Coaching vs Commanding Culture Clash

I really like this tweet from Mr Turn the Ship Around.

So much of what I do – and a big reason I took this job – is that I find this form of leadership to be fulfilling and effective. Whether I’m any good at it is another question but God loves a trier.

I see this kind of thinking as a central tenant in that servant/leader, coaching mentality that underpins so much of the culture of modern, agile leadership thinking. Putting people first, creating the conditions and environment for success, trusting teams. Provide problems to solve and context about the constraints rather than give instructions, deadlines and consequences.

This is how many of us believe you create – and sustain – high performing teams.

Yet you look at something like the Musk/Twitter debacle – and the way he apparently runs Tesla – and it is clear that none of these factors are of interest to him. Despite his hero status to so many in the start-up world he is full-on command and control with little interest in things like psychological safety. Staff are pawns whose worth is measured by how fast they can deliver what he wants. It is fascinating in a bit of a rubbernecking at a car-crash kind of way.

With less ill-intent the culture clash between these commanding and coaching mentalities is on display every day in the Civil Service. Despite Emily’s graphic there are some who still refer to people as resources, who see them as ‘fungible’, where the pursuit of a plan is more important than knowing the plan is right. Where the cries of ‘give me an estimate’ can be heard echoing in the halls. In this culture teams – and individuals – are a means to an end.

This is the same as it ever was and I increasingly think the onus is on us – those with a coach mentality – to do more to build trust with these commanders. To give them a little more of what they need so we can build trust rather than just saying they are wrong. The fact I am having the same conversations about styles that I was when I left the Civil Service last time suggests we still need to do a lot more to bring people along with us on this journey.

Some of the dogma in Agile can be unnecessarily divisive and misunderstood I think. There is nothing wrong with plans – and even deadlines – as long as they or the scope can change. It is the context that matters and it is the details we should be discussing not just saying no.

In the Civil Service there is always going to be more governance than really works for an agile approach but designing this to provide the most reassurance for these commanders while providing the least drag for the team should be front of mind for product and delivery managers all the time.

The beauty of taking a design and agile approach should be that you invest in building the right things and then when you do you deliver value early and often – learning, iterating and improving as we go…but is a user driven becomes seen as something that slows things down with no reward and that agile delivery means waterfall with sprints and a big bang release why wouldn’t people want the reassurance of a Gannt chart 😉 

To build the trust we need we have to deliver on the promise of the coaching approach and that means we need to make even more space to ensure our teams are high-performing and that means shipping. Until we get there we will need to compromise to make that space – but on the right terms.

One response to “Coaching vs Commanding Culture Clash”

  1. Lots to think about here. I spend a lot of time thinking about what is just enough governance via is just enough to make a service user centred and great. Haven’t figured it out yet but good to see a different insight.

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