Disempowerment is the very reason we want to become Agile. There is no empowerment without disempowerment, yin and yang.
I had the privilege of attending my first meeting (and definitely not the last one!) with the awesome group Cambridge Agile Exchange (CAE) a few days ago where, on top of catching up with a great bunch of professionals, we had a really interesting workshop about dealing with disempowerment.
The workshop consisted on two specific activities: the first one, discuss in small groups (6-8, four teams in total) on how to disempower people, not the other way around. I liked this approach, as it definitely reflects what I mentioned above: empowerment cannot exist without disempowerment. Our group decided to split the time writing individually our ideas, then group them together to find common elements and, most importantly, understand as a group which ones were the obvious bottlenecks and hot topics.
Of course, some brutally honest (and hilarious) cards emerged as a result: in order to disempower people we should add unnecessary processes, block changes, have strong opinions, focus on the problems, remove choices, remove access to information, stop listening, make fun of other people’s ideas, criticise everything, punish failure… which in this context sounds fun, but the sad reality is that we need to deal with these constraints on a daily basis on our real professional lives to a higher or lesser degree. We found the common big topics:
- Access to information
- Rewards and punishments
The second part was a bit more specific: we were given a couple of cards with a real life scenario and discuss what it meant. Our card (without remembering the exact words) effectively stated the stress of a team member who felt no one cared about quality and that it wasn’t possible to work with such incompetent people.
We all agreed we needed to look at all possible angles about such swooping sentence: Was it indeed the team’s fault? Was it not his own perspective? Did he/she actually speak up publicly about it? Did he/she actually have a point? We spent a bit considering it all, then we exposed our conclusions. It was all done in a very Agile way, seeking the source of truth and being open about everything, focusing in the solution of the problem.
And that was it: I went home with the satisfaction of refreshing a very relevant topic,. I spent the following days comparing this workshop with my current employer, but also past ones in my mind. And it is quite interesting how disempowerment ends up being a question of individual egos, undeserved power, rooted culture and, most importantly, the inability of organisations with old-fashioned practices to decentralise decisions and effectively provide true freedom to their employees by trusting their professional choices, even if they’re wrong.
I have been over and over during my professional years of experience (even as we speak, even being part of a company that truly embraces Agile) experiencing the same situation: bottlenecks, people who consider that being single points of failure is something good, people who only care about their own objectives and is unable to meet halfway, people with excess of strong opinions, people who don’t listen (or even worse, who pretend to listen) … none of this being black or white but with many degrees of shade in between, but nevertheless present.
Disempowerment is powerful, because it allows us to achieve one of the tree key elements to achieve real change according to the Beckhard-Harris change model. This element is Dissatisfaction.
Change = Dissatisfaction + Vision + Plan
The three elements needed to produce change need to be strong enough, otherwise they won’t be present and will not allow “real” change.
A real-life example: I am in a miserable personal relationship with someone I don’t really love. I am dissatisfied, but I am scared to be on my own or I don’t have enough emotional intelligence to neither make a plan of action, neither a vision of my future out of that relationship.
Another one could be: I have a plan of professional development and I have a vision where I am living in a foreign country, under a role I’ve wanted for a long time and that I have achieved after a lot of training and courses… but the truth is I’m comfortable with my personal life and the company I work with. So… I’m not dissatisfied enough to actually make it happen.
As I mentioned on a previous post, the source of good things normally has a very shady background. Disempowerment can elevate the dissatisfaction levels enough to produce a vision and a plan to eliminate it. And the result is true, genuine empowerment. Above personal egos, above toxic managers, above old-fashioned ways of working. Above organisations, I’d say.
I really loved discussing this topic with my Cambridge Agile Exchange colleagues, and I can’t wait to resume the chat and any other Agile topic, as long as we all have a true purpose to revolutionise our environments and see each other as peer colleagues, despite we might belong to different organisations. Because it’s not about us, it’s about true Agility.