Humility is the key to agile culture

Posted on April 12, 2021.
Screenshot of LinkedIn post that inspired this article
The inspiration for this post came from a recent short thread on LinkedIn.

Strong opinions, loosely held. The light bulb was lit forever the day I heard Janice Fraser say those words.

We’re all smart. We all have our expertise. We all have our experience to share. That experience should enable us to make increasingly more successful decisions. And often it does. But not always. In those moments — when the evidence we’ve collected contradicts our strongly held opinions — the agility of a team is determined.

It’s in those moments that we muster up the trait most likely to determine whether we succeed or fail — humility. Most people — and even more leaders — misunderstand this word and the behavior change it should encourage. Showing humility is not abdicating your leadership role in an organization. You are not giving up on your vision. It is not a sign of weakness and it does not invalidate your credibility to hold the leadership position you occupy. 

Be humble written with marker on a post it note
© Marek Uliasz

Humility is the ability to admit, in the face of evidence, you were wrong. To do so transparently to your colleagues, your staff and even your customers. It effectively pierces the veil that reflects an image of The Leader as infallible and all-knowing. 

There is too much volatility in the market for anyone to be able to get every decision right. There is rapid continuous change in the deployment and use of technology. What and how people do something today is moot a year from now. Historical inertia forces many companies to predict their plans at least a year in advance, if not more. Leadership teams comply because it’s expected for them to do so. Deep down though, everyone knows that the reliability of their plans as you extend further out the timeline diminishes exponentially. 

As we create, deploy and learn from our products and services we can inject more evidence — more reality — into our short and mid term planning efforts. Initiatives we planned no longer make sense. Directions we set now feel inadequate. By humbly leading teams and admitting that new evidence contradicts older opinions and decisions you are explicitly allowing your teams to change course, to be agile. They learn from your behavior that it’s ok to make a mistake. It’s ok to learn from that mistake and recalibrate their work. Each course correction they make is an explicit display of agility. The more they do it, the more agile they become. 

Agile culture is humble culture. It’s the culture of inspecting and adapting. Sensing and responding. Given how much faster we can learn today whether we persevere with our decisions, pivot from them or throw them away entirely, there is no reason to ensure all of our strong opinions should continue to be held. And in the event they should not, modeling the kind of humble learning you want to see in your teams ensures they feel safe when they realize they have to let go of their own strong opinions.