Step away from the office, and join the team!

Years ago I shared a table at a wedding with a primary school (Kindergarten) teacher. We were not surprised to discover that my job in technology was very similar to their job. Understanding behaviour was a big thing we had in common. One common situation they encountered was children behaving badly and the parent’s not believing them, “They are an angel at home” was the common response. The teacher explained that they would arrange for the parents to observe their child’s disruptive behaviour secretly through a window. I’m sure that often the parents would rather not know because then they would have to do something about it. And so it is in organisations. I’m sure we have all seen people behave in an aggressive and domineering manner when they perceive themselves to be the HIPPO in the room, only to assume the demeanor of a timid mouse in the presence of a bigger cat.

Photo by yang miao on Unsplash

Failure cultures prevent access to the big boss, the hierarchy acts to prevent uncontrolled access. This benefits the person potentially behaving badly, and it also benefits their boss because they do not become aware of the bad behaviour. People who tells tales out of school are often told “to escalate through the appropriate channels”. The “appropriate channels” being those that can be used to filter the message.

The leadership in “Risk Managed” cultures spend a huge amount of effort to make sure they are accessible to everyone in their organisation. As well as making themselves accessible, they will also make the effort to reach out to people. They understand that “going to the Gemba” is not a planned royal visit with courtiers and presentations, often it means simply working near to a team for a while. As any ethnographic researcher will tell you, it takes a few days for people to drop the formality and act normally. Spending a week sitting in an area, listening to the buzz of a floor will tell you much more about the mood of the people than any survey or presentation. Leaders are better able to detect issues earlier when they sitting with the team at the Gemba.

The failureship in a “Failure Culture” are like an unruly child in the kindergarten along with their irresponsible parents who do not even want to know about the behaviour of their star child. Uncontrolled access to the big boss is to be avoided at all costs. Meetings with the big boss will be arranged by respecting the hierarchy at all times. Your superior will attend the meeting, acting as a guide to ensure you do not reveal any information that might taint the ears of the big boss. Door stepping a senior member of the failureship with a problem / issue / idea will be met with sanctions of a career limiting nature. Individuals will be given controlled access to senior members of the failureship at intimate breakfast meetings and coffee corners with a dozen of your fellow colleagues, normally those with the same rank.

This leads to a behaviour I observed in the original “Seeing Culture” article. The failureship have offices, and the leadership sit with the team. This is perhaps one of the most visible differences between a “Risk Managed” and a “Failure” culture.

“Turn the ship around” by David Marquet tells the tale of how his submarine went from a leader – follower culture to a leader – leader culture. I prefer the language of Eric Berne’s Transaction Analysis of Parent – Child to Adult – Adult relationships. In a “failure” culture, a leader – follower (parent – child) relationship means you treat your subordinates like a child and control access to the big boss. Going around your superior and violating the hierarchy is normally a career limiting move. In a “risk managed” culture, an adult – adult relationship means you treat your subordinate as an adult and respect them to make the proper judgement as to whether they need to speak to the big boss. The big boss will determine whether the contact is appropriate and will advise your subordinate accordingly, perhaps directing the person to someone else or even back to you. If the contact is inappropriate, its a learning opportunity helping them understand how to address an issue, rather than a violation of the hierarchy.

I previously wrote about how Al-Noor Ramji and JP Rangaswami reduced the power distance index at Dresdner. At Skype, Mark Gillett was even more explicit at breaking down the power distance index. I first met Mark shortly after joining Skype in the coffee area next to his office, he introduced himself and when he knew I was an Agile Coach we discussed User Stories for a few minutes. A year or so later we moved office into a state of the art office as part of the Microsoft family. A couple of years ago Mark told me about his design for the new office. Microsoft had wanted him to have a corner office but he wanted to maximise the possibility for chance encounters. The Skype office was based on three floors. Mark installed a sweeping spiral staircase to link the floors. The staircase was the easiest and quickest route between the floors and as intended by Mark, it was a great way to bump into people. Furthermore Mark installed a coffee area on the middle floor next to the staircase, complete with a professional Gaggia coffee machine with associated Barista Training. Mark’s office was situated right next to the coffee area. If you really needed to chat to Mark about something, all you needed to do was go for a coffee and hang around for a short while.

At Tesco, Jim Banister was entitled to an office. Instead of sitting in his office unable to hear what was going on, he sat out with his teams. His office was made available to his teams for meetings that were either private or would be loud and disruptive to everyone else.

By comparison I worked in a company where senior managers were entitled to an office… and they always used one. They even used an office when they visited other locations. It was common practice for them to use the building where they could have an office rather than sit in the building where their teams sat. Team members would have to travel to a different building to meet the manager visiting from an overseas location. The same company further reduced the chance of unintended access by locating senior management in separate buildings to the workers. Even in open offices with hot desking arrangements, the failureship will soon establish themselves with dedicated seating for senior staff members and reserved seating for important individuals. Nothing signals a flattening of the hierarchy than seeing a senior executive hunting around for a desk because they arrived late, and them sitting with a new group of people, or perhaps in the coffee area.

At one company I worked the executive had an office in London. They only spent one or two weeks a year in London. However, they had an executive assistant sitting at a desk outside the office with instructions that no one was to use the office. Furthermore, they had an additional window added to improve the light to the office that no one was allowed to use. As one colleague commented “I wish they would fix the toilets so that they did not flood instead of improving an office they never use.”

When I did some work at Bank of America, a number of people excitedly told me the same story. A developer was working on some code when a new joiner asked them if they could join them and do some pairing. After an hour of coding the new joiner excused themselves. The developer asked the new joiner what his job was “I’m the new Group CIO”. That story spread through the organisation like wild fire, that the head of a department of tens of thousands of people was approachable and could code!

Along with “Servant Leadership”, “Go to the Gemba” is possibly the most widely held expectation of Agile Leadership. The first rule in “Six Simple Rules” by Yves Morieux of Boston Consulting Group is “Understand What Your People Do” or “Go to the Gemba”. “Go to the Gemba” and “Sit in an office” are the easiest behaviours to spot to identify whether you have leadership or failureship, which is why they are so powerful. Nothing signals change to an organisation better than a senior member reaching out and connecting to real people in the organisation, rather than simply communicating through the hierarchy (or through McKinsey if they do not trust their hierarchy).

If you are genuinely interested in moving from failureship to leadership, move out of your office and turn it back into a team meeting room. Sit with the team but give priority to them, offering to give up your seat if someone else would benefit from it more. Move around your organisation, spending a few days with different sets of teams. If you do need to spend time with your colleagues in the leadership team, split your day between them and the real workers. You will discover so much and you will enjoy your job more.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

One response to “Step away from the office, and join the team!

  • Mark Gillett


    You’re kind to call out the work we did as a team at Skype thank-you for the continued occasional anthropological study of a truly special team and culture! I’ll admit that putting myself close to the coffee was also acknowledging a vice (the need for near constant supplies of good coffee), while doing my best to make a virtue of that (ease of access, and openness to learning what anyone was working on, especially where things were tough and there was an opportunity for us to learn, or better focus on clearing impediments faster!).

    It’s always struck me that leaders who ‘want to hear about solutions not problems’, are at risk of hiding the ball, and at risk of persistently repeating the same errors often without access to the underlying causes of those problems. Steve Ballmer once said to me that often the best answers emerge when you ‘wallow in the data/problem for a while’, difficult to do that if sharing of data and problems aren’t encouraged and welcomed!

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