The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: value and liberate people

Last week’s post gave an overview of a recovering conventional manager’s (me!) six learnings from Agile. This post expands on the first of the six: creating contexts that value and liberate people.

In the course of their learning about software development, the founders of Agile came to understand that their front-line creative teams were their greatest resource. They came to see that small teams created amazing results — when they were truly liberated, left to organise themselves and to work on challenges in their own ways. The magic happened when people were not told what do in any detail, but were allowed to find their own way. In particular, the results were most amazing when groups of diverse people were put together in ways that allowed them to meet a challenge from beginning to end, and continually to create working products that delivered customer value.

The leadership conclusion I draw from this is that there is tremendous power for people and for the organisation in trusting people to work together in teams, valuing them for their creative gifts. Instead of the conventional command-and-control ethos (“Tell them what to do and monitor them”), give people a challenge and trust them to get the job done. Again and again, I have seen this approach free and invite people to do their creative best, to feel inspired and liberated, and especially to thrive off the diversity of the range of their colleagues’ talents. In several of the post-conventional leadership frameworks I have experienced, we think of this as creating a container for creativity and innovation.  It is the opposite of command and control. It means creating a space for people to be free to bring forward their own solutions – in their diversity.

Next post: Making and “shipping” vs. planning and perfecting.

The recovering conventional manager learns from Agile: six leadership lessons

As a perspective and a frame of reference for approaching creative work, Agile has its origins in software development … and … leaders around the world are now finding that Agile resonates in a much wider range of contexts, from entrepreneurship to personal and organisational growth.  

Where it succeeds, Agile seems to bring benefits of faster delivery, higher customer satisfaction, faster learning, enhanced individual and team innovation, and stronger team engagement.  Because of its focus on valuing people, collective intelligence, direct human contact and focused learning, I believe it is a crucial “foundation stone” for next-generation leadership.

The Agile way of working takes much of its inspiration from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, written by seventeen leaders of the software development industry, dating from February 2001.  

The core of the Manifesto says;

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing itand helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

The Manifesto’s authors also offer twelve very human, humane and creative principles that govern their work. You can find these principles, as well as the core Manifesto and information about its history and signatories here

With an outpouring of content about Agile and the frameworks connected to it, the vast global community of Agilists debate passionately and continually about what Agile means, what it is and is not, how it is succeeding and how it is failing.

As a recovering conventional manager, I have personally taken these six key lessons from Agile.

  • Creating contexts that value and liberate people
  • Making and “shipping” vs planning and perfecting
  • Setting one’s course, but committing only incrementally and iteratively
  • Finding and holding a sustainable pace
  • Being a learner – learning to inspect and adapt
  • Bringing a big vision to life by carving it up into small chunks of work

I own that this perspective is a personal one, and that others approaching Agile will learn and value different things. My own learnings, though, have brought big changes to the way I look at leadership and organisational life. I believe that as part of an Agile ethos, they have the potential to transform leadership for many people and many organisations, to the great benefit of global society in the 21st century.

In forthcoming posts, I’ll explore each of the six themes above in greater depth.

What are your key learnings for Agile? What difference did those learnings make for you and those around you?

Please share in the comments below or write to us at



It’s all in the container

Again and again, in our work with leaders at all levels, we see the crucial importance of what we call “containers” – groups of people, maybe only two, but reaching up to perhaps ten or twelve, who hold and support each other: circles where each member is seen and heard, is respected, and is free and welcome to speak their truth and to do their work.

Whatever materials, ideas or resources we try to share with developing leaders, their breakthroughs and insights always depend much more heavily on the quality of the container that we create for them, or more accurately, that we co-create together, than on the content we are discussing.

When they leave our workshops or facilitated sessions, the people we work with go back to their organisations: there they have the opportunity to create great containers of their own. Indeed, that’s where the juice is – creating vibrant, trusting containers at all levels of organisations, so that every member is fully invited to Show Up, be themselves, take risks, be vulnerable, and create their best work.

We’re running an online digital gathering on 13 April to explore these ideas. You can join from the comfort of your home or office anywhere in the world. The format is based on Open Space, so you can both learn and share your own experience and insights.

Please be invited to join us on 13 April.

Trust and Safety: Temenos Online Open Space

All our leadership offering revolve around building great containers. Please bring your own challenges and your own special magic and explore the possibilities with us.  There are many options available and described here on our website.  One way to start the conversation could be to dip in to our latest book.

Leading with Intention

We look forward to meeting you in a container we create together very soon.

This post is published in parallel on LinkedIn at


Letter to a tormented Achiever

Dear Jo

It was great to meet you at the conference last week.  Our conversation then and your email a few minutes ago strike deep chords with me.  I understand how tough and painful it is for you right now.

Like you, I was raised in an Achieverist culture.  We grew up believing that we ought to be smart, be strong, and deliver. Our self-esteem was based on being “knowers”, on being able to define great strategies and execute them over time. We were supposed to set the direction and give the orders. Success came from setting aggressive goals and holding people accountable. The market demanded this kind of behaviour and performance. It seemed to be working, didn’t it, at least for the successful ones?

But, just as you say, the model eventually showed its cracks. I hear you about feeling burned out from trying to make everything work. I hear you about feeling alienated from your peers and your direct reports. I experienced many similar moments during 20 years in banking and another nine years in corporate consulting.

You’ve clearly achieved a lot, and I admire the series of savvy job moves you’ve made to get to your senior role in your company.  And I also hear you when you say it’s come to feel empty and super-stressful. At your level, your C-suite colleagues, your investors and, indeed your people, demand performance.  And I know from experience what a toll the demand for performance can take on our psychological and physical health and on our personal lives.

I want you to know I am completely with you when you sense that there must be a better way. I’m convinced there is, as you heard me say.

One piece of good news is that it’s very possible to distil common guiding principles from the best of the emerging leadership thinking – to find a way quite quickly to a more satisfying, creative and sustainable way of leading.  It’s not so much about picking and choosing between theories, but of seeing a bit deeper into the core.  

I truly believe, based on my experience, that it’s possible to lead in a way that

  • Allows you to bring your wisdom and experience skillfully to bear, without having to know all the answers. You can bring all your considerable gifts, and still be honest and open, even vulnerable and uncertain at times
  • Allows your people, especially in teams, to shine and to bring their best to their jobs, in all their diversity.
  • Allows you all to get great results together in terms of concrete personal and organisational performance
  • Allows your teams to generate loads of new ideas and innovations – they don’t all have to come from you!
  • Allows you and those around you to have fun and to live balanced, sustainable, rewarding lives.

I think we agree that a world like that sounds much better than the one you and I have created for ourselves in the past.

I can also tell you with confidence that it’s not that hard to get started toward leading in this more inspired way. I’m not saying the whole journey is easy – it will take some courage progressively to show a new face to the world and to ourselves …. and … all the steps forward are manageable. Help and support is available all along the way.    

To give you a taste of what could be ahead, when we meet next week I’ll invite you to start asking yourself, who are you as a leader? What are your fundamental qualities and values?  What influences have shaped you as the person you are today?  It doesn’t take long to open these questions for yourself and to notice the first few inspiring results – for example by starting to keep your own personal leadership journal. Beginning to capture your own insights can add energy to your work every day. I’m happy to help you begin this, and to introduce you to others who are doing the same kind of work — and who can share their stories.

Then, in a connected way, I’ll suggest asking yourself what you really want as a person and as a leader. Leaving aside what you think is expected of you by others, what do you really want to accomplish, when you are truly honest with yourself – yes in terms of outputs and outcomes but also in terms of the kind of legacy you want to  leave. I and others can provide plenty of support and encouragement, and introductions to communities of other travellers on this path.

Next, I’ll invite you to ask what kind of relationships you want to have with the most important people around you, personally and professionally. For example, with the members of your own top team, your mentees, and key players in your organisation – as well as your family and friends.  Is your leadership team a real team?  Do you truly trust each other?  Do you show up in an authentic way, bringing your honest views and your best ideas into the leadership dialogue?   

I think we’ll agree that these are fundamental questions … and also that they are often ignored in the Achieverist worlds we’ve created for ourselves. Because the questions can be personal and sensitive, it takes some trust and the creation of a sort of safe haven in which to explore them.  Once again, I can assure you that those “safe spaces” are readily created – we’re doing this every day within a growing community of leaders. I’d be delighted to help you join in and find your own right space.

You might be surprised at how quickly working with these questions can lead to discovering new, very practical ways to nurture faster, more innovative, more holistic growth in your organisation and for yourself – tapping the best insights and energies of all your people – without burning you out, without forcing you to have all the answers, or to give all the orders.

Fostering this new way of working for leaders is a passion for my colleagues and myself.  In our next conversation, I’ll share more with you about how these new patterns emerged for us and for people we’ve worked with. To be sure, it isn’t (yet) the average way of working, but the signs of this wave of change are clearly visible – and it’s so much healthier for everyone.

I’m looking forward to our lunch next week. I’m excited to see what your new future could look like – and to join with you in making it happen – if you decide to invite me along.

All my best until then


The simple power of checking in

Our workshop participants tell us that one of our most impactful practices is the simple one of checking in. For those not familiar, it consists of inviting everyone in a group, often sitting or standing in a circle, to check in, saying how they are as they come into a meeting and what they want from the session.

A few things are powerful about this practice. Without pressure, it invites people to disclose a small piece – as much or as little as is (reasonably) comfortable – about themselves and their intentions. The physical arrangement is a circle – at least a rough one – where everyone can see everyone else.  Spatially, everyone is equal, despite people coming with different levels of responsibility, seniority, experience and organisational power. All voices are heard in turn, on an equal footing, without interruption. Anyone may pass if they so choose.

A check-in can be held in response to a particular question, which could be simply “How are you as you enter this meeting? What do you hope for in our session?” If a group is new to one another, the check-in can start with people sharing their names and a brief self-introduction. Each person’s check-in can end with “I’m in” and the group may respond with a common acknowledgement, like “You’re welcome.”

People’s first participation in check-ins may feel strange; they may be accustomed to conventional meetings with conventional seating that launch immediately into an agenda. To ease the transition, facilitators and those familiar with the practice can model contributions. At first, people may only check in with fairly factual or polite observations about the kind of day they’re having and their expectations for the agenda. Whatever they freely offer is fully acceptable. A key check-in principle is to make everyone welcome in whatever way they choose to enter.   

We consistently find that once it is clear that everyone’s contribution is indeed welcome, people start to share more of their feelings and their genuine hopes. Each person speaks with their own voice … and … the sequence of responses allows people to be encouraged by and build on the contributions of others. The flow of shared comments tends, in a gentle, unpressured way, to build a deepening pattern of self-revelation, of “showing up”. In the subtlest and softest way, the practice starts to build a trusting container, and the foundation laid can be built upon for deeper dialogue and deeper exchange on many levels.

For more ideas and insights on check-in practices, and about equal voicing in talking circles, please be invited to explore:

The Core Protocols, by Jim and Michele McCarthy

Time to Think, by Nancy Kline  Time to Think, Amazon UK

Talking Circles, First Nations Pedagogy Online

Fun Retrospectives: Check-in