Permission to Choose

“You’re going to what?!” the director asks me.

“I’m going to let them choose. It will be optional,” I affirm.

“But what if they just stop!? That seems really risky,”

“Well, if I do my job right, that won’t be an issue. Give me three months.”

I have conversations like this regularly with my clients when I explain part of my approach to building better teams. More specifically, when I tell leadership that as a part of re-starting or starting the team, I will permit them to stop attending pointless meetings and that they can abandon their current agile approach.

Now, a fancy word for this ability to choose is agency, which I am particularly sensitive to.

Once you begin to see things through the lens of agency, you will see how little agency exists in most teams and organizations despite the espoused “You’re empowered,” which echoes the hallways.

But, the other thing you’ll notice about the lack of agency is that the control is doing little other than providing a surface for friction and conflict. It can also cause poor performance as tight control may actively prevent better results.

Let me pick a meeting I love to pick on: the daily stand-up or daily scrum. This is one of the more hated meetings inflicted on groups. I can ask any team why they have the meeting and what the rules are, and almost everyone will get this wrong. Yet they keep repeating the same poor meeting, and people keep telling them they must.

It’s a 15-minute meeting for a team to get focused for the day, and they aren’t allowed a say in it.

So I do what I typically do and tell the team it’s optional, and they can attend if it’s valuable. It isn’t a trick or a gimmick. I don’t keep attendance secretly or tell people about who did and didn’t attend.

In fact, I make every standard meeting optional.

I then get to work understanding what is essential for success and what has become theater. When we know what is important, I do the most radical thing I can think of.

I ask them, “How should we do this?”

Wait, that isn’t the radical part. The radical part is that I let the team decide.

Overwhelmingly, teams seek my advice and want a sounding board for what they think will work. I tell them the truth and offer guardrails so they can handle mistakes quickly. I ask if they want my opinion or suggestions on what to try.

Know what happens next? Everyone shows up to the daily meeting. Even if they go through the same basic ritual, they say it’s purposeful and useful now. This happens with other meetings, too.

What changed? That same team now has agency. They just so happened to pick what they were currently doing, but because they can exercise agency, they accept some responsibility for its success.

Agency is a potent ingredient in exceptional teams, and while granting agency is sometimes a leap of faith, I’ve never seen a team without agency outperform a team with it.