Leading from the Middle

A world of accelerating change demands a new generation of management with the skills to drive decisive action and elevate performance. Managers tasked with delivering results collide with peers whose conflicting goals, perspectives, and incentives freeze progress and create a glacial pace of change. New thinking and practices are needed to act in alignment. You can't thaw the frozen middle overnight, you can't copy-and-paste a solution, and you can't do it alone. To collaborate effectively you need to create a shared map of the territory, and you need to pick your battles.

This talk presents profound yet practical applications of systems thinking, psychology, and organizational design. On that foundation we share a step-by-step guide to visualizing the outcomes, processes, and dependencies that can tie you down or help you succeed. Co-create maps of the hidden relations and interactions that constrain your teams - maps that everyone can align with and act on. Replace deadlocks with shared insights. Reveal exactly what to do next. Learn how to reach across the whitespace in your org chart to replace friction with flow. We’ll work through a case from a financial services enterprise to show the power of clear perspective to unlock innovation and performance.


Steve Pereira

CEO and Founder, Visible


Andrew Davis

Author, Mastering Salesforce DevOps



Hi everyone. Thank you for joining us. Uh, we're so pleased to be here at DevOps enterprise summit, to talk to you about leading from the middle, uh, and middle managers guide to impact. And I am Steve Perrera. I am the founder of visible value stream consulting and a senior director at Cappa. And I'm joined here by Andrew Davis. Who's my co-presenter and co-author


Hey everybody. I'm the senior director of research and innovation at Copa. And, uh, while those titles may sound impressive, the reality is much more humble. Steve and I are both just another middle manager at Kopa. So we'd like to talk to you about the challenges, the opportunities of being a middle manager. And what does it mean to try to if, uh, execute leadership in that context? So there's a, actually a book called leading from the middle, uh, that we found after we came up with the name of this, uh, presentation by Scott Moz. He has this quote being in the middle means you have the opportunity to lead in all directions. So that is an extraordinarily optimistic and encouraging quote that I want you to contemplate and keep that in mind through the presentation, you have the opportunity to lead in all directions. So how can we make that a reality?


So let's start by thinking about the sources of influence in company decisions, cuz that's effectively what we're trying to do. If we're leading is trying to help influence the way the company makes decisions. So of course there is executive leadership and everybody knows they've got a lot of power and influence. They get things done and then their individual contributors. Now of course, individual contributors also have the day to day granular decision making capability. They're making thousands of small decisions every day for your organization. And of course there's external circumstances that are guiding and, and moving your organization, uh, in different directions. If you're a middle manager, you're sitting somewhere here in the middle between the executive leadership tier and the individual contributors, and that is your sphere of influence. And we're gonna talk about that phrase, sphere of influence. Um, a lot in this, this presentation, I would like to remind you of this, uh, this diagram from a little organization called the DevOps research and assessment group, who came out with a little report called the state of DevOps report, which we all know and love.


And so this set of capabilities, um, that all drive software delivery performance and drive organizational performance. Now you'll notice here on the far left is transformational leadership. This has five characteristics, vision, inspirational communications, intellectual stimulation, supportive leadership and personal recognition. Now, if you ponder those for a minute, right, those five characteristics, those are not the exclusive purview of any one person in the organization. Of course, if you have a CEO who models that that's fantastic or a, you know, CIO or whoever, but that's something that all of us individually, wherever we are in the organization, we can all, um, embody that. Now it may be that if you're a technologist, the areas of this diagram that you have most confidence in are things like database administration and version control and so forth. And that's fantastic. Now it may be that leadership is not something we're feeling as confident about as we might part.


And we want, I wanna reflect on why that is leadership means going somewhere new by definition. You can't just follow anyone else. Um, and when you're going someplace new, that is high risk and high reward, both socially and practically. And there is a social risk that we incur. If we express a new idea, express a new vision, criticize an existing direction, or at least call out some risks and, and, um, and limitations to a current plan. And so we need to know that there's that risk because that'll, if we're, if we're not conscious of that risk, it may just unconsciously suppress our confidence in leading. And I wanna boil all of leadership down to this one statement. Leadership just means influence. So I've contemplated that for the last 25 years, it comes from this book, uh, from John Maxwell, this one sentence, I find really powerful to summarize what we're talking about when we're talking about leadership.


It just means influence. When we're talking about influence, there are two kinds of influence push or pull. Um, so push influence or direct influence, sometimes call hard, influence, hard power. It's telling people what to do. <laugh> it's positional power, right, or rewards or threats, those kinds of things. We're all very familiar with that. Um, the other kind of influence though, is indirect influence or soft power or pull influence. And this includes many different characteristics. When we wanna talk about four of them here, value, clarity, flow, and networks. So I'm gonna introduce these four concepts, uh, and Steve will explain a little bit more in detail how we can, uh, exercise these to get things done. So value, clarity, flow, and networks. When we talk about leadership, it's very common that people go to thinking about organizational politics. How many times have you heard people talk about organizational politics?


Oh, so, and so is being a jerk or they're obstinate or, oh, I was overruled and so forth. It becomes very, very hard for us to make decisions and guide and, and change the organization. If we're thinking in terms of the people involved, it's me versus Steve and Steve is always stubborn about this, and I really want that. And when we think about interacting with people, it becomes a little bit harder. Um, when we, but if we look beneath the surface, what we're what's happening is these, these relationships of value, clarity, flow, and networks. Now I wanna encourage you. That influence grows the more it's used effectively. So you already have influence and it'll grow the more you use it effectively. What we're looking to do is, um, create within our organization's, um, harmony as opposed to disharmony. So if I think about disharmony within an organization, it wastes energy people moving in different directions.


You've got misaligned, um, or conflicting goals. You've got difficulties in communication. You've got lack of trust, um, as opposed to harmony and harmony from just a simple practical point of view, a it feels better B it's a nicer environment to be in C. It gets stuff done, right? Harmony channels, energy into work. The idea that you can take a group of people and align them towards accomplishing business goals, accomplishing benefit for the customers you're aligning, for example, around a value stream. Um, you have shared goals. You have shared collaboration tools. You have trust and openness as opposed to lack of trust. And that's really, I think where, where all of us would like to work. That's the kind of organization we'd like to be in to get there. We need to understand these three elements to action. Um, and I'll introduce these as value, clarity, and flow, but let's think about first to, to get anything done.


It always starts with perception and understanding, um, and then perception and understanding what you're perceiving and what you're understanding about that, that in that leads you to make a decision. So it allows us to weigh and balance different, um, you know, pros and cons of different outcomes. And that is then the basis for action. And when we act, of course, then the world changes and we need to re perceive and re understand what's the world we're looking in. Of course, there's a lot of these different decision making loops. The UDA loop observe and orient is perceiving an understanding's just different words, deciding and acting or plan do check, act plan, do study adjust. All of these loops decision making loops are similar and they, they, they walk you through a similar framework. Now, when we're thinking about these perceiving and understanding, deciding and acting really, there is a, a continuum for each of these, there's a continuum from ignorance and confusion all the way through to clarity.


That's where we wanna be clarity, right on decision making. There's ineffectiveness. There's a continuum of that all the way through to value being effective in as an organization. And then when it comes to actions, there's a continuum from inefficiency all the way through to flow. Now, instead of thinking about, you know, uh, people bumping into each other and organizational politics, we can just think everybody has a certain clarity, a certain set of beliefs, perceptions, understandings, everybody has certain set of values, um, that weigh their, that, that influence how they weight decisions. And everybody has certain behaviors that leads them to act or not act in a certain way. Now what we can do and what Steve get into is how you can help to create shared clarity, shared value, shared flow, uh, as an organization and to, to really make sense of this. We need to understand this fourth aspect, which is networks, these formal versus informal networks.


So the formal network in your organization, you know, it, you love it. It's the org chart, right? The formal network is the power and influence structure in the organization where the, you know, CEO typically sets at the top. You think they're at the top, actually, they're beholden to the board and the boards beholden to the investors. And so nobody has complete power really in this. But what we, what I think about is this formal network hides a lot of other networks inside of it. And so we've talked about the authority network, this formal power structure, this hard power structure. And that is partly what creates these silos. And so then we talk a lot about silos growing up in organizations where people are more responding to that, that, um, authority and the formal power structure, um, DevOps became famous for breaking down silos beginning to look at these value streams about how work actually flows from one department to another.


Um, and also increasingly we're, we're coming to promote the idea of communities of practice and communities of practice may spread across multiple value streams, uh, people with similar interests, similar concerns within an organization. And it's just important for us to recognize that there's a lot of these informal networks hiding in the org chart. Um, and then for each one of us individually, there's our, the informal network that is our social connections and our relationships with the people around us, right? And these, these networks, they may seem a little bit random or a little bit haphazard, but that's really where we have direct power and influence. And Stephen Covey, you may remember from the seven habits of highly effective people, one of his habits was start with your sphere of influence, begin with your sphere of influence. You may not think it's much, but that is where we have the most power and influence, um, is with the people that we're engaging with. And if you want people to do what you want, then you need to want, what's good for them. <laugh> you need to want what's in their best interest. Right. And if we're operating from that framework, then we have a lot of power.


So that brings us naturally back to this concept of harmony. And, and, you know, it's, it's a little bit more powerful than just alignment, right? I mean, we're, we're not just pointing people in the same direction. We really want them to converge, right? We want all the players involved to be on the same team with the same mission and ideally, you know, a unification of perspectives and incentives. And the, the way to do that is to really get everybody together and get all that information and context out in the open and connect the dots and really bridge the gaps between each individual involved. What they're focused on, what level they're looking at, you know, are they in the weeds? Are they 50,000 feet above everybody else? Are they looking far into the horizon or are they worried about next week? All of these factors separate our perspectives and make it challenging for us to come together and agree and start working collaboratively and effectively.


Um, as we know, we need to. So when we look at, um, ways to facilitate this harmony and convergence of perspectives and, uh, convergence of alignments, one of the methods that we found very PO, uh, powerful over the past couple years, especially over, uh, remote work and across time zones and with very distance groups of, of people, distance, physically and distanced in terms of perspective and, and incentive is outcome mapping, which is essentially starting from a target and breaking it down to understand what is it gonna take to get there together, uh, with everybody working together. And, you know, this can be a product of OKRs. It could be a, uh, convergence on, uh, a target objective, some annual goal. You might have just a big hair, audacious goal that's been shared with the organization and you're tasked with making it happen. So how do you understand this outcome together and all start working in service of achieving it?


So the first part that we find really powerful about mapping this out and connecting the dots is thinking about why is this outcome valuable? Because it's valuable for different reasons to different people. It's valuable for different reasons to the organization and to customers and to individual contributors and leaders and the, the ambitious new hire, all of that can come out into the open and get connected together. And everybody can start to understand I wasn't thinking about that, but now that I see it, it makes a lot of sense, and we can start to bring these things together and bring ourselves together. And the next piece that's really powerful is thinking about obstacles. So before we, you know, start joining hands is seeing kumbaya on marching off into the sunset. What are the things that we're gonna trip over? What are the things we're gonna have to surmount and, and overcome?


Uh, because, you know, that's giving a chance to the folks who are more worried about what could go wrong, then worried about, you know, this is gonna be great someday. And, and those are dots we need to connect. We need to, we need to bring them into the fold and we need to achieve harmony across all of these different concerns. And that's just solid practice understanding what are the things we're going to struggle with. And so we can plan ahead to avoid them or mitigate them, or maybe even use them to our advantage. And so investigations are another factor here where we can start to connect efforts, specific small efforts, small, uh, discoveries that are going to help us understand more about a avoiding our obstacles and getting to our outcomes more effectively, faster with less frustration and effort.


So that's a way of understanding value, understanding, uh, um, at creating a sense of clarity amongst the group. When we're talking about, um, flow and focus and understanding how are we going to align our efforts, align our perspectives towards the thing that we need to address immediately, or the thing that's going to bring us to a state of flow together. And so value stream mapping is an excellent way of looking at how are things going right now? What's involved, who's doing what, and how is it going so that we can take all of our capabilities, all of our efforts and focus them on a constraint that's extremely valuable. That's actually holding us back. And so we can lay out a very simple structure in a collaborative session that helps us understand what are all the activities involved here? How long does everything take? Where is the waste and delay you could look at where quality is impacted, where we're not generating the value that we expect.


And all of that measurement is going to allow us to focus on a single constraint and bring everybody from separate interpretations of where we should focus to a single point of convergence and understanding about let's, let's focus here. There's good evidence that this is gonna pay off, and then we can move on to something else. Instead of everybody having a separate opinion on what we should be focused on. And we can be looking at flow and clarity and value at any level of the organization, a powerful way of looking at how all these dots connect is. A Wordly map is a value chain map is understanding all the components that are around us and as individuals, all the folks that we depend on and who depend on us, but also what's gonna be affected when we start making changes. When we start influencing the system, um, when we start evolving practices and architectures, um, who do we need to build relationships with, or who do we need the strongest relationships with, who could potentially be disrupted by our efforts? And so this is another opportunity to have, uh, a visual collaborative session to get all that information in one place and have it easily understood by all the people involved. Um, so that nobody feels like they're left out. Um, everybody feels clear on how they fit into the big picture and the part that they can play to bring the, the best aspects of their capabilities to the larger organization.


So to, to recap, a lot of this, what we're really talking about here is making the invisible, visible it's, it's a key factor in taking all of the information, the context, the fears, the, uh, the hopes and bringing it out into the light, bringing it to the others that we work with, the people that we depend on, the people that we want on our team, um, and having it easily understood by everybody. Um, we like collaborative mapping as a way of doing this. It's, it's really enjoyable. It's very energizing. Um, and essentially what we're, what we're doing when we're working through these sessions is working to clarify, working to identify constraints and working to address those constraints. And all of that effort moves us in a more positive direction, more productive direction in a more effective direction. So coming, uh, next year, uh, we've got a book coming out on, uh, all of this and more, and it's going to be looking at value stream management through this lens of clarity, value, and flow, and, um, what we could use from you and the audience, um, and in the community is understanding how you're leading from the middle what's working.


What's not whether you've tried collaborative ma mapping or you've discovered something else that works extremely well for bringing folks together, um, achieving harmony, achieving, uh, a greater sense of, of connection with those informal networks in your organization. And finally, if you want to get in touch with us after the show, uh, we'll be around on slack, but we've also got a website called, uh, inside out. Uh, the address is inside-out.org, and we'll soon be launching a, uh, video podcast series about everything, clarity, value, and flow.


So thank you everybody very much. Also check out, uh, in the latest DevOps enterprise journal, we've got an article on flow engineering. So if you wanna see a summarized, uh, version of this, you can check out that article as well. So thank you everybody very much.


Thanks everyone.