Elastic Leadership for Technical Leaders, with Roy Osherove

By Petronela State

Roy Osherove’s 2nd talk at Innovative TechTalks covered a topic based on his acclaimed book, “Elastic Leadership: Growing Self-Organizing Teams”. Defined as both a philosophy and a framework, elastic leadership helps team leaders manage daily, long-term challenges, the ultimate goal being to develop a competent self-organizing team; a process that we must admit, it’s easier said than done because teams expect their leader to guide them – which usually involves mediating heated debates daily.

“A lot of times we are afraid to take initiatives to change things, mostly because we don’t know what’s the right way to change things”. This is where the elastic leadership model comes in. Why can’t technical leaders change things within their team and even organization? There are three stages lying at the core of the framework: survival, learning, and self-organizing mode. Each of these phases plays a fundamental role in framing what elastic leadership is all about.

Survival mode, or the “no time to learn and practice” phase

In an IT project, survival mode usually means most of your time is wasted on “putting down fires” and chasing things but realizing that you’re always late. A team leader in survival mode is overcommitted, meaning there’s little time left to do things the right way. Learning time doesn’t exist, which basically implies 90% of IT teams are in a constant survival mode, also known as the “no time to learn and practice” phase. Getting out of that state is tough, but doable once you realize getting out as soon as possible is a must. You’ll never be able to move your team into learning mode, if you – the team leader – don’t have time to learn yourself.

Learning mode is a heavily discussed phase among most agile coaches. But for those teams that are still struggling to survive, nobody will allow them to make their own mistakes; let alone learn from them. In order to learn new skills and be surrounded by people eager to learn new skills, team leaders have to make time. Getting rid of some commitments or changing the estimates are the core problems that push teams and team leaders back into survival model. The majority of team leaders are afraid to tell the truth when it comes to revealing the amount of time required to perform certain tasks in real time; many are afraid to negotiate what’s possible versus what’s unrealistic.

Learning phase takes teams & leaders closer to self-organization

Once team leaders find time for learning, they actually can begin learning new skills. What skills are they looking to learn? – the type that makes the entire team self organized. How do you become self-organized? It can be difficult and it might take a while; and it can change from project to project, from team to team. It’s important for leaders to realize where they are, and once they understand the reasons they can also try and solve them.

In learning mode, the fundamental element is to teach teammates skills so that they don’t have to contact outside teams, and ask for assistance. The whole point is for leaders to act like coaches/teachers. You want your team to make their own mistakes and learn, but you can’t allow them to be reckless. They should be allowed to do it within your timeline.

Self-organizing phase turns leaders into facilitators

Last but not least, self-organization is about allowing teams to manage their own time. However, one of the key issues in IT is that many people treat people as if they were already self-organized; when in fact, they’re not. In this phase, team leaders become facilitators.

In self-organization mode, team leaders should challenge their teammates to find ways and solve issues on their own; rather than have someone else solve them in their place. The job is to challenge those around them to do things that could make them feel uncomfortable. The end goal is to teach them, compel them to get out of their comfort zones; even if that may imply making mistakes along the way.


Elastic leadership is all about providing techniques and best practices that team leaders can leverage when managing a team. Navigating through the world of leadership is a journey filled with tough challenges for everyone involved. For that matter, the elastic leadership framework – when implemented correctly – helps leaders and teammates get out of survival mode and into the learning mode. This way everyone can learn to manage time effectively, make sound decisions, take initiative, and become truly self-organized.

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