The 11th principle of Agile framework reads as ‘The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams’. Now the question comes what is a self-organizing team and how to build one? In simple words self-organization is about a team that self regulates, prioritizes and executes the work by keeping customer as the center of everything. Team members are supposed to be ‘responsible’ so that bottom-up culture is built instead of top-down ‘authoritative’ management approach. Based on my experience in working with multiple SCRUM teams, building self-organizing teams creates wonders for individuals, managers and customers. Here are my top-5 learnings.
It takes time: Building self-organizing teams take a lot of time. Since it demands high technical capability and high behavioral skills, it’s hard to find individuals with mix of these two and still able to work together as a team. Personally I have spent significant amount of time to figure out right combination for the SCRUM team that has got potential to become self-organized.
It demands maturity: Self organizing teams require very high self-regulation with the ability to ‘take-up’ higher set of responsibilities. On the other hand the manager / supervisor should be able to ‘give-up’ the control and feel comfortable with the team driving themselves. This requires very high amount of maturity from both the sides by giving up by feeling completely secure. It is easier said than done.
Managing individual velocity: Agile talks about team velocity, which is about the ability of the team to churn out work volume. It is equally important to see that each member in the team is having similar velocity, failing which it will affect rhythm of the team. Regulating this requires a lot of focus and effort.
Customer alignment: Ultimately the customer should be able to see the benefit of self-organizing teams, which requires customer alignment of the whole team. This means they should be able to understand the customer priorities, constantly deliver and build a strong relationship with them.
Continuous improvement: Agile, at its core talks about having right mindset. During the journey of becoming a self-organized, tons of things that might go wrong. In such situations each member in the team should exhibit continuous improvement mindset. They should be able to critically retrospect and take focused action to keep improving. Ability to take feedback, being open and honest, keeping team and customer interest over individual interest are some of the attributes that team members should have in order to become truly self-organized.
In summary I see building self-organizing teams is the true testimony of leadership as it eventually makes the leader redundant for team functioning by demonstrating high amount of responsibility. After all who don’t want the team which drives itself without any external ‘push-pull’ from the manager 🙂
It is been said that “influencing without formal authority” is the most difficult task to do. This comes from the old school thinking that individuals can be influenced by a person who has formal authority over him or her. For example, if a team member (say X) immediate supervisor (say Y) is considered to be a person who has higher authority mainly because Y does X ‘s performance assessment, career growth, opportunity spotting etc. Since Y is perceived as a “power-center”, it is assumed that Y will be able to influence X better by using tighter control. On the other hand, if an individual is not having the direct formal authority (say Z), influencing becomes a challenging task.
Cut to reality! I got first taste of this whole paradigm when I took over a program management role quite some time back. As a program manager, I was supposed to get a program delivered with multiple features, developed/tested by different team member from different project teams. Individual project teams had formal reporting structure with individual project mangers, who used to lend resources on a per program basis. In simple term, this is what is popularly known as ‘matrix organization’ where formal reporting and business reporting act as a perpendicular items to each other. Definitely it was a challenging ask to get things done as a program manager without control of individuals. However over a period of time, I was able to build on it by developing stronger listening skills, communication, big picture creation, creating an environment of abundance etc, because of which the program execution became smooth.
At the same time I started observing where people started opening up with big time, by sharing some of their deeper concerns. They were telling me about individual career plans, career aspirations, concerns that are coming from various sources etc. Without even me asking for it information used to reach me, because of which I was able to build even stronger influence on people. On the contrary individual people managers who had formal authority were never aware of these items as information never reached them. In summary I was able to influence more without formal authority mainly because people were more open to me, which gave me tremendous opportunity for me to get people influenced.
On contrary, when I wore people management hat I ended up seeing the other side of the story where folks with lesser authority than me started having more influence on my people. Lesser the authority, more the openness thereby increasing the possibility of influencing. Performance appraisal is no longer the key for influencing individuals.
This book was suggested to me quite some time back (by one of my mentors) got a chance to complete it recently. Written by Stephen MR Covey, son of Stephen Covey (senior), Speed of trust is a wonderful account of trust building in human relations. Personally, my experience with trust building is been a roller-coaster ride for me. I enjoyed tremendous amount of benefits in cases where I enjoyed higher level of trust, on the other hand struggled a lot when trust levels are low with the other person. Its hard to explain trust, mainly because “things happen” when it is there and “you feel it when you have it”. I was looking for some framework to work on getting better with trust building, where this book perfectly fit into. To start with Stephen establishes a business case for trust by connecting trust, speed and cost. In case of high trust environment, more things happen in real than talking or following-up. Hence speed goes up and cost comes down. On the other hand when trust levels are low, both individuals and organizations end up paying “trust tax” which slows down the progress of the overall progress. So level of trust has direct impact on organization’s top line and bottom line in terms of financial implications. In case of no tax, top line and bottom line both goes up creating a ‘win-win’ proposition.
After establishing business case for trust, Stephen delves into multiple layers of trust and what are the key behaviors that will enhance the level of trust in any given situation. He starts with individual trust and further followed by relationship trust, organizational trust, market trust and societal trust. He goes on explaining key elements of building trust at various levels starting with individuals. Because if as an individual we don’t trust ourselves with highest level of authenticity, it becomes naturally reflected in other activities we handle and it gets passed on to others as a lower trust message.
As a part of trust framework, Stephen mentions how credibility is fundamental in establishing trust. In order to establish credibility four cores namely intent, integrity, capability and results play a vital role by laying down strong foundation. If these four codes are having issues with an individual, no amount of behavioral tactics will help in building trust. Once these cores are established strongly (thereby having higher credibility), individuals need to demonstrate certain key behaviors to establish higher trust environment. He talks about 13 behaviors (Talk straight, Demonstrate respect, Create transparency, Right wrongs, Slow loyalty, Deliver results, Get better, Confront reality, Clarify expectations, Practice accountability, Listen first, Keep commitments, Extend trust) as key behavioral elements.
With lucid examples and case studies Stephen takes though the framework of trust building. Stephen also talks about “Smart trust” where balancing right level of trust by tuning these parameters. Extending too much of trust sometimes might backfire (and I have personal experience in doing that) whereas extending less might create lesser trusty environment. So assessing the situation and extending right level of trust is key to have desired results. From outside trust might look like a intangible item, but its implications are very deep. It was a very hard and enriching learning to go through the framework and understand various elements of building trust.
Every year 5th September is celebrated as Teachers day in India. We were preparing a custom greeting card for our little one
(to share with her teacher) to demonstrate a good gesture. Around the same time my mind started thinking about teachers, coaching and positive impact it creates individuals. The process of coaching doesn’t end after we pass out from school/college; in fact one requires coaching from a different dimension afterwards. I have been coached by many exceptional individuals for whom I will remain eternally thankful. There are numerous occasions when I was clueless, done mistakes or even frustrated. These set of mentors/coaches were always available to me to help and support all the time. I tried to look back and try to understand what exactly these individuals have done to me? After all what exactly is the crux of coaching?
I would like to take my recent example of coaching from long distance running experience and try to find answer for my previous question. When individuals are getting trained for long distances, it is highly likely possible those individuals face difficulties to keep up with running long distances. The issue can be due to physical fatigue, injury, mental blockers, and inferiority thinking which eventually leads to lesser self confidence in the person. In such situations individuals end up running last or walk or even think of quitting the run. Understanding this state quickly, I have seen the coach end up running along with this slowest running person in the group.
Now what is the powerful and indirect message that coach is conveying? Primarily the slowest runner gets a mental support that he is not alone and running slowly is not a big issue. By getting an encouraging word or two during such situations (“Good job, you are getting better”) from the coach instills confidence and re-assurance. This creates a huge transformation on the person, who is getting coached, which will help them to get out of the issue (mentioned above) quickly, even though it might fall under any of the category.
Connecting back, this is exactly what they have done to me time-and-again. In challenging situations these mentors ensured that they kept faith and confidence, which meant a lot to me during such situations. With this support it was quite natural for me to figure out action and come out of difficulties.
In my opinion, having faith in individuals and installing confidence during difficult times summarizes the crux of coaching. For the person is receiving end it is a humbling experience.
For most Indians, reading about Abdul Kalam and his work is always an inspiring item. Post retirement, he started off his journey into writing by scripting his auto-biography titled ‘The wings of fire’, followed by some popular books like Ignited Minds, Envisioning an empowered nation, Turning points etc. Most of them talk about his early life in Rameshwaram followed by his experience with various defense and space research organizations. Another popular theme in these book is about “Vision 2020”, where Kalam is been articulating India becoming super power by 2012 by achieving excellence in technology, rural transformation, self reliance and self sustainability.
In this latest book ‘My journey – Transforming dreams into Action’, Kalam has followed pretty much the same canvas but gone into very small and specific stories. Unlike his previous books, he has chosen real life anecdotes and shared deeper learning from them. Growing up in town like Rameshwaram with very high aspirations and dreams is not very easy situation to handle. With lesser resources and exposure, Kalam need to go thru lot of struggle and build his career brick-by-brick. The most inspiring part is about him overcoming umpteen numbers of challenges and overcoming them with very strong vision and value.
For example, he explains how he became a working person at the age of 8 by supplying newspapers in Rameshwaram and struggle associated with it. Every day he would to get up at 4 AM followed by his morning tuition and prayers. In order to support his family Kalam takes a part time job of distributing newspapers to Rameshwaram household. Thanks to some policy change, Chennai-Dhanushkodi passenger train which carried daily newspaper bundle from Chennai removed Rameshwaram station from the list. This resulted in Kalam doing every day stunt by catching paper bundle thrown from a moving train at Rameshwaram station. Kalam will then go on distributing them after which his school day would start. In the evening he would finish his homework and complete settlement of newspaper daily account with his cousin who gave him this opportunity. It was quite obvious to see the amount of stress and pressure he might have gone thru as a 8 year old boy, but the way he put it across along with key learnings is simply amazing.
There are multiple similar stories related to his profession filled with struggle and failures. Inspired by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Kalam and his team went on building Indian space story from the scratch. He recalls how his professional career is similar to his early life in Rameshwaram – Lesser resources, Limited knowledge, larger challenges and a passion to win. Taking references from Bhagavat Gita to Thirukkural, Kalam mentions how he taken inspiration from these great ancient text to lift him up when things went wrong due to mistakes. There were some repeated stories (ex: Church in Thumba becoming ISRO office, thanks to the local people), however they are always inspiring ones to hear again and again.
Unlike his previous books, Kalam kept this one very simple which can even read and understood by a high school kid. Definitely worth reading!
Employees First, Customer Second (EFCS) is creating buzz for a while now! Coined by HCL vetranVineet Nayar, this term has created a bunch of different interpretations, perspectives and discussions. I picked up audio version of this book from Reado, mainly to bring pace to my reading habit. Listening to audio book, especially in busy city traffic conditions, makes it a enriching experience by putting better use of time. Also audio book helps to read book faster than the traditional printed books. I used to be an advocate of buying books in printed form and have them as my priceless possessions. Thanks to the busy schedule at work and home kindled me to explore innovative ways to keep my reading habit alive. EFCS is the first audio book I have heard (long time back I did similar stuff with one of the Tamil books, by having them listen during travel), so listening to an English audio book is also equally interesting experience.
Coming to EFCS book, author Vineet Nayar shares his transformational journey in HCL using EFCS framework. HCL, one of the top notch software services companies in India, steadily lost its stream both in business and people elements. HCL was not considered as a preferred employer by many of people due to not so favorable work environment. Based on his experience by meeting HCL employees Vineet felt many key issues, which pushed him to make transformation in HCL by implementing EFCS. Fundamentally Vineet believed what he describes as ‘value zone’, which is nothing but an employee linkage with its customer. This critical zone where customer interacts with software service organization like HCL to get the necessary assignment done. For customers, they see the software company and its value generation thru its employees who are interfacing with him/her. So from the organization perspective, if employees in the value zone, who can be enabled and empowered, would result in more value for customers. In order to take care of its customers better organizations need to work with their own people, to put them first before customers. Because every action they do eventually gets converted into value for customers thereby maximizing many things which include employee satisfaction, customer value, revenue, profitability etc. This doesn’t mean providing a second-class treatment to customer, but in order to give them first-class treatment, employees of the organization needs to be taken care.
With this basic principle, Vineet goes on executing EFCS by taking few important but bold changes in the organization. To start with, he gets his top 100 leadership team to buy in this concept of EFCS by creating what he describes as ‘blueprint’ meetings. Initially most of the senior leader were not able to buy in this idea with ‘yes, but….’ Thinking, but over a period of time, they start seeing the value of doing such things customers. Second, Nayar believes in order to implement EFCS successfullym, he need to build trust in the organization at all levels. In order to open up conversation with employees, he creates an internal two-way transparent web based system called ‘U and Me’ by openly making conversation with employees. Employees at any level can open conversation with the CEO (Nayar himself) or any of the senior leadership team. In case of specific questions, pertaining to a business line, the corresponding leader would provide the response. When this started off, initial days were more of making it as a compliant box, but over a period of time it turned out to be a platform to build two-way transparent conversation for building trust in the leadership. After attaining certain level of maturity, Vineet opened up this platform with a new item titled ‘My problems’ where he started seeing suggestions/inputs from employees for the issues faced by him with respect to competitors, business changes/challenges, media etc. He started getting very creative and workable suggestions from employees from all the level, which in turn created more belief in the leadership among employees.
Third, internal systems were tuned to support/empower and aid people in the ‘value zone’. For example business support functions like HR, finance, operations etc, need to be tuned for getting support to the business needs by creating a ticketing system with automatic upward escalation. This also broke the traditional power center concept by truly tuning the organization to be people centric, thereby eventually passing on the value to customers. In the same lines, Vineet opened up business results (revenue, profit, current status etc..) data of individual businesses as a transparent information across the organization. Every individual group/team were able to clearly see where their team/business stood with respect to other organizations. While this created some initial issues (ex: information leaking to the press, as HCL is a public listed company) but this created a sense of urgency and bias to take action for improving the situation. It took about four years time for Vineet to implement EFCS in multiple phases and he also explains the benefit/results of this framework in terms of revenues/profits/employee satisfaction. By taking certain big bold steps like EFCS, HCL is transformed into a multi billion dollar organization with capability to handle larget client base with higher criticality.
When such large scale tranformational changes are implemented, any organization will have its mixed response from people side. When I talked with some of my HCL friends about EFCS they were not so excited but admitted that it did had impact in the way HCL has done business. It required lot of courage backed with common-sense to float something like EFCS, but Nayar’s no non-sense common sense approach was really interesting to challenge stereotype management thinking.
Why do anybody want to appoint a bowling coach to the greatest batsman that cricket has ever produced? Why do we want him to get better with bowling when he is so good at batting? He has been pretty decent part-time bowler who bowled few overs and got some crucial wickets (with some special ones like 1993 Hero cup semi finals against South Africa) as well. All he did for his two decades of historical cricketing career was to bat, bat and just bat!
When I look beyond Sachin, here are the key attributes of Indian top order today:
Sehwag/Gambhir (attacking, aggressive) – Apt for first 15 overs
Raina/Dhoni/Yuvraj (excellent strikers who can effortlessly clear the field plus great finishers of the game) – Apt for 35-50 overs
Of course, when wickets fall early, batsman should adapt to the situation and play. Definitely, this batting order is not arrived in a random fashion. It is arranged based on which position a batsman is exactly good at, based on his natural game. It is done with specific intent in mind so that the possibility of success in a match can be maximized.
Cut to corporate! In teams we end up having different set of people who has different set of strengths. For example in a product development team I typically find individuals who are good in different areas – innovation, requirement analysis, customer interfacing, coding, software designing, user experience, crisis handling, quality assurance, critical problem solving ability and some all-rounders who can do all the above mentioned roles fairly well. It becomes extremely important to have right people in right roles (similar to cricket batting order) to maximize success of the team. Again “success” here could mean anything – increased customer satisfaction, increased sales numbers, quality and on-time product launch etc.
Its always a puzzle and challenging task to identify what individuals are actually good at and provide them with right set of opportunities. In my opinion this is THE critical responsibility of leader who should spend good amount of time in doing that. When roles are identified according to individual’s strengths and corresponding responsibilities are defined, it can be completely left with individuals to produce desired result. When individuals feel they are doing the job where they are good at, it automatically increases their self esteem thereby lifting the overall moral of the individual. In summary is multiples result produced by the team. Let me explain this with some example.
Say an individual A who is extremely good at finding new technology and passionate about innovation. Driven by his creative mental ability he can almost always suggest a new way to get things done. However he may not be a process oriented individual, who might even think process kills creativity. There could be another individual B, who is meticulous when it comes to getting things done by following the process with 100% discipline. He would love to do same things again and again and improve it over a period of time. For him the maximum pleasure comes from continuously refining it, whereas for the former case it could be continuously creating something always. Given the core strength of individuals, they need to be placed in appropriate nature of work. For example A can be part of organizational technology incubation team, which demands frequent survey of latest technology and suggest future business possibilities. B can be placed as a customer facing individual who can champion by following meticulous steps with each and every customer, failing which can cause customer dis-satisfaction. Now what if these roles are reversed? The answer is obvious – planned disaster! A will get completely bored and frustrated with customer facing and B will get scared to come up with new things very frequently.
Identifying individual strengths and providing them with right roles is not always 100% possible in an organization, where there could be multiple options. The team/business may not require a particular strength or skill which an individual is good at. In such cases it is much better to rotate individuals to different opportunities inside the organization where their skills can be utilized in a better manner. Or in some worst scenario, it is better to let them go (or they will get frustrated and leave the organization) rather than wasting both individual and organization’s time. In some cases there would be a possibility that the individual skills matches to the role to a larger extent (say 80%) who can be still provided support for making him effective in the role. In some other cases individuals need to be rotated across different roles (ex: R & D -> marking) to expose them different aspects of the business, which is part of leadership building process. As a direct impact, this will immediately reflect in an individual’s performance ratings. I will talk more about this in a separate post.
For organizations it is always a challenge to balance between delivering numbers (ex: quarterly financial results) and balance our long term strategic priorities (ex: new business). At an individual level also we face similar dilemma, especially at leadership levels.
Typically in annual business planning activity would identify certain goals with specific targets. Popularly known as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), these numbers take multiple forms: sales quota, revenues, improving efficiency or delivering some number of patents, depending on the type of organization. Linking KPI with business definitely helps to bring focus in leadership team. This will also help to measure results in as numbers demonstrate “unambigiousness”. If the organization is big enoug, this is typically what key stakeholders (customers, share holders, investors and employees) look forward in terms of Return of Investment (ROI).
In my opinion, this KPI oriented model has its own disadvantages when taken into extreme. When the leadership team is completely focused on delivering numbers, many bigger and strategic opportunities will go out of the window or gets missed. From people perspective when they come to know that they are measured only based on numbers, they will do anything and everything do make “numbers look good”. Many of the corporate scandals, sudden collapse of a leader or a business unit is mainly because of the polarized focus towards ‘number crunching’. When extremely high amount of importance and focus is given for delivering numbers, original thinking process gets restricted in leadership team, because of which organization may not forsee potential opportunity in the future, leading to sustainability issues in business.
On the other hand taking the KPIs out of the management system will create accountability issues. The whole organization might look to be doing something which is really long term and strategic but never oriented towards providing tangible results/benefits to the organization. The difference between “articulation” and “accomplishment” will go away where people will assume doing former is same as later.
The real spirit should be to use KPI as “indicators” to really get realistic view of what exactly happening in ground zero. In case of an individual business unit or a leader is failing to deliver on his numbers, proper introspection should be done by senior level leadership to make it better or take some strong decision. Simply put in Jack Welch’s terms, leadership team should be able to take a choice from “Fix, sell or close”. When there is an opportunity to fix the issue, corresponding leader should be given necessary opportunity and empowerment to “openly” say his numbers are bad and put in actions to close gaps for making things better.
KPIs should indicate something which should be reflection of reality, so that actions are taken to solve real time issues. The more realistic those actions are, better the organization becomes. Next time you get an opportunity to check some numbers, ensure you read the “meaning” behind those numbers.
Recently I was given an opportunity to discuss about ‘Business alignment’ with a set of people in my group. To make the session interactive, I asked each one of them what exactly they understand by aligning with Business. Most of them replied saying ‘aligning individual aspirations to business needs’, ‘understanding organization opportunities in better manner’, ‘developing business acumen’ etc. While most of them are correct, I asked them back ‘In every given opportunity is it possible for an individual to be absolutely open and align himself to business needs? Can we always say business is heading in the right direction?’ and I could see many blank faces. While text-book definition of business alignment looks easy to understand, it’s extremely hard to implement.
Let us take an example. Assume a business leader is having a specific business goal (ex: improving customer satisfaction) considering the current business trend of customer complaints. Based on his understanding of business and his personal view, he typically comes up with ways to implement certain actions to achieve desired result. However, when the business task starts coming down the hierarchy, it gets interpreted by different layers in different ways. What is seen as the ‘right thing’ from the top might be seen as a ‘absolute blunder’ from the bottom layer of people. It can also be easily interpreted as the business leader trying to implement his ‘personal agenda’ to gain some benefit for him. This is one of the key reasons why practical implementation of business alignment becomes very challenging except for cases where the whole hierarchy consist of ‘yes sir’ type of people.
Now, how a business leader can ensure the ‘right thing’ gets implemented in the ‘right way’? In my opinion there is only one way to do it – Establish trust! For people who see value of implementing an action (to improve customer satisfaction) will right away go ahead and implement without fail. For people who don’t see or perceive the value of implementation will still implement because of the trust. He will work on a fundamental belief that ‘I might be missing something, let me implement this and understand this better rather than telling reasons for not implementing it’. This also leads to another case where an individual in the chain will build ‘disagree and commit’ mindset. This individual might not believe in the way it is implemented but still go ahead and do it in his own way because he is committed for the business leader. For all you know such actions might lead to totally new set of possibilities which the business leader might not even thought of.
The power of trust is much bigger than we actually can think!
Case-1: Consider a situation where one of your top performing members (person A) in the team is going thru a serious personal problem. The problem could come in many forms (love/affair failure, wife pregnancy complications, parents/kid having serious illness, perennial conflicts at home etc.) which make the individual disturbed because of which his focus on work might come down, due to which his intermediate deliverable may not be up to the mark. However he has earned his credibility in the team by consistently delivering on the expectations.
Case-2: Consider a situation where another member (person B) in the team, is not delivering on his business commitments where results are way below the expectations due to lack of ownership. Every other time, he comes up with some or other excuse for not doing the work, where proper effort is not spent let alone the results. However this individual has necessary capability to complete the work.
As a leader of the group, you end up facing cases mentioned above very frequently, which needs to be handled totally differently. With person A you need to be in ‘compassionate’ mode by understanding humane aspect of an individual by understanding personal issues/challenges faced. By considering the past record of this individual he needs to be given certain flexibility to sort of the personal problems. As a leader you can also offer solution or suggestion for him to come out of personal problem. But in simple terms, the leader has to take the ‘high on people, low on business’ approach by taking humane view into perspective.
In case of person B, you need to pass on a clear message with sharp feedback for not delivering on his commitment. If the situation prevails you need to quickly switch into ‘ruthless’ mode by taking some strict action (ex: providing a performance improvement plan) or ask him to leave the organization if the situation worsens. When individuals are not delivering consistently, resulting in lower performance it should be treated very strictly. But in simple terms the leader has to take the ‘high business, low people’ approach by taking the business perspective into consideration. After-all organization and people are here to get things done and deliver on business commitments.
But the real challenge comes when you as a leader face multiple cases where you need to switch between ‘compassionate’ and ‘ruthless’ mode. Sometimes the mode switching has to happen in back-to-back meetings with hardly few minutes interval in between them. Based on my experience, the success of the leader depends on how seamlessly the leader is able to handle switching between these two modes, which is not an easy task at all. Also when it is not executed properly it may create disaster situations. For example, being ‘ruthless’ to the person A will create a ‘Hitler’ image of the leader to the individual (and eventually to the team) where the individual might feel his human aspects are not taken care. Also being ‘compassionate’ to person B will result in him enjoying paid vacation as a part of his job!
It really takes a lot on the leader to read the situations day-in-day-out and take decisions accordingly. Given the fact that leaders also human beings that have emotions, it is likely possible that leaders fail to switch between modes, which is normally known as ‘getting carried away’ by the situation. Achieving right balance between people and business is always challenging, which also makes leadership an ever evolving and ever learning journey as far as individuals are concerned. After all when it comes to leadership nobody can say ‘I am done’.