How Do You Lead Without Power?

For the many flavors and leadership caucuses in the Agile community, it’s a wonder we all manage to get anything to a consensus these days. New scrum masters and product owners are being minted every day — in countries all over the world — often without much in the way of mentorship, and that has caused a great bifurcation of thought.

I learned of one such disturbance in the Force recently after a tweet from Easter Derby:


The post in the Scrum Alliance community boards proceeds to outline a dilemma many an Agile leader faces today. We are responsible for delivering quality products to our stakeholders, yet we don’t really have any power over others in our daily scrums. New teams tend to lose their happy-go-lucky feel (if we ever had it to begin with), and you try to grasp at any foothold to elicit productivity from team members.

That’s where I think articles like this come from. Santosh is merely asking a question that many of us have pondered: how do we lead those around us when we don’t really have any power over them?

Is legacy thinking getting in the way?

Since there’s a variety of methods for achieving Scrum certifications, I might as well disclose that all of my certs are from the Scrum Alliance. I’m not here to advocate or vilify them because we are all invited to participate in the community and as I said before there are newcomers starving for mentorship without a place to turn.

Running a quick search on the site lists 12 posts in the last 15 months with the words “performance appraisal” in them. Jeff Sutherland wrote about it in 2010, most likely thinking the subject could be considered closed. Having listened to him speak several times, his “matter-of-factness” comes across clearly in the post. Avoid it if you can, but if you must do so there is a simple approach. A Google search would indicate there is far from a consensus on the subject.

It’s confusing, and traditionally structured companies struggle with performing the rituals of running a business with a framework that flies in the face of tradition.

Vivekananda was merely trying to take a task he was given by a legacy structure and trying to apply his newfound principles to it. He may not work in a place like I do, but the first question he should have asked was why he was the one who is conducting these appraisals.

Power is not something to seek.

Teams don’t respond to me because I have power over them. That’s the kind of project management I rebelled against when I was younger, and have no desire to return.

Scrum is not something to run on people. It’s a framework of trust that can be abused just like any predecessor. We lead through trust, transparency and the assurance that we are all equals in light of keeping the cards moving.

Twice a year, my company uses an online tool to do something called “360s”. You are responsible for asking those who work around you to participate in providing feedback as to how you are doing your job. It’s anonymous, brief, and ripe with opportunities for growth as long as you take it seriously.

See beyond your title or position.

Granted, I usually get asked to write a 360 for all of my team members, but it’s not because I’m their boss. They just know I pay attention to them and desire to help them improve. I feel the same for them.

Honestly, if you are running retrospectives in a thoughtful manner, the need for formal reviews should go away. Your team will know how they can improve, and it’s your job to help them to it.

Look at performance appraisals the same as a sprint retrospective: if the scrum master is doing all of the talking there isn’t a lot of productive change being suggested. Titles and power are not something to gather and wield, you don’t need it. Hopefully, I am the type of leader that doesn’t need any of that to be effective.

The material is out there. While I have a long way to go, that’s what I did a while back and it has meant the world to the product of my leadership.


One thought on “How Do You Lead Without Power?

  1. Performance reviews have been the most painful thing I have ever experienced. I can see your point about abolishing them from Scrum. I personally tend to over inflate my own self perception and learning what people really think can be devastating. However, I personally believe that honest feedback coupled with suggestions from well meaning people can transform me into a leader that I wouldn’t become otherwise. This feedback also needs to be balanced with a recognition of strengths and accomplishments. Someone once suggested to always wrap “suggestions” with complements and praise. On that note, I loved the article. Good job Chris!


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