Play with Your Feathers

Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Today I invite you to explore a topic from one of the many systems to which I belong, the world of Agile. And the topic is Agile Leadership, a concept made of two halves.

On the one hand, there’s “Agile” the family of methods for delivering value that is iterative and incremental. I began practicing Agile shortly after its inception when I began my professional life as a Java developer 19 years ago. The key to learning about Agile for me is this: To be agile, you have to practice Agile. Sounds simple and is anything but easy. Otherwise, Agile wouldn’t continue to be as much of an industry as it is today.

On the other hand is “Leadership” which requires an understanding of how systems work, in particular, relationship systems. What do I mean by “relationship system”? I find this avian metaphor from Coaching Constellations creator John Whittington useful.

Peacock Present

Imagine each of us are a peacock. Behind each of us is a fan of feathers, with each feather representing a relationship system we have come from. From education systems, to previous professional systems as well as current professional systems, to social and cultural systems. And, of course, our family of origin. It’s no wonder that when we get together as groups and teams in an organisation, we end up ruffling each other’s feathers. Peafowl and politics indeed.

And just before you lose hope at the seemingly impossible mission of changing a system for greater good in your lifetime, it turns out you are key to that change. Why? Because as a systemic leader, the first system to look at is your own. In principle, we each stand a better chance of changing ourselves than those around us. As a systemic leader, you work on your own “system” in service of the wider system, your organisation.

Let’s Go Play in the Field

Where are you right now in relation to Agile Leadership? Notice what comes to mind. Or perhaps in your body. Simply acknowledge what is. That is enough.

The Route to Healthy Organisations

During my play research, I stumbled upon a curious discovery. The word “business” according to the ancient Chinese translates to mean literally “meaning of life”. If this is true, organisations can be a place where you can do your life’s work. Living your life’s purpose. At work. Imagine that. And in order to live your life’s purpose, many of the great philosophers agree that we each need to work in service of the wider system and not the individual. To work for greater good. That’s what distinguishes a job from a career, a career from a calling.

The Five Ancient Agile Values

As a young IT professional trying to make sense of how organisations worked, one of the key texts that has shaped my professional path these past 19 years from developer to development manager to consultant then Agile coach and most recently executive and personal coach is Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming (aka XP) Explained (1st and 2nd editions). What captured my twenty-something heart and gave me the courage to work and play in service of something greater than myself are the XP values: Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect. It seemed like fair play to me.

Agile Leadership Through a Systemic Lens

Communication: As leaders, it is essential that our “three brains” are aligned, the one in our head, our heart and our gut. Without this internal alignment, our leadership is as discombobulated as we are. This somatic coherence sounds simple and is anything but easy. Otherwise, leadership wouldn’t continue to be as much of an industry as it is today.

Being human is also about human-being and human-doing. It is a combination of thought and action. This is why it is important to know your values, to embody that knowing of what you stand for in all three brains so that you can live and breathe your values, day in, day out. This is what engenders trust. In yourself. And in others.

Simplicity: What do you do to add value? Is what you’re doing useful? Add value every day. Start small. As Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or in XP, one baby step at a time. The important thing is to begin. To live a value-driven and values-driven life.

Feedback: Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Notice any inner chatter. Acknowledge what is instead of wishing for what could be. A key systemic principle is the balance of exchange. A balance of giving and taking. Which of your three brains have you excluded? A systemic leader ensures each brain has a place just like each person in their team has a place. Anyone that is excluded will lead to organisational entanglements and difficulties that compromise organisational health for all.

Courage: Show up as yourself. From a centred place. A place of mindfulness and meditation. A place where you will not be easily recruited by other people and their stories which serve to only entangle the system further to the detriment of everyone in the system. Perhaps one of the most courageous acts for many is this: Play at work. Give it a go. I find inspires me and others towards a greater purpose. Leading by example.

Respect: This value was added in the second version of Kent’s book. And it was the game-changer for me. It addresses 3 key needs we all have as human beings: Belonging, safety and recognition.

  • Belonging: It ensures everyone has a place. No one is excluded.
  • Safety: Each of us agree to be the same-size. No one is bigger, no one is more than another.
  • Recognition: To truly see and be with one another requires us to “go beyond the field of right and wrong” and meet each other in the field of non-judgment described by Sufi poet Rumi.

A useful reminder regarding respect I’ve found among leaders is this: “Giving up wanting to help or to rescue people is essential if you sincerely respect them.” from the creator of Family Constellations Bert Hellinger.

Back in the Playing Field

Now that we’ve come full circle, I invite you to consider this: What would be a baby step towards better for you and each of those people or entities who are part of your Agile Leadership system? And if what you are contemplating were a chapter in a book, what would be the chapter heading in just a few words? Say them out loud. Play with the words until they feel true. To you.

Thank you for joining me in the field today. I had fun. I hope you had fun, too. I invite you to take what’s useful and leave behind what’s not with me. Let’s play again soon!

Resources You May Wish to Look At

Books on Agile

Extreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck (2nd Edition) – One of the “ancient” (ie earliest) texts about Agile in terms of values, principles and practices of which Extreme Programming is one particular method.

The Dream Team Nightmare by Portia Tung – A “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Agile novel with eight different endings designed to enrich and put your Agile knowledge and experience to the test.  Contains useful exercises to try with your team as well as an Agile glossary. Also available on Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles online stores.

Flow of Life and Love in Systems

Flow by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi – Science-backed research on how to lead a meaning and productive life as described by ancient philosophers.

Systemic Coaching and Constellations by John Whittington (3rd Edition) – A great introduction to systemic thinking and practice with plenty of exercises to explore your own peacock feathers.

Play On!

Playful Leadership: How to Create Transformational Change and Have Fun Doing It by Portia Tung – 60-min closing keynote at Agile 2019 drawing on my experiences and learnings from organisational change and play science.

Play by Dr. Stuart Brown – The book that inspired me to play for my life by promoting happier adulthood through lifelong play.

TED talk: Play by Dr. Stuart Brown – A brief introduction to Dr. Brown’s play research

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