Michal Paszkiewicz

review: Elastic Leadership

While reading this book, I found that a lot of people were interested in finding out what "Elastic Leadership" meant. When I started describing the agile process and how software teams are trying to self-organise instead of following a traditional hierarchy and command structure, many people identified with this and told me that they would like their teams to work in this way. Due to this, I would like to point out that this is not just a book for team leaders in IT - the principles here can be applied to management in any environment or line of work.

Apart from dealing with bus factors, Roy Asherove's main contribution to this book is his introduction to his "team modes". The author establishes that a team can be in one of three modes:

  1. Survival mode

    Where a team is struggling to keep up with work and has no time for learning. They are fire-fighting and rely on the manager to solve all of their problems.

  2. Learning mode

    Where a team has enough down time to learn how to deal with it's problems and it is learning.

  3. Self-organising mode

    When a team is picking up their own work and solving their own problems, to the point where the manager can be absent for a few days without any detrimental effects on the team.

Similarly, a leader can supposedly have one of three styles of leadership:

  1. Command and control

    Pro-active leader who is happy to make all the decisions and to tell everyone what to do.

  2. Coach/Dictator

    The leader who loves to teach and does a great job of bringing his colleagues up to scratch.

  3. Facilitator

    The facilitator seems to not be there. The facilitator will not solve the team's problems, but relies on the team to do it for him/her. Instead of this, this leader will make that that the team has everything it needs to get the job done.

The author then states that each of the leadership styles complements a particular team mode. Command and control is perfect for dealing with the chaos of survival mode, a coach is fitting for a team in learning mode and a facilitating style will give a self-organising team the freedom to work efficiently.

The manager's role isn't just to use the correct leadership style for the right mode. A good manager will strive towards getting his team into self-organising mode. A manager should be trying to get a team that is in survival mode to start learning by assigning the team time just to learn and making sure they do. A team that is in learning mode shouldn't be learning just anything - they need to learn how to solve their own problems so that the team can transition into self-organising mode.

Part 5 of the book is a treasure trove full of tips on how to be a great manager. This will teach the reader to get good feedback, channel conflict into learning, document all the decisions, improve the SCRUM process and many more things. Each article is written by a different expert leader and is full of gems that bring a lot of value to this book. I particularly found Dan North's article "Channel conflict into learning" of particular interest and I wish that this could have been tried in a few situations I have faced in the past. Maybe one day I will be able to try the outlined approach in the future.

The book does an excellent job of describing the team modes and how to identify and work with them. However, the reader is left wondering whether this model is too simplistic and that it is a bit little to tell someone that they have to "teach their team to solve their own problems". In certain cases, team members may not have the clearance/access level to deal with certain problems and are in need of a manager that can deal with the problems they can't manage, even if they are already capable of self-organising. I am slightly worried that a manager, after reading this book, may not understand that he may still need to take on a lot of responsibility and may instead try to be a facilitator when it is not the appropriate role to take. Either way, I recommend this book to all people striving to become (better) managers and I feel I have learnt a lot about how to deal with various issues a problem may be facing in their race towards being the ultimate self-organising team.

****

published: Sat May 20 2017

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Michal Paszkiewicz reads books, solves equations and plays instruments whenever he isn't developing software for Transport For London. All views on this site are the author's views only and do not necessarily represent the views of TfL.