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Awareness and the Agile Leader

Much of the cultural change in adopting an Agile framework is restructuring our conceptions of leadership from ‘telling people what to do’ to a stance of enabling teams through service. But being ready to serve and knowing how to serve are two different things. In order to do the work that will help teams deliver […]

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July 19, 2021

Much of the cultural change in adopting an Agile framework is restructuring our conceptions of leadership from ‘telling people what to do’ to a stance of enabling teams through service. But being ready to serve and knowing how to serve are two different things. In order to do the work that will help teams deliver the most value and create an environment of continual improvement through fearless experimentation, a leader needs to cultivate three distinct domains of awareness: situational, social, and self. Without these, even those with the best intentions are likely to fumble from one dictatorial gaffe to the next, inadvertently undercutting team health and end product value along the way.

Situational Awareness

Often the most readily observable of the domains discussed here, situational awareness relates to understanding the facts and objective reality of a particular scenario. I typically recommend that a leader start with the three ‘C’s: circumstance, context, and consequence.

Helping a team build the capability to pull together these details of circumstance, context, and consequence into a cohesive, shared understanding is one of the most fundamentally useful actions a leader can take. Especially when it comes to helping a team notice blank spots and gaps in the big picture.

Social Awareness

Less immediately observable than situational details (but just as important!) are the social aspects at work in a scenario. Where situational awareness is centered on questions like “what is the problem?” and “what can we do about it?,” social awareness is focused on questions like “who are the people involved in this issue?” and “how does their relationship to each other affect the way we solve problems?” A leader’s social awareness is built from many observations of interactions within a team over time and is not readily borrowed from third parties. Social awareness means pulling together many details of behavioral patterns to understand how people in a group relate to each other and how those interactions shape the way a group makes choices and gets things done (or doesn’t!). For example, some things to pay attention to when observing a team interact may include:

Unfortunately, there aren’t any universal rules or interpretations for social cues. They are entirely specific to the mix of people in a particular group, which means that you have learn what to pay attention to on a team-by-team basis. With a new group you may not understand which cues are important, but key constellations will reveal themselves in time.

Self-Awareness

Easily the hardest of the three domains for many, self-awareness is understanding how your own presence and involvement in an event interacts with the situational and social details to affect choices and outcomes. Cultivating effective self-awareness means grappling with three critical types of questions:

Self-awareness can be difficult for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the absence of control data (how do you observe the interactions of others when you’re not present to see if there’s a difference from when you are present?). Cultivating an atmosphere of openness and availability for feedback and rooting your own actions in authenticity and accountability go a long way toward creating the opportunities for you learn how you affect others. We can also get help from other observers, like Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and even formalized assessment tools (Leadership Circle 360 is my go-to).

So how can you master each type of awareness?

Proficiency in these domains might come from several sources: innate skill, formal training, experiential practice, or professional coaching by an expert. No one is born with innate situational awareness, but rather they accrue it through existing in a particular circumstance for some amount of time. Some people certainly seem to have an innate knack for social and/or self-awareness. Training can give you a head start on developing all three domains. For example, an institutional veteran can give you the benefit of their experience to support your situational awareness, and a skilled trainer can give you examples and techniques to practice critical social and self-awareness skills. But training works best if reinforced through the experience of intentional practice or the guidance of a coach. And experience and coaching are certainly supported by formal training to give you a common language to engage with others on your journey.

As someone who’s worked with Agile teams and leaders for over a decade, my recommendation is for leaders to start with a high quality training experience, such as a Certified Agile Leadership Essentials (CAL-E) course, followed by either CAL for Teams (CAL-T) or CAL for Organizations (CAL-O), depending on your role. Then learners could build upon that with a Leadership Circle 360 Assessment that lays the groundwork for individualized Leadership Coaching in partnership with an expert mentor. For more information on any of these, contact NextUp Solutions!

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