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How Facilitation Supports Servant Leadership and Agile Teams?

Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte
Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte
How Facilitation Supports Servant Leadership and Agile Teams?

People don’t quit jobs, they quit bad bosses. This saying may be a cliché, but it is truer than ever. When there is fierce competition for good talent, the leadership culture is a major differentiating factor. This is reflected in the employer’s image and has a direct impact on the performance of its teams.

To succeed as a leader you need strong communication and facilitation skills

Leadership, on the other hand, is no longer just a job for the bosses, but is much more widely shared across the organisation. Leadership is about influencing in different directions. It’s about engaging different stakeholders (for example, representatives from different departments or divisions, suppliers, customers, or even institutes educating the future talent) around a common goal.

If your role or the achievement of your goals requires you to mobilise other people, that’s leadership – and mobilising people is rarely achieved through one-way communication – not because people are stubborn, but because we look at things from different perspectives, backgrounds, and frames of reference. What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to me. When there’s more than one person in the same interactive situation, misunderstandings occur. What’s more, we are motivated by different drivers and feel that different things are important. And for many of us, our own self-preservation instincts tell us to avoid doing things we don’t understand, that feel uncomfortable or scary. On the positive side, once I understand the issue, its rationale and benefits, and feel in control of the situation, I’m motivated to act.

These days, time is of the essence. There’s no time to waste, you have to get results quickly. That’s why it pays to involve the people who will be affected early on in the planning process, asking them questions, confirming their understanding, involving and engaging them. That way, the movement for change already starts at the planning stage, instead of the traditional “management decides, cascades decisions on the organisation and wonders why people don’t act” model.

Servant leadership supports autonomy of teams

Self-organizing teams and servant leadership have surfaced as enablers of rapid experimentation, quick decision-making and innovativeness. In agile philosophy these elements are seen as contributors to greater customer value with faster delivery. Self-organization emphasises the responsibility and freedom of teams to make choices and decisions about their work, as well as to lead their own development towards the wanted direction. In organisations, this direction is determined by the vision, purpose and strategy of the organisation.

Servant leadership is a model of leadership that enables self-organization of teams. Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges (2005) describe servant leadership through the pyramid metaphor traditionally associated with Leadership Skills. In servant leadership, the leader remains responsible for determining a meaningful direction. By vision, Blanchard and Hodges mean a vision of the future, the purpose of existence and the values that guide action. According to Blanchard and Hodges the management may involve the team in forming the vision, but they still bear the responsibility for creating it and can’t delegate it to others. Once the vision has been clearly communicated and justified, the rest of the organisation or team is expected to respond to it, i.e. to work in the direction it indicates.

During the vision implementation phase, the pyramid is turned upside down so that those closest to the customers are now at the top of the pyramid and able to take responsibility for implementing the vision in a self-guided way. It is now up to leader to respond to people’s needs, to train them, coach and facilitate their work so that they can achieve the objectives set and genuinely work in the desired direction. This is where leaders become servant leaders. In practice, based on my experience, the alignment between the two pyramids is constant in the ever-changing environment. The leader needs to constantly ensure that the team is clear of the direction and provide that clarification when needed. In between of the direction clarification moments the leader is there to support the team.

Pyramidi englanniksi

Facilitation is a core skill of a servant leader

Becoming self-organized as a team is a journey where leader’s support is needed. The more autonomy the team acquires, the better the team members are able to facilitate their work and collaboration. Before that, the leader is in a natural position to offer this facilitation support and help the team members in such practices as:

  • generating new ideas
  • evaluating objectively different options
  • making thoughtful decisions (those within their area of responsibility)
  • reflecting and learning from the past work and collaboration
  • developing their internal practices

The more the team becomes familiar with facilitation as approach and skill set, the easier it is for the team members to start taking responsibility of the Facilitation practice themselves.

Agile work can only succeed combined with strong facilitation competency

The work in organizations who have adopted agile methodologies is formed around repeating processes and encounters with specific aims, called rituals (such as daily meetings or retrospectives). Just like buying a violin doesn’t mean you can play the violin, establishing the agile routines doesn’t mean you gain value of them. You need to develop the organization in a way tams can take advantage of this structure and truly gain value through it. Building strong facilitation competency to support the interaction within the agile or scrum rituals supports the quality of human interaction in these encounters. With low facilitation skills there is a high risk that the approach is mechanical, and the focus is on facilitating the process, rather than focusing on the people interaction and on the needs of the group.

When the facilitation skills are mastered, the meeting facilitator uses the purpose and default process of the meeting as a back bone for the interaction, but is now able to fully focus on:

  • the group
  • encouraging different views
  • building psychological safety
  • encouraging the contribution of different participants
  • using healthy conflict to learn and grow as a team

What’s your experience on the relationship between facilitation and leadership?

The writer of this post is the founder and Managing Director of Xpedio, Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte. She has been working with facilitation and organizational development around Europe for the last 17 years. Get to know Mirjami better here.

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