FIST – Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny

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In our book on Building the Agile Business we detail how agile approaches are far more than a process, and capture a far broader opportunity for operating effectively as leaders and organisations in the modern world. I do a lot of workshops with groups of leaders from large corporates helping them to navigate the rapidly shifting contexts within which leadership now operates, and one of the key challenges often lies in undoing years (decades) of waterfall thinking characterised by comprehensive inputs and gold-plated, ‘death star’ approaches, and instead learning to take far more iterative approaches to solving problems. It’s far easier to be additive with projects, to see future possibilities, to add features, widen the scope, take comfort in building something grand and expensive. Far harder to be reductive, to focus first on the key problem your trying to solve, to test assumptions and validate hypotheses as you go, to start small and scale fast.

Dan Ward, a specialist in defence acquisition, has a lovely way of capturing this approach. FIST stands for ‘Fast, Inexpensive, Simple and Tiny’. He developed this framework to describe a new approach for acquisitions and system development building on an original concept from NASA. In the 1990’s NASA saw great success with their ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ (FBC) series of missions that set out to redefine time, cost and output expectations of their work and included the wildly successful Mars Pathfinder mission (which for the first time ever put a rover on another planet at a fraction of the cost and time of the earlier Viking mission) and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission (which collected 10 times more data about the asteroid Eros than expected yet was under budget by tens of millions of dollars).  FIST defines an approach that uses a small team of talented people working with tight time and resource constraints adhering to a particular set of principles and practices.

Like most great concepts, FIST has much broader application and lots in common of-course with Lean and agile. But we need to acknowledge that these approaches run counter to organisational policy and practice that has been dominant and embedded in many businesses for years. In an environment characterised by swiftly changing contexts, the ability of companies to be ambidextrous in their ability to both exploit and explore is more critical than ever. Learning to start small and scale fast is one of the fundamental shifts that leaders can take to begin this journey.

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Digital Transformation and the ‘Big Opportunity’

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In the book, we talk about the need to create a sense of urgency in order to catalyse digital transformation. It’s the first step in Kotter’s eight step process for managing organisational change. Yet there is an important difference to be drawn between the kind of urgency that can create positive, reinforcing momentum for change, and that which can instead spawn internal politics, fear and paralyse progress.

The wrong side of urgency can generate what Kotter (in Accelerate) describes as ‘anxiety-driven activity’, and lead to misdirection, panic, poor decision-making. Far better, he says, to frame the need to change in the context of a positive ‘big opportunity’. Opportunity-driven urgency engenders dynamic, positive and directional energy and pro-activity. It enables sustainable action. This is about winning hearts as well as minds. Too many vision statements are either vague platitudes to customer-centricity, or populated with meaningless jargon.

A ‘big opportunity’ should be emotionally compelling and motivating, but link to a change vision that gives a clear picture of what is needed to realise the opportunity, and a strategy that creates the path to success:

Kotter makes a couple of additional points related to the big opportunity. The importance of never assuming that the people you are leading can see what you see, are in the same place, have gone on the same journey that you have. And the value of positive energy in creating sustained effort at a high level.

The difference between a burning platform that creates anxiety-driven activity, and great leadership that can express opportunity-driven urgency, is perhaps the most critical starting point for any digital transformation.

Why We Need Less Management, and More Leadership

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In his book Accelerate, John Kotter (who also wrote the very well known Leading Change) draws an important distinction between management and leadership. Most people use the terms interchangeably, or if there is a distinction it is usually defined in the context of hierarchy. And yet the difference between the two has, I think, never been more important. Kotter defines management as:

‘…a set of well known processes that help organisations produce reliable, efficient, and predictable results.’

Management is an excellent invention, since it helps us to do well what we already know, notably in the context of large, complex organisations – important things like planning, staffing, resource allocation, budgeting, measurement, optimisation. Without management there would be chaos.

Yet management is not leadership. Kotter defines the latter as:

‘…about setting a direction. It’s about creating a vision, empowering and inspiring people to want to achieve the vision, and enabling them to do so with energy and speed through an effective strategy. In it’s most basic form leadership is about mobilising a group of people to jump into a better future.’

Real leadership doesn’t have to come from visionary CEOs. It can come from anyone who is passionate enough to want to make a difference and can inspire and compel others to follow a vision towards creating something new. Leadership is associated with change, exploring new opportunities that reveal the future, the ‘central force mobilising people to create something that did not previously exist.’

It can come from any level, but a lack of sufficient leadership in a business means organisations slow, stall, and eventually fail.

In Kotter’s words:

‘Such best practices are like ornaments – some delightful, to be sure – on a holiday tree. But no matter how pretty the decorations, it’s still a holiday tree. After a while, if you keep adding lights and streamers and amazing stars on top, the tree will start to look less, not more, appealing. If you still continue to decorate, at some point the tree will fall over.’

The point is of-course that the two things are very different but businesses need both to survive and thrive. Management ensures stability, structure, process, efficiency, reliability. It’s the domain of best practice and expertise. Leadership creates change, takes advantage of new opportunities, generates new direction. That is the domain of vision and emergent working.

The problem is that as organisations mature and scale, the focus on management becomes steadily greater to the point where it is to the detriment of leadership. In most organisations therefore, leadership is stifled and de-prioritised. In competitive and consumer contexts that are stable, this may not prove to be critical. Yet in the contemporary environment where so many contexts are shifting all the time, this becomes a fundamental issue.

Organisational response to change is typically either stretching the time horizon for planning (more ’strategic planning’), or augmenting existing hierarchy with new boxes and relationships (‘task-forces’ and the like), or buying in capability through acquisition. As Kotter says, the problem with all of these approaches is that they build off of a management driven hierarchy and ‘the base, the core of the system, defines its limits’.

In the book we advocate an increasing emphasis on networked approaches to driving change. More fluid resourcing. Small, nimble, multi-disciplinary teams enabled by agile approaches and culture. We need to create the space beyond the existing hierarchy for change to happen. And a key part of that is redressing the balance of focus between management and leadership.

For more like this, and for exclusive content related to the upcoming book on Building the Agile Business, you can sign up here.

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How to Build High Performing Teams

By AgileBusiness, Culture, HR, Leadership, Teams No Comments

In the book we dive into the question of what truly distinguishes high performing teams from those that might be otherwise. It’s a question that is worth exploring not only because every business chases high performance, but also because there is a good potential for misinterpretation and a poor understanding of what truly makes a difference. Our point in looking at the research behind this question is that creating an environment that supports high performance is critical to any business that wants to be more agile, and yet incentives and rewards are so often positioned around the wrong things.

Some of the best, and most comprehensive, research into team performance has been done by Google. Their comprehensive multi-year studies, aligned to academic research findings and conducted across hundreds of teams, have shown that many of the factors that we traditionally associate with significantly influencing team performance (team composition and longevity, background, personality or skills of team members) make little difference. 

Instead, it was the group norms (or what Charles Duhigg calls‘the traditions, behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather’) that made a critical difference, and acted to raise a group’s collective intelligence. High performing teams all exhibited a high level of ‘psychological safety’, which Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School defines as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

What most people miss about high performing teams is that, rather than focus all your attention on perfecting skills and composition, what is more critical is how the team communicates and works together. In other words, the ‘softer elements’ are key.

This is supported by extensive research conducted by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory which shows that even above the individual talent included in the team, it is the manner in which a team communicates that directly impacts how successful they will be (in fact they showed that patterns of communication was the single most important predictor of a team’s success).

Research across a wide set of industries that had similar teams with varying performance demonstrated remarkable consistency in the ‘data signatures’ from the research on the factors that can predict team performance. In particular, successful teams share several common factors (quoted from this HBR article):

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team
  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

In particular there were three key aspects of team communication that really mattered: Energy (the number and nature of exchanges between team members – face to face communication more valuable than email, for example); Engagement (a more even distribution of energy amongst team members being important); Exploration (the energy and communication between team members and other teams – high performing teams, especially those focused on creativity or innovation, seek more outside connections). Relatively simple things, including the number of face-to-face exchanges, a team’s engagement outside of formal meetings, how they socialise together in breaks, really makes a difference. The MIT research shows that ideal team players are what they call ‘charismatic connectors’ – people that ‘circulate actively, engaging people in short, high-energy conversations…are democratic with their time, communicating with everyone equally…listen as much as or more than they talk and are usually very engaged with whomever they’re listening to…connect their teammates with one another and spread ideas around…are appropriately exploratory.’

Team performance is increasingly the critical differentiator between businesses that can compete well in rapidly changing contexts, and those that get left behind. As the best research into high performing teams demonstrates we give a disproportionately high degree of focus to individual skill and team composition, and far too little attention to group norms and patterns of communication. The smart, agile business redresses that balance.

For more like this, and for exclusive content related to the upcoming book on Building the Agile Business, you can sign up here.

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