relaxed groups within the MBA and we perform above average as a group. Individually we are still very unique, but together we are definitely stronger when it comes to certain activities.

The only time this has failed for us has been when we have had a weak chair. What is nice however, is that we do not criticise that individual for being weak and encourage them to continue in their seat. The motivation behind it being that we are all there to learn something and being put into that situation might not be optimal, but at least they are benefiting from the process and that is why we are all there, to grow as individuals. I strongly feel that the best way to incentivise the teams as it stands now, is not to reward the individuals within the syndicate groups, but rather to reward the groups themselves.

What I would like to gleam personally from this post, is that WE SHOULD acknowledge a team and see it for a team and not an individual or it’s [leader / manager]. It is easier to have an image of a specific individual when talking about a team, or referring to the team as “leader name’s team”. Why is it so difficult for us to abstract away from the individual to the team?