July 28, 2020

Your Impact Outweighs Your Intention

When I first became a Scrum Master, I heard the phrase assume positive intent over and over again. And it really resonated with me. It made sense. I started to notice how quick I was to jump to conclusions about other people’s intentions. When I check myself on the assumptions I am making about other people’s intentions, I am more effective at navigating situations in a positive and productive way. And my stress goes down.

However, in the past few years, I’ve noticed the phrase assume positive intent sometimes being used in a way that doesn’t feel good. I’ve seen it used in a way that limits inclusivity and shuts down productive conflict.

I still assume positive intent. This concept helps me be a better coach, a better trainer, a better colleague, a better friend. I even talk about assuming positive intent in my blogs and in the online course Scrum Master: Grow. I just knew there was something more to it.

And then I had the a-ha moment.

“Your impact outweighs your intention.”

This statement was made at one of my Co-Active Leadership Retreats. And suddenly it all made sense.

While it is incredibly helpful to assume positive intent when we engage with others, that does not mean we give people a free pass. It does not automatically make their words and behaviors okay.

Because leadership is about owning your impact.

Yes, my intentions matter. But they don’t matter more than my impact. If I cause harm – whether it is through action or inaction – then I need to own the impact I created. It doesn’t necessarily mean I was wrong (although it might). But I do need to take responsibility for my impact.

As a Scrum Master, you have to make difficult choices and navigate paradox. It is impossible to predict or control most outcomes. You will make mistakes. You will experience failure. It’s how you grow wisdom. The key is to take responsibility for your impact. When you start to pay more attention to the impact you are creating, you can then take responsibility. Here are some ways taking responsibility might show up:

  • changing your mind;
  • changing your approach;
  • accepting that doing the right thing isn’t always easy nor will everyone like it;
  • trusting your intuition;
  • standing in your power;
  • apologizing (without justifying or blaming);
  • seeking to understand other perspectives;
  • cleaning up any “mess” you created;
  • staying in discomfort;
  • integrating new insights and learning about yourself and your world.

This idea of impact outweighing intentions applies beyond agility and Scrum, and it is showing up in big ways in our world. Systemic racism, the pandemic, and climate change are top of mind for me. I see more people doing the work to explore their impacts in ways they never have before. And so am I.

Even though it’s really uncomfortable, painful, and hard, the increased transparency and desire to own our impact gives me hope. I truly believe the more we practice owning our impact in the day-to-day moments, the better prepared we will be tackling the larger changes we want to see in our world. And we will have a greater impact as servant-leaders in our Scrum Teams, our organizations, and our communities.

Here are some questions to help explore your impact at any level and any situation. Keep in mind this is about both negative and positive impact.

  • What has my role been in this? What have been the intended impacts of my actions (or non-action) and the unintended impacts?
  • What is my contribution to the impact right now?
  • What has needed to change but there has been a lack of creativity, desire, or will to make that change?
  • What values and ideas have been ignored that need to be honored and explored now?
  • What is possible when I am more committed to creating positive impact than to being right or being liked?