Steve Denning: Courage to Ignore Limits
Richard Kasperowski interviews Steve Denning, author of The Age of Agile and contributor to Forbes.com. Steve talks about courage, openness to diverse viewpoints, and ignoring limits – working around the team’s constraints. Contact Steve at stevedenning.com, and check out his book, The Age of Agile, at kspr.co/theageofagile.
Hello, friends, and welcome back to With Great People, the podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. This episode is an interview with author Steve Denning. Steve talks about courage, openness to diverse viewpoints, and ignoring the limits placed on your team, working around your team’s constraints. To support this podcast, sign up for my newsletter at kasperowski.com. Thanks for listening.
Hi, friends, and welcome back to With Great People. Our special guest today is Steve Denning. Steve is an author,. He is most recently the author of a book called The Age of Agile, which just came out. Welcome to the show, Steve.
Will you introduce yourself to our listeners?
I am, as you say, the author of the book, The Age of Agile. I’ve been writing about Agile in Forbes.com for some six or seven years. Before that I was coaching organizations in leadership storytelling, and before that I was an executive in the World Bank. So, I have a long management experience, but also leadership, and more recently in the whole Agile field.
All right. This is the podcast about high-performance teams. When you look back at your career, either teams you’ve been on or teams you’ve been associated with, what is your best team ever?
My best team ever was when I was working in the World Bank a number of years ago. I was asked by their senior leadership to head up a team that would improve and reform the World Bank’s procedures. The World Bank’s procedures were a hydra in nature: they were sprawling all over the organization, so this was Mission Impossible.
I went to see the top management and asked him, “Well, why have you asked me to take on this Mission Impossible?” He said, “It was because I expect you to fail, and because you, and the couple of people that I’ve assigned with you, are the most difficult people in the World Bank. When you fail, I will have proved conclusively that this is not possible to improve World Bank’s procedures.” So, I was set up to fail.
That is really interesting. How did that turn into being the best team?
Well, it was kind of fun. He said, “I expect you to fail, and what’s more, you can’t touch the thing that everybody says is the biggest problem. That is sacred. That is sacrosanct. I base all of my work on that element, and the Board of Directors, International Board of Directors, they also hold that as sacred. So, do not touch that thing. I don’t believe there’s anything else you can do, but you cannot touch that thing.” The one thing that most people wanted changed was out of bounds, so it was the perfect Mission Impossible.
All right. This is almost like a guided meditation. If you bring yourself back to the experience of being on that team, and maybe you can close your eyes, try to reembody having been on that team. What’s one word that describes the sensation of being on that team?
It was courage. I had to tackle Mission Impossible with a team of people who were all on different wavelengths and different approaches, and here I was being set up to fail. It was intended that I fail. So, courage was the key thing in the face of these challenges.
All right. Courage for this team that was set up to fail. And, you know, you sort of characterized this as the best team ever. Subjectively, how do you know that this was the best team ever? Or objectively. Do you have any metrics about it?
Well, it was supremely difficult, it seemed at the outset. I was expected to fail, and I wasn’t authorized to touch the one element that most people regarded as the key to the problems. And no one had ever been able to make progress on this. I mean, for its life, the World Bank procedures had just grown, until they were sprawling all over the place. And then, previous efforts had been made to change it, so I knew that if I succeeded, it would be an extraordinary thing. And it was. We did succeed, and so it was certainly a subjective feeling of accomplishment.
Objectively, there was universal recognition that this was a major accomplishment. The senior management that had appointed me to fail was actually ecstatic. He was worried that, although he loved what we were proposing, no one else would. He was actually a bit shocked to find that everyone else loved it, too, and that the Board of Directors was equally ecstatic about this.
It was a huge thing across the whole organization. The people couldn’t believe that the management had bought into this, and the management couldn’t believe that the staff bought into it, or the Board had bought into it. So, there was this great upswelling of recognition that something extraordinary had happened, and so [crosstalk 00:06:07]-
So very objectively, you succeeded, and the leaders recognized you for it?
Oh, yeah. It was known as the Denning Report.
The Denning Report. Can you be more concrete about what the problem was that you were solving?
As I say, there were these very cumbersome procedures, which were slowing things down, and they’d been around forever and each of them had constituencies saying, “You can’t touch this, or you can’t touch that.” The top management said there weren’t any problems, so the first thing that we did was just conduct interviews for a few days with people saying, “Do you have any problems?” And then, in a few days we had 150 problems, so there was not any doubt that there were problems.
We started discussing in the team and, as I said, they had very different viewpoints. There were some who were very top-down and command and control, and there were others who were saying they shouldn’t have any procedures, and there were others who were saying there was a need for some, but not all that we had. So, there were a lot of different viewpoints within the team and we argued, and argued, and argued, and listened to each other. And we steadily came to conclusions that there were several things that needed to happen, including touching the very things that the number two guy had said was untouchable.Â
So, we did a couple of things to solve that problem. We first reached out informally to the Board of Directors, one by one, and said, “Suppose we were to change this thing that we hear that you are totally unwilling to change?” And they said, “We would love to change that. We never put any emphasis on that.” So, there was a mirage, in a sense, going on: that everybody thought the Board would be opposed to it, and in fact they embraced it.
The other thing was, the manager who said that he was also opposed to change, we asked him, what exactly did he use this thing for? He wrote back an angry email, saying, “Well, I told you never to touch it, and here are the reasons why you can’t touch it. It does this, it does that, it does the other thing, and that’s why you should do what I told you to. Namely, don’t touch it.”
But we could see quite quickly that the things that he was looking for, and used it for, could be met in a very much simpler way, and that would solve a whole lot of problems across the whole organization. And so we put together this proposal that met all of his specific concerns in a very much simpler way, and got rid of all this cancer across the organization. And, as I say, we reached out to the Board of Directors and said, “Well, if we propose this, how would you react?” And they said, “We’d be delighted.”Â
So, we then put forward the proposal, and everyone was delighted. As I say, the concern of the senior manager was that he was delighted with it, but he knew that others wouldn’t be. He knew that the Board would reject it, he knew that other managers would reject it, and he was somewhat taken aback. And so, he had meetings where he’d say, “Well, you like it, but you don’t like it for the right reason. Here’s the right reason you’ll like this.”
So, the senior manager knew that the Board wouldn’t like it, but they actually did like it.
They did. They loved it. So, it was kind of an extraordinary triumph,. At the same time, the management wasn’t willing to address one of the recommendations, which was to say, “Look, if you implement this, you will have cleaned up all of this cancer all across the organization, but it will grow back unless you take the following steps. You need to establish some kind of cultural change that will prevent this cancer from growing back,” and that they ignored.Â
So, in four or five years the cancer was back, and the procedures had once more mushroomed, and everything was slowed back down again. In that sense, it wasn’t a lasting solution, but we had predicted that that would happen unless those steps were taken. So, it was a disappointment that they didn’t take on the [inaudible 00:11:24], but then in terms of having accomplished Mission Impossible, I believe that we did it.
All right. So, a couple of the concrete things you did: you built broad support, you asked the constituents about their problems, you talked to the Board about the most important thing you had to change, which was the thing you weren’t allowed to change, and you got great support on it. You made a proposal that met all the constraints. Were there any other concrete things that you did as a team?
Well, we listened very carefully to each other, because as I say, we didn’t come together with a common view as to what needed to be done. The group had very different viewpoints, and so we did spend a lot of time listening to each other. Listening to each other would be one key behavior. We didn’t split up into factions and fight for different views. We tried to understand where different people on the team were coming from, in the hope that we would be able to find something that met everyone’s needs. So, listening was key.
The openness was important. We had to be open to different viewpoints, and even from people with whom we disagreed about general approach to management. So, this listening process was very healthy and helpful, and enabled us to come up with a proposal that, because it met the viewpoints of these different people on the team, it wasn’t a tremendous surprise that it also met the viewpoints of everyone across the organization, from the Board to the senior management to the staff of the organization.Â
Thirdly, I’d say courage to take on the mission in the first place, and to ignore the instruction that we weren’t to touch the thing that we were not meant to touch, and ignore the instruction we were certainly not to talk to the Board of Directors. And so, we ignored some of the explicit instructions and authorizations and basically set up, as the revolutionaries that we were, to accomplish improving the goals. We all believed that the goal was vitally important, and so we took our instructions and authorizations with a grain of salt.
The more I talk to people about … I talked to various people about their best team ever, and I almost always hear these two things that you mentioned: listening to each other, and being open. Listening to each other, and trying to understand each other, and being open to different viewpoints. It’s remarkable that everybody who says they’ve been on a really good team, they talk about listening to each other and being open to each other.
Right. I’ve been on many other teams, but this one, in a sense, the obvious constraints and obstacles loomed much larger at the outset. The team was more diverse in viewpoint than most other teams. Normally when you have a team, you pick a group of people who are more or less aligned as to how you would approach the task, and here you had a group of people who were not at all aligned, except that something needed to be done. But they all had different ideas about what should be done, and so it was much more diverse in opinion than other teams that I’ve been on.Â
Right. Okay. Do you have any advice for our listeners? What can listeners do to reproduce the success that this team had?
Listen, be open, and be courageous in the face of obstacles. Be clear on the goal, and don’t take no for an answer. Often, the prohibitions and instructions are not based on sound opinion, and so look behind them and see why are they making those prohibitions? Why are they putting those limits in place? And suppose we ignored the limits, suppose we ignored the prohibitions, where might that lead? Of course, it led to a wonderfully collaborative solution that everybody in the organization loved.
All right. Thanks very much for that story. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Well, I would say that small, cross-functional teams are the key to the whole Agile Revolution which is underway, as discussed in my book, The Age of Agile. It does imply, really, that organizations instinctively, and almost obsessively, get all work done to the extent possible in small cross-functional teams that then bring together people with these different viewpoints. And deliberately getting different viewpoints represented on the team, so that you arrive at solutions that wouldn’t be arrived at if you had people simply following instructions, or if you assemble people who have the same viewpoint together.
So, having difficult people on the same team and encouraging them to proceed in the spirit of this thing in openness and courage. This becomes a way of life and one of the key … What I call one of the three laws of Agile, is to solve big problems, not by scaling up the organization to handle big, complex problems, but rather descaling everything in big complex problems into small pieces that small teams can handle, small cross-functional teams can handle.
You see this happening in big organizations. A current example is Spotify, which became public yesterday, now worth $27 million [inaudible 00:18:14] the stock market. They have been operating in this fashion since they were created in 2008, many years ago, and it’s a way of life and some of the particular breakthroughs that they’ve had have been done not by large groups of people, but by small teams of maybe no more than three or four people.
One of the features that really transformed their whole leadership was Discover Weekly, a [inaudible 00:18:46] that delivers a playlist of music to its now 140 million users every week, every Monday morning, and it’s perfectly crafted to the particular tastes and preferences of each individual user. They have 140 million individualized playlists delivered every Monday morning.
That extraordinary thing was the result of a team of four people who, again, contrary to the top management that they were facing, they ignored, in a sense, the top management. They were solving a problem that everyone knew they had. The problem was, what use was 20 million songs, if you can’t find the songs that you would really love? And so, all the streaming services found that users were spending all their time searching for music, not listening to music.
All of the systems, like [inaudible 00:19:48], Pandora, Spotify were trying to solve this problem. In Spotify itself, the top management thought that the solution would lie in an improved search function, so they had around 100 people working on improving the search function. And this team, small team, had a different idea that came up in a hackathon. They said. “We think we can solve it in a different way. We could take the 20 million songs and the categorization, and with that we could take the 60 million users and match their tastes to these 20 million songs, and deliver this weekly playlist.”
They didn’t ask for permission. They simply tried it out on the staff at Spotify and Spotify staff loved it, and then had enough ammunition to say, “Well, let’s try it out on one percent of our listeners, like 600,000 at that time. And once again, listeners said, “Wow. This is incredible. How did you know I loved that kind of music?” And so, that overwhelming support.
So, they rolled it out across the whole 60 million users and it became a huge thing. Now the users have expanded from 60 million to 140 million, and driven, to a large extent by this improved access to music you would love, every Monday morning. Something that Apple and Amazon and Pandora don’t have, and haven’t been able to replicate so far.
I’m giggling as you tell it. It totally works. I love the playlists that they create for me.
Well, that’s the work of one team, and of course they [crosstalk 00:21:35].
One team of four people. One cross-functional small team.
Right. And within the team, they had sort of a couple of technical people, they had a product manager who was acting as kind of a devil’s advocate. I mean, “Why do we need this? We already have so many gadgets on the site. There’s going to be more clutter,” and so on. And so, they argued back and forth in somewhat the way I described on my own team, and came up with the proposal and they tried it out. Everyone just loved it. And they haven’t looked back every since.
All right. Now, how can our listeners contact you?
Well, I’m fairly ubiquitous on the web. My website is Stevedenning.com. Or Forbes, find them. Forbes has 700 articles on these issues. I’m in Wikipedia. And my email is [inaudible 00:22:43] @stevedenning.com. And so, it’s also pretty easy to find me. I’m on LinkedIn, as well, and I’d be delighted to hear from you. I’ll help you move into, or help you enhance, [inaudible 00:23:01] following the Age of Agile.
All right. Steve Denning, thank you so very much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Hi, friends, thanks for listening. And remember, to support this podcast, sign up for my newsletter at kasperowski.com.