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?

Optimize the Whole

When we think in parts, we improve in parts. Most of the business improvement is the game of ‘sub-optimization’. You optimize pieces without looking at the whole.

When a customer reports problem with your software, you do an incidental root cause analysis and address the code quality problem. You deploy tools, introduce new processes, measure constantly and yet – a few months later, you encounter a similar problem.

But when you look at the whole system, you might figure out that the real root cause is in something which is immeasurable yet important – may be, collaboration with other teams or how you sell. May be, inefficiencies rooted in how you support your customers after product is delivered.

We optimize the silos and the whole misses our radar. If ‘customer centricity’ is one of your key values, you should consider optimizing the whole customer journey with your organization – not just your development processes.

Often, we also optimize that which is measured. If your metrics are narrow, you will never be able to focus on systemic metrics that may really help your business and the customer.

Here are a few important things to consider when you optimize the whole:

We need to cultivate “a discipline to see the wholes, a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots

  • Focus on Value Stream. Value for customer is created in a series of interactions between various processes that starts right from first contact with the customer. Value stream mapping is a lean tool to identify a series of events right from conception to delivery of product or service.
  • Define what “complete” system means. Too often, we think of complete product as a set of completed features. For customers though, complete product is an experience they receive through each interaction with the organization. It helps to define what ‘complete’ means.
  • Measure Right. When you have narrow functional metrics, people in each function will work  hard to achieve their goals and yet, organization will not realize benefits of having such metrics. However, if you have more systemic metrics (and rewards) where people win only when the system wins, it aligns everyone to the same set of goals to ensure that ultimately, customer wins too.

Sub-optimization in organizations is a thinking problem. When you fail to see the whole, you undermine your capabilities as an organization.

And this may be the precise thing that holds you back from delivering a superior performance to your customers.

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.

– – – –

Stay tuned to QAspire Blog: Subscribe via RSS or Email, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter.

– – – –

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

– – – – –

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

Better Execution With ‘No-Follow Up’ Culture

The primary focus of lean organizations/teams is to “eliminate waste”. In an increasingly complex work environment where execution is distributed between teams and geographies, one of the biggest wastes I have seen is “following-up on things”.

A typical manager’s task list will feature about 30% (or even more) tasks which are simply following up (read ‘pushing”) with others on status. I think this is a huge waste for a few reasons.

The need to constantly follow-up only means that people in the team are not clear of their priorities (or priorities are not clearly communicated). It also means they are not disciplined and accountable.

Time spent on following up is never estimated when you delegate the work. It is not accounted for, and hence results in further delays. The act of following up negatively impacts both parties – the one who is following up and the one being followed up.

When things only happen after follow-up, it gradually results in a culture where nothing is completed unless someone chases it.

So, how do you build a culture of “no follow-up” in your team? Here are a few things that I have seen working:

  1. Set expectation: When you delegate a task, define the expectations clearly and establish a “no follow-up rule”.
  2. Establish rituals: For time critical assignments/projects, set up a checkpoint ritual periodically, where you schedule a fixed time for seeking status update on different tasks. Program your team to feed you with progress details at a regular intervals.
  3. Be disciplined: Set the right example by delivering your own work without the need to follow up. Do not follow up unless absolutely required. Be persistent in your approach.

Bottom line:

Once-in-a-while is fine, but otherwise, a culture of constant follow-ups is a huge waste. When you continuously strive to build a culture of no follow-ups, you will have more accountability and empowerment in your team. Time saved for both managers and team members is a bonus!

Join in the conversation: What methods do you employ to ensure that you and your team do not require any follow-up to get things done?

“Value” and “Waste” – Watch Them Constantly

Delivering Value” is the buzzword these days. Companies are working ways out to deliver more value, people in organizations are evaluated based on value they create and clients seek “value-adds” in products and services they purchase.

It is all a value game, I agree, and focusing on value delivery is at the core of any business.

To deliver higher value to customers, business leaders implement complex strategies, restructure the organization periodically, lay out new initiatives, improve upon they existing processes, focus on sales, training, people etc.

Somewhere, in this process of constant realignment and improvement, ‘waste’ is introduced. Unwanted complexity, bureaucratic structures, complex systems, increased time on unproductive activities, rework and time spent on things that may not contribute directly in delivering value.

It almost becomes cyclic – in pursuit of adding more value, you are creating more complexity. Waste resulting out of this complexity keeps you from delivering the value to your customers. Waste, in simplest terms, is any activity within the process that does not add value to the customer. “Eliminating Waste” is the key to a lean and productive organization.

Bottom line: In pursuit of increasing value delivery to customers, do not add more complexity and waste, because it may just be the thing that keeps you from delivering value. Eliminating waste, is the one of the best way to increase value, simplify and quality of outcomes.

– – – – –

Related Thoughts at QAspire Blog

– – – – –

P.S.:

"The HR Carnival" by Mike Haberman (at Omega HR Solutions) features my post "Don’t Just Punish Them If They Don’t Comply" along with 32 other great posts on HR, Leadership and Organization Development.