With a community of more than 300 Engineering Leaders, our roundtables have become a goldmine of insights. It would just be selfish not to share these with our greater audience!

While preparing some cool interviews of some of our members, we discovered that one of them, Matthew Sinclair, had his very own Medium blog and regularly wrote about topics related to his expertise. We simply loved what we read. Naturally, the next step was to convince him to post one of his pieces on our blog!

Yep, we're delighted to share with you one of his articles entitled "Five leadership craft moves". In this piece, Matthew expands his initial approach of 'art versus craft'. It's a practical piece that includes some tips on how to apply 'craft moves' as a leader. It's a piece that translates years of experience in an understandable skeleton of craft moves that you could consider adopting and reinterpreting based on your specific environment.

About the Author
Matthew Sinclair has 25+ years of experience in software and consulting. He's currently Partner & VP Engineering at BCG Digital Ventures.

I recently made the distinction between “art” and “craft” as it applies to leadership. But what I didn’t do was answer the question: What are some good examples of leadership craft moves?

Leadership craft moves have several distinguishing properties. They tend to be localised, iterative, and require progressive refinement to get right:

  • Locality: applies to a local area, such as to the leader or those directly around the leader
  • Iteration: involve iteration or repetition and can be somewhat algorithmically applied
  • Refinement: can be made materially better through improvement over time

As an aside (if it isn’t apparent) these three attributes are also very similar to the kinds of things that make good software.

A useful craft move also needs to be specific because it entails direct action that the leader can execute in a particular moment rather than a broad statement of values, policy, or strategic intent. It is not that values or strategy or policy are unnecessary, because they are essential to great leadership, but they tend to fall more in the category of art than craft.

As a leader, you need to develop personalised craft moves by experimenting and learning as you go. There isn’t a simple recipe that you can follow, and I sense that it is risky to try to blindly adopt others’ behaviours without due consideration of what works for you in your context.

With that in mind, here are a few craft moves that I have developed over the years that I find useful. I am continually iterating and refining these moves, adding to the list and throwing out ones that are no longer useful.

These five have been relatively enduring

  • Make an effort to talk to the most junior person in the room. This is a low-cost activity that comes with practically zero risks. In the worst case, you will get a sense of what people don’t know, but in the best case, you will learn something about what people with fresh eyes on a problem might be thinking.
  • Keep a log of failures — large and small — that you can reflect on and mine for patterns over time. Treat those patterns as signals for ongoing personal learning.
  • Always try to thank people for the good things they have done that you didn’t ask them to do. Rewarding rule-following or procedural compliance is one thing, but you also want to be sure to reward innovative thinking that flexes the rules and takes things in new directions.
  • Use questions that seem simple — or even stupid — as a way to check that everyone in the room is working from the same basic set of assumptions. More often than you might imagine, a sophisticated discussion will have left at least some people in the room behind. Reset now and again (but not too often) with a simple, assumption-testing question to validate consistency and alignment.
  • Routinely make sure that everyone has the same understanding of the question the team is trying to answer. I have a go-to question for this: “What is the question that this is the answer to?” Where “this” is whatever challenge the group currently thinks they are solving.

Another way to think about these leadership craft moves is in terms of “being smart” versus “acting smart”.

The idea that someone is inherently intelligent is a tough one to shake as it has deep intuitive appeal. Some people just seem wise compared to their peers in everyday life. Whether or not this is true in an objective sense is something that is — perhaps a little surprisingly — not without controversy. At the very least, it is fraught with human cognitive biases, conscious and unconscious.

The above leadership craft moves allow anyone to act smart regardless of an objective measure of their intelligence, which is good news because, in practice, there is very little difference in outcome between being smart and acting smart.

This article was originally published by Matthew Sinclair on Medium, you can read more about his work here!