Failureship and “Show, don’t tell”

Thirty years ago I moved to London from the North of England. To fill my empty dance card I took night classes in short short story writing. Thirty years later the one thing we were taught that is still seared into my memory is “Show, don’t tell”. The example the teacher gave was, rather than “He was an obsessive about hygiene”, instead use “He brushed his teeth so often that he caused his gums to bleed”. It turns out “Show, don’t tell” is an effective strategy for leading change. The failureship adopt the opposite strategy… they simply tell.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Over a decade ago I went for a job interview with the architect team at a major US investment bank. They explained to me that they managed one of the most complex systems in the bank. They did it to show that they were not an ivory tower group simply telling all the development teams what to do.

The failureship approach is to tell people what to do. They often tell people to do things that they cannot do, or even want to do. This is so common that popular books on culture change have a term for it, they do not “Walk the talk”. Its a struggle to identify an outstanding example of failureship of this kind. Not because it is rare, quite the opposite, it is such a common occurrence that it difficult to pick an example that truly stands out. A government advisor visiting Barnard Castle to test his eye sight, or a Prime Minister partying whilst his country follows his rules show its reaches to the top of society. Every time a Scrum Master skips the retrospective is an example of a leader failing to “Walk the talk”.

The most inspiring leader I’ve experienced when it comes to “Show, don’t tell” is Tom Sugden at UBS. Tom is the CTO setting the technology direction for his organisation, but rather than simply telling his fellow CxO what to do, he also runs an entire department. This gives Tom the opportunity to implement the technologies that he proposes as the future of the organisation. Furthermore, he shows how it can be done at scale. This gives Tom huge credibility and influence when it comes to providing direction to other parts of the organisation. Tom makes sure that his department is at the forefront of adoption and change. The fact that Tom’s department implements the things he promotes gives them much more credibility than simply telling other department heads to adopt them.

“Show, don’t tell” is about living the values and ideas that you promote. Its about doing the hard work and avoiding the easy path that undermines your credibility. When faced with the easy option that undermines your vision, be more Tom.

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

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