The Agile Mindset - Chasing the Status Inner Circle
It's inner circles all the way in.
(This article is part of an on-going series dedicated to developing Agile mastery. Each post offers value to students on this journey, however, there is an advantage to those who start at the beginning.)
The Denver Botanical Gardens has a wonderful outdoor concert amphitheater. The stage is in the center of a venue that seats about 1,200 people. I say "about" because there are no seats. Just grass. And it's general admission So it's BYO-Blanket-Picnic-Basket-Wine.
Once upon a time, when it took awhile to pull together enough cash to buy maybe one or two tickets into a DBG summer concert, I'd arrive early to get a good place in line. The gates would open and the line would surge, people sprinting with their blankets and baskets to get a place close to the stage and out of the sun. While there are plenty of good seats, it was always a little disappointing to rediscover with each concert there was a line to get into the venue before the line I was in. A place in the better line could be had with a membership above a certain level to the DBG. Too rich for my blood at the time. The summer concerts are a highlight to my year, so when success came my way I joined the Line to the Line Club.
Ah, but there was another line to get a good place in the line to the line. The Line to the Line to the Line Club had it's own set rules and etiquette different from the Line on the Street Club. It still required an early arrival to secure a good place on the grass. And yet, there were people already staked out on the grass when the Line to the Line to the Line Club people were let into the venue to find a patch of grass - usually about 15 minutes before the Line on the Street Club waiting outside. So. There is a Line to the Line to the Line to the Line Club. An inner inner circle of members. But I stopped chasing, being grateful for the level of support I could give the DGB and more than satisfied with my patch of grass in the shade.
Observing the motivating behavior of the people on the outer, inner, and inner inner circles, there was a shift from getting the best seat to enjoy the concert to getting the best seat that shows everyone else that one has the means to park their arse on slightly better patch of grass before the concert. For some on the inner circle, this status signaling was a Big Deal. Transgressions to some unwritten rule for queuing were, in several cases, protested with great drama. And of course, me being me, these rules could only be discovered by having accidentally broken them. Sigh. It grows tiresome and looks like a lot of work. For those to whom this type of petty status is important, however. it's their raison d'etre. As it always was and will always be, I'll be there for the music.
I've written at length about the tools I use for determining the health of an organization and the teams within it. In the right hands, these tools are extremely effective at sussing out the dynamic agony working behind the scenes. There are elements, however, that don't fit neatly into the causal loop diagrams I use for diagnostics. While difficult to map, they are in many ways more important to understand that the easier dynamic system relationships. Often they can't be identified until some of the more obvious elements have been mapped and my senses tuned to the system. One of these elements is the unofficial communication channels that drive the feedback loops. Another is status - the types, their strength, and the reach they have across the organization.
Every system has status seekers. Some are easy to identify, especially those who've arrived at the exclusive circle and are more concerned with keeping their status in whatever pond they happen to swim in. They're caught by the strong inner status circle whirlpool and are working to keep from being thrown out by the spin of company politics. This makes them predictable and easier to outmaneuver.
The obvious seekers aren't the most dangerous seekers, however. People in the system who are on a status quest are more likely to work in cleaver ways to tear down the people whom they perceive as having the status they seek or are in the way of the status they're pursuing. In their mind, attaining a place in the inner status circle is a zero sum game. There's only so much room in the inner circle. Allowing everyone into the inner circle erases the exclusivity and therefore the status. As Grazie Sophia Christie put it, "The trouble is that a status symbol, without status, is common." Where's the fun in that? So if they want in, someone has to be pulled out. Never pretty and always with collatoral damage.
For the Agile coach, scrum master, or life in general, the winning strategy in the status game is to not play on the status seeker's terms. But it's the fool who assumes this means disregarding status dynamics altogether. Doing so will insure that somewhere sometime a status seeker will somehow use you for their gain. You will need to understand what the status seeker is after and what skills they have for pursuing what they desire. This will allow you to adjust your strategy in a way that deflects the worst effects of the status seeker while continuing to move toward your goals for the team and the organization.
You will also need to know what you're seeking and why.
A clear understanding of each of the status seeking nodes in a system - including yours - is essential to maintaining independence from the inner circle status trap. Live and work long enough and you'll collect plenty of examples where the person hired to guide a company out of a problem situation ends up becoming part of the problem themselves. And sometimes, you'll be that person, when you're not paying attention. There are many reasons why this may happen. A common element I've observed is that the Solution Finder gets lost in some form of status trap - they work to be liked more than respected, they have some sort of messianic image of themselves, they have a fixed mindset that places great importance on maintaining a reputation for not being wrong or failing, or any number of self-indulgent unforced errors.
As guides or someone hired to find a way forward, it should be a fundamental tenet going in that we purposefully remain free any status circle traps. By design, we must remain outsiders if we are to add value and restore system health to any team or organization. Admittedly, this can be difficult for no other reason than we all crave a sense of belonging and prolonged feelings of being an outsider is antithetical to fundamental human nature. I have learned, as have other successful coaches I know, to establish reliable memberships to more than one tribe and secure places of belonging that are separate from where I work. Doing so allows me to focus on delivering what I promise for clients until such time I can establish myself as a recognized contributor of value to the client's workplace. When this transition happens, I've found it much easier to affect changes that people willingly make based more on trust than status. This is how I tune a team or organization to harmony. As it always was and will always be, I'm there for the music.
If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.