Agility, Trust and Skill / Will

Quadrant warning: this article contains a few! But, as I experience more agile implementation and team dynamics, the correlation of these models is (in my view) clear, and an essential principle of the success of agility in any project, organisation or system.

Quadrant 1 – Skill / Will

Skill / Will is a well-known people management model originating from Hershey and Blanchard (Situational Leadership) in the 60s. Simply put, this model plots people against a horizontal Skill and vertical Will axis, providing a route for how to get the best from them.

  • High Skill, High Will: A person with high Skill for a task/role and a high Will to get on with it should be allowed to act freely (be delegated to, have autonomy).
  • Low Skill, Low Will: A person with low Skill and low Will needs direction and management, say on a task level.
  • High Skill, Low Will: A person will need engagement and encouragement. To get the best result: excite them.
  • Low Skill, High Will: A person with all the Will but no Skill needs guidance, perhaps training and tuition to get the best result.

See as one more detailed explanation – there are many!

Quadrant 2 – Trust-Ownership Model

This quadrant comes from the book “The Agile Culture: Leading through Trust and Ownership” (read this book!), talking here about the way we should organise to succeed in today’s marketplace: “unleashing the talent of every person in the organization and focusing them on shared ideas that generate meaningful business value and by trusting them.”

The model describes the cultural state to create this – Energy and Innovation – and the antithesis, a cultural state of Command and Control that diminishes ownership and fails to trust.

Quadrant 3 – Skill Will & Trust-Ownership?

These diagrams very much correlate for me and absolutely align to the successes and failures that I’ve seen in agile teams. Agile thinking cannot be truly successful without trust and the right environment that cultivates learning and eliminates blame, but if we don’t also match this with the right team of people that have the skill and will to take ownership (it can’t be given) we can also get a poor result.

To illustrate, imagine a high-skill, high-will team. You’ve put your best, most collegiate and capable people together, and almost without trying they’ve got hooked by the vision of the team’s target.  They should be able to fly through a create great results. If the organisation’s culture is command & control however, and activity in the team is directed (rather than inspired), inevitably creativity is stifled, people are disempowered and ownership drops.

And the inverse, imagine a low-skill, low-will team. They’re not clear why they’re together and don’t feel like it’s their responsibility to find out. If the organisation’s culture is ownership and trust based, the group will flounder without significant external support.

So, what?

The truth in most teams is that we have a mix of positions on the skill/will quadrant, regardless of our culture. So, what can we do to enable teams and make sure we’re heading up and right on the quadrant?

First, I think recognising this helps – failure is much more likely than success in early agile implementation, and that’s an important part of it. You must be able to embrace and learn effectively from failure – there will always be improvements to be made.

Second, for teams, I recognise two key roles (or responsibilities) as key.

  • Someone to help energise the team (typically this can be a Product Owner role, but it needn’t be). High-will people will amplify this too – helping people to realise why the team’s work is so valuable.
  • Someone to help to identify and coach skills, encourage training and even direct some tasks to bring people on. Typically, this is therefore a senior engineer, delivery manager or other high-skill person.

Third, think hard about this when you hire people. Alongside technical competency, test for autonomy and readiness: Where have candidates taken ownership for the world around them? How have they identified and helped to develop the skills of others? How have they inspired people with a great idea? When have they motivated others (this isn’t a manager-only action!)? When did they recognise this happening to them and what impact did it have?

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