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Article: People Re-Engineering How To’s: Leadership Enablement

MMS Founder

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • People re-engineering is a people engagement strategy sculpted to match the challenges inherent in the new wave of Digital Transfomation. 
  • Leadership enablement is a key element of the prople re-engineering approach and it requires fundamental change in organisation dynamics
  • Unless the organization has the courage to enable leaders, leadership becomes inert; just one more fancy synonym for the old dull management paradigm
  • Leadership enablement needs intelligent selection of the people to lead, proper preparation for those leaders and making a commitment of their responsibility to develop and improve others


As I proposed in a first article, People Re-engineering is a complete strategy to free a software organization from the monotony and mediocrity that hides behind software people’s job dissatisfaction, and to redirect their energy towards a vivid and vigorous continuous process of improvement. This dissatisfaction, in turn, causes the  job churn that is becoming endemic, particularly in SMBs, who have not yet developed as human capital organizations. Then, moving on to a second article (Mentoring as A Service), I discussed the how to’s of this strategy. Now, in this third article, I discuss the second, and probably the most pivotal, of the five threads of action comprising People Re-engineering, that is, Leadership Enablement. 

Before we dive into this Leadership thread, I’d like to add that the time lapse between the last article and this one has made me realize how vital adopting such a strategy can be with the emergence of the Digital Transformation Era.  I can confidently say that adopting a strategy aimed at the well-being, competence and energy of those doing the real fighting inside their cubical trenches has become a priority in order to meet the emerging challenges of this big change. People Re-engineering is one of the early frameworks sculpted to match the age of Digital Transformation.

Please note that I use PRE, for short, interchangeably with People Re-engineering. I do the same with he/she, she/he, she and he.

What Leadership, Indeed?

Firstly, this is not just one more article preaching leadership in software development (I am an author of a book on the topic); this is by no means the aim of this article. My intention here is to show how I implemented leadership principles within the context of People Re-engineeringto boost the spirit of the “insistence on wellness” associated with strategy, among other things, as you will see. So it’s not just one more treatise on leadership. I hope my approach proves to be far more practical than that.

Secondly, we need to specify which level of leadership we are talking about here. We will talk about leadership as separate from organizational structures; titles certainly will vary from one organization to another. The leadership level that we refer to here is what can be called Tactical Leadership, or if you take the military analogy, those Field Commanders who are fully or partially engaged with production teams (warriors) in the development process. This takes us to the team leader level and up to the level of someone in charge of a “team of teams”, be that a line leader, a product leader, a delivery leader, or whatever the particular organization calls him/her. Hence, when speaking of level of leadership, it is the degree of engagement with the team(s) that we are interested in.

Enabling the Enablers

The most relevant action for leadership effectiveness,and unfortunately the most forgotten too in my experience, is Enablement.Many organizations see leadership as a skill but unfortunately lack the courage to fully enable leaders (and people in general) to do what they are entitled to do.  Without daring enablement, Leadership remains an ornament in the organization’s culture. And even leaders themselves lack this courage, opting for Controlinstead of enablement, disguised in the name of leadership. The final result is a management-command model that lacks the vigor of true leadership.

Thus, and within the context of People re-engineering, an organization must have the courage to enable their leaders, and leaders in turn must have the spirit to further enable teams and individuals. The good news here, is that any risk you might think associated with enabling junior leaders or employees, is reduced when an organization intelligently and openly answers three pivotal questions:

  • Do we really select appropriate characters to lead, or we do we just accept “the most technically competent” ones as leaders?
  • Do we expose our potential leaders to developmental processes and practices to get them on track for leading others?
  • Do we listen to a new leader’s vision for her “leadership project”, her dream for her people?  And do we get her commitment to it?

So, getting the right characters to lead, arming them with effective weapons, freeing them from the idea that “leading is about one’s self success”, and having them understand that “leading is about others’ success”, sets the ground for fearless enablement, leading to an effective, instead of inert, style of leadership.  

Let me inject here a finding of mine, which I’ve become certain of over the past few years: that Gen-Y making up the vast majority of our working force in the industry is enablement-thirsty! While enablement is a major ingredient in their motivation and sense of self-fulfillment, we insist on giving them control instead. That must change.

The Art of Guidance: Remote Sensing

As you can see, enablement is not costless; it comes with its burdens to the organization, the leader, the team and the individual. It’s the wisdom of the organization that places every element in the right stance in order to take the burden into a new “enabling” environment.

PRE does not actually presume a utopian hypothesis that “Enablement negates Control”. There will still be Control, but the key here is to redefine Controlso as to boost enablement, not deter it. This style of control was first suggested by Takeuchi and Nonaka in their seminal work, which led us to a world of agility, a whole new daring wave in the innovation world: The New New Product Development Game – HBR 1986. In their team process model, they used Subtle Control as a replacement for just Control. So leaders of today should observe this. We shall see how.

Actually, instead of “subtle control”, I prefer adapting it to something a bit more contemporary, like Remote Sensing. Here are the tools and techniques that I found to be the most effective in adjusting control to the right level, which don’t result in side effects:

  • Trust: Prepare your people well, then trust them to solve their own problems. Your intervention should be confined to their realistic needs.
  • Observe: Leaders and field commanders should engage well with teams. Daily follow-ups, initiated by the team, like agile standups, are a good way to ensure observability. Observing from a distance eliminates micro management, or even frequent unnecessary intervention. Keep expert intervention away until called for, or until it’s apparent that it’s needed.   
  • Be “Socratic”: Discuss and review what’s being done with questions, rather than statements. Be open and give an ear to your team. Don’t be pre-judgmental or adopt the view of a subject matter expert if you have no or insufficient knowledge on the subject, such as of your tech lead, say.
  • Accept Errors: As long as these are not stemming from negligence or intention. Use them to coach people on what needs to change. Never blame, or even advise, but coach. We will get to that soon.

Thus, observing behavior and a team’s performance paves the way to understanding what needs to improve, and how to do so. In other words, tacit and wise observation draws a path for continuous improvement.

The Coaching Side of The Story

Let’s make it clear, at least as a practical finding, that leadership without coaching is just a form of “elegant management”. Actually, the “insistence on wellness” I keep mentioning as a one of my favorite slogans of People Re-engineering, is just “insistence on improvement” under disguise. Here, coaching comes to the front of the stage. If “Observation” draws the path for improvement, then coaching is the means to cross it, no matter the hurdles. 

Equip your leaders with well-established , accurately dosed, coaching skills. By “accurately dosed”, I mean a practical depth in coaching that ensures the right degree of a leader’s involvement in the work life of his/her team. I insist on dosing to this degree, as coaching can lead us to another level of personal engagement that can sometimes exceed our needs, and hence causes strains on time and relationships in the work environment. To define this depth, or dose, let me borrow the definition of Coachingas described by one of its pioneers, Sir John Wetmore:

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them learn rather than teaching them”-  (Whitmore, J, 2004)

Da Vinci said it in his immortal quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”! And that applies to Sir Wetmor’s wonderful, concise, and purposeful phrasing. Use it as a reference when you prepare your leaders as coaches.

So, within the PRE context, leadership integrates an in-line coaching style that consists of factual performance results (be that issues, ambitions and/or hopes), and targets teams’ (and individuals’) true willingness to cut through the path to improvement. 

Before I leave coaching as a necessary ingredient of leadership in PRE, let me just remind you that aside from their coaching role, leaders within the PRE context act as interfaces (facilitators) in serving people’s needs to grow their careers; this role, MRaaS or Mentorship as a Service, is described in detail in the second article of this series. 

Putting It All Together

At this point, we have defined a simple yet effective leadership process that is at the heart of the PRE framework. This is depicted in Figure 1.

Looking at the figure, you will obviously notice how the closed loop feeds back into the Enablement phase of the ongoing cycle. This is exactly what PRE means when it called its Leadership Thread the Leadership Enablement Thread.Some explanation is needed here. 

As the leader “learns” more about her/his team/member(s), thanks to observation and coaching results, he/she will start to gain (or maybe lose) confidence in the progress of her team/member(s). Depending on the progress magnitude, the leader can dose the level of enablement of the team and/or the individuals. Good progress means more enablement, until the team becomes what we call Autonomous;the best of the breed in the industry, acknowledged by many since the time of Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, the inventors of the “New New Product Development Cycle”.

But what if progress is slow, or below the acceptable norm? Practically, this is the tough part of the story. The answer will certainly depend on a deeper look into the reasons, as well as the organizational ability, to practice patience in developing its people. But in all cases, there is a given threshold for those who neither have the guts nor the desire to improve. In my practice I’m really keen on discovering such attitudes early enough, where in most cases their presence is toxic to the team’s spirit. When you are sure of your judgment, and at the same time sure that you have no personal biases or prejudgments, dispose of the evil spirits! That’s one thing.

Again, in this context, when progress is not great in the enable-observe-coach cycle, I’ve always found it helpful to call for some mentorship. Leaders can use Mentorship as a Service (MRaaS) in assessing and/or helping in such cases. This is exactly why PRE has MRaaS ready as one of its five threads.

And, Innovative Leadership!

I’ve spoken, lectured and coached on leadership. The people I have met in the arena have varied considerably in character, ambitions and in their ability to effect real change. However, there has always been one thing, something interesting actually, that all these people have shared. They have always seen effective leadership as a vehicle that can lead teams into the world of innovation. No one, or at least no one I saw or listened to or read for, was talking about Innovation within the boundaries of leadership itself, or Innovative Leadershipas we should call it.  In my opinion, innovative leaders are those who can find unconventional solutions for the toughest problemswhich may impede their team’s progress along the enable-observe-coach cycle of improvement. I’ve always viewed these people as being at a higher rank than just “effective leaders”. They are rare to find among the crowd, and they are a true plus wherever found.

But which “tough” problems are we talking about? Isn’t “tough” a relative term? Here is my answer. First of all, set aside the technology part of a problem; today, this is the easiest of all to find solutions to, plus leaders can rely on their autonomous teams for finding solutions to technical issues, rather than finding them themselves. A tech lead would be the right persona for this mission. In my experience, the tough problems here are humane. I’ve always spotted three domains that are quite revealing of a leaders’ ability to innovate in the mission:

  • Handling (or better, taming) work pressure.
  • Killing boredom of repetitive tasks, or working with legacy technologies.
  • Setting up, consenting on, and implementing a fair conflict resolution policy for disagreements within the team, especially with regards to technical issues.

These three areas are really problematic, and they are the cause of many cases of team disengagement within Y-Gen hordes, who make up the majority in our teams. Finding innovative solutions to these problems is a matter of research, trial and error, and insistence on the well-being of one’s team(s). There are some case studies on this, but they will take us into far more detail than that of this article. It’s sufficient to say these are three excellent domains for innovative leaders to demonstrate their ability to solve their people’s problems.


There is no doubt that leadership is the management model that is now influencing the software industry, under the enormous challenges imposed by the Digital Transformation Age. People Re-engineering elevates the value of leadership by admitting “Leadership Enablement” as one of its basic threads, which brings vitality and vigor to a software organization’s body. Simply select, prepare and call for commitments from your leaders, letting them launch their enable-observe-coach cycles. If you do it with passion, be assured that you will shortly see some good results.

About the Author

Medhat Sabry is a Software Development Consultant, Speaker and Writer addressing the development community over his own self-constructed web-based initiative called Techstamina, together with other social media and professional networks channels. Staying there in the heart of software delivery process for nearly four decades, Medhat had a sound exposure to the emerging challenges in the development industry that formulated his passion to help developers and companies build their professional stamina to take the ever-growing pressures and challenges in today’s software market.

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