First, do no harm.

Medical students are taught early to carefully consider the possible impact of their actions, this often translates to a bias towards inaction. A paradox when many of us consider them as being ‘fixers’.

“Given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”
This reminds physicians to consider the possible harm that any intervention might do.

The rationale behind this is that the human body is a marvelous piece of engineering and has an astonishing capacity for self-healing. A staggeringly high proportion of injuries, ailments and afflictions will simply fix themselves if we do nothing, and almost all remedies come with some risk of side-effects or unknown complications.

Which is why a doctor will often advise rest of some description, or suggest that you monitor and come back in a week. Or they will prescribe a low dose of a low risk remedy to buy time for you to heal, this gives you confidence they have acted and the time for you to heal.

Physicians are therefore faced with the certain knowledge that doing nothing will in most cases result in the problem resolving itself and the certain knowledge that any remedy bears some risk of harm. And yet their chosen profession is to help, they chose the profession because they are motivated to ‘act’ to help people. Helping by inaction is excruciatingly difficult for people with a desire or bias to act, their desire to act very often overrides their desire to help. This is compounded by patients that expect action even when no action would be better.

For a physician the real skill is the ability to evaluate which situations from the multitude presented truly require intervention and then diagnosing the correct intervention.

Management

A similar phenomenon occurs in management. As an organisation typically we structure teams to be largely autonomous (or have delegated authority), we hire individuals who are capable of getting the job done without regular interference from management.

The rationale behind this is that a human body self-organizing team is a marvelous piece of engineering and has an astonishing capacity for self-healing improvement. A staggeringly high proportion of injuries, ailments and afflictions problems the team will simply fix themselves if we do nothing, and almost all remedies interventions come with some risk of side-effects or unknown complications.

So our starting position should be non-interference, if you hired the right people and they are structured effectively they should be able to resolve most situations themselves. Intervention should be an abnormal action not your go to response.

The problem is that we are humans: managers generally become managers because they have a bias for action and because they care (either about the people or the work or both). They also suffer the most horrible of curses, they are curious.

When an employee comes to you with a problem or you observe something that sparks an interest we as curious fixers have an overwhelming urge to jump in. We want the details, we want to help, whilst the person is describing the problem we are evaluating and preparing a response, an intervention of some kind. We are so interested in a situation we forget to ask whether it is in the interest of the individual or team for us to be involved.
We forget that we lack the same level of information, or context or situational awareness. We substitute this for our experience and opinion. Don’t get me wrong we hire managers for their experience and opinion, but like any tool it must be used judiciously.

I see this happen over and over, especially in a matrix organisation, a variety of managers become aware of a problem, often trivial and want to ‘help’ but the reality is that the responsible party – either the team or the responsible leader is already capable of resolving the issue and is already acting, but now they must also to respond to your advice, they must keep you informed and as the situation escalates the number of people to inform and respond to grow and becomes a problem of it’s own. The lack of context may often result in bad advice that the team feels compelled to follow because of the assumed authority of the manager giving the advice.

Æthelred the Unræd
This chap is Ethelred the Unready, king of the English (Not England), the poor man has gone through history with this title. But in this context Unready is somewhat unfair pseudonym for him. The Anglo-Saxon noun unræd means "bad advice" or possibly "evil-council" it is not a reflection of him being unprepared. He was badly advised, he came to the throne at 12 and suffered from interference from his political advisers.   The bad advice he received has led to a reputation for over 1000 years.   

The true gift of a leader/manager is the ability to listen and evaluate when it is beneficial to act and when it is better to let the situation resolve itself in an acceptable fashion. And that there is the stumbling block suffered by many inexperienced managers, they see a situation and possibly even a potential solution and they ‘know’ they could handle the situation better. They would handle it differently and want to step in. This inability to delegate and to trust others is the hardest part of management and the part where most fail.

Just like physicians, the true skill of a manger is knowing when to intervene and the strength of character to sit on the sidelines and watch when your intervention would be unnecessary.

Agile and self organized/self managed teams

So what does this have to do with Agile Coaching? First you could very easily replace the word Manager with Coach in the last section and heed that advice. Teams in most situations could and should be able to resolve situations themselves. However, I am going to take a slightly controversial stance on this and suggest that in Agile communities we have taken that advice a little too far.

In many ways Agile has created a community that shuns medicine. We have heard that 95% of health issues resolve themselves and we have interpreted this as a belief that physicians are therefore completely unnecessary. Not only unnecessary but should be chased from the land with pitch forks. In essence we have become zealously anti-management.

I have been in a number of agile workshops where we assess the role of a manager and conclude that most of the responsibilities of a manager can and possibly should be performed by the team. #NoManagers This is a really great exercise and is very empowering for the team and will generally give them the confidence to step up and take ownership. The downside is that whilst in theory the responsibilities of managers can be delegated to the team it is not always possible to delegate big picture awareness, experience and capability. These tend to get dropped on the floor as they are only valuable when things go wrong.

Even Scrum Masters seem to be being shunned now in favour of more remote Agile Coaches or in many cases the belief that because SOME teams are capable of autonomy and have the necessary experience and understanding of Agile that they can function without support, that this somehow translates to ALL teams should function without ANY support. Companies will abandon Coaches, Scrum Masters or leaders of any kind and expect even relatively junior teams to make effective decisions.

In those 5% of cases where the team hits a situation they cannot handle they are by definition lacking the knowledge or experience or support needed to resolve it. We have moved from a situation of too much unnecessary intervention to a totally hands-off situation where teams are left to flounder, with no one willing or able to intervene. In some cases those that do step-in to assist are challenged as being anti-agile for undermining the team’s independence.

One of the key elements of a management or support role is the natural distance from the team, the ability to distance oneself and see the bigger picture, something that a team member can rarely do.

As an example I recently worked with a very capable and experienced team, they were working hard and getting the job done. The problem was they were not delivering value by the customer’s standards (not overtly articulated by the customer). Through a variety of small and seemingly insignificant events the situation had evolved. Early on there were some obstacles relating to a production environment that at the time and with the information available the team chose to postpone, choosing to remain productive(busy), later more obstacles arose and again the team didn’t want to slow down so chose a path that enabled greater utilization(rather than value delivery). The result was a very happy and busy team, they were getting a lot of work done. The team was unaware there was a problem until the customer grew frustrated at the perceived lack of value being delivered. The team would have eventually resolved this issue but the cost to the customer would have been considerable.

The Quest for Balance

This is a typical tale of a team optimizing for itself, there needs to be someone with an eye on the bigger picture and an emphasis on the entire system. It is hard to assume that every team has this, when it is a rare skill. Of all the responsibilities of a traditional manager this is the hardest for a team to replicate. The ability to see the system is the primary reason we hire managers/coaches/delivery leads/product owners/project managers, in my opinion the key skill to look for in those roles is the ability to visualise the big picture and to know when to act on this knowledge.

This is not a claim that teams cannot self organize or that managers are necessary in all cases. This is a request for balance and awareness of the bigger picture. Previously I talked about the greatest skill of a physician or a manager being the ability to discern when to act and having the strength of character to do nothing when it is unnecessary. The flip-side is true for teams, you cannot handle every situation without support, the ability to know your limitations and when to ask for help is a significant skill and highly underrated. But equally the willingness to listen to advice from those with a better view of the entire system is also crucial.

Yes the team might be able to resolve a situation eventually, but at what cost and who is footing the bill? The cost here is one of those ‘Big Picture’ areas that is often underrated by those who are abstracted from that. Self-organization is very powerful, but understanding when a problem is one that should be left for a team to resolve and when someone with a better understanding of the big picture should step in, is one of the hardest questions to answer.

Generally I like to believe inaction is best, trust that we have hired the best people and that we have set them up for success. But also being aware that self-organization is not a silver bullet and it comes with a cost that may not be appropriate to pay in all situations. Learning is costly and we do not learn from all failures. Having people prepared and skilled enough to act is crucial, knowing when to act comes with experience and not acting requires a huge amount of self-discipline.

By nature I am insatiably curious, I have an opinion on everything and I have a strong bias for action. Of all things not intervening is one of my personal challenges. This post is as much a letter to myself as anything else. It is a reminder to trust and to observe rather than prematurely act.

3 thoughts on “First, do no harm.

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