Leadership lessons from the home

During the past few months I’ve been fortunate to spend a good deal of time with my family. I’ve noticed a few patterns with the kids — patterns I’ve also seen while leading agile software teams and doing technical consulting for seven companies.

Here’s a few scenarios that I found interesting:

Kids: “You only gave me two slices of pizza! I wanted three.”

Parent: “Eat what’s on your plate, and if you’re still hungry, I’ll give you more.”

Developers: “This will take X-big-number weeks to build and deliver.”

Agilist: “Let’s figure out how we can build this to get in more build-test-learn cycles. After a few cycles we’ll see if we want to invest more time.”

I see this happen most often when I introduce a team to more agile and lean approaches to software development. I did this with multiple teams of up to 12 developers during my years in consulting. Also, the kids always want one more slice of pizza than what you gave them!

Kids: “Can you believe what Parent X said?”

Parent: “If you have something to say, please say it to me — not behind my back!”

I’ve seen this happen a lot on teams when we’re frustrated at external circumstances beyond our control. It makes us feel better to gripe internally — but in the end we have to provide the feedback outwards. I’ve found the SMART criteria helpful in determining how to give such feedback.

Kids: “Parent X won’t let me do activity X… they must not like me very much!”

Parent: “Please understand all that I do is for your best interest!”

Most of the best-performing teams I’ve been on have purposely worked on assuming positive intent — that each member of the team wants to make the team better and achieve our results together. This also helps at home! Something I learned early on is that people care more about your intentions than your actions. If people believe that you’re working with their best interests at heart, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt whenever there’s some form of friction. Note that this always means the teams need a high level of empathy — to listen to each other and understand their goals!

Kids: “We should have a new car with a DVD player, like family X!”

Parent: “We don’t need all the bells and whistles — our car is comparable to what most families our size have.”

This is a tough one for me. As a junior employee, I was often frustrated when senior leaders didn’t have the same feelings I did about striving for everything to be the best. It wasn’t until much later I realized that how we thought about everything was quite different. I compared absolutely — they compared relatively. I would find the gold standard (for pay, promotions, benefits, work-life balance, opportunities for junior employees, etc) and was confused why leadership wasn’t striving for that gold standard. One reason is that senior leadership often compared against similar companies in similar industries — not against the gold standard. For another reason, see the next and last example.

Kids: “I don’t like our weekly schedule. Let’s throw it away and do something completely different.”

Parent: “We can’t change up schedules for everyone. Let’s pick two or three problem areas and fix those.”

Developers: “That whole service is a pain — let’s rewrite it with language X.”

Agilist: “Can we list out what that service is supposed to accomplish, and how much pain we face right now in meeting those objectives?”

One of the best agile principles is incremental thinking. When we hit a roadblock, don’t reinvent everything. Start small, identify a few small things to fix. It’s helpful to have an idea of the end result (the “ideal state”) but don’t try to jump straight there. Take it slow and learn along the way. I’ll usually discover I didn’t know what the right “ideal state” was to begin with. Plus it’s a lot of mental load to try to fix everything at once.

I’d love to hear feedback on these topics and my examples. Did this make sense to you? Could it be improved? Please leave a response to let me know.

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