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When David Marquet was growing up, he was a math team member at Concord Carlisle High School. He was also heavily involved in sports such as fencing and track.

His involvement in sports got him thinking about the language we use to talk about patterns that leaders use to describe how they lead teams. He realized that the idea of plays was helpful in discussing what leaders can do to enable high-performing teams.

Here are some key points from David’s talk The Agile Leader’s Playbook from AgileCamp 2018.

What are plays?

A play is a standard recurring way that you interact with a specific condition or situation. For example, if you need the group to come up with a number, a play is a particular way you approach the task to get the best result.

A good play is to split the task into three parts. In the first part, you collect everyone’s thoughts about what the number should be in a way that does not influence everyone else - writing their thoughts down on a card, for example.

In the second part, look at everyone’s card and then talk about the numbers at the extremes. You hear and embrace the people who have different views.

In the third part, you collapse those different views into a single number, taking into account the varying viewpoints you discussed in the second part.

This approach - this play - avoids prematurely anchoring the group’s opinion about a number and gives everyone a chance to have a say, even those whose natural inclination is not to say anything.

Unfortunately, that’s not the default play for most leaders. And that’s one of the main things David talked about in this presentation - changing leaders’ default plays.

Where do our default plays come from?

David was a submarine captain in the US Navy. He experienced firsthand the source of many leaders’ default plays.

“They come from a work environment that looks like this. This is a radio factory. These people are making radios. This is just before World War II.

And it’s like my archetypal picture of what Industrial Age work looked like — many people doing simple, repeated physical tasks. Organizations were designed to control people doing simple physical repeated tasks.

And the critical thing here is that variability is the enemy. We need those simple physical repeated tasks to be as much the same task day to day as possible.

So the language patterns, how we ran our meetings, and the whole structure of the organization are designed to squeeze any variability out of the system.

This is important because we’ve inherited that. And so look here now. I want you to think about two different kinds of people, people who are doing the work and those who are deciding about the work.”

Leaders’ default plays are often based on the assumption that you had people who did the work and a different group of people who decided about the work.

David calls the deciding work - the thinking work - blue work. The doing and product work David refers to as red work.

Red work benefits from collapsing variability, and red work benefits from expanding variability.

Many leaders’ default plays are based on the assumption that the same person can’t do both blue and red work. You see a clear distinction between people who decide and people who do. It’s built into our language, and it’s built into what people wear to work.

For this separation of responsibilities to succeed, the people who decide about work need to have all the answers. They need to know all there is to know about doing the work.

So what happens when the people responsible for blue work don’t have all the answers?

New plays for high-performing teams

If you face a situation where the leaders don’t have all the answers, you’ll need a new set of plays. For these plays to work, you must eliminate the assumption that the same person can’t do blue and red work.

The secret behind these plays is to push the responsibility for deciding about the work to the people who know the most about the work. In many circumstances today, that’s actually the people doing the work. David describes how you can encourage the people doing the work to make decisions about that work.

“…You want everybody thinking and leaning upward, not everyone doing what they’re told from the person above. And instead of this, you want this. And the way to do it is not by exhorting your people to lean into you. It’s by you leaning back and inviting them to come forward. You gotta create the vacuum for them to come into you.”

So here are some plays that encourage people to both decide and do, which will help you get to the point of high-performing teams.

Play: Leader controls the clock

This play builds in a definite point in time when the team is going to pause and reflect on what’s happening and consider ways to improve. Knowing that time exists allows people who are doing the work the chance to focus on doing the work without having to worry about monitoring what’s going on in the meantime.

This is the idea behind a periodic retrospective every couple of weeks.

Play: Avoid Binary Questions

Avoid asking binary questions such as “should we do x?” as much as possible. Those types of questions cause people to guess what answer the leader wants to hear and anchors that answer in their head.

As a result, you won’t get insight into what the person really thinks. Instead, you’ll hear the answer they think you want.

To avoid binary questions, start your questions with what or how for example: “What do you think we should do?” or “How do you think we can solve this problem?”

Play: Embrace Outliers

You avoid binary questions to ensure that you get a diverse set of perspectives. But those diverse perspectives do you no good if you don’t listen to and consider those perspectives.

So after you ask a question, listen to what everyone has to say and embrace the outliers. You want to understand the most divergent views possible and bring them to light. Avoid the natural desire to reach a consensus until you’ve heard different perspectives.

David suggests some ways to formulate questions to embrace outliers:

  • Instead of asking, “Are you sure?” ask “How sure are you?”
  • Instead of asking, “Is it safe?” ask “How safe is it?”
  • Instead of saying, “I hear you,” say “What I hear you saying is…”

Play: Vote First, then Discuss

When you’re running a meeting, and you need to make a decision, follow this approach:

  1. Vote first so that people’s opinions don’t influence others
  2. Discuss the outliers to understand the reasoning behind their choice.

This play helps you avoid anchoring and embrace outlier perspectives.

If you face a situation where a couple of people on your team are holding on to some wildly diverging perspectives, you can ask each of them to defend the other’s position. When they take the time to try and argue the other side of the matter, they will better understand the broader issue and find a solution that works for both of them.

Play: Invite Scrutiny

A final play that David suggests deals with feedback — which is helpful when you want to pause and reflect.

He suggests that instead of providing feedback, work with your team to invite feedback. Here’s how he describes it:

“What you wanna do is train your people to invite feedback. And so we use yellow cards. We would hand out yellow cards and say, Hey, if I come across, if I, if you feel I didn’t listen to you, or I told you what to do, I want you to yellow card me. In other words, you’re inviting feedback.”

Want to learn more about these plays?

If you want to learn more about why these plays work and how David came up with them, check out the recording of his presentation from AgileCamp 2018.

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