“In our company we want people who get involved, show commitment, and contribute ideas. People who take responsibility and move things along. We want independent teams that organise their own work and are focused on working together to reach their common goal.”

This desirable ideal is something that anyone working in a company leadership role can subscribe to. It is a vision that many company leaders work hard and with great commitment to realise. And when despite enormous effort it remains unattainable, the quiet but persistent thought nags: “Have we perhaps not got the right people?”

From our experience working with teams and leaders this question can be answered with a simple and confident “No”.

So what is the problem then, and what is the reason that real self-management is so seldom achieved?

A real eye-opener when looking at this question is the ‘Levels of Perspective’ model from ‘Systems Thinking’. This model casts valuable light on the different levels at which we perceive such a problem:

Easily recognised: Events and Patterns

The things in our environment that we are most readily aware of are individual events: “The team delivered only modest quality and is not prepared to assume responsibility.” This kind of perception enables us to react only to the events taking place immediately around us.

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But if we widen our perspective we often recognise a recurring pattern behind the events: “Projects that the team delivers at the end of year repeatedly go live with dismal quality.”

When we recognise a pattern like this we are looking at the system we inhabit from the next level of perception. We can recognise recurring patterns, adapt to them, sometimes even anticipate what will happen.

Under the surface: Structures and Mental Models

Events and patterns are things that we can readily observe directly. But they are only the tip of the iceberg, lying accessibly above the water’s surface. When we attempt to look a bit below the surface, the observation becomes markedly more difficult. In the Levels of Perspective model this corresponds to turning our attention to the systemic structures that produce or at least favour the recurrent event patterns: “The team’s manager receives an annual bonus based on the number of delivered projects.”

That could be the systemic structure that leads the manager to pressure the team to finish projects before end of year, with the result that quality suffers. Only when we recognise such structures as the cause of the pattern can we act creatively: call the structures into question and replace them with better ones.

Even more interesting to ask, when we discover such structures, is what the mental models were that gave actually rise to them. When the relevant mental model of the CEO is one imprinted with the belief that “Money is the only thing that gets the best out of people” , then that could be the reason behind the existence of the bonus system (structure) in the first place.

Observing the way in which our personal behaviour is determined by our own mental models is far from easy, and attainable only through a high degree of self-examination.

The vision that shapes our lives

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The last level of the model is concerned with the vision that guides our thoughts and actions. A plausible basis for the mental model just described could be a vision such as “We want to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible.”

A wider perspective opens up a greater choice of actions

What immediately becomes clear with this model is that the view from the higher level opens up a greater number of possibilities for action with a drastically increased leverage for change.

At the basic level of behaviour patterns, for example, I can anticipate the predictable poor-quality project deliveries at end of year and budget for additional support capacity (adaptive). But at the higher level where we look at systemic structure I can call the bonus system into question and perhaps rid myself of the problem altogether. If the CEO can be brought to question his mental model of “People make an effort only for money” , the organisation can even prevent the future introduction of further such structures. And if the CEO is replaced with one whose vision is “Working time is living time: let’s do cool stuff together” , that can change the entire direction of the company in the medium term.

The three upper levels of perception, while potentially very productive, are however often very tightly interconnected, observable only with difficulty, and only in the rarest cases able to be openly discussed.

Why are these things so relevant for agile leadership?

Agile leadership and self-management of teams can only succeed when a suitable environment for them has been established. This environment is principally determined by the systemic structures in the company and the mental models of the managers.

With the mental model “Developers can’t and won’t assume business responsibility” the transfer of responsibility from the manager role to the team won’t succeed, because the manager will just create systemic structures to monitor the team. And a manager with the mental model “People only give their best when put under pressure” is much more likely to use pressure rather than goals and support as the basis for managing teams.

Managers as part of the system

But managers themselves are part of these same systems whose structures can conceal major challenges. When managers are rewarded by the company based principally on the success of their projects rather than on their own personal development or the support they give their teams, then the systemic structure in question is not promoting the desired behaviour.

So how do we deal with this? Surely it is quite simple: the managers change their mental models, create advantageous structures, and off we go with self-managing teams.

What sounds so simple is in fact a herculean task. People don’t change their mental models just by being told to, or understanding the theory. A genuine process of personal self-examination is required on the part of every individual employee. And it is at least as important for the company as a whole to engage in a collective reflection on structures and mental models.

This exercise can only be successful when the company is prepared to examine the chunk of the iceberg that lies below the surface. Attention has to be directed onto the obscure systemic structures and the mental models lying behind them which together produce the undesirable (behaviour-)patterns. Only with the help of such a widened perspective will the company be able to achieve sustainable changes with substantial leverage.

Space and opportunity for reflection are needed for this to be possible, along with knowledge about alternative models and methods of leadership. Companies must dedicate space and attention to these topics if they want to make permanent, positive changes to their leadership and work culture, and make agility viable. Otherwise agility will quickly slide into being just another short-lived, fashionable fad. At the cost of employees and credibility.

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