Applied Servant Leadership: 5. Alignment

This is the fifth article proper in a series introduced with It’s time to reclaim Servant Leadership. We’re looking at how, in the practical context of Lean-Agile transformation, we take Servant Leadership beyond “serve the team” or “unblock all the things and get out of the way”. Each post corresponds to one of the strategies of our white paper 6+1 Essential strategies for successful Lean-Agile transformation. Get your copy now!

In my book Kanban from the Inside I wrote this:

If our knowledge-based organizations can’t generate some excess creativity over what each individual can generate on his or her own, why do they exist at all?[1]

[1] Why do firms exist? Economists still wrestle with that. See and

Collaboration (the title of the chapter from which that comes) describes the relationships and behaviours necessary for this “excess creativity” to materialise. One responsibility of the servant-leader is to nurture the conditions that allow this collaboration to take place; Agile processes meanwhile exist in large part to ensure that opportunities for collaboration are never missed for long. “Right conversion, right time” is the goal; “regular conversations of various specific kinds” is the starting point.

Alignment is about ensuring that those individual efforts will combine in ways that (i) reinforce each other rather than cancel each other out, and (ii) take us toward our shared goals.

Given the range of scales involved I don’t believe that there is one easy answer to alignment, but there are some great models we can learn from:

  • As described in Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action, the concept of commander’s intent, a surprisingly forward-thinking concept developed in the military, initially in 19th century Germany and further developed around the world in the years since. The key insight of this model is that that the “how” of the work can be treated as orthogonal to the “what and why” of the objective, allowing the former to worked out by the those closest in time and space to the action, releasing significant creative potential as a result. Despite its militaristic origins, its lessons for everyday business life are very human, speaking into Servant Leadership concerns such as autonomy, meaningfulness (of the kind all-too-easily destroyed by micro-management) and purpose.
  • From the Kanban Method comes the advice to Implement feedback loops, an abstraction of a number of existing Lean and Agile practises and further realised in David’s model of feedback loops in Enterprise Services Planning. At team level and above, and at intervals ranging from daily to multiple weeks, these bring people and information together in a variety of decision-making forums, so that misunderstandings, miscommunications, misfortunes, and other misalignments can be identified and acted upon. In more traditional settings these feedback loops might be described as “control mechanisms”, though the overtones here are unfortunate, and perhaps the intent too! “Keeping things on track at all costs” is not what we’re about here.
  • Also from the Kanban Method: Make policies explicit, again good advice abstracted from a wide range of more specific practices (standard work and definitions of done are Lean and Agile examples, respectively). The idea here is that we can improve performance by identifying and keeping open to review and modification the rules, parameters and constraints we will work within, both those that are internally agreed and those that are externally imposed. The benefits go beyond the technical design of processes and their openness to change; they help to reduce the waste of misaligned and unpredictable behaviour, with benefits social as well as economic. A reference to the kind of mutual accountability within teams described in Patrick Lencioni’s superb The five dysfunctions of a team seems very pertinent here too (not to mention his model as a whole).
  • Numerous interpersonal models and tools, for example triads (three people sharing a purpose and taking responsibility for the three pairwise relationships involved, perhaps spanning organisational boundaries and looking to create new connections), and Clean Language (in this context as a way to explore other people’s mental models around challenges and objectives, whether personal or corporate).

Culture, alignment, and transformation

Reading the Schein classic Organisational Culture and Leadership, I was struck by the beautifully simple observation that culture is the product of a process, with the strong implication that we shape culture not directly but by beginning to influence that process.

If we’re in the business of transformation – and if we are to be true to Servant Leadershp I think we must be – why not apply the models of alignment to that work? Carefully separating the “how” from the intent. Monitoring, guiding, and sustaining the transformation with the help of feedback loops. Establishing policies (eg of safety) and team accountability around that work. Engaging at a personal level, building networks, etc. Let’s take those as read in what might yet turn out to be Agendashift’s primary principle: “Make the agenda for change explicit“.

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