Last week I attended the Stretch leadership conference here in Budapest. Being both a leader and a UXer puts me in a unique position. I’m both interested in how to become a better leader in daily practice, but also in ways how such a leadership and better functioning teams can be designed, how to approach leadership as a design project.

Compared to last year, I felt there were less truly remarkable talks. Maybe it’s related to how my experiences as a team lead have changed my views what is important, and now I’m watching these talks through a more nuanced glasses. But overall there were plenty of nice small tidbits at least to reframe some of the things I’ve been doing.

The common theme among the talks seemed like how leadership should be focused (more) on people. Great news for any designer looking to get into a leadership position, as we already have the tools and the mindset to deal with people issues, for example empathy, user research and facilitation skills.

Other then the people focus, I liked Jeff Gothelf’s talk about innovation teams. It’s nice to see how his concepts of Lean UX evolve into a more general view on how to lead product teams and product organizations. Gergely Kmethy on weird, strange team rituals was an other thought provoking talk, it made me think what are some of the rituals and other culture artefacts within my team, and if those can be formed. Enspiral Network, as introduced by Kate Beecroft sounds like an inspiring experiment on self organization, maybe even an alternative to teal organizations.

Experiments to try

This year I wanted to have a few concrete experiments as takeaways, so I’ll try these three:

  • Happier 1:1s. Having more as walking meetings and say “thank you” more times.
  • Give more feedback around culture values. Feedback in itself is important, but even better if it’s aligned with culture.
  • Organize better my team’s study / play time, invest in fun or strange things.

My notes

I made notes for most of the talk, and you should be able to watch most of the talks on the conference’s ustream channel in a few days.

Peter Hawkins: Developing our Collective Leadership to face the Future Challenges

  • First rule to leadership: you have to be present, appear to leadership
  • Think about this: what do you need to learn, to benefit 100 of your stakeholders in the future?
  • There are huge challenges for today’s leadership going into the future: exponential change, being uberized, greater diversity, ethically complex issues, unceasing transformation, climate change.
  • Future employees need personalised learning directly from role models, but not trainings or courses.
  • How to change leadership development, to prepare us for the changing world? Don’t look backward for examples, prepare people for the future.
  • Leadership doesn’t reside in heroes any more, but in how we raise collectively to challenges.
  • Things for tomorrow’s leadership development: challenge based learning, deep immersion training, team coaching, secondment and peer consultancy, personalised learning journeys, self-system awareness (mindfulness)
  • This brings leaders from IQ, through EQ to “WeQ”. Collaboration with an widening environment is ever more important, you have to improve in it.

Jurgen Appelo: Managing for Happiness

  • Managers usually don’t know how to work with people. And bad management leads to bad performance. So here are a few tools.
  • Personal maps, a tool for increasing mental closeness. This is a mind map about yourself. Everybody should draw one when coming into the team. Don’t present it, just show, and let others ask questions about it for 30 minutes, this gets the conversation going. It’s about people expressing themselves.
  • Delegation: it has seven levels (tell, sell, consult, agree, advise, inquire, delegate). You can visualise with a delegation board which process in your organization is on which level. This also highlights your company values. You can also play delegation poker to find out more about this.
  • Success and happiness seem to depend on each other, but happy people are also more successful. What makes people happy? There are 12 steps (Thanking, Giving, Helping, Eating well, Exercising, Resting, Experiencing, Hiking, Meditating, Socializing, Aiming, Smiling). You can have these as everyday stuff, changing the office environment according to these. Like do walking meetings, meditate together, set up a kudo box.
  • Value stories and culture books. As with everything, you should have feedback cycles, but yearly reviews are not enough to communicate values. For shorter feedback cycle, set up a #valuestories, where you can share stories, talk about values. Way better than just sharing lists, as stories are easier to remember. They also drive for faster feedback cycles. For example you can download the culture books from IDEO and Zappos.
  • The culture of any organization is shaped by the best behaviours the leaders amplify.
  • Merit money, always a challenge on how to distribute. Bad if managers get more, everybody gets equal (entitlement bias), or direct performance based. Better: do it as a jackpot, everybody gets shared based on kudos, throwing a dice decides when it is payout. Randomness means people don’t spend early, so they won’t be unhappy.
  • His book:

Jeff Gothelf: Building successful in-house innovation teams

  • You have to test your assumptions about your stuff constantly, since things change. Like Jeff Bezos’ Fire phone, he was right before, why not now? As you scale up, your mistakes need to scale too, big companies can’t take small risks (do small tests), if they want to keep innovating.
  • As software eats the worlds, the need for innovation grows. This changes the nature of business (for example Napster), litigation against disruptions don’t work over time. Also doesn’t work: applying same processes as on earlier levels: like “software factory” based on manufacturing, it just works in a different way, it has continuous integration. Also doesn’t work: innovation labs.
  • The culture of innovation is learning.
  • Deliberate strategy (executives hand down creative ideas) VS emergent strategy (culture of learning, experimentation coming from people within the organization).
  • The atomic unit of innovation is the team.
  • Anatomy of a team: don’t build silos (design team, marketing team,…) that means no overview and no ownership, don’t do service providers, don’t have no collaboration.
  • Anatomy of a team: create small teams (2 pizza team), co-located (at least same time zone), dedicated, self-sufficient (able to do everything on their own, even (tactical) decisions.
  • Incentivising teams: don’t do roadmaps (they are just lies, maybe it could be just priorities or questions), and incentivises to create output and features, shipping a product doesn’t mean success, managing for output leads to this too.
  • Incentivising teams: “Go solve this problem”, this goes for outcomes. But since this is messy, difficult to manage orgs don’t like it, but it leads to better results.
  • The model is: Ship -> Sense -> Respond -> Ship ->… ; and have OKRs to review results.
  • How should teams work: NO: they don’t do cross-functional collaboration (cross-functional drives creativity), don’t fixate on job titles (any body can have valuable contribution), don’t have fear of failure, don’t have random deadlines (as motivation tools).
  • The culture of learning changes: Teams should take smaller risks, they should have a clear definition of success, promote competencies over values, have self organization.
  • Why this approach? Making customers happy, building stuff people want, and also drives employee morale up.

Kate Beecroft: Autonomy. Vital to the new world of work.

  • Anatomy is freedom from external coercion. More and more people are looking for autonomy (digital nomads, technologists,…). Community adds the feeling of belonging, but without the hierarchy of companies. In the world of digital startups, experimentation is key, and this needs collaboration. The cost of organising is getting lower, so overall less management is needed.
  • Enspiral is a network of freelancers for community and collaboration, acting together on a variety of stuff, now open sourcing their processes and tools.
  • To have a collaborative organisation, decision making is democratic, but some leadership is still needed to have a strategy, for this Catalysts, self nominated leads step in, since somebody should do the stuff. They don’t coerce, just convince. Anybody can be a catalysts for topic . Anybody can raise leadership tickets, catalysts prioritize, and after anybody can do them.
  • There should be also caring about other humans, if there is no HR, somebody should care: stewarding. This is no hierarchy, and everybody participates. For example you steward can constantly remind you to stay healthy. You don’t choose your steward, but matched to somebody.
  • Trust is needed to innovate and also to survive. There are several practices in this: check-in (when meeting, ask people how they feel), check-out, retreats (to make sure people know each other personally, not just on-line.
  • Thank you channel: publicly showing gratitude gets people motivated. You can thank for anything too (like bringing a coffee, or saving your life).

Sebastiano Armeli: Managing a software engineering team

  • There is a point when you will have the choice to stay an individual contributor, or become a manager.
  • When you become a manager, a few things change: more meetings, async conversations, tasks (you start something, and finish up later), uncertainty (feedback loops are way longer in management actions, for example hiring). And it’s all about people.
  • What activities do you do? Hiring (super important, how people fit into your team, diversity is also important), Firing (have to be brave to do, since it has an effect on the whole team), 1:1s (best managers ask smart questions here, like: priorities, career development, feedback giving and getting), Employee engagement (motivation, officevibe), Performance and Compensation reviews.
  • At Spotify the chapter leads are also engineering managers, having 6–10 people.
  • As for promotion, they have “tech steps”, based on the amount of influence one can have (self-team-organization).
  • Good managers do: time management, empathy, attracting people, decision making, decision enabling, multitasking, tactical and strategical thinking.
  • But: Busy is a bug, not a feature, you need to be available.
  • Bad managers do: micro management, coding (if you have time for this, you won’t have time for your team), stress, single point of failure, unhealthy life.
  • How to measure your own success: through the people you manage, for example through 1:1s.

Péter Orbán: Leadership Toolbox

  • Leaders should be the ones learning from other’s mistakes.
  • The leadership toolbox helps in daily life, in your context, since trainings are not useful as they happen out of context.
  • Each tool describes: What is this, How to use, Description.
  • Four categories: Reflect on yourself, Reflect on others, Develop yourself, Develop others.
  • For example: continuous feedback (like anonymous surveys to get everything out), sociometry (to get to know connections, emerging leaders), more time with your team (1on1s, shadowing)

Rona Steinrücken & Ola Sundin: Accelerated Assimilation

  • Assimilation happened when somebody becomes a productive member of the team, and this can be accelerated.
  • Have defined personas: hire, buddy (assigned, somebody who has the same role), manager.
  • Initiation rituals: marks the entrance of a new member. If these are strong, it creates a strong group identity, a strong feeling of belonging. This will be also a part of social acceptance.
  • Onboarding backlog: a list of tasks to do.
  • Purpose workshop: “Find your purpose in the team”. Find your strength in the team and develop it (your superpower). This is good for both the team, and the new hire.

Tomasz Dubikowski: Level-up your culture

  • Recruitment process does two things: gets technical skills, and mindset (to get the good people in).
  • Mob-hiring: with leaders recruitment is even harder, a mistake is if ubermanagers hire, as the team is more affected. Hiring in mobs (the team does the interviews) should be the first stage for every leadership position.
  • Once hiring is done, there are lots of things to learn, but most important is to learn the business. Don’t just look at it, touch it. Job swaps help in this, you take the role of somebody else in the company for a day.
  • Openness is happiness: open source your stuff, as probably other people can be smart too and help improving things. So open-source your culture, through working groups focused on a topic where anybody can participate.
  • Goal is to help people to find the perfect place, not to tell them where it is.

Mark McKergow: Leading as a host, not a hero

  • Today’s big challenges: wicked problems, interconnected, VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). Leaders don’t (cannot) solve these any more, they get people, engage a community to solve problems.
  • Leading as a host is both a metaphor and a dance. A host entertains guests, sets the stage (stepping forward), cleans up. Both stepping forward ans stepping backwards are needed.
  • Stepping forward: leader is a hero. The other people gets rescued, if you get rescued, you do as told. So this works in a crisis.
  • Stepping back: leader is a servant. She supports the organization, so the other people are “masters”?
  • Back and forward, a dance, leader is a host, the others are guests. At the least this relationship is worth exploring.
  • Host you can’t have without guests, host culture is deeply routed in human culture.
  • The Disraeli effect: guests feel better and smarter after talking to the host.
  • To be a host: think about yourself as a host.

Carmen Simon: The Neuroscience of Decision Making

  • How to be impossible to ignore? Be memorable. All decision making is influenced by memories
  • Ways to decide: reflective (to make sure we survive — so memory), habitual (we learn it as a habit — so memory), goal-oriented (you need to think, spend cognitive energy), this happens rarely, as thinking takes extra energy. So to be memorable, look for these decision making styles.
  • For reflexive responses, use primary reinforces (you can do this by controlling the environment), this is also the reason the brain reacts reflexively on beautiful things. So appeal on aesthetics.
  • Simplifying complexity is a myth. The brain needs memory traces, needs sustenance. Don’t sacrifice complexity, just make it easier to understand (cognitive ease). Appreciating simplicity is easy if the complexity is visible behind.
  • For habits: First we make habits, then the habits make us. Appeal to habits by integrating with existing habits, something they already know.
  • For goals: look at people’s values.
  • How do we know what a decision is based on? Memory doesn’t help in the past, but in the future, so memory is not retrospective but prospective. Since the brain is designed to anticipate the future. You want people to remember you, when they make a decision in the future.
  • So match what you talk about now, with what people will see in the future.
  • Book: Impossible to ignore.

Gergely Kmethy: Cultivating quirkiness — True leadership occurs in the kitchen!

  • Team rituals are actions you repeat, a little bit strange, but they have a special meaning to the team. They help controlling the uncertainty and anxiety. They help in focus and in unity (within the team). And they structure time (disconnect from work, bringing you into spiritual)
  • Team rituals give superpowers to team members.
  • Rituals transmit culture.
  • There are principles, values to agree on, “Elders” tell legends, new people learn the culture this way. New members can propose new values that is discussed and might be or not accepted.
  • If a team strongly agrees on something, they can convince others (Ash’s experiment on social conformity). How do companies get corrupt? Maybe social conformity, since people create the culture.
  • Culture happens in the kitchen, as it becomes the most important asset of a company.

Tamás Müller: Learn to earn // Learn the company to the top of the game.

  • Building a team that is eager to learn happens in layers. There can be work-related learning (trainings), individual development (interests), personal socializing (learning each others), this last one is the most important, as team performance matters, not individual.
  • The ideal is when you can work with friends (Google’s Project Aristotle). Psychological safety is one aspect of great teams — so being friends.
  • So it’s like in school, you have many friends, shape each other’s personality, so companies should provide a school like environment.
  • Main principle: do what you really want to do, and do it for real! (for example change careers!)
  • “Top-down organized tools”: books, courses, workshops, 10% study time (“play time”), teaching, hackathons. Play time can result in: study groups, idea box, anything (within the company’s scope), Mito Lab
  • “Bottom-up organized tools”: Mito weekly, an insider newsletter started as a team link email. + FB groups…
  • “Top-down organized socializing event”: alcohol, office hack day (redecorate your office), “Bring your parents” day.
  • “Bottom-up organized socializing events”: Mr. Mito election, Trump cards.
  • So: 1. Help the team learn each others. 2. Enable people. 3. Invest in fun (foster silly things to get serious results).

David McQueen: Lead from the Centre

  • A model for leadership: BRAVE (Bold, Resilient, Authentic, Visionary, Empowering)
  • Bold: do the step up: lead meetings, handle conflicts
  • Resilient: sometimes you get a no. be able to move on, bounce back. A good feedback template: what was good, what was notable, how can it be improved)
  • Authentic: you should adapt in an org, but stay yourself.
  • People listen more to what you do, than what you say, so leading by example is important.