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Vivek Ganesan

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Issue of Empowerment - A Coaching Conversation

Not long ago, I was coaching an excellent team of bright engineers. Luckily for them, they reported to a manager, who was not into command and control - at least that was what I thought.

One fine day, I hear from the team that they feel that they were not happy. I do my regular ‘five-whys’ exercise with a few members of the team and the results tells me that the team feels disempowered. One of the engineers said something similar to “Agility relies on empowered teams. But, we are not empowered at all. We are given no freedom to say ‘no’.“

After further exchanges, another team member tells, “We give an initial estimate for a work item assuming no interruptions until the release. However, we get interrupted a lot by so much ad-hoc work and frankly, our estimates are also not perfect, that’s why they are called estimates and not as actuals. Whenever we know that we can’t deliver an item for a release, we try to tell our manager. But, our manager doesn’t allow us to postpone them to the next release. We end up working in the nights and weekends too.”

My logical head exploded with instant solutions like having a coaching conversation towards increasing release frequency, a way to go to continuous delivery, making their ad-hoc work visible and what not. But then, an intuitional side of me took over briefly and told me, “If the team feels a lack of autonomy, they will not freely try new things you tell them to do. They already strongly feel that the manager is controlling and this feeling will hamper their emotional investment in their attempts.”

What to do now? With a lot of shakiness, I planned my next attempt.

Without revealing the team’s observations, I try to chat up with their manager during a coffee break and ask him, “How important is team empowerment to you?”

The manager replies, “Very important. That is what keeps them motivated to do stressful jobs.”

Not revealing my “I see a red flag” finding, I prod him more, “How do you empower your teams?”

“You see, the work that we get from customers is huge. Our customers are not very accommodating as well. Add that to the ad-hoc work that we could never plan for. If we don’t give some freedom to the team members, they might easily get frustrated.”, he replied.

“Well, I see your point. And, how do you give freedom to your team members?”

“You see, I don’t restrict their leaves or work-from-home requests. In fact, I have a standing instruction to my team that they can work from home if they feel that would help them focus more. I don’t ask for status updates every now and then and I don’t micro manage. I let them concentrate on their work while I remain in the background. I do not put stringent rules on the working hours. My team comes to office and goes home at their own will and I trust them to take the right decisions there.”, he replied.

This struck me as very odd. The manager empowers people in some areas but the team needs empowerment in some other areas. If I ask the manager, “Are your teams empowered?”, he would confidently say ‘Absolutely yes’, without any malice. If I ask the same question to the team members, they would confidently say ‘Not at all’, without any malice.

If both parties are just, honest and correct but still there is a disagreement about a fact, could it be just a communication gap? How do I tell this to the manager or the team without sounding a lot ‘preachy’ and without placing me on a moral-high pedestal?

Step - 1: Design of Inverted Delegation Poker Deck

I know about an exercise called Delegation poker that I read in the book Managing for Happiness. However, that exercise is to come up with a working agreement for a future state whereas here, my problem is to highlight the current state and the communication gap.

This prompted me to facilitate the delegation poker exercise by including two activities involving two card decks as follows.

  1. Activity with the manager using the official Delegation Poker card deck
  2. Activity with the team using an Inverted Delegation Poker card deck, that I created.

The official Delegation poker card deck is written from the point of view of a manager. For example, in the level one, “I will tell them” assumes the voice of the manager. When I play with the team members, the cards need to assume the voice of the team member. So, I created an inverted delegation poker deck with the team member’s voice.

Inverted Delegation Poker

Step - 2: Designing an Information Radiator

I wanted to facilitate this activity using an information radiator that I could project on a wall during the activity. This information radiator turned out to be a grid that consisted of the following items.

  • Decision points (rows)
  • Team’s way of deciding (columns)
  • Manager’s way of deciding (further columns)

My idea is to mark the team’s responses and the manager’s responses in the same row. If the two markings are symmetric, equally far from the middle line separating team’s and the manager’s responses, there is no communciation gap in that issue. However, if the two markings are not symmetric, one closer to the middle line than the another, this is a communication gap and needs to be discussed and final state agreed upon.

Inverted Delegation Poker Grid

Step-3: Facilitation of exercise

I sought the team’s permission to do an exercise on empowerment, referring to their earlier complaints to me. I sought the permission from the manager to do such an exercise. They both agreed and we got into a meeting room at a fixed time slot.

Before the slot, I bought some time from the manager, handed over a deck of official delegation poker cards to him and got his responses in the grid, hiding the team’s response columns. I also briefed him about different levels of delegation before filling the sheet with him. I also asked him to fill the ‘current’ state and not the state he ‘wants to be’.

At the agreed slot for the exercise, I ran through each decision point and asked the team to come up with current way of deciding things, using the inverted delegation poker, in the same way they regularly do a planning poker game.

After all the responses are in, I projected both team’s responses and manager’s responses side by side on the wall, called the manager in and gave them some time alone to have a conversation about gaps and I left the room.

After the specified time,I returned to the room only to find them finishing up the last point. We did a fist of five retro and left the room. I could see visible smiles on everyone’s faces. I did not hear the same complaint from that team anymore and I was surprised to see few weeks later that they themselves started making the ad-hoc work visible. The team spoke to me about some other issues later but not about the same empowerment issue anymore.

Thanks, Jurgen for providing me a thinking tool :)

P.S: This is not my first attempt at doing this exercise. I tried doing this exercise with a different team and frankly, it did not work out since I was in my last few days of engagement and the manager was on a long leave. So, I did only the team responses part and handed over the manager responses part to another person and finished my engagement. This is my second attempt at solving the same problem.