Tuesday, November 12, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #1-bis of 17 - Supportive. But No Blank Checks.  

As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the key foundations of Agile and Lean management techniques is to investigate each team member's concerns and motivations and customize the way one manages that person. This, as I explained in the introduction, comes from Baseball, specifically, from Tony La Russa, as he describes it in his book .

If there's one word that embodies this "personalization," as La Russa calls it, that word is 'supportive'.

But the support in supportive must not be infinite. You try to support every aspect of a team member's aspirations and personality and goals, but not to the point that it degrades the team as a whole or another member's ability to contribute.

As I've explained many times before, one of the endemic weaknesses of North American institutions, especially corporations, especially those where Finance dominates strategy or organizational tactics, is " binary thinking". Binary thinking is where the decisionmaker views things as having two opposite possibilities, and no others. Nuance tends to be winnowed out for the binary thinker. What channel shall I distribute through...direct or indirect? Is the Syrian Opposition "good" or "evil"? Should I plant soybeans or sorghum? Should I expand our markets or look for a buyer? Shall I limit myself to 950 calories a day or not bother to diet at all?

Binary thinkers are mentally (and usually physically) uncomfortable in the grey areas (and almost all the best possible methods work when executed in grey areas). Even when binary thinkers try to be nuanced, their tone-deafness to nuance tends to create craptastic outcomes (like the illogic and un-coherent nature of Henry Paulson/Timmy Geithner Big Bank Bailout, a classic lesson inthe tragedy of letting binary thinkers make important decisions).

Agile and Lean management methods count on nuance in most areas, and most extremely in the areas of personnel management (Second Base in the MBB Model), a field Tony La Russa and his management team have managed well and simply. In La Russa's own words (p.10):

Personalizing with players never meant that everything they did was okay. We didn't sign any blank checks. You're kidding yourself if you think you'll win players' trust that way. You win them over with your honesty. In fact, one of the ways we'd show this throughout the season was in how we reacted when they made mistakes. Whatever the problem was, we'd tell them what they'd done{snip} and we'd deal with it as a fact and not a judgment. We created an environment that recognized that mistakes would happen and would be corrected.

Supportive leadership increases the quality of team outcomes...until it doesn't, and then it degrades team outcomes. Finding a balance, overcoming binary alternatvies between all or none, is one of the most challenging states a manager can find.

There is no single technique that works for all managers, but you can use a Dick Williams technique.

If you've made a point of being a supportive team leader, make a hand-written (yes, not typed or just thought out...the act of writing it down will make your archival thinking clearer) list of all the instances where you were too supportive, wrote, as La Russa calls it, a blank check that didn't work out.

Think through if it should have worked out that way every time...that is, make sure there were no external factors that trashed the outcome and that it was the blank check itself that caused the failure. If it was the blank check, think throughwhat you could have done instead.

The simplest approach is the honesty La Russa and his management team apply, what management star Keith Ferrazzi and his outfit call "candor". As you probably already know, most big corporate or military or government or academic organizations are not healthy enough to allow for daily honesty/candor. If you work in one of those organizations, your fallback is to keep going back to your list, remind yourself of where you went overboard with supportive leadership and test yourself again and again to make sure you're not repeating the blank-check error.

It's not as good as what Tony La Russa would achieve, but it can reduce Agile and Lean managers' frequency and consequences of falling into the errors of writing blank checks.

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