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From control to trust: how to improve the productivity and innovation of your teams.

The Agile mindset puts humans and relationships at the heart of creating innovative solutions. With increasing complexity, agility is no longer an option if you want to move faster and more efficiently.

However, agility requires a number of changes in the way of thinking and managing teams. One of the most important changes is the shift from control to trust.

This week, I wanted to explore this topic, following up on last week’s article on hybrid Agile teams. Like every post on this blog, this is an invitation to try something different, to promote a healthier and more productive work environment.

Trust over control? Really?

Losing control bothers you… or even scares you? (You can admit it, it’s just between you and you. What matters is being aware of it so that you can evolve). Yet, the letting go that leads to trust is even more powerful. Why?

  • Because letting go means no longer clinging to the result and moving forward anyway. So we feel less stressed and more confident.
  • It’s allowing others the opportunity to achieve their goals, giving them the choice of how to do it, which is often more efficient and innovative.
  • It’s growing your teams towards higher performance.

When you decide to trust teams to find the best way to solve a problem, it gives them autonomy that makes them responsible. These teams also have the necessary skills to find the best solutions, which you may not have.

Trusting and giving autonomy doesn’t mean you let teams do whatever they want. Agile requires discipline, rigor, and excellence. You give power to the team, but in return, they commit to communicating transparently about their progress and obstacles, with the aim of continuously learning and improving, with your support.

Giving your trust and the power to find solutions to your team also allows collective intelligence to flourish. The more teams feel in a safe space, allowing them to dare to try new ideas, the more possibilities you have to innovate and offer valuable solutions to your customers.

Your team members will be all the more inclined to share their mistakes and obstacles in order to continuously improve. In a controlling environment, it’s the opposite: as soon as a person feels controlled, their brain goes into a defense mechanism (fight, flight, or freeze). It will be all the more difficult, time-consuming, and tiring to convince people to be transparent and open-minded.

Still not convinced?

I invite you to try it for a while, and here are some keys to help you establish this trust.

Keys to building trust in the team

As I said earlier, agility doesn’t mean doing anything and everything. A framework is necessary, as well as team accountability, which allows trust to be established. What does this framework look like?

A common framework

In an Agile mode, the common framework includes several elements: a vision, objectives, values, and principles recognized by all.

  • The vision and objectives allow everyone to be aligned with each other and work in the same direction.
  • Common values and principles allow progress within a safe framework and create a sense of belonging.

These elements can be defined through specific workshops, organized with the team and a Scrum Master or Agile Coach. Tools like the vision statement, OKRs (Objective & Key Results), and team canvas are all relevant in this context.

This common framework can also include decision-making and conflict management methods. This involves defining – in advance – how decisions affecting the team and the product they are working on will be made and how conflicts will be managed.

Defining these elements collectively and in advance consolidates the framework and allows the team to know what to expect. The work environment is healthier and more serene.

Autonomy and accountability

Agile principles indicate that the best teams are self-managed teams, who have been given the support they need to move forward. As an Agile leader, you give autonomy to your team, and help them take responsibility for the delivery of the product for which they are responsible.

This autonomy is supported by a clear vision and alignment on common goals, as well as open and transparent communication about what is happening, throughout the product development cycle.

For example, a team will be able to decide which tools it will use, or how its members will organize themselves during periods of absence. On the other hand, it will clearly report the impact that these absences will have on the schedule and the risks that this can bring, so that the leaders can take this information into account to re-prioritize.

Collaboration and mutual support are also important in this context, since they allow the team to find solutions to their problems and to improve continuously. When the team is unable to overcome certain obstacles on its own, it has the responsibility to raise this point in complete transparency with their leader, who must come to actively help them.

Communication and transparency

It is therefore important that communication and transparency are put in place, so that information circulates smoothly and with all the actors who can help the team to progress.

This transparency can be put in place thanks to visual management, open to all, which allows the same level of information and understanding. Some reports may be extracted and presented more succinctly for some stakeholders, but the source of information should be the same.

The same goes for communicating around successes and failures. Both can be celebrated. It is crucial that the team sees and perceives that failures are not seen as sticks to be beaten, but as lessons to be learned, to improve. It’s up to the leader to show this and invite the team, through retrospectives and open questions, to focus on continuous improvement, rather than blaming them for their mistakes.

If the leader fails to create this trust, the team will tend to hide or minimize errors and the risks and impacts cannot be escalated quickly enough to correct the situation. The good health of the project and the team really depends on it.

How to Build and Cultivate Confidence as a Leader

Learn to let go

If letting go is not an easy task for you, identify – perhaps with the help of a coach – the limiting thoughts that prevent you from doing so. Recognize this part of you, accept your limits and make an agreement with yourself to change. You can take a moment to think about letting go in a positive way for you: less stress in the end, better team engagement and more value created.

Ask yourself these questions to help you:

  • What would be the benefits for you? For your team? For your vision and goals?
  • On what aspect would you be willing to try and experiment?
  • Where could you start tomorrow?

Be honest and have integrity

Show your team that you are trustworthy:

  • Be honest with them and with yourself. Tell them the truth, even if you disagree, and explain why, in a respectful and calm manner.
  • Use facts to support your decisions, do not rely solely on your intuition, even if it is excellent.
  • Respect the commitments you make, to them and to others. And if you can no longer do it, explain to them why in all transparency.

Also be congruent: align words and deeds. Agile leaders are often asked to be role models, to show teams the way. This requires taking actions that demonstrate the truth of what you say.

For example, if you advocate work/personal life balance, do not send emails on weekends or late at night.

Develop empathy and active listening

Another quality that will help you improve confidence is active listening. It is a question of taking a step back and trying to understand your interlocutor, before answering him. To make sure the person has finished speaking, be aware of their non-verbal language, count 3 seconds before speaking. Ask him open-ended questions to help you understand him. Ask for details, examples. Rephrase. Accept his emotions: whatever they are, they are all valid.

It’s about really focusing on the other, understanding their point of view and recognizing that it can be completely different from their own and yet just as acceptable.

This listening and empathy will be very useful when you set up regular feedback rituals, such as retrospectives or face-to-face points. Team members will feel heard, especially as you help support their efforts and help them progress.

Replacing control with trust is an essential shift for success in an Agile environment. It is not always easy to do this, but by getting started and proceeding with small actions to be put in place as you go, it is quite possible. You will only come out of it as a leader and your teams will feel in a better working environment, which will have beneficial effects on their performance.

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