Leading Teams Through Uncertain Times

By AgileBusiness, HR, Leadership No Comments

When the environment is volatile and complex we need a different kind of leadership

We hear so much about the accelerated rate of change that so many businesses are struggling to deal with right now and the need to lead teams through periods of high volatility and uncertainty. The Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle is a relatively well-known way of thinking about the more emotive responses to high levels of change and unpredictability.

Our initial response may well be founded in shock and even denial that the change is even happening. The leadership response to this should be founded in clear messaging and signals about the reality of the need to change.

We then may react with anger and frustration, which calls for understanding but also communication and information.

Some may feel overwhelmed by change, and even slightly lost, in which case coaching and support will help.

The importance of storytelling, shared experiences, guidance and direction to help people to find their own meaning in the change and eventually to accept and move on.

It’s a great way of thinking about the stages of change but of-course the reality of the transformation that many organisations are undergoing is less of transition from A to B and more of a journey to become a business that in itself is characterised by continuous change. So the point that many miss is that a leader trying to navigate this process will likely find that they need to deal with these reactions from many different sources and all at once.

The real skill in leading through times of high uncertainty is being highly tuned to the emotive context of our surroundings. To have empathy. Sure, we need clear direction, continuous communication, shared learning, accountability, openness and transparency, and a bias towards action, but we also need the emotional intelligence to understand the support that people really need to come on the journey with us.

Workplace Culture

By AgileBusiness, Culture, Leadership, Strategy No Comments

Workplace culture is intriguing, a few seem to have an opinion on it or trying to build it, maintain it or redefine it. Further below is a link to survey for some research we’re doing into Workplace Culture if you’d like to contribute and get the report findings.  We’ve now published the results of our research in “A guide to building agile culture” and you can download it free here.

It’s a long game, it’s not like you can change your culture in a few months …even years.

Michael Sahota listed the following key points about culture whilst referencing the Schneider Culture Model:

  • Management guru Peter Drucker says “Culture … is singularly persistent … In fact, changing behaviour works only if it is based on the existing ‘culture’”
  • No one culture type is better than another.
  • Depending on the type of work, one type of culture may be a better fit.
  • Companies typically have a dominant culture with aspects from other cultures. This is fine as long as those aspects serve the dominant culture.
  • Different departments or groups may have different cultures. (e.g. development vs. operations)
  • Differences can lead to conflict.

It’s those last three that caught my attention.

Culture comes from a combined set of behaviours, from people ‘in’ the business. Often it’s driven by the founder (not always a CEO) or a change agent, an ambassador for change, who has a strong vision and purpose that everyone else buys into because it fits with some of their own needs and ambitions. That’s what creates the ‘energy’ in a work environment that electrical vibe that people describe they can feel, drive, passion, teamwork, whatever you want to call it, you can feel it. Can you feel it now? Have you felt it this week? Month? Year? If you haven’t then you have a problem, maybe you have or are developing different cultures in different groups and moving to conflict, which by the way slows you down.

We’re now seeing businesses wanting to move faster, have teams that come together and then break away after a relatively short time. We’re going to see more resource coming in to the organisation that’s far more temporary, new technologies, new processes, to serve short and long term purposes. Every company needs to become more adaptive, iterative and emergent, which means mixing skills it doesn’t have or can’t afford to hire full time (yes you can partner but that’s not for everyone), and as Nigel Bogle once said,

‘Big is a collection of smalls’ 

and that’s a team dynamic. How do we cope when we have mixed cultures and does it matter? Does it lead to conflict? How do we recognise that and the ‘energy’ and more importantly how do we build or maintain it?

Knowing the culture(s) you have and the culture(s) you want to keep (because it drives growth) should be primary, especially during a merger or change programme, it’s your people stupid, the foundation of what you build.

What’s your experience? It still feels like the elephant in the room.

Responsible or interested in Workplace Culture or Agile Culture?

A guide to building agile culture can be downloaded free here.

A Guide to Building Agile Culture

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The Problem With Project Reviews

By AgileBusiness, Leadership, Strategy No Comments

In large organisations that are characterised by quite controlling cultures the shift from traditional waterfall to more iterative process and project management can often feel full of risk, since it involves moving away from the kind of rigid stage gates and associated phased forecasts that can help leaders to feel comfortable about approving a business case. And yet the irony is that in the context of rapidly changing environments, these set forecasts can often be more damaging than they are helpful.

One of the challenges of waterfall project management in this context is it’s inflexibility. Rigidly sticking to a plan when all around you is changing can accumulate unseen risks that are only exposed once the project output is live. Hidden assumptions that remain unvalidated can sometimes grow risk to significant proportions without managers realising that there are assumptions being baked-in. In inflexible, hierarchical cultures projects can also accumulate political momentum which can make them very difficult to kill off. Executives who are associated with the project want it to continue for as long as possible in order to avoid the political fall-out that can come from ending an initiative. Which in turn can also accrue risk. In The Startup Way, Eric Ries has a neat way of expressing this:

‘Cancelling a project often has significant political consequences. As a result, companies don’t do it nearly often enough. Once a project starts to gather political momentum, it becomes hard for a stage-gate process to stop it. Middle managers are forced to act like executioners – when they do have to kill a project, it’s usually quite painful.

In fact, I’ve sat in on a lot of corporate reviews over the years. Most companies use a ‘green, yellow, red’ evaluation system to determine where a team is in terms of hitting necessary milestones. Generally speaking, if there are ten criteria for conducting the evaluation, every team always seems to present seven greens, two yellows, and one red. It’s like magic – they’re always the same!

Why? Every manager knows that if you show too many greens, you won’t sound credible. On the other hand, too many problems could get your project cancelled. Managers are perfectly calibrating their status updates to what is needed to pass through the gates.’

As Eric Ries also points out, the amount of time and energy invested in generating these narratives around how the project is progressing is huge.

Being more ruthless about prioritisation. Making smarter decisions about the progress and potential of initiatives. Identifying what you are going to stop doing in order to create space for the new. And balancing the persistence needed to realise long-term visions with the emotional and intellectual intelligence to kill off projects when it’s right to do so. These are all leadership qualities that have never been more important.

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

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Making Decisions and Business Cases the Amazon Way

By AgileBusiness, Culture, Disruptive Innovation, Leadership, Strategy No Comments

AmazonWhen I work with leadership teams, one of the most common perceived barriers to greater agility is the way in which the business makes decisions. In many larger companies this is typically characterised by one-size-fits-all decision-making and lengthy business case documentation or powerpoint presentations filled with extensive projections based on very little. It’s a painful, broken process.

Somehow we feel more comfortable with a powerpoint presentation that sets out a linear progression for the project with set stage gates and forecast outcomes at every stage, even when those forecasts are based on contexts that are highly likely to change, or projections extrapolated from past data that is already out of date. It’s false certainty, and simply creates more work in justifying why you’ve moved away from those forecasts as the project progresses.

Far better surely to acknowledge when contexts are likely to shift, to set a directional course and a vision for the project outcome, but then be more fluid and adaptive in how you achieve that vision. Tracking progress towards a goal is important, but we need to be more adaptive than a linear set of rigid targets set out at the start allows for and instead be smarter about how we fund projects and track leading indicators.

The Jeff Bezos approach to decision-making at Amazon is instructive here. Executives in many of the organisations I deal with often complain about slow decision-making in the business. In his most recent shareholders letter Bezos describes how many larger, well-established enterprises make high quality decisions, but make them slowly, adopting a a one-size-fits-all approach to decision-making which is typically characterised by waiting until you have 90% of the information you need before making your choice. In many cases, he says, many less complex or easily adapted decisions can be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had. But it’s more advantageous to make the decision and course-correct if necessary than it is to slow everything down.

Similarly, a culture of consensus-driven decision-making where all stakeholders need to be aligned before you move forwards with something can also slow the company down. Amazon use a phrase “disagree and commit” as a useful way of acknowledging disagreement whist enabling the project to progress rapidly. High-velocity decision-making enables larger companies to act and behave like much smaller ones.

The Amazon approach to business case generation and approval is also instructive. Bezos famously banned powerpoint (as long ago as 2004) as a way of presenting a case, saying:

‘The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a PowerPoint presentation, some type of slide show. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.’ 

Instead, Amazon meetings are structured around a 6 page explanatory ‘narrative’ pitch (shortened for less in depth decisions). The first 20 minutes of a team meeting is spent in silence reading the pitch, after which the presenter fields questions and a decision is made. Says Bezos:

‘The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.’

The data-rich six page narratives follow the same structure:

  1. The context or question.
  2. Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
  3. How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
  4. Now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?

The approach allows for deeper thinking, better decision-making, better use of time, and also reduces the role and influence of politics in the process. Many large businesses that I deal with are choked with powerpoint presentations. The ‘narrative’ approach is a simple way to make better decisions faster.

When it comes to making decisions about product development, Amazon famously use a ‘working backwards’ approach that seeks to work back from the customer rather than starting with a product idea and trying to find a justification in a customer need. The product manager typically begins be writing an internal press release (with the end users as the imagined audience) about the finished new product, that describes the customer problem and how the new solution will be a marked improvement on the existing one. An example outline (quoted from here) to the press release may look like this:

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

Taking this approach tests whether the solution and the benefits are exciting enough. If they’re not it doesn’t get built. The product manager has to iterate the release to capture benefits that are more interesting but iterating on a press release is a lot cheaper and more efficient than iterating on the product itself.

This may sound like a relatively minor element in supporting business change but is fundamental. Decision-making processes in many large businesses are no longer fit-for-purpose. The process for business case generation and approval is broken. It really is time for a better way.

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

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