Sunday, October 23, 2016

Leading via Questions

There's a pivotal moment in the lifetime of a growing team where its leadership no longer has enough information to be responsible for how that team gets things done. And if both team members and leadership don't recognize their roles need to change, it can be frustrating for everyone.

When a team is small and the leadership has the capacity to be in the trenches, there's a lot of efficiency in having your more experienced decision makers steering the work. By working so closely with everyone, leaders are operating with shared context that team members can trust and the leaders can course correct quickly based on all of the feedback they get.

There is a point, however, where the responsibilities of leading and protecting a larger team make it more difficult for leadership to spend time in the trenches. When that happens, if the leaders keep involving themselves in areas in which they are now so woefully uninformed compared to those they lead, it becomes meddling-- a serious impediment to getting things done.  Up until that point, the natural relationship was one of leader and followers and so it's not evident that there's a moment where the team knows a lot more on how stuff gets done.

Over the past year, with my studio having grown to more than 25 people, I've been working on this role change. There's a few interesting problems to solve. If I am accountable for, but no longer responsible for how stuff gets done, how do I pull that off? How do I help those team members that are not used to being decision makers develop this skill? What are the skills I need to grow in this new role and how do I improve? And how do I do all of this while making sure that trust flows both ways?

I have one solution that has had some success. I try to ask questions like I'm the student and they're the teacher. If I am now less informed on how things are getting done, it makes sense that I'm the one who needs to be taught.

This has had several effects:
  1. By making it clear that I respect and want to learn from what the team is doing, they feel trusted and empowered. 
  2. Because I have a lot of decision making experience and a 10,000 foot view, the type of questions I ask can probe and reveal problems the team hasn't seen from their angle. If I'm not satisfied with where things appear to be going, asking followup questions can either help the team realize they haven't thought something through or help them craft an argument that is satisfying for me. In both cases, the team is the one coming up with the answers. 
  3. Over time, I've noticed the team is getting better at anticipating the questions I would ask and in effect getting better at their own decision making. 
  4. For those moments when I still need to make the decision, there's now a clear relationship for how the team gets involved leading up to that decision and for when unexpected consequences may need correcting.
After a year, I still make mistakes where I'll give trench level direction that comes off as uninformed and meddling. It's easy to lapse back into the comfort of being the one who decides, a skill I've developed and gotten good at over the last 6 years. When this happens, it's been really exciting when my team, having developed leadership skills of their own, are now actively coming to me, letting me know what context I may have missed, and teaching me something about how I can be a better leader.