Category Archives: Blog

Agile and The Chasm

Someone posed the question:  Has Agile Crossed the Chasm?, a reference to Moore’s work on marketing.

Agile is no longer the prevue of pioneers and visionaries.  Agile shows up in the popular business press. PMI is all over it.   The big accounting/consulting firms are marketing agile. Clearly (at least the term) agile is reaching the mainstream.

According to Moore’s model, people on the other side of  The Chasm, the  Early Majority, want to improve existing processes. They are not interested in a radical change in operations. They want something that works out of the box.

This makes sense if you are talking about a technology product.  But agile isn’t a product. It’s a set of practices, built on values and principles. Agile relies on the ability to inspect and adapt.

Many people want to lose weight, but don’t want to change their diet or exercise habits.  We know what happens.

Many managers in organizations with traditional functional hierarchies want the benefits of agile –without disrupting the status quo. Not going to happen.

Still no silver bullets.

Lessons in Self-Organizing Social Systems

Last week, I had a chance to reflect on eleven years of the Retrospective Facilitators Gathering.

A bit of background on RFG: I started the Gathering in 2002 with Diana Larsen and Norm Kerth.  Each year, the different set of volunteers organize the Gathering.  Continuity comes from linking the immediate past organizer, the current year organizer, and the next year organizer as part of the organizing group.  Most years that’s worked reasonably well.

We’ve used light weight planning and a market place for sessions from the start. But over the years, I and other organizers learned more about self-organizing systems.  We lightened our planning even more. We planed the parts that need planning– the venue, and supplies, for example. Those aspects that don’t need close planning emerge organically.  But what emerges depends on setting the initial conditions, and attending to containers, differences and exchanges.

Based on a decade of experiments and experience, some considerations for setting the conditions for self-organizing social systems.

1. Initial conditions shape interactions for the life of the group.  Small actions can have a big effect, particularly those that amplify the sorts of differences that create division.

2. When structures and espoused values contradict each other, people sense the incongruity–and respond, often in incongruent ways.

3. The more people in implied (“organizers”) leadership positions take responsibility for the decisions and welfare of the group, the less responsibility the group will take for their own decisions and welfare.

As you think about the teams and groups that you work with, how do these factors show up?  How might you apply them now?

 

The Elements of Improvement

Improvement requires three factors:

  • Information. People need information about the context and how their work fits into the big picture. They need information from the work so they can self-correct. Without this information, systematic improvement is impossible.
  • A desire to improve. Most people want to do their best and learn to do better–until that impulse is squashed. One-sided evaluations, organizational hurdles, relentless pressure strangle the desire to improve.
  • Time to reflect and learn. People need time to design and implement new processes, and  practice new skills. Relentless deadline pressure makes this impossible. People under pressure are less likely to try something new, or think clearly about anything.

When one of these factors is missing, individual and systemic improvement goes out the door.

Self-Awareness Matters: Finding Your Filters

I remember sitting in a project meeting back when I worked for a Big Company. The project manager, Ted, announced the top three priorities.  When I offered a different view point, Ted declared, “You’re wrong. We decided on these priorities yesterday.”  He didn’t notice six out of eight people at the table  shaking their heads “No.”  

Ted didn’t notice the responses and reactions of people around him. He also didn’t  notice that he didn’t notice.

We all have filters. That’s a good thing–our cognitive systems can’t process all the data that’s available. But most people filter out useful information as well as extraneous information (for example, the size of loops in the carpet or shoe styles). What any one person filters depends on his preferences for big picture vs. detail processing, intake style (verbal, visual, tactile) and training.

Learning about your own filters builds self-awareness. Knowing what you tend to filter allows you to choose to ignore that information or make a conscious choice to notice it.

Ted deprived himself of the choice to notice people’s reactions. Ted was continually surprised when people “resisted” or “backtracked” on decisions. He didn’t pick up on the fact that after he made a few sharp criticisms, people stopped offering ideas.

People who lack self-awareness don’t realize their own observational biases or notice the impact of their behavior. They wonder why things don’t work well (or work well) but don’t see their part in the situation.

One relatively small action by a manager can send ripples or shockwaves through a system. Ted’s lack of self-awareness suppressed the groups effectiveness. Some people ignored Ted’s dictates and did what they thought was right–which splintered the group’s effort. Others left for positions where they could participate in solving problems rather than carrying out the managers prescriptions, driving turnover. Since hierarchy amplifies biases, it behooves people in management roles to build their awareness and find their filters.

Here are two exercises to build awareness of your own filters.

1. Work with a colleague who has different type preferences or a different sensory intake style. Make an agreement to share observations after meetings or working sessions.  What does your colleague consistently notice that you miss?  What do you miss by missing that?

Work on noticing those things that you have missed up until now.  Notice what insights you gain about yourself and the group.

2. Reflect on a recent meeting.  Did  you notice anything about the flow of conversation?  For example, in what order do people speak? Who interrupts whom, and how often?  Did you notice anything about physical arrangements? Or who is on their iPhone? Did you notice what emotions came up?

Choose an aspect of human behavior that you normally don’t notice. Then, practice noticing it.  Notice what insights you gain about yourself and the group.

If it fits for you, report back here. If you would like some help honing your self-awareness, drop me a note.

Alternatives to bureaucratic hierarchy

I don’t doubt that its possible to have an organization with out traditional managers. I’ve read about Semco and Morningstar Farms. I’ve talked to people who work at Gore. My husband works for a less well know firm that doesn’t have traditional managers.

But those companies didn’t get there by happenstance. They got there by design. People chose, designed, evolved practices and structures to support a specific culture. They didn’t take off-the-shelf models of functional or product based organizational structures.  They didn’t slide into typical  for people management practices, organizational structures, job levels or reporting relationships.

Most companies settle for practices shaped by management thinking of the first half of the last century–without a second thought. The language of this thinking is mechanistic and dehumanizing. It’s the language of efficiency, compliance, hierarchy, rules.

If you want a different sort of company, start with using a different language.

For example, rather than talk about “managing performance,” talk about giving people the information they need to continually improve or sitting down on a periodic basis to examine how we can work better together.  Does that feel different to you?  It does to me. Those words offer a different set of possibilities.

Because we are talking about people and complex human systems, not moving parts in some vast machine.

What do middle managers do?

Last week, someone tweeted that the C-suite “gets agile,” but middle managers “resist” it. I also saw a tweet that the C-suite doesn’t get agile, but middle management does.

I don’t doubt the observations of either of these tweeters.

I have observed situations where both senior and middle managers saw the value in moving towards a team-based organization and iterative incremental delivery. In my experience, it’s a little more common for middle managers to hold onto the existing pattern. And why not? When they don’t see their place in agile they don’t embrace agile. And agile is silent on the role of middle management. Blanket statements that dismiss the need for managers or management don’t help.

Organizations moving to agile still need management, and often still need people in management roles, especially in large complex organizations. In traditional hierarchies, middle managers look up the hierarchy for direction, and focus down the hierarchy to accomplish cascading goals. When teams pull work from queues and self-organize to meet goals, the real opportunity for middle managers is to look across the organization to improve the system and develop people and teams.

So what do middle managers do when they aren’t directing day-to-day work? Plenty.

Now you see some of the things middle managers can do to help their colleagues, their managers, and teams. Do you need help shifting the role of middle managers in your organization?  Give me a call or drop me an email.

Hiring is a Team Activity

In an earlier article, I said, “Hiring new people for a team should always be a joint decision that involves team members.” After all, who has more at stake than the people who will work with the new person day in and day out?

Consider what happened when a well-intentioned manager decided to hire without involving the team. His rationale was the team had fallen into group-think and needed “new blood” to shake them up. When I visited, I found a fractured team. The new member struggled for credibility. Half the team wouldn’t speak to him. The other half of the team spoke to him–and resented their former teammates for ostracizing him. The team wasn’t stuck in group-think any more, but they were too busy bickering to get much done.

Whatever the issue–workload, projects that require specific technical or domain skills–involve the team in the hiring process. You’ll increase the chance of a good fit and gain commitment to help the new hire succeed. Plus, sharing power with the team helps create partnership.

Describing the Ideal Candidate

Teams often have a good idea about what’s missing on the team and where the bottlenecks are. They know when they no longer have the capacity to keep up with an increasing workload. Look at the current work, and the near-future work. Examine the current skills and work approach of the team. Then, work through a job analysis such as the one posted here.

Developing the Question Set

Involve the team in generating a list of questions that will reveal the candidates’ qualifications. Questions should focus on the skills, qualities and characteristics from the job analysis. Once you have a list, arrange the questions in logical groupings and prioritize them based on elimination factors along with required and desirable elements from the job analysis.

Finding Candidates

Team members may know others who are likely candidates. Activate those social networks! But don’t rely on the team to fill the funnel and sieve the candidates. Enlist HR to recruit and screen. Winnow down the likely candidates through phone screens. Bring the team back into the process when you have a handful of suitable candidates.

Interviewing

Assign one team member to each question area to avoid subjecting the candidate to the same questions over and over, and ensure all areas are covered. If the team members are sufficiently skilled, have them do one-on-one interviews. Or have a lead interviewer present in all interviews and assign a different team member present for each interview segment. The team member can ask the bulk of the questions, but the lead interviewer is there to listen for areas to probe for more information. This is a good option if the team hasn’t been involved in interviewing before.

In the United States, some questions are illegal, while some are okay if you ask everyone the same question. I don’t expect team members to know these rules. Invite your HR representative to brief the team on what’s appropriate and what is not.

You may want to do some practice interviews so team members know what to listen for, how to probe for deeper insights and recognize red flags.

Auditioning

Auditions provide a candidate with the chance to demonstrate relevant skills. Unlike solving puzzles, these auditions relate directly to the work the candidate would perform. You can ask a person to write a small function in a language he claims to know. You can sit him down in front of a product and ask him to test it (after you’ve given him enough background information so he’s not completely lost). You can ask a designer to review an existing design and add some new feature. No matter what the job, you can devise a way for the candidate to show his stuff.

Pairing

Some companies seem to think that as long as a candidate can solve cognitive puzzles and answer technical questions, they’re good to go. Technical skills are a necessity, but not sufficient to succeed in most organizations. This is especially the case when team-based work or communication with other humans is involved.

Pairing–whether to program, test or design–gives a window into technical skills and much more. More and more companies are bringing in top candidates to pair for a half or full day. You will need an NDA (nondisclosure agreement), and possibly need to cover some expenses for the candidate who is probably using a vacation day to participate. But at the end, you’ll know much more about how the candidate responds to new situations, and how he approaches problems. You’ll know how something about how he enters groups, and his ability to interact with people on the team. You’ll know whether the candidate is confident enough to ask questions, admit when he doesn’t know something and is willing to learn from others. You will avoid hiring someone who will rub everyone on the team the wrong way.

So you’ve involved team members in various ways. Now what? It depends on how much you want the team to invest in the new hire’s success.

Choosing

From a legal perspective, an agent of the company must make the salary offer and complete the legal aspects of hiring. But choosing which candidate is the best fit is a shared responsibility. Bring the hiring team together and pool the information. Check for elimination factors and see who you are left with. If you end up with only one candidate, your work is still not done.

Create a gradient of agreement to gage the level of support for the candidate. When there is only lukewarm support, keep looking. If support is bifurcated, explore the reasons for both strong support and opposition. In some cases, hearing another point of view will change some minds. But if not, move on. If you hire someone abhorrent to one member of the team, you’ll have problems in the long run. (Of course, if there is someone who is opposed to every candidate and has no credible reason, you’ve got a different problem.) Strive for consensus–you want the team to support the person, not tolerate him or her. Over-rule the team at your peril–because if you do, you will own every problem with the new hire.

It’s an Investment

Preparing team members to participate in the hiring process will take time–time to coach the team on which questions to ask and which ones to avoid; time to teach the team what to listen for; and time for practice interviews. Is it worth it? Yes! Interviewing is a broadly applicable skill. The abilities to formulate questions and to listen for what is said and unsaid are invaluable in speaking with customers, clarifying problems and devising solutions.

The person who makes the hiring decision has a vested interest in having that person work out. Including the team in the hiring process ensures that the manager is the most invested party. Because the team chose the new candidate, they will be more willing to show the new person the ropes and explain the context and domain. They’ll be more likely to offer help and encouragement. By having the whole team involved, you’ve created a support group to aid the new person with integrating into the group and become a productive member of the team.

Most importantly, involving more people in the hiring decision shares power and creates partnership. And if you want to get the best out of people, that’s what you want to be–partners.

Resources

If you want to learn about hiring–soup to nuts–get yourself a copy of Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds by Johanna Rothman.

This article originally appeared on Gantthead.com.