Untangling the threads of true service leadership

7 threads of activity – for all leaders of teams, projects and continuous improvement initiatives

Philippa Hale and Jean Gamester

We all have the choice of whether to lead or follow, whatever our title, whatever the situation. In IT Service Management, we often see providing support as following. However, evidence suggests that we considerably enhance our reputation and delivery if we take the lead. What does that look like exactly? Is it our remit? How will we bring others with us?

Look more closely at Service Management teams working on continuous improvement and changes. Authentic and effective leadership is happening at all levels; The person who inspires others to act quickly in an emergency, who admits a mistake promptly to minimise its impact or who speaks out when something has been bothering the team or great service isn’t being delivered; the person who mends fences between teams. All of this is leadership.

In our work with many 100s of IT departments, we have identified 7 threads of project leadership activity that anyone can do, at any stage of a change initiative.

Why ‘threads’? Because we want to get away from the idea of steps or stages where one finishes and another starts. Of course a project has a start, various stages and an ending, but the leadership activity and use of emotional intelligence (Goleman 2000) needs to flow all the way through. If these are used well – right time, right situation – it can prevent the project becoming a terrible tangle.



Thread 1 – Spotting and validating needs

Blue thread


This first thread of activity involves observing and evaluating, creativity and ideas. All projects and change initiatives begin with someone being curious, noticing needs or opportunities inside the organisation, with customers or competitors. That same careful observation and ideas generation needs to be sustained throughout the project, often combining gut feel, incisive questions and hard facts. Will this work? Is it still working? What could the costs, benefits and risks be? Have these changed? What else could we do?

Passionate about an idea? Get a ‘reality check’ with others. If you are unsure, get more information, from close colleagues, then from people with different perspectives and listen, don’t just defend your ideas.

Suggestion: Think about your processes and projects. Are they still valid? Based on what criteria? Could you save your and your team’s precious resources by stopping, refocusing or re-prioritising any part of your work?  


Thread 2 – Making the pitch

red thread


This thread involves presenting the idea and making it sound clear, practical and compelling, to get the support of a wide variety of audiences. An idea is pitched to senior management to get funding and approval, to new team members, partners, customers and suppliers, all with different opinions, needs, motivations and levels of understanding. Plus the people not actively involved but personally affected, through changes to roles, relationships, processes or even job security.

You may need to repeat information many times. People are busy, miss meetings and emails, or just don’t have your level of technical knowledge and experience. You will need to explain changes, progress and decisions made, in your audiences’ language, to manage expectations and perceptions.

Suggestion: Next time you prepare a project communication, stand in your audience’s shoes, think how your message will land and what you want them to think, feel, do. A few extra minutes planning a message can significantly increase acceptance, reduce delays and improve decision making.


Thread 3 – Get going

Yellow thread


This is the continual reflecting and planning thread. In the business simulations we run and on live client projects, no matter how experienced the groups, they jump in without doing enough planning. “Never plan alone” is the true project leader’s motto, at all stages. We can make planning activities fun and engaging – visibly laying the foundations of the project. Involve others with diverse specialist knowledge to open up ‘black boxes’, help with estimating, sequencing, interdependencies and workload management.

Find out who needs what information on progress, when, in what format so you can manage expectations, and agree who will be consulted or informed over changes.

Ensure everyone knows the checkpoints that will show progress and if there is something that can’t not be done, then just do it.

Suggestion: Put a simple graphical image of your plan (1 A4 page in a font size you can read) on a real or virtual whiteboard so all can see, and a dashboard to highlight main achievements, risks and opportunities, goals and deliverables.


Thread 4 – Build the team

purple thread


Build a team of people not just with skills but enthusiasm, a willingness to engage and to support each other. Then we need to create and sustain a bond between people who may not have worked together before, who come from different backgrounds and functions. They may be working remotely. Building relationships of trust and respect is a real job and needs constant work. It doesn’t happen by itself. Make managing the team dynamic everyone’s responsibility. Don’t avoid the ‘storming’ stage. Trigger it by reviewing regularly, openly and without blame so the stakes of raising issues aren’t too high. Be realistic about team’s skills and knowledge – allow for the learning curve and different learning styles – yours and theirs. Some like being thrown in at the deep end. Others want support. Be as willing to stand up to poor behaviour and commitment as you are to poor performance.

Suggestion: Add an item to your team meeting agenda: ‘What’s working well and what needs work?’ Demonstrate constructive discussion. If there are some sensitive issues, discuss these 1:1.


Thread 5 – Get engaged

turquoise thread


This is where we track the wider impact of our project on the organisation, navigate the politics, mitigate disruption and resistance to change, rather than being too internally and technically focused.

Even small changes to IT Services and business processes, need to do be done with our colleagues/customers, not to them. It is a myth that everyone resists change. What people don’t like is the unknown, the ambiguous, the arrogant or aggressive. No-one is obliged to collaborate so we need to understand what would make them want to. The strongest human drivers at work are enjoying a sense of belonging, seeing we are making an effective contribution and feeling appreciated/recognised.   So find ways to involve people in ways that genuinely meet these universal needs. You can’t reach everyone so build a strong network of reliable advocates who know each community affected by the project well and can involve them and give support.

Suggestion: Are your stakeholder needs being met? Could they help you succeed if you engaged with them? Consider who could act as advocates and get them on board. Create a ‘stakeholder map’ to better understand who you need to engage with, and work out a plan to build those relationships and get support.

     Level of  understanding        Spectators
(or saboteurs)



Level of emotional engagement


Thread 6 – Making it happen

orange thread


This thread focuses on personal resilience and ability to handle the flow of project activity, challenges and changes. Skilful use of different leadership styles is key: when to push for action and when to open up the debate. When to set the pace yourself and when to coach others to lead. When to focus on the task or relationships to get the job done.

We need to look after ourselves, manage stress levels and workload, emotions and needs and be there for others. Under stress we can get tunnel vision which affects our judgement, relationships and decision making, even our health. We need to be right inside the project, but also keep a helicopter view. Keep taking the pulse of the project: yours, the teams and the organisation around you.

Your Action: Take a step back and make sure you are leading your initiatives and they aren’t driving you. We are all human, so ask for help if you need it.


Thread 7 –Review, learn, celebrate

Green thread


This is the thread of ensuring lessons are being learned, knowledge shared, activities properly finished, all the way through to the end. Take time to ensure each new tool or process is embedded in day-to-day practice and has actually been an improvement. Innovation is fuelled by cycles of improvement, each building on the successes and lessons of the previous cycle.

Good project leaders know that expectations are best managed by dividing a large project into manageable chunks, then visibly signalling completion of each chunk. Regularly recognise effort, remind all of what the project has contributed to the organisation and agree what still needs fixing, without blame.

Your action: Consider how often you have reviews, what they feel like and what they deliver. Don’t accept, long, dull and unproductive meetings. Make them short, inspiring and productive!

About the Authors

Philippa Hale and Jean Gamester are senior consultants at Open Limits and on the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School. They work with organisations including Harrods, FT, British Transport Police and many regional police and local government IT departments, Orient Express (now Belmond), BG Group, Vodafone, SunGard, ACE, Which? and CIPD. They are regular writers, advisors and speakers to itSMF, SDI and the BCS. They help IT organisations in particular weave the threads of leadership and team skills and continuous improvement into their day-to-day delivery. Through team workshops and coaching, business simulations, training and action learning, they help teams make change happen.




About the Authors

Philippa Hale and Jean Gamester are senior consultants at Open Limits and on the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School. They work with organisations including Harrods, FT, British Transport Police and many regional police and local government IT departments, Orient Express (now Belmond), BG Group, Vodafone, SunGard, ACE, Which? and CIPD. They are regular writers, advisors and speakers to itSMF, SDI and the BCS. They help IT organisations in particular weave the threads of leadership and team skills and continuous improvement into their day-to-day delivery. Through team workshops and coaching, business simulations, training and action learning, they help teams make change happen.

Open Limits – 01202 473782

Collaboration – The Unconquered Peaks

Philippa Hale of Open Limits Ltd
Philippa Hale of Open Limits Ltd

This article has been contributed by Philippa Hale, Director and Senior Consultant at Open Limits Ltd.


Collaboration, across diverse teams and between levels of the hierarchy remain the twin, unconquered peaks for many organisations. This is also true of collaboration internally, within IT functions. Poor collaboration is often revealed to be the fatal flaw in well publicised corporate disasters. Within IT and between IT and the internal functions IT supports, it is a silent, relentless drain on time, cash, productivity, motivation and talent during organisational projects and operational improvements.

The following shows how teams from three very different organisations identified and overcame barriers to collaboration. In one case the teams were specialists within the same large IT function – responsible for different steps in the service delivery process managed in different countries. The other teams were from different functions including: Finance, Legal, Sales, Marketing, HR and IT.



At its simplest: ‘To work with another person or group to achieve something’. Initially the teams thought of collaboration in terms of:

  • The tools: The technology and media for accessing and sharing documents and applications, tracking progress, gathering data for decision-making, following processes
  • The location: In some cases the teams worked remotely, across sites, countries and continents. In others they were on different floors of the same building

However all agreed that the real heart of collaboration was not just working alongside each other to deliver products and services; there was a creative, proactive element and more in-depth on-going knowledge sharing, learning and debate.

Examples of good collaboration included doing interesting, challenging work, discovering a whole new side to people, making a difference and being recognised for it. Poor collaboration led to deep frustrations and anger over what were seen as avoidable blocks by individuals, teams and management. Where these had been left unchecked, the stronger emotions had dulled to cynicism, small barbs of passive-aggressive behaviour such as not turning up to meetings or going against decisions made, indifference to new initiatives and doing the minimum.


What Stops Collaboration Happening?

Human beings, it seems from looking at any news media on any given day, are socially and psychologically programmed to stick to and to defend their own. Collaboration is also a natural human behaviour but which requires a degree of maturity, awareness of self and others, positive perseverance in the face of others’ reluctance and an environment where it is safe to explore the new and unfamiliar. Goffee & Jones’ ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?’ (2006) and Kotter’s ‘Accelerate Change’ (2014), show there are inbuilt systemic loops that discourage collaboration. It takes a resilient individual or team to question their own and others’ habits, behaviours and thinking.

The danger, when senior management talk about collaboration, is that they refer to best practice principles and thinking which make perfect sense but do not connect with the day-to-day experienced of team members and managers ‘on the ground’. In each of these three examples, senior management encouraged teams to first get some perspective, then address the details that mattered to them.

Proceeding sensitively was important, as there would clearly be areas of rawness around attitudes and perceptions relating to behaviour and performance. The groups included speakers of English as a 1st and 2nd (or 3rd …) language from all continents.


Three Barriers Identified by the Groups + Solutions Explored

Among the many barriers identified, these three were the top priorities because

  1. a) everyone could take action and benefit immediately
  2. b) improving these basic communication areas would enable more in-depth collaboration in other areas

Barrier 1 – Emails

The phenomenon of email ‘flaming’ is commonly recognised. When stepping back and analysing the specific language in their emails, the groups were quite shocked. Both managers and team members commented that they had become immune. Comments included: ‘It’s not nice but they are always like this so we try not to let it get to us’.   Given that email was the only tool available for communication between some teams on a regular basis, this was critical. The language ranged from the unclear, incomplete and insensitive, to the frankly abusive. Plus, there was limited understanding of the damage that a frustrated ‘cc’ escalation could cause, particularly in cultures with more hierarchical relationships.

Solutions Explored

The groups focused initially on factors outside their control. These included frustrations around (perceived or real) poor planning and prioritisation passed down the hierarchy, skills gaps, bottlenecks, misaligned processes, managers using unhelpful language themselves. However, when the focus was directed at what practical steps were possible, the group started to feel less embattled, more positive and more willing to take on some responsibility for finding solutions. E.g.: Asking for a meeting, picking up the phone and asking questions.

Having discussed the 7 areas of waste identified in ‘Lean’ process reviews, one team identified ‘Waiting’ for action from those interdependent teams, as an area to work on. By using the ‘neutral’ vocabulary of the ‘Lean’ thinking, they could name their concerns and offer practical suggestions more comfortably.

Barrier 2 – International English

There were some good examples in all the groups of ‘false friends’ where 2nd/3rd language English speakers had done their best to articulate their needs, and the native speakers, perhaps having never experienced working in a second language, took the words used at face value. Some examples included the use of ‘You should …’ which sounds like a command to a British reader but in German translates as ‘May I suggest that you …’ .

Solutions Explored

Actually discussing these language aspects was extremely helpful in relationship building. All parties were keen to learn how they were perceived and what they could do to help understanding. For native speakers, slowing down – considerably – was key, and not using local expressions. Keeping sentences short. No waffle or ambiguous management jargon.   Plain English actually sounds more professional and authentic, but many people, native and non-native speakers believe otherwise.

Groups created their own ‘meetings from hell’ checklist – as a light-hearted way to highlight better practices for face-to-face meetings and video/audio conferencing.

Barrier 3 – Prejudice

Having never met in some cases, and with nothing but a few words in emails and general media images to inform their judgements, the teams had created surprisingly detailed pictures of the intentions, level of intelligence, technical competence, work ethic and values of the other groups.

Suggestions Explored

One team invited the other party to work with them on highlighting and addressing issues together, one at a time. ‘The whole solution in the room’ was a phrase used. Another turned process mapping into a shared, physical and visual activity, with giant post-its, a wall and marker pens. This filled many gaps in understanding and increased appreciation of each other’s knowledge, context and constraints.

In one team, where intercultural training was not an option, managers asked each team to research one of the countries they were working with and present their findings. This included contacting their local native speaker colleagues and asking for their input. The groups found this fun, fascinating and a great ice breaker.



The changes in mood, attitudes and behaviour in each of the teams, was quicker and more significant than expected. Within 3 months, there were multiple examples of small improvements in collaboration and significant improvements in delivery. Actively spending time reviewing successes and small improvements reinforced the shared sense of achievement. In all three cases, a senior manager got involved, either at the start, or when asked to support and the initiatives being taken.

Six months on, internal and customer relationships and delivery have improved in all cases.

Collaboration breeds more collaboration!


Philippa Hale has 25 years of experience in enabling collaboration and communication on international projects and programmes, particularly within and between the IT & Digital functions and colleagues from other business functions. She is Director & Senior Consultant at Open Limits Ltd and an Associate Faculty member at Henley Business School.

Contact Philippa.hale@openlimits.com for more information or join in the debate on 24th March where Philippa will be presenting on this subject at a special itSMF function.