January 13, 2018

My take on Agile leadership

The intention of this blog post is to test the content of an upcoming book that I am writing on Leanpub called So You Want To Be A Here - Soft skills at the core of Agile leadership. While I agree that Agile is eating the world, I believe we have to revisit our understanding of leadership to fully exploit Agile. To quote Denning in his article, "this kind of leadership is beyond the capabilities of the lumbering industrial giants of the 20th Century."

According to the National Soft Skills Association, it is reported that 85 % of job success comes from having well-developed soft skills and people skills.

85 % of job success comes from having well-develop soft skills and people skills

 

So this post and the book I am writing will be about assessing and developing your soft skills to become a better Agile leader. In this first post, I want to talk about mental models. For me, Agile leadership starts by assessing your own view of the world, or reality. This assessment starts with the mental models that you have about the world around you and of yourself.

Mental models

To understand the complexity of the world, our brain creates and uses mental models. These mental models are a concept to represent cerebral processes activated to give a sense of the world we live in. They represent our world and ourselves. In other words, each brain creates its own world.

Mental models are subjectives. This means that we each have our own mental models of reality. In other words, reality is subjective. To quote Anil Seth, a neuropsychologist at the University of Sussex in England, "Our perceptions are just the brain’s “best guess” of what’s going on, reined in by sensory signals." When we perceive something, it is primarily processed inside of us. My perception is not a perception of the world. It is a perception of the world created by my brain to represent the world.

That being said, look at the following image. If we would ask ourselves who is right, well both people are right. They are each recalling a different mental model to infer what is in front of them. They are each perceiving the world differently based on where they stand.

Is it a nine or a six?

 

There's a catch about our mental models

Thousands of years ago when our ancestors were living in the savanna, we needed to act quickly when we saw a lion. Our mental modal of a lion needed fast processing to tell our feet to run. Thanks to evolution, our brain is really good at quickly proposing mental models when events happen in front of us.For the sake of saving energy, and survival in the lion example, our brain finds a mental model to interpret data gathered by our senses.

Unfortunately, this economy of energy has its drawback. Our brain filters most of the information coming from the outside world. In time of action, it infers the situation in front of us with the best models it has at hand.

According to Nigel Holmes, our eye processes "10 million bits of information per second", which is the equivalent of about 1 picture taken with your mobile phone. From these 10 million bits, our brain computes only 40 bits per second of this data.

There's another catch

As our brain receives all this data and only keeps a few bits, it will only keep information that confirms the models it already has. Peter Senge calls this the inference ladder where our brain filters out data that contradicts our existing mental models.

Our beliefs will look for data confirming our existing mental models and we will take action based on those beliefs. As our mental models are activated without us knowing it, we don't take time at examinating and challenging them throughout the day.

Peter Senge inference ladder

As the old saying goes:

I'll believe it when I see it.

It is also true turned the other way around:

I'll see it when I believe it.

Examples of mental models

Mental models are in our everyday life. Here are some examples that you might have encountered today:

  • Processes at work
    • Hire and fire employees
    • Pay employees and suppliers
    • Meetings
    • Strategic planning
  • Attending a conference
    • Your take on the speaker
    • Your colleagues' opinions about the speaker
    • The speaker's opinions about the crows at his talk
  • Software development
    • Your understanding of the job description of a Scrum Master
    • What is Agile? What is Kanban or Scrum?
    • How code should be well written
    • What makes a good developer

Identify some of your mental models

It is now time to put into practice the theory about mental models. The following questions ask you to write your mental models about a few themes. After doing this exercise individually, I would recommend asking your teammates to do the same individually and through a retrospective, have a shared understanding of these themes.

Identify 3 to 5 mental models that you have in regards to your boss.

1. 

2.

3. 

4. 

5. 

 

Identify 3 to 5 mental models that you have in regards to work.

1. 

2. 

3. 

4. 

5. 

 

Identify 3 to 5 mental models that you have in regards to your organization.

1. 

2. 

3. 

4. 

5. 

 

Identify mental models that you have in regards to human nature.

1. 

2. 

3. 

4. 

5. 

 

Why should I change some mental models?

1. 

2. 

3. 

 

How can we recognize our mental models to become more aware of them?

1. 

2. 

3. 

 

What's next?

My next blog post will be about stages of consciousness. In the last 20 years, research has demonstrated that the adult brain operates at different stages of consciousness. In other words, our mental models of reality depend on our stage of consciousness. As an Agile leader, knowing those stages and where you are on this scale will help you understand your action-logic.

References