Building self-organizing team: Five key learnings

self_organizing_teamsThe 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 🙂

Agile = No need for managers?

The Agile framework, especially implemented with SCRUM talks about ‘self-organizing teams’ as one of its benefits. According to definition, as the term says self-organizing-teams are the ones which regulate themselves, demonstrate very high amount of collaboration & teamwork by keeping customer as the first priority. This also means a self-correcting system where teams themselves figure out what has gone wrong and what can be made better.

Does this mean Agile SCRUM implementation results in getting rid of project or people managers? If agile is deployed can we give pink slips to people managers and ask them to leave? The answer is clear NO.

Agile don’t have any standard guideline or reference about people managers or project managers however based on my practical experience I would like to share few points:

  1. Agile requires very high amount of maturity among team members, till then it requires stronger involvement of managers. Here the role of traditional manager take a slight deviation where he needs to play the role of a coach by taking inspirational leadership approach rather than authoritarian.
  2. All people are not same, they need to be differentiated. In order to implement performance management system managers are required to work closely with team.
  3. Only prioritized task level activities are done by SCRUM framework, whereas program / product level activities still needs to be managed well
  4. Will bring down task-level or micro-level action done by managers by still requires supervision and management to run the business show.

Running as a therapy

Most of us think Running as a physical activity, resulting in better health.

The real impact that running has created goes way beyond physical health, thereby acting as a therapy. The Alternative, a new age media created a set of stories recently where they covered stories of individuals where running made a big impact. There were people suffering from migraine, autism, schizophrenia etc…and how running has transformed their lives. I am happy to be surrounded by such individuals with whom we run as a community in Runners High.

Check out the following URLs for the individual stories:

The crux of coaching

Every year 5th September is celebrated as Teachers day in India. We were preparing a custom greeting card for our little one

Coaching
Coaching

(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.

The story of long distance running

[I wrote this article to share with my folks in Runners High community (referred as RH in the article below). Some names might look little unfamiliar for general readers. I will continue to write about long distance running, going forward]

Initial conversation with Santhosh

Keeping up physical fitness is one of the key priorities for every one of us. There are many options available (ex: Aerobics), however long distance running is something which I have been aspiring to start for a long time. My initial understanding with running came in form of Santhosh, who was doing his marathons (for Asha NGO) when he was working in the US. I used to follow his blogs to keep in touch ever since we passed out of college more than a decade back. He used to write regular blogs on his preparation, challenges and how money raised through running is used to contribute grass root level organizations, especially children. Even much before Santhosh started off RH (vaguely recollect it was year 2008), I clearly remember meeting up for lunch with him about me doing running, which I immediately ruled out by saying “Running? Give me a break. Please coach somebody else to keep your motivation high; I will probably bring down your energy levels by not showing interest in such crazy stuff!”

Lonely planet

Times passed and we went on our own ways. In the mean time, I have kept up with my aspiration to keep physically fit by doing various activities like Yoga, Meditation and some games over the weekend. However I was doing them all alone, which was becoming very difficult to sustain. Over a period of time, consistency took a huge hit as it is very easy to give up when you are alone. Again back to square one, I was primarily looking for some activity with higher sustainability factor. In the mean time, there were some colleagues who got into long distance running, through them I used to get updates about growing “community” approach towards running in Bangalore. Finally I decided “let me give it a shot, let even hell break loose!” One email to Santhosh (again) and got signed up for KTM with 10K finish goal.

IIM-B and DTS sound in my stomach

KTM 2013 @ 9.5 KM mark
KTM 2013 @ 9.5 KM mark

When I dropped into for intro session at IIM-B, I got really scared at first sight. While the “community” factor was really heartening to see, fellow runners from RH scared me continuously talking about running among them. Key words like “ultra”, “Boston marathon”, “finish goal”, “ITB” were getting exchanged among folks, sounded Greek and lain for me. When Santhosh introduced individual coaches (and their accomplishments in running in Grand Canyon, Himalayas etc…) I almost fell like running out of IIM-B auditorium. I was telling myself “Where am I, what am I trying to do? I have absolutely no exercise background and these folks are talking about running 50 KM!”  I could clearly hear DTS music in my stomach and somehow (!) stayed back in the auditorium and paid the fees. At the same time I told only one thing to myself “I will stick to the schedule given my coach, let me stop thinking and start running”. When I look back that’s probably the best decision I have taken when it comes to long distance running.

Kicking VIRUS (Viru Sahasrabuddhe) out!

Thanks to strong support from my wife, I was able to get up on time and show up for running by not bunking any classes (except couple of occasions due to self/family health reasons). Initial few days were very difficult where I literally had lot of pain all over the body. Every other day I used to get new type of pain from different set of muscles, which I didn’t even knew existed in my body for so many years. As per my initial commitment (of sticking to schedule) I decided to put on with coaching schedule.

The first thing that amazed RH is about the excellent, self-sustaining system built which works automatically. Right from day one I didn’t even bother about my timings, ran as much as possible. When I couldn’t run, I just paused, stopped, gained breath and again started running. I also ensured that I don’t end up comparing myself with fellow runners mainly because I wanted to come out of this “metric” (popularly known as KPI) based thinking which we are so used in school, college and corporate world. After all I didn’t want to emulate VIRUS (ref: 3 idiots) by overtaking the fellow runner to keep myself ahead. The very fact that I am able to get up and run at morning 6 AM at Cubbon is a huge achievement, rest all were immaterial anyways 😉

Coaches and mentors

Now coming to coaches, they were absolutely amazing people. In our Cubbon library group we had Srini, Kanishka and George were our main coaches who led by example by ensuring we followed the schedule

KTM 2013 Finish point
KTM 2013 Finish point

on time. I still remember them running along with slowest runners in our group (I am definitely one among them) ensuring that they are supported well. This built a huge confidence, faith and aspiration to push myself further. If not for the confidence coaches had in each one of us, KTM 10K would have never remained a possibility. Our mentor Asha brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy by sending regular emails, follow-ups and breakfast meetings. By now all my DTS music (from stomach) almost went mute, because I was able to understand the fact that coaches and mentors also started off similar to me. With sheer persistence they were able to run such long distances.

The Macho image and KTM

Slowly and steadily number of kilometers increased (2,3…6) during weekend runs. By now I was able to build my “mental creation” for completing 10K. Thanks to social networking, I was posting some updates in FB about my running and my friends and family started responding quite positively. Over a period of time “macho” image got built for me (Oh! You run 10K? That’s amazing) and I know how much still I need to learn when it comes to running. I don’t want to write much about KTM day as it was just a “flow” and made it happen! I am a much better person (in terms of both mental and physical) already signed up for Ultra for 12.5 KM with same commitment of sticking to the schedule, stop thinking and start running.

Santhosh again!

This post will remain incomplete if I don’t write a paragraph about Santhosh. We started off together during our undergraduate days, been a partner-in-crime for four long years (got ragged by same set of seniors, got caught by police for violating section-144, danced together in countless fresher/farewell/birthday parties, got first job in same company etc..) . It feels amazing to connect with him in a new dimension called running, after 12 long years.

Data structure assignments and torture

Data structure & algorithms form backbone of programming. It is expected that any computer science graduate to have very good experience in using various data structures like linked lists, queues, stacks, trees, hash tables etc. During my REC Warangal days, passing thru the Data structure course was a real torture. The professor will ensure we slog thru our bones by having a very strict evaluation mechanism to evaluate every other assignment. Let me explain this in detail.

To start with, every week a new assignment topic will be given. We will create a basic design and start coding them, while theoretical part was still thought in the classroom. By the end of the week (Sunday 5 PM) we were supposed to copy the corresponding C file into a particular directory with a particular format. If it is done even at 5:01, it will not be allowed as an automated script would block write access to directory. Followed by this, every C program will be turn thru a Shell script, which will find 20% of total lines randomly and delete from the program by placing some special character (ex: /* $ */) as a placeholder. There is also a mandate that all assignments should not have any comments, thereby preventing students escaping by filling up comment lines instead of actual C program statements.

The story is not over yet! During lab session (in the next week), one hour of time will be provided where each one of us needs to fill-up deleted 20% lines followed by successful compilation and execution of the program. Here also timings are very strict. Just after one hour a script will automatically logout each of us from the computer. In the final phase of evaluation each of us should show the truncated program (from previous phase, whatever state it may be) and explain/answer some difficult questions related to data structure, asked by the professor. At any point of time the professor gets doubt (of copying assignment) whole assignment score will be nullified.

At the age of 18, it was too much of a pressure to handle. Completing program on time, copying to specified directory before Sunday 5 PM, Missing a meal/dinner, Skipping sleep, trying to fill-up missing lines within a hour and answering questions was a too long a process. In order to make it effective, the professor distributed marks across all these phases, thereby one cannot escape so easily without working hard. At the end of evaluation, I used to get a huge sigh of relief and sleep like a baby for hours together. Each one of us used to curse the professor for torturing us so much!

Today when I look back, I get a totally different perspective. If not for that strong evaluation mechanism, each one of us could have become lazy and never learned the art of programming. We could have mugged up some programs and passed exams. In my another post about going technical hands-on, I mentioned about debugging some of my old Kernel programs within a week, even though I was out of touch from programming for years together now. Definitely, the DNA which got injected in form of data structure programming is still there in my blood, which is helping me to pick-up programming with ease.

I also tried out a Shell script (of deleting 20% random lines from a C program), will upload it soon.

Right thing in a right way

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!

Leadership dichotomy: Compassionate Vs. Ruthless

Let us start with two case studies.

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’.

Focus on the effort… as much as the result – Another perspective

This is the second part of my earlier blog “Focus on the effort… as much as the result” – http://jwritings.com/?p=562. In case you have not read that, I would suggest that you do before proceeding to read this.
While that blog presents a good picture of a project with high stakes, riveting rush by the team culminating in a nice photo finish (almost cinematic), there are some disturbing questions too. Why did it take until 2:00 pm on the release date to figure out that there was a long list pending? Shouldnt there have been appropriate checks and balances in place (especially since this was a release that multiple regions were looking forward to)? Shouldnt the stakeholders (folks who had made commitments to customers) been sounded off earlier that there could be a slip (in which case they could at least fore-warn the customers that there MIGHT be a delay)? What if the release had not happened even after all the effort?

Is this similar to our infamous Commonwealth Games experience where weeks before the games were scheduled to start the supervising committee found stinking toilets and unpainted stadiums and deplorable athlete village? Isnt it interesting that even a senior Indian official compared the whole Commonwealth Games fiasco to Indian weddings where things are chaotic right up till the last moment before miraculously falling in place in the nick of time? Has our Indian psyche trained us to see this whole episode as a “victory from the jaws of defeat” rather than a “last minute frenzy to barely manage to deliver after screwing up all along”. Even in this case, wasnt it passion and a heroic slog by the highly charged team that delivered the win rather than a methodical and systematic process?

Now if I have to weigh both sides and choose which of these two set of qualities – passionate and heroic sloggers vs methodical and process driven marchers, I would lay more emphasis on, I would much rather pick the former. Now I am not talking about these as mutually exclusive traits, but more as the dominant characteristics of the two sides.

Here is the reasons for my choice:

Software product development is inherently unpredictable. While you can do a reasonable job of approximations earlier during the development cycle, hard release dates pretty much “emerge” during the later stages of development. After about 12 years in product development, with 8 of those as a Product Manager, I have very rarely released a product exactly on the planned release date – and I have never felt bad about it. One of the best part of this job is the opportunity to say, “I dont mind if this product is launched a few days later, but I want the wow effect”. There are always last minute changes – enhancement that you want to add for the “wow” effect or a database query optimization that’s going to deliver faster customer response times – that you did not plan for when you wrote the specs 4 months back, but want it now!!!

This is especially true in case of start ups where priorities change fast, demands from a large customer can require you to rejig or do a course correction and you are constantly trying to do more with less resources and shorter time.

With best checks and balances and processes in place, you will still have your share of “2:00 pm on release day with a long pending list” days (the frequency pretty much depends on the pace of your business)…. and on those days, you’re seriously better off with a team that’s willing to go the extra mile than a team that’s dissecting what went wrong with the process or how many times the requirements changed.

NWritings

When Tendulkar drops a catch, Dhoni doesnt have to tell him to focus

Its a big Test match and India are desperately looking for wickets to tighten the noose around the Aussies. Ishant is streaming in and bending his back on a wicket that is providing the assistance needed for a determined bowler – bounce and movement off the seam. The Rainas and Kohlis have been doing their best with their constant yellings of encouragement. Hussey, or Mr Cricket as hes known, has been the lone source of resistance from the Aussies and they will surely go down in this key test match if hes gone. The ball is pitched outside the off and angling away and the otherwise cautious Hussey pokes it at tentatively. Ninety nine times out of hundred Hussey would have left this alone, but not this time. The ball takes the shoulder of the bat and flies off towards the waiting hands of Tendulkar in second slip for a straight forward regulation catch. Ishant has already sensed a wicket and is almost ready for his celebratory leap when the great man fumbles and the ball loops off his fingers – he had grabbed at it too early. Ishant is distraught and every Indian fielder has his hands on the head. The camera zooms in on Tendulkar and he knows he has screwed up – his face says it all. Numerous replays from different angles ensue. Dhoni and Dravid in first slip just walk to Tendulkar, pat his shoulders and unruffle his hair with a possibly a “take it easy…. come on” and move on to focus on the next delivery.

Now, this is exactly what most managers DONT do. The typical manager reaction to a screw up is long monologue, a dressing down and a stern warning of a “you better not do this the next time around”. They view this as the appropriate time to “educate” the employee on how things are done. Now, I’m not asking managers to turn a blind eye to screw ups or accept incompetence. However, In most cases the person who screwed up is already aware of the seriousness of his error and what he needs is a dose of confidence and being reminded of his achievements of the past. Back him!!! Help him remember the great slip fielder that he usually is and restore his confidence to be prepared for the next ball – unless this was the third catch hes dropped that day… in which case you want to move him to fine leg and pray that the ball doesn’t go there. Even if there are issues with the “catching technique” of Tendulkar, it is best addressed at the end of the day’s play.

Managers should look at themselves as “Coaches” who are vested in bringing out the best in people rather than “supervisors” who are trying to tell people how things are done.

 

– NWritings