Shared Leadership and Alignment

by | Jul 9, 2024

“Not to innovate is the single largest reason for the decline of existing organizations. Not to know how to manage is the single largest reason for failure of new ventures.” – Peter Drucker.

Drucker uses the keywords innovation and Management to describe the core organizational activities that need to be in alignment. This is also sometimes referred to as the Explore-Exploit dynamic, where innovation is considered exploratory in nature. When these explorations uncover market opportunities, organizations can make the most of them —‘exploit.’

Innovation and Management core capabilities are integral to business agility. Most organization leaders understand this intuitively, but they run into alignment issues operationally. Leadership beliefs that inform the organization’s design principles and resultant organizational structure must change to enable aligned agility. 

I like this time-lapse animation video of GPS tracks from King County Search Dog air scent training. The K9 Lincoln is red in this video, and the handler D33 is blue. Watch this less than two-minute video, and then I will share what alignment looks like in agile organizations.

Alignment and Leadership

You will notice a couple of patterns.

(1) The K9 Lincoln follows the scent trail, which takes him on a non-direct winding path to the objective. It is the exploration dynamic. Lincoln knows the objective is getting closer, but he does not know how much longer until he makes contact with the rescue target.

(2) Once contact with a rescue target is made, the opportunity exploit dynamic starts. The K9’s ability to get back to the handler and lead the handler back to the rescue target is of utmost urgency. If it takes too long, the rescue target will move to a different location.

It is also equally important to pay attention to the behavior of handler D33 throughout the training. The handler was steady in pursuit of the same outcome with their K9. Alignment between the handler and the K9 was a shared outcome: “Rescue Brian and then Mary.”

And finally, what did not happen but could have? The handler did not distract their K9 by asking them to play “fetch.”

In knowledge work, people must be able to count on each other to apply their specialist skills towards the same shared outcome.  And this means that leadership responsibilities are shared. The handler D33 has capabilities to radio specialists and medical professionals to ensure the safety of rescued individuals. And the K9 can track and follow the scent effectively in rugged natural terrain. Both these capabilities are needed for the safe rescue of a person. The K9 and the handler must work in alignment. And this means both focus on achieving the same shared objective. In other words, no distractions.

Alignment requires an understanding of the nature of work. This video gives you a glimpse into what the explore-exploit dynamic looks like. In agile teams, the rescue outcome is to develop an increment of the product that satisfy the customers and users. Building a stable, usable increment can get messy with many meandering trails. Teams must explore the right implementation pathways, experiment with different feature options, or both simultaneously. The explore-exploit dynamics can test management patience that wants results before the market opportunity shifts. The good news is that agile approaches are well suited for managing uncertainty in the complexities of real-world product development.

In agile organizations, management exercises control through governance controls. In the case of

  1. The control is a time-box in goal-oriented frameworks such as XP and Scrum.
  2. The control is a work-in-process limit and explicit policies in flow-oriented approaches such as Kanban.

Whether your organization favors goal-orientation or flow-orientation, alignment requires focus on the shared outcome. Governance controls define the boundaries when management can intervene to introduce a change in objectives or decide to invest further in pursuit of previously stated objectives.

Management and Innovation are two main imperatives for the survival of any organization. And like in the explore-exploit video, the responsibility to lead is shared between the handler and K9 with an unambiguous understanding of the shared objectives. Together they cannot control which way the wind blows, but they can control their motives and actions. And this is what proper alignment looks like.

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