Agile Leadership – 1 (Poppendieck talk)

I was pleased to help arrange a talk by Mary Poppendieck at Google in NYC last week. The topic was: “A History of Leadership.”

The talk on video is here

The slide deck is here.

This is an important topic, and, if I may say so, Mary Poppendieck makes a number of great points. I will emphasize a few below.

To me, the first thing is to tease out the various meanings of leadership, leader, leading.

Sometimes we mean decision-making, as in “who should make this decision.”

Sometimes we mean boss-ship, as in “she’s my boss.”

Sometimes we mean guiding and coaching, as in “he helped us discover this.”

Sometimes we mean domain knowledge, as in “she is the leader in x-ray tomography.”

Sometimes we mean inspiration, as in “I would follow him anywhere.” I will include articulating the vision and resolving people issues in this category, although they might easily be placed in their own categories.

It seems to me we need to be very careful about these different meanings (and others).

There are principles and patterns of leadership, at a high level, and then there is the specific thing: Taking a group of people, forming a specific team and discovering that specific leader of that team — even if he leads only for one day.

This is to say that leadership arises from specific needs and for specific followers. Another set of followers might be in a different situation and need a different kind of leadership. A good leader in one situation will not necessarily be successful in another (or as successful).

I think Jeff Sutherland is in part referring to this when he talks about ’emergent leadership.’

For amusement, you may wish to peek at one of Churchill’s famous speeches.

Perhaps the most useful thing to say right now about IT efforts is that they are ultimately business efforts, and success to a large degree depends upon making the right trade-offs between a fluid technology situation and an evolving business problem shared by a customer-base in flux. So, we must visualize the problem and see where technology (with other things) can make a great contribution. In concrete terms, Mary Poppendieck puts the technology leader and the marketing (business) leader into one person, based on the Toyota pattern of a “chief engineer.” Certainly this addresses one of our key problems: A “technical success” that it not a market success.

Now, what do we do if we don’t have such a single person?

Mary Poppendieck says (rightly, in my opinion) that we need two people in the team joined at the hip; a marketing leader and a technical leader. (I think she is using a different definition of marketing leader than others might use.) This of course is not always possible either, but then at least the problem is clear.

This also makes clear the more general knowledge-creation problem. The people in the team with business knowledge must learn how to collaborate in creating combined knowledge with those on the team who are technical experts, and vice versa. Only when the two domains (to make it very simple) are fully engaged can a truly successful and innovative product be created (or emerge).

In a later installment, more about leadership in the fog of war.


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