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Growing Personal and Organisational Courage

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Courage is vital for organisations if they want to thrive in today’s complex world as it will create the right conditions for the highest possible levels of creativity, adaptability and productivity. We all have the power to lead with courage, no matter what our role is.

Kathy Thomson spoke about the roots of courage and how can we become more courageous as individuals and organisations at Lean Agile Exchange 2020.

We have a choice in every moment of difficulty, and there are two paths we can take, Thomson explained. There is the path of comfort, where we put up the armour, avoid risk and effectively retreat. The research of Brene Brown indicates that this behaviour is driven by a sense of scarcity and shame (I am not enough, I am not worthy). Thomson mentioned that her personal experience is that this can be quite a habitual pattern.

Thomson said that taking the courageous path requires us to engage more consciously with the situation and to be aware of our options. There are always external factors that hold us back (lack of psychological safety, practical constraints), but much lies within our control and is driven by internal factors, she argued, highlighting the importance of self-awareness.

Thomson mentioned that we should care about courage as individuals, because only by acting with courage can we reach our full potential and find the right path, whether this is at work or in our personal lives.

Leaders can foster courage in organisations. Thomson said that first and foremost, we all need to see ourselves as leaders. We all have the power to make a difference and shift cultures. For those in a formal leadership role, she mentioned that it is critical for them to acknowledge the importance of courage, be honest about the degree to which it exists in their organisation, and have the desire to make a change.

According to Thomson, role modelling self-awareness and personal courage are key, but beyond that a leader’s job is to create safe containers for others to be brave. The language they use can have a great impact; simply asking "What do you need from me to feel safe?" can go a long way.

InfoQ interviewed Kathy Thomson about courage in our daily lives, how a lack of courage can manifest itself in an organisational setting, and becoming more courageous as individuals and organisations.

InfoQ: What role does courage play in our daily lives?

Kathy Thomson: If we want to use Agile approaches to deal with complexity and deliver better for our customers, we need the courage to experiment, speak up when things are not working, engage in healthy debate, and trust people close to the work to make decisions (thus, thinking about leadership in a different way).

To put this into context, the most highly productive and happy teams that I have worked with spent time learning to challenge each other and give each other feedback. They experimented with ways to make sure everyone had a voice, and found approaches to raise issues with management.

Each of these things required courage, and in many cases involved a change to previously accepted behaviour. Thinking about courage at an individual level, this can even mean recognising that a particular role or team might not be the right one for you, and speaking up about this.

InfoQ: How can a lack of courage manifest itself in an organisational setting?

Thomson: Many people find themselves being asked to move away from traditional ways of working (e.g. waterfall, management structures, focus on output rather than outcomes, resource utilisation over flow of value) towards Agile approaches. We significantly underestimate the leap we are asking people to make; how this will feel different, the levels of uncertainty, and the need to change the way we interact with our peers and leaders.

In addition, I believe that we challenge people to shed some of the conditioning from society, schools and family, where typically we are rewarded for behaving rather than disrupting. Because this transition is hard, the result can be the implementation of a framework such as Scrum, without any of the benefits of agility; we go through the motions, call things different names, but in reality nothing changes (the path of comfort).

InfoQ: How can we become more courageous as individuals and organisations?

Thomson: Whilst the traditional view of courage is one of strength, surprisingly it springs from a place of self-awareness. Only by noticing what is happening for us in the moment such as feelings of uncertainty, risk and fear, can we unpick this and make a conscious choice of courage over comfort.

Meditation and mindfulness can help to build self-awareness, but the simplest thing of all is the breath, and this is with us all the time. Noticing your breath can act as a signal that you feel uncertain or at risk; perhaps you hold your breath or it becomes shallow. With this in mind, breathing more deeply will stimulate a relaxation response, and allow the decision-making part of the brain to kick back in.

Being conscious of past patterns and habitual behaviour can also be helpful, such as how you respond to hierarchy. Putting all of this together creates a picture to allow you to make a courageous choice.

Teams can do much to create the right conditions for courage to flourish. Stating the desire for healthy debate, candour and a feedback culture via a working agreement can create safety for people to experiment with courage and learn from each other. The tool that has helped me most in this space is Radical Candor (from the book by Kim Scott). It is such a simple model that balances care with challenge, and gives teams the conditions and vocabulary to have hard conversations.

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