How to build resilient teams with Agile expert Diana Larsen

Diana Larsen is an international authority in Agile software development, leadership, and transformations. She’s also the co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, Liftoff: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams, and The Five Rules of Accelerated Learning. Her most recent book, Lead Without Blame, is particularly relevant now, as it addresses the crucial need for enterprises to build resilient teams in today’s increasingly competitive and challenging landscape.

Diana and I recently spoke about her latest work and uncovered numerous strategies and insights for senior leaders. Here some of the learnings at a glance:

  • How to become learning leaders: modeling behaviors to unlock team potential and enhance resilience. 
  • Ways to conduct effective retrospective exercises: fostering constructive feedback and embracing healthy conflict to improve team dynamics. 
  • How to understand and leverage power dynamics: identifying and utilizing the team’s collective intelligence for maximum impact.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you discuss your background, the origins of Lead Without Blame, and how you came to collaborate with your co-author, Tricia Broderick?

Retrospectives was about bringing in continuous improvement, and Liftoff was about how to charter teams and help them get started fast. Tricia and I were invited to write Lead Without Blame together. We hadn’t worked together much, though we knew of each other and really respected each other’s contributions to the community. 

The original request was that we write something about retrospectives for a broader audience. As Trisha and I started exploring what we felt like might be missing in the community and through that retrospective lens, we landed on healthy generative leadership: Leadership that fosters learning in their organizations and within teams. 

And it really hit a sweet spot because both of us are devoted to great teamwork. I’ve always been interested in how leadership can create the best possible work environment. I really believe that learning is the next big challenge for us as teams and organizations. Knowledge work is not the challenge. Learning work is.

Why is the concept of leading without blame so crucial in today’s work environments?

When you’re in an environment where there is blame, shame, judgment, and negative criticism — which for some reason or another people have been taught is the way to motivate people — it actually suppresses people’s desire to do good work, their ability to learn quickly, and their resilience. Because everybody’s looking over their shoulder. “Am I the one who’s gonna be blamed next?” 

Even if you haven’t experienced blame from a leader in your organization, you have seen it happen to other people, and then you’re on alert. And so some part of your productive energy is going toward protecting yourself from that, as opposed to creating really good work.

What are some of the common misconceptions that can contribute to a culture of blame?

I’ve always hated the word “empowerment” because it sounds like something you have to receive or get from someone else, when it really means power that comes from within. What we need to do is create a shift from “I’m going to hold you accountable” to “we” want to take responsibility for this. “We” want to be accountable for serving this customer in a really good way, and “we” want to do that together. Even the language around that shows you which one encourages you to become engaged and which one discourages you from becoming engaged.

Fear is an effective motivator in the short term. But it is very short term, and it ultimately builds resentment over time. There’s a lot of evidence that we don’t get to our best work that way. And yet, like the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail: If leaders only have ever been exposed to one way of leading, then that’s what they’re going to use. Because they don’t know what else is out there. So we wanted to encourage people to reflect on what might be out there. And we provided a number of ways to do just that.

What are the four Cs and how are leaders who embrace them more successful than those who lead with blame? 

Leaders need to look at their team as an entity as opposed to a collection of individual contributors. Dan Pink wrote a great book, Drive, about personal motivation. We wanted to take it from a different point of view — one of the collective. So we said, yes, purpose is a motivator, but it has to be a team purpose. Yes, autonomy is a motivator, but it needs to be team autonomy and collective identity. And then the last one is co-intelligence: what do we know, how do we know it, and what are our gaps as a team? 

Knowing that those are the three motivators and that our focus is on creating a better learning environment so that people can do better learning work, then courage means that the leaders need to model learning and give support for learning. 

Then compassion is understanding that learning is hard and that there’s always a learning curve. We need to have patience for people to learn their way through an issue or a dilemma, or learn new skills. For example, how do I learn about AI? How does AI fit into my work? That’s not going to happen overnight. 

Once you’ve supported learning publicly, and offered compassion to people for their learning, then the leader can have confidence that their team can do the learning they need to do. 

And then lastly, we have complexity. We live in such a complex world: the VUCA ideas – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. If leaders don’t understand and acknowledge that, then they’re going to have a very hard time working in the kind of conditions that come out of our current situations.

What is the core message you aim to convey through your book, and who do you believe will benefit most from its insights?

The book is for anyone who finds themself in a formal or informal leadership role. But in terms of who we would most like to influence, it’s the influencers in organizations, whether that’s the C-suite, the senior leadership, or the smartest technical person on your team. We want to encourage them to expand their skill set so that their leadership includes ways of leading without blame. And then be role models for other people, because we know that’s the most powerful way to learn. 

When you see somebody else doing something that’s really working, you want to try it out for yourself. And then when you get that internal feedback loop of, “wow, I’m getting much better results for this,” then you start modeling it for other people. We want to provide an opportunity for people of influence to show what it means to be a learning leader, meaning that you lead, you show yourself to be a learner, and you help others understand that they are learners too.

What was a surprising insight or lesson you learned about leadership and team resilience while writing this book?

While I already had a lot of respect for Tricia as a leader in the Agile community, over time I gained even more respect for her experiences as an executive leader. I came to it also with having written some other books. So I understood the book-writing process in a maybe more nuanced way than Tricia had expected it to be. It was that combination of our skills that led to the synergy and our greater understandings. Collaborations help me to remember the power of collaborations.

The book has reflection exercises for each chapter. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of reflection in the learning process? What’s the most important thing for leaders to do as they reflect?

We not only encourage reflection at the end of every chapter, but we also provide ideas about moving retrospectives beyond just a delivery team activity. We want to inspire people to use retrospectives to influence the broader organization and our leadership peer group. There’s a little chart that says here are all the possible places, issues, ideas, and groups they might want to use retrospectives with, so that people can get a little more information about them and how to facilitate them. 

Check out the Lead Without Blame Miroverse Template

Diana, thank you so much for your time. Any last thoughts that’d you’d like to share?

Be kind to each other. People sometimes call me a visionary pragmatist, and sometimes they call me a pragmatic visionary. I’m not sure which way you want to put your thumb on the scale, but I do want people to treat each other well and to have these wonderful human opportunities for learning. Being a leader in this way gets you better results.

Watch the full interview with Diana Larsen here.

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