An interesting experience in servant leadership

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I have been leading a two day workshop a couple of months ago and it was an interesting experience in servant leadership that I can now share. The workshop was about the overall systems architecture at the company I was working with at the time. My mission there was transforming their IT department into an agile organization and the workshop took place three months after the change effort started.
The catch was that I was doing it as the company’s CIO – effectively being the boss of all the other people in the room. Given the culture that existed there before it meant there was a real risk they will stay silent and expect me to tell them what architecture I had in mind rather than discuss their ideas. Therefore I had to adopt a very different approach to leading it than when I’m acting as an external consultant/coach. The fact that I genuinely had no idea how to solve the problem at hand helped me do it – I had no architecture to push for.

On the first day I kicked the meeting off with a presentation nevertheless, as everyone expected. I invited the company CEO to present the business plans and the strategy the company leadership wanted to pursue in the near future. After he was done I presented the problem as I understood it by discussing all the systems they had both acquired and developed in house and how I thought they interrelate. I finished by asking the team what architecture we should have in a year from now to support business’ needs and plans. I then started the discussion by asking the group to split into four smaller teams and work on an idea by a flipchart (we had asked for many flipcharts so each group congregated around one of them in the rather large room where we were meeting in).

Then I… left the room walking the CEO to his car (him leaving at that point was of course agreed with him before). This gave the teams the room they needed to start working. When I came back they have been already immersed in a discussion. I could observe how different people participated – some very actively discussing their ideas as they came to them, few scribbling on sheets of paper to join the discussion later, some sticking by one flipcharts others wandering from group to group.

This is how we worked for the rest of the workshop. However, that doesn’t mean I did nothing more – in fact I was needed to moderate some discussions, ask questions but primarily to break stalemates. There were moments when no one was sure how to proceed further and the discussion just died – then I had to step in and push the meeting forward a bit. All that was needed to get them going again was just a question or a simple exercise like voting on what was proposed so far. However, mostly I was just walking around the room, listening to people discussing, watching their diagrams, stickies on the wall etc. – and on many occasions leaving the room altogether.

I have to admit that I had to make a conscious effort to behave like this. While I have no trouble in getting out of people’s way in normal work when I’m leading a meeting I tend to take charge of it and even if I don’t come to it with a pre-determined idea I still steer the agenda and the progress. Here, however, I was leading a workshop by being mostly absent and only facilitating when for one reason or another the participants stalled. This was – I think – servant leadership in a nutshell: what I did as the leader was to set the stage, fire up the discussion by presenting a problem and then get out of the way.

How did this workshop end? The team walked away with a general idea of their future architecture but also – most importantly – an understanding that they could not design it in advance and implement it, but rather that they would have to evolve it by changing what they have now over time. In other words, they decided to go for the emergent architecture approach and wrote down a couple of conditions it has to fulfill to guide the evolution in the right direction. Along the way they discovered a lot about what they did and did not know.

I was really satisfied with the outcome, it was more than I hoped to achieve – and certainly much more than I would have achieved if I tried to pressure and steer the discussion in some predetermined direction.

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