Six Rules to Simplify Work

Most re-organization efforts either focus on hard stuff (processes, strategy, structure, KPI’s) or on soft stuff (culture, values, relationships, feelings). I have seen very few reorganization efforts in my career that are focused on the most important aspect of how value is delivered to customers: Simplicity

Simplicity stems from decentralization of power. “New Power” as they call it, is all about empowering people, creating conducive ecosystems for performance, learning collectively and encouraging collaboration. Most complexity in organization is introduced in an attempt to centralize power. The focus then is on adding more checks, processes, structures, metrics, KPI’s, incentives, coordinating offices and such.

Yesterday, I saw a very interesting TED talk by Yves Morieux (Boston Consulting Group) where he says,

Complicatedness: This is your battle, business leaders. The real battle is not against competitors. This is rubbish, very abstract. When do we meet competitors to fight them? The real battle is against ourselves, against our bureaucracy, our complicatedness. Only you can fight, can do it.

The talk sets the context on how organizations increase complexity and offers useful ideas on how work can be simplified. Here are my notes from the talk and I recommend you watch this insightful and provocative talk to gain a more well rounded view.

More Posts on Simplicity at QAspire

Agility: 8 Pillars For Building Self Organizing Teams

Last week, I was invited to speak as a panelist at Agile Carnival, Chandigarh where I expressed my thoughts on Agile as a method and as a mindset. Agility in our approaches is one of the most potent ways to deal with the challenges of a constantly changing world.

Here is the summary of a few thoughts I shared (and a few more):

  1. Agile is not just a method or process, but a mindset. Which also means, if your organization wants to be agile (and strategically nimble footed), you have to invest in building a culture of agility.
  2. You need to build a system of management methods, rituals, processes, tools and motivation where people are more likely to exercise their choice of doing a good job versus doing a great job. Their discretionary effort is so vital for your success. If you are aiming to build teams that are self-organizing, this is even more crucial.
  3. To be a part of a self-organizing team, people require maturity, skills and expertise to deal with technical challenges and manage conflicts constructively. Without required technical and functional competence, team will just not be able to take decisions to move forward.
  4. Narrowly focused reward programs kill self-organization within teams. When people have narrow and conflicting goals, they will do everything to meet their goals and yet, system might fail. Setting up systemic goals are vital to encourage collaboration (everyone wins when the system wins) rather than competition.
  5. Self-organizing teams also need a leader (read coach) – only that the role of a leader is to guide self-organization and clarify the direction relentlessly. A leader enables self-organization between team members and plays the role of mentor or a coach to the team. For this, leaders have to adopt an abundance mindset and give up on old ways of leading others through command and control.
  6. You cannot manage what you cannot measure, it is said. But you only get what you measure. We need to measure right things for right things to happen. E.g. if you only measure utilization, you may get high utilization but lower efficiency.
  7. Learning – collective learning – is the currency of self-organization in a team. The job of a leader is to establish forums where collective learning can happen. I have seen leaders who use forums like technical reviews and retrospectives to guide collective learning.
  8. Prioritization is at the heart of self-organization. When you have too much on your plate, you cannot deliver excellence. I have seen so many teams  derail when multiple and conflicting priorities don’t allow them to focus. Lean methods like Kanban therefore suggests that we limit the work in progress (through effective prioritization) and make the flow of work visible.

Over to you: What have been your experiences in building a self-organizing and agile team? If you were on the panel, what would you have shared?

The Promise of Gemba

In an organization, work flows horizontally but organizations are structured vertically in hierarchies. With seniority and promotions up the order, a person tends to drift away from the place where real business value is created; the place where real action happens; where problems are clearly visible. They end up expecting results without caring about the process and its purpose.

That’s where the promise of “Gemba” kicks in. “Gemba” is a Japanese word which means ‘the real place’. If senior leaders demonstrate understanding of how work is actually done by going to Gemba regularly, engaging people and noticing things, a lot of business inefficiencies can be identified and improved. Tom Peters defined this as “Management by Wandering Around”. Gemba allows leaders and improvement managers to appreciate what people really do on the floor and more importantly, how they do it.

You cannot take any meaningful decisions about work unless you know how the work is actually performed. 

We talk endlessly about engaging our teams and the starting point of engaging others is to engage yourself with the real. When people see you interested in how value is created, they start engaging actively too. You build trust that is vital for building a high performance organization. You may be surprised by how much potential your people have to contribute.

We have fallen in trap of meetings. In face of crisis or problems, things like meetings and brainstorming can be comforting, but unless you go to the floor, you will never understand the context of the problem. Going to Gemba also requires leaders to give up on their ego.

W. Edwards Deming said,

“If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Bottom line: Spending some time every day to see the action with the intention of learning is invaluable for a business leader. So, go out there and see the real.

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Also download:The Quality Manifesto – Getting the Basics of Quality Right in a Knowledge World” [PDF]

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Check out the collection of great leadership posts in November 2012 Edition of Carnival of Leadership Development at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership Blog.

Fostering Autonomy in a Team: 7 Lessons

“…leadership may be defined as: the ability to enhance the environment so that everyone is empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problem(s).”Gerald M. Weinberg

People do their best work when they are “intrinsically motivated” and one of the most important intrinsic motivator for people is autonomy in work. People need a space to perform and they need a say in how their work should be performed. Workplace autonomy feeds self-esteem and fosters creativity.

Here are a few things I have learned (from my experiences and seeing other leaders perform) on fostering autonomy in your team:

  1. Recruit right: That’s where it starts. It is important to ascertain that a team member is capable of handling things, take independent view of work and drive it accordingly. You can only foster autonomy when you have team members who you can rely on. Look for professional integrity while hiring, because that is at the core or self-organization.
  2. Have a strong purpose: Smart people subscribe to a compelling purpose. If the purpose of your project/initiative does not excite people, they will not be able to give their best.  Clarity of purpose also enables people to proactively align their actions and thinking in the best interest to achieve the purpose. In agile terms, a strong purpose that is bought in by all in the team is also referred to as “shared vision”. Strong purpose and clear goals automatically establishes a demand for performance.
  3. Do “Smart Delegation”: Smart delegation plays to people’s strengths. Delegating tasks that allow people to expand their capacity to deliver ensures that people put their best skills and experience to use. Smart delegation is also about setting the ground rules/expectations and setting team members free to take work related decisions within given boundaries and/or organization constraints.
  4. Offer/arrange for help: When people try to organize their work, they will definitely need help. Either you, as a leader, can offer direct help or arrange for help. How much team members help each other in difficult situations is an indicator of team strength. When people know that help is available, they will also be willing to extend help. It works in fostering autonomy where a lot of problems are taken care of at the team level. Good and timely help gets impediments out of the way and ensures progress.
  5. Monitor progress, not people: Monitoring people is easier, but it does not help. As a team lead, your primary role is to monitor progress, not people. Small wins on a daily basis can be a great motivator for people. When people know that progress is important, they will do what is needed to ensure progress.
  6. Retrospect: Once in a while, it helps to look at the journey so far along with the team. Retrospective helps team in sharing lessons, best/great practices and solutions. It fosters collaboration, strengthens the team, accelerates learning and equips them to take better decisions.
  7. Always respect: You can only expect a team member to work independently when they trust. Without respecting people, you can never build trust. Respect people, respect their views, listen to them and respect their time. Sometimes they will falter, take wrong decisions, make mistakes – but that’s what makes them human. Dealing with people without grace is #1 killer of individual autonomy.

A leader’s role in building a self-organized team is that of a catalyst who ensures that team is aligned to organization goals. A leader also maintains boundaries for a team and creates/maintains an environment where team members thrive, grow and contribute effectively.

Related Posts at QAspire

5 Ways To Build Trust (Lessons from a Conversation)
Leaders Cannot Be Blamers: 3 Things
Creating a Learning Organization: 10 Actions For a Leader

Building an Adaptable Team: 6 Ideas

Ability to deal with rapid changes and uncertainties on the field is as critical a skill for organizations/teams as it is for the military troops. In military operations, lack of agility can have more serious and rapid consequences. In case of teams, individuals and organizations, the consequences may not be visible in a short term, but they eventually surface.

Organizations and teams that can adapt quickly not only just survive, but also uncover hidden opportunities. If you are a business owner, leader or an improvement manager, here are 6 essential strategies to build a team capabilities that help them remain agile and adaptable:

  1. Focus on the ‘customer’ and ‘value’: As a leader, your first job is to ensure that your team members understand your business, how it adds value to the customer and what differentiates the organization. Most of the processes should be modeled around the meeting the needs of customers and elevating your capacity to deliver the products/services. When you are ‘ears-open’ about customer’s unique needs and context, your team automatically responds accordingly. Once your team knows how to meet the expectations, they can then focus on adding value.
  2. See ‘Systems”: If your team understands your business broadly, it is also important for them to understand the elements of work, how they are inter-connected and what are the systemic implications of not doing something well.
  3. Balance “Structure” and “Chaos”: Companies that build repeatability of their success through hard wired processes and structure find it difficult to change directions when the external situation (economy/demand-supply etc.) changes. On the other extreme, companies that only thrive on chaos will not be able to scale up their operations. It is difficult to strike balance, but important as well.
  4. Strive to be ‘Lean’: Activities that do not any direct value to customer, or do not increase your capacity to deliver should be assessed very critically. Every unnecessary or redundant process step is a cost, that needs to be cut. “Improvement” does not only mean addition, but most significant improvements focus on elimination and simplification.
  5. Iterate: All big programs in your team/organization should be divided into smaller chunks and should be delivered iteratively. The idea is to collect feedback as early as possible. Lean start ups who build product first build the “minimum viable product (MVP)” and ship it to get feedback from the users. They do re-planning and incrementally develop the product, so as to incorporate changes effectively into their product.
  6. Collaborate: If your team knows how to pick clues by collaboration with industry experts, customers, end users and business and then act upon it, your organization/team will be able to closely understand the trends, foresee the changes and respond accordingly.

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Join in the conversation: Have you been a part of an “adaptable team”? How did you ensure that your team effectively responded to changes? How did it go?

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Update: Last Saturday (19-Nov-2011), I delivered a talk at “Sandhan” – a virtual classroom that is connected to over 900 colleges of Gujarat via VSAT. The topic was “Career A-Z: Essential Strategies For Building Expertise and Succeeding” where I laid out 26 ideas to build a career in knowledge oriented world. The talk received a very good feedback. Video/presentation will be posted soon.

Book Review: Agile Excellence For Product Managers – A Guide to Creating Winning Products with Agile Development Teams

Agile_Excellence

The game of software product development is the one of adding value to the businesses and customers.

With rapid changes in business environment, typical waterfall SDLC fails to deliver value, because by the time the scope is developed, business requirements change!

Adoption of Agile Development Methodology by software product managers is steadily increasing because Agile embraces business change into products.

I recently read the book “Agile Excellence For Product Managers” by Greg Cohen. This book is a guide to develop winning products with agile development teams. When most of the books on Agile focus on the process, this book focuses on the product manager’s perspective of how Agile process should be managed. The book also has a small section that touches upon XP and Lead Software Development.

I have been studying Agile for over a couple of years now, and have also implemented Agile in a number of  projects. I still found this book useful because it also deals with issues of organizational agility and importance of leadership in implementing Agile.

Agility is a mindset, more than just a process. For this very reason, adopting Agile means an organizational change in mindset. Agile is a shift from typical command-and-control structure to a trust based, highly accountable model of software development.

Bottom line: If you are a product manager who is keen to explore Agile or is already using Agile, this book will help you dig it little deeper and gain better understanding.