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Posts from the ‘Collaboration and teamwork’ Category

Agile teams – What people managers can learn from parents

image by candrewsBefore I explain what people managers can learn from parents, I feel the need to defuse what some readers may have in mind. I am not suggesting that employees and team members are children or act like babies [although, sometimes ... - sorry, I'm digressing].

The Art of Parenting

If you have children, you should quickly relate to the fact that nothing really prepares us to be good parents. Sure, while growing up we assimilate patterns, behaviours, and skills from our environment – including and often to a large extent from our own parents. At a later stage in our children-free life, some of our friends start to have kids and we observe them – sometimes with curiosity, sometimes out of sheer voyeurism, and sometimes with envy – and that’s when we contemplate the idea of having kids of our own.

Then, one day out of the blue, the kind doctor tells your spouse that she is pregnant – in our case with twins! But that’s an entirely different story ;)

Then comes the next stage of learning to become a parent, we spent countless hours on amazon.com previewing and ordering books, lot’s of books. Except for a few best sellers, the others titles vary based on our perceived areas of weakness and the bad pattern we noticed from our parents when they raised us.

And one day, a beautiful baby boy is born and/or a pretty baby girl – once again, in our case we got one of each.

Once the sleepless nights are over and the baby is capable of learning, parents slowly transfer increasingly complex tasks to their child: holding the milk-bottle, feeding themselves, walking without holding mommy’s hand, abandoning the diaper, selecting how much ketchup to put on their food, picking their own clothes, walking to school by themselves, deciding what time to go to bed, going to a movie without supervision, and so on up to the point when the child moves out of the house to start their own independent life.

What people managers can learn from parents

It is obvious that parenting is very different from managing people, no doubt about that. On the other hand, their are some similarities.

Nothing prepares people to become good managers. Sure, while growing up in our professional career we assimilate patterns, behaviours, and skills from our environment – including and often to a large extent from our own managers. Granted, some people had the opportunity to learn about management during their school years and that could be an added bonus.

As with parenting, once we decide to get into management we spend countless hours on amazon.com previewing and ordering books, lot’s of books. Except for a few best sellers, the others titles vary based on our perceived areas of weakness and the bad pattern we noticed from our previous managers.

How that applies to Agile teams

Agile management is somewhat similar to the art of parenting with the manager transferring to its team increasingly complex tasks and responsibilities. Helping the team self-organize doesn’t mean to abandon the team to itself without help or some supervision. Along the same lines as parenting, there comes a time when the manager must determine how much responsibility to transfer and what level of support to provide.

Similar to the role of the parent, the agile manager is there to support the team’s development and make it successful and autonomous until one day – maybe – the team is highly performing and can become independent.

Don’t tell me you really want to increase your team’s performance – I won’t believe you

Image by Trucker TomI bet you $50 that even if I told you the way to boost your team’s performance without increasing your costs – you wouldn’t do it. The situation is actually worst than that! I’ll add another $50 that I even know what you will tell me once I tell you. You will say “We can’t do that in our organization“.

Ready to find out?

Stop assigning people to projects and let them pick the project they wish to work on – that’s it!

I can hear you - “We can’t do that in our organization” – there, I just saved $100.

Seriously, it is that simple. Think back to a project you worked on – were you assigned or did you select it yourself? Now do this exercise. Think back to something you enjoy, I mean you truly enjoy - were you assigned or did you pick it yourself?

Have you ever heard of Tom Sawyer withewashing the fence? As Mark Twain once said, “Work is something you are forced to do while leisure is something you choose to do”.

I don’t mean to pretend that work is a hobby but many organizations ignore people’s intrinsic motivation and personal drive when they (i.e. the managers) assign people to projects. No matter what the project is about, there will always be people interested in working on such a project. Ever heard of Crowdsourcing?

In most organizations, it may not be easy to let people select their own project, but it is feasible. Some organizational constraints may need to be modified, project assignment may need to be done differently, some resource planning may be required but all of this is feasible.

As one of the participant highlighted “I used to be bored to death in my normal job until one day, I asked (begged) to be part of a specific project. I’m so glad they granted my wish. I now work 55 hours a week! I am super motivated and nothing is going to make me want to leave that project”. Still think letting people select their project is a bad idea? - Analytical-Mind.

Go ahead, give it a try and see the results for yourself. I have tried this approach on many occasions and the results always impress me.

The strength of a real team is under-estimated

Image by Dawn (Willis) ManserProject kick-offs have been used for years as a way to launch a new project. It is assumed that bringing people together in a room where the project sponsor presents the project’s objectives and time-lines is a good way to get things going. To be sure that the newly formed team will perform well, some organizations even order sandwiches or sushi and add diet software drinks or beer, and so the project begins.

I really don’t have a strong opinion about project kick-offs but I do see a great opportunity to start building a real-high-performing-team from day one is often missed.

Having been part of great (and not so great) teams over the years, I’m obsessed about creating real teams – the ones we remember forever because we delivered outstanding results while being highly energized, and had a great time doing it. It is similar to the concept of Flow proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. [...]

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task[2] although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or keeping your head in the game. Wikipedia.

So back to creating a real strong project team (The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization). Why not start with something simple, real simple? Establishing rules and protocols of operation for the team.

As a first step in launching a new team, I usually start with an initial meeting (the duration varies based on the size of the team and the project being undertaken) during which I ask the team members to establish their working protocol – how they wish to work together.

Here are some of the questions the team members need to answer prior to doing anything else – including actually starting the project:

  • What do we wish to accomplish together?
  • What ground rules will we play by?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How long can discussions and debates go on for? Do we use time-boxes in meetings? For decision making?
  • How do we resolve disagreements?
  • How often do we need to meet? For how long?
  • How will we communicate with each other?
  • How do we keep track of our action items?
  • How do we deal with team members who do not live up to the team’s expectations?
  • What rules do we have to include new team members? To expel existing team members?
  • How will we know if we are successful as a team?

Some of these questions may appear to be trivial. While establishing a team protocol doesn’t need to take a lot of time (and can easily be combined with a team building activity), not establishing such a protocol will quickly lead to inefficiencies, waste of time, and increased frustration for the team members. Want a few examples?

  • Did you ever find out that some project team members’ personal objectives had nothing to do with the project? Trying to motivate those people will drain your energy and your focus.
  • Has a detailed technical decision ever been taken by a senior manager with weird consequences? Guidelines may have prevented the decision from being escalated in the first place.
  • Have you participated in meetings where key people didn’t show up or showed up late with the consequence of having some decisions over-ruled? Determining up front the rules around meeting attendance and decision making will greatly alleviate such frustrations.

These are only a handful of examples but time and again, I have had the privilege to launch teams on the right foot. The consequences are positive and the cost is minimal. It may not be as cheap as buying sandwiches for the team during the project kick-off but the investment will last much longer.

The Carrot Principle – Using Recognition to Increase Team Performance

Increasing teams and departmental performance – isn’t this why most organizations adopt the Agile principles?

Although there might be other reasons, many of the organizations we work with aim to increase their teams’ performance. I recently read The Carrot Principle – How the Best Managers Use Recognition to Engage Their People, Retain Talent, and Accelerate Performance – to see how recognition may help increase teams’ performance.

While many organizations still believe an above average salary is enough to keep people motivated, salary alone is not a good motivator. As Daniel Pink described, above an acceptable base salary, salary no longer is a good motivator. As such, managers often look for alternate ways to keep their team motivated.

The fact is that money is not as powerful a reward as many people think. While pay and bonuses must be competitive to attract and retain talented employees, small amounts of cash – anything short of $1,000 – will never make the best rewards because they are so easily forgotten – The Carrot Principle.

Recognition is deemed an important source of motivation and is usually used to maintain a low employee turnover rate and, increase employees’ performance and business results. Many organizations who adopt Agile practices recognize that it is increasingly difficult to attract top talents and in order to remain competitive, they should focus on increasing the performance of their existing work force.

Engaged employees demonstrate: innovation and creativity, take personal responsibility to make things happen, desire to contribute to the success of the company and team, have an emotional bond to the organization and its mission and vision.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show the number one reason people leave organization is that they “don’t feel appreciated” – The Carrot Principle.

The book relies on surveys done by HealthStream Research and supported by data from Towers and Perrin. Below are some of the conclusions derived from the data:

  • Companies that effectively recognize excellence enjoy an ROE (return on equity) three times higher than the return experienced by firms that do not;
  • Companies that effectively recognize excellence enjoy an ROA (return on assets) three times higher than the return experienced by firms that do not;
  • Companies in the highest quartile of recognition of excellence report an operating margin of 6.6 percent, while those in the lowest quartile report 1 percent.

The authors point out that to be impactfull recognition should be combined with what they call the basic four areas of leadership:

  1. Goal Setting: defining the purpose of a task and tying it to a desirable end result
  2. Communication: discussing issues and sharing useful information with employees, welcoming open discussions
  3. Trust: keeping his word and owning up to his mistakes, maintaining a high ethic and positively contributing to the reputation of the organization
  4. Accountability: ensuring people deliver on their commitments.

Recognition can take many forms but whatever it is, the best reward is always personal and tailored to employees interests and lifestyle, given by a manager who cares enought to find out what motivates each individual - The Carrot Principle.

Finally, the book presents four levels of recognition:

  • Day-to-Day recognition: low-cost but high touch recognition such as Thank You notes to encourage small steps leading toward success
  • Above-and-Beyond recognition: provide a structured way to reward significant achievments that support the company’s core values
    • Bronze: to recognize on-time above and beyond related to core values
    • SIlver: reward on-going above and beyond behaviors for consistently demonstrating company’s values
    • Gold: behaviors that produce bottom-line results
  • Career recognition: recognize people on the anniversary of their hire
  • Celebration and events: celebrate successful completion of key projects or new product launches.

Cracking the Code for Standout Performance – Applying the approach to Agile Teams

I just finished reading Great Business Teams: Cracking the Code for Standout Performance.

In Great Business Teams, renowned business consultant Howard M. Guttman takes you inside some of the world’s most successful corporations—Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Mars Incorporated, and L’Oréal, to name a few—to discover how a powerful new high-performance horizontal model has changed the way leaders lead, team members function, challenges are met, and decisions are made. He also reveals how and why the organizations that have implemented this innovative team structure have become great companies, able to ride the crosscurrents during lean times and truly soar when opportunities arise.

As Agile team coaches or organizational coaches, we aim to increase the teams’ performance in an attempt to deliver better results. We improve quality, help the team work more efficiently, and have fun while delivering increased business value. Interestingly, many of the observations presented in Great Business Teams: Cracking the Code for Standout Performance are in line with the Agile values and principles. Here are some of the keys points to remember:

1. Great Business Teams are Led by High-Performance Leaders who:

  • Create a “burning platform” for fundamental change;
  • Are visionaries and architects;
  • Know they cannot do it alone;
  • Build authentic relationships;
  • Model the behaviors they expect from their team;
  • Redefine the fundamentals of leadership.

Isn’t this what we would expect of the Product Owner in Scrum?

Interestingly, the author positions the process by wish the leader achieves these objectives by asking tough questions such as:

  • What is the business strategy and how committed are we to achieving it?
  • What key operational goals flow from the strategy and how do we make sure these goals drive day-to-day decision making?
  • Are we clear on roles and accountabilities?
  • What protocols or ground rules will we play by as a team?
  • Will our business relationships and interdependencies be built on candor and transparency?

Hence, the support of an external coach is useful and can help the leader ask powerful questions.

2. Members of Great Business Teams are Us-Directed Leaders

Members of great business teams think of themselves as accountable not only for their own performance but for that of their colleagues. Similar to the concept of self-organized teams, great business teams typically take accountability to achieve their objectives.

On high-performing teams, accountability goes well beyond the individuals recognition that he or she is part of the problem. It even goes beyond holding peers on a team accountable for performance. “Us” accountability includes holding the team leader accountable as well.

3. Great Business Teams Play by Protocols

Once a leader with the right skills is in place and supported by a self-organized team, the group needs to agree on the rules they will play by. Obviously, the more structured its way of working together, the less likelihood of misunderstanding, conflict or costly delays and bottlenecks the team will encounter.

One important set of protocols related to decision making.

Straight-up rules such as “no triangulations or enlistment of third party”, “resolve it or let it go”, “don’t accuse in absentia”, and “no hand from the grave or second guessing decisions” can eliminate much of the unresolved conflict that paralyzes teams and keeps them from moving to a higher level of performance.

4. Great Business Continually Raise The Performance Bar

No matter how much it achieves, great business teams are never satisfied, they implement self-monitoring, self-evaluation, continuous improvement, and raise the bar. The continuous improvement process helps a highly performing team to keep improving its performance and deliver impressive results.

5. Great Business Teams Have A Supportive Performance Management System

Having the right individuals in the right roles and establishing clear rules of engagement are not sufficient. The performance monitoring systems have to be inline with the expected behaviors.

  • Team and individual goals have to be crystal clear;
  • The necessary technical and interpersonal skills have to be provided;
  • Performance has to be monitored;
  • And feedback has to be timely an well thought out.

The book wasn’t written for an Agile audience but after reading it, it seems to me that applying the Agile principles would come close to cracking the code for standout performance.

Agile self-organized teams – is the team self-organized or not?

Image by Cyndie@smilebig!Where ever we read about self-organized teams, it often seems to be a binary thing – either the team is self-organized or it isn’t.

When people suggest that the team should become self-organized, the suggested process is presented as fairly easy and straight forward.

If you are amongst the people who believe these previous two statements, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. In exchange, I will offer you a free reality check. Team self-organization is neither binary nor straight forward – self-organization is an evolutionary process that takes time.

We have been helping customers implement self-organizations for years and we have been pushing the limits within our organization. Based on that experience, I am sharing 7 levels of self-organized teams.

  1. No opinion: Team members follow the direction of their manager. Not to be confused with Zombies or Living-Deads, these individuals are neither happy nor upset about being directed in their tasks – things are the way they are, period. These team members do not pay much attention to the organizational structure or who the actual leader is. They are strictly interested in “doing their job”. Although they may express an opinion with regards to the current structure, they don’t necessarily believe that self-organization is a better alternative. If you are moving towards self-organization, you shouldn’t spend much time convincing these people since they will gladly follow the official structure.
  2. Status quo: Team members have benefited from the current structure in the past and wish to preserve it. They are un-likely to want to change to any other team structure (including self-organization) until they clearly see the benefits of transitioning. To move towards self-organization, you will need to spend time demonstrating what the new structure will bring them specifically and gaining their trust so they are willing to experiment with what you are proposing.
  3. Selfish and irresponsible: Team members are happy to take advantage of being self-organized but only as long as it benefits them and that there are no increased responsibilities. Once a situation negatively impacts them (while benefiting the team), they aren’t willing to cooperate and when they are asked to take accountability for something, they shy away from the responsibility. In a nutshell, these individuals want the best of both worlds. To successfully transition to self-organization, it is critical to explain that they will need to make a decision and pick self-organization with responsibility or freedom outside the self-organized team.
  4. Interested and learning: Team members are very interested in being self-organized but aren’t familiar with the changes required for them to become autonomous. They are ready and willing to learn and fully embrace the proposed structure. These are key people in a transformation, they are the ones who will pull the others forward as long as you take the time to explain what they need to do.
  5. Self-organized: Team members are fully accountable and play by the rules of the team. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving the organization of the team in order to become fully autonomous and self-supported. They deliver great results and need minimum involvement to remain in their current state. This is where you want your teams to be.
  6. Leading a self-organized team: Although the team is self-organized, leadership is always required. These individuals will willingly take responsibility to organize the existing teams (they are team members and not managers) or the new teams you are hoping to transition to the new model. In a transition, you will want to work with these individuals to spread the new model and increase the number of self-organized teams.
  7. Independent: Team members are too much self-organized. As a consequence, they no longer wish to be part of the organization and wish to go on their own. Although rare, in the event that self-organization transforms into full-autonomy, it may be necessary to break down the team and use some of the team members to help lead other self-organized teams.

The road to self-organization is long but very rewarding. Each organization needs to determine how far they are willing to push the model and how fast they wish to move.

You may also be interested in this post: I don’t believe in self-organized teams…

A great team building activity, let’s do a budget

Picture by Ammar Abd RabboIf you are looking for an activity to increase team synergy in an attempt to develop a high performance team, what choices come to mind? A rally? An adventure race? A week-end away? A parachute jump?

Unless you are my wife, the thought of using a budgeting exercise to build team synergy seems ludicrous, especially when the team is mostly composed of senior software engineers and marketing people!

I knew that for most people, the thought of sitting for two full-days of budget planning would be more terrifying than a visit to their dentist for a root canal. Without fear or hesitation and listening only to my courage, I decided to leverage this important corporate exercise (aka. The Budget) with the goal to create a highly performing cross-functional team.

In line with a post recently published by Mike, I followed very simple guidelines to maximise the impact of the exercise.

Invite people to the exercise

In his book (The Right Use of Power), Peter Block suggests that proceeding by invitations when asking people to participate in an exercise or a meeting is much more powerful than deciding yourself who should (or shouldn’t) be part of the group. Since the cross-functional team I was working with needed to represent each area of the organization and I only wanted one representative from each unit, I asked for volunteers. In traditional organizations, the participants would have been selected based on specific criteria. Instead, I opted to ask for volunteers. This had the dual benefits of increasing active participation during the meeting and helping people buy-in to the results once the exercice was over.

Establish roles and responsibilities

To build a self-organized team, I wanted people to determine what each of the participants contributed to the overall discusion. Coming in to the meeting, each participant knew their role was to represent their community. As such, they needed the authority to make decisions on behalf of their group and have a good understanding of the business assumptions so as to know what could (and couldn’t) be changed in their budget. What is typically called empowerment totally applied in this case.

Establish clear objectives

The group was informed ahead of time of the objective they were to reach “x% operating income for the coming year”. All other variables were left to the group to decide. How each group would reach their own objective and how that fit into a global perspective and their strategy was left entirely to them.

Establish an agenda and ground rules

The agenda for the exercise was clearly established ahead of time in order to support the group in reaching their objectives. In addition to the agenda for the two days meeting, ground rules were established.

(translated from French)

Ground rules

  • Active participation in the discussions
  • Pay attention to what others are saying
  • Be open to constructive feedback (it is not personal)
  • You can enter and leave the room only when the door is open
  • Be on time
  • Accept to step outside your comfort zone
  • Express yourself (kindly) when you are upset
  • Have a bit of fun (it is already included in the budget)

I have seen too many sessions being facilitated without any ground rules or a clear agenda which typically leads to bad meetings. Wanting to avoid wasting a great opportunity to build team synergy, I made sure those two items were well taken care of.

Get a skilled facilitator

I took charge of facilitating the meeting. I have a few skills and facilitating meetings is one of them :-D

Conclusion

After two very intense days of work, the cross-functional team was able to reach an agreed upon target. Coming in to the meeting, nobody believed we could establish challenging targets for ourselves and most importantly, no one thought they would take full ownership of the end results once the exercise was over.

Once again, in traditional organizations where budgets are a top-down activity imposed by the CEO down the chain of command, ownership of each unit’s budget is un-heard of. In our case, people agreed that the exercise had High Value with a perfect 5 / 5 (see Utilité below), Return on Time Invested of 4.1 / 5 (see ROTI below), and a fun factor of 3.3 / 5 (see Fun below).

Not bad for an exercise that was originally compared to a visit to the dentist !

Agile transitions are hard. I wonder why people feel the need to control?

Image by Gabriela CamerottiWith the Agile approach, we constantly try to implement self-organized teams. Many of us believe that autonomy leads to improved results whereas control may bring consistency.

« The opposite of autonomy is control. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement » – Drive, by Daniel Pink

I asked myself, “Why do people need to control?” and came up with 2 reasons: lack of trust and ego. I feel it is important to understand where people come from in order to understand the environment in which we live and operate. As coaches, it’s also important to know why people behave in such a way so we can help them.

I recently talked about fears, which is closely related to the need to control.

The problem with novelty, however is that, for most people, novelty triggers the fear system of the brain. Fear is the second major impediment to thinking like an iconoclast [...] There are many types of fear, but the two that inhibit iconoclasting thinking are fear of uncertainty and fear of public ridicule (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently).

Lack of Trust

If we are in control of our environment, then we have a far better chance of survival. Our deep subconscious mind thus gives us strong biochemical prods when we face some kind of danger (Control)

It seems normal to try to control our environment and the people around us if we aren’t confident in their motivation. As such, people tend to control. Lack of trust is closely related to fear – fear of uncertainty. In a business context, people try to control for some of these reasons:

  • to make results more predictable and ultimately to prevent mistakes
  • to reduce the perceived level of risk
  • to hide incompetence

Everything that the brain sees or hears or touches has multiple interpretations. The one that is ultimately chosen – the thing that is perceived – is simply the brain’s best guess at interpreting what flows into it [...] These guesses are heavily influenced by part experience (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently).

Ego

On the other hand, ego is a completely different beast. The motivation behind controlling to protect the ego is at least as challenging to address as the lack of trust. The reasons behind the need to control to protect the ego are:

  • to avoid an un-pleasant situation – including being ridiculed
  • the lack of humility
  • to hide a personal motivation

Once again to be successful as change agents, it is our role to dig into the reasons behind the need to control. I’m not talking about psychology, I’m simply talking about root cause analysis of the situation in an attempt to properly address the symptoms.

Once we understand the source of the need, we are in a much better position to positively impact people and successfully implement the transition.

The more radical and novel the change, the greater the liklihood of new insight being generated. To think like an iconoclast, you need novel experiences (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently).

A dead coach is a useless coach

Picture by WouterKvGDuring our monthly consulting services meeting, an interesting conversation took place. The conversation revolved around how to show traditional organizations the benefits of going Agile.

Granted, everyone around the table was already sold to Agile so everybody was working toward the same objective. The question was how to bring traditional organizations to switch their ways of doing things in order to adopt a more Agile approach? The debate was “Should we use a big-bang approach where all the energy is put toward getting the organization to take a quantum leap?” or “Is it preferable to use small steps in an effort to bring the organization toward the desired state?”.

Some people around the table argued that to quickly gain acceptance and shock the system, it is better to take somewhat of an extreme position and avoid deviating from the goal and as such, implement the Agile practices without consideration to the context.

Others (including myself) believed that the hard position and extreme approach doesn’t help much. It typically polarizes positions and creates an environment where conflicts are frequent. Personally, I believe that small steps taken in the right direction are much better than attempting to quantum leap forward when it comes to large scale transitions.

As consultants we are called in to help organizations transition from a current state to a future and hopefully better future. We bring our expertise and our convictions to the table in the hopes that we can influence these organizations. What happens when the consultants’ perspective collides with the organizational culture, values, processes and people? Of course, it depends.

Needless to say implementing change is a difficult task and if it was easy, nobody would need help (i.e. consultants). But when consultants adopt the following approach:

  • I need to change the organization;
  • The best way to accomplish this objective is to stick to my position – no matter what – until the organization realizes that I am right (i.e. they are wrong);
  • I will be successful for as long as I can hold my position.

What comes next is usually a dead coach…

Granted, the other extreme is no more useful when the organization thinks something like this:

  • What we have been doing is exactly what needs to be done;
  • We have all the answers and we will stick to our position – no matter what – until everybody accept the current situation;
  • We will be successful for as long as we can hold our position.

What comes next is an organization that will be less (and less) adapted to its environment and a Darwinian (survival of the fittest) consequence will happen.

So what is the right thing to do?

If you are a consultant, it is always a difficult balance between sticking to your position and completely letting go. The answer obviously varies by organization but sticking to a hard position is rarely (i.e. never) a good approach to actually change an organization.

Between a rock and a hard place – The managers in an agile transition

Image by NCM3I bumped into Steven last week. Steven is director of application development in a large organization and like most manager in his early forty’s, he looked tired and although he is usually a happy individual, his smile wasn’t radiant this time.

In agreement with his teams, Steven initiated an Agile transition a few months ago. I was part of the team who presented to Steven the benefits of a transition and the impact on the team members and their managers. I saw Steven again in a group training I was giving a few weeks after the beginning of the transition to managers and executives. That time again, Steven was very excited and motivated about what he was hearing, except that during the training I could see the light bulbs over his head and in the questions Steven was asking – how is this going to impact my role as a manager? Steven saw the obvious benefits and understood some of the changes he would need to make to his leadership style but I could tell, it hadn’t fully sinked in.

So here we were, less than 3 months in the transition and Steven wasn’t as chipper as he used to be…

  • Me: “Hey, Steven. You look tired. How are you doing?”
  • Steven: “I’m OK… I’m tired… [silence] The transition is killing me!”
  • Me: “How so?” [I asked anticipating what he would tell me next]
  • Steven: “The team is having a blast and I can see their performance has increased compared to the past but I don’t think I can cope with this new approach”
  • Me: “You seemed so excited about the transition when we started. What changed?”
  • Steven: “I now realize what you meant when you talked about changing my leadership style and my role. I’m still up to the challenge but my boss is totally clueless about all of this”
  • Me: “What do you mean? Haven’t you brought him in the loop from the beginning?”
  • Steven: “Yes. Yes, I have but that’s not the problem. The team’s performance increase is directly linked to the new approach they have been using and the fact that I leave them a lot of autonomy but my boss still asks me to behave like I used to – like he manages his team today. That’s where it hurts the most. I can pretty much deal with everything else but I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place”

Unfortunately, we (as consultants) do not do such a good job at highlighting this fact before we begin a transition. We work closely with the teams to help them adopt better methods and practices, to increase their overall performance by allowing them to be self-organized. We work on getting the teams to a highly performing level. Then we go get executive sponsorship to secure the initiative (and the budget) and make sure we get support to handle difficult issues but what about the people in the middle?

We develop training programs for Agile managers and we support them with organizational coaching but we don’t do such a good job at telling them upfront how much pressure they will be under once the transition begins. How much their role is likely to change and their leadership style needs to be adapted to the new reality.

For those who haven’t yet have felt the pressure, here are some examples of what to expect:

  • You may be willing to trust your team and let them self-organize but is your boss in agreement with this new approach? Will he be as involved (micro-managing) in your activities as he used to be? And more importantly, will he be expecting you to be as involved with your team as you used to be?
  • You may be willing to tolerate mistakes in order to increase your team’s learning and with a strategic perspective to increase long term performance but will you hear about your inabilities to control your team during your next performance review?
  • You already produce status reports, dashboards, emails and others information to keep everyone (including your boss) informed of what is going on in your unit. Will you need to translate everything that the Agile team is producing to fit the traditional reporting mechanisms? Can you challenge what information is currently being produced to ensure it does bring value to people?
  • You expect your team members to handle the details of their activities and you believe in actually seeing (touching, feeling) the end results while your management team expects you to assess progress using Gantt charts. Do you need to educate your entire organization to the new approach? Does the fact that you are adopting Agile make you the evangelist for the entire organization?

Obviously, I don’t mean to scare anyone – especially the managers – with regards to adopting Agile. The approach has a lot of merit and value for many organizations but in order to help with adoption, coaches and consultants need to pay attention to the people in the middle and help them find their new place, otherwise we are very likely to find serious resistance and potential failure of such initiatives – nobody likes to be stuck between a rock and a hard place…

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