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.

Idea or Execution?

After taking up Entrepreneurial path, I have come across many interesting experiences on a daily basis. Every day is filled with unknown or unclear activities with more effort is put to make it more and more clear. In due course of time I also got an opportunity to meet a bunch of entrepreneurs, consultants, mentors and ecosystems partners in Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem. Also I also got opportunity to work more closely with a smaller entrepreneurial teams and execute things at ‘ground zero’.

It is a very popular (or hyped) belief that everything starts with Idea. If an individual has a breathtaking idea he can make it happen. Thanks to some of the recent bigger acquisitions, millions and billions are looking smaller and smaller. However when I work more closely with my organizations or meet people who are ‘really’ successful entrepreneurs it gives me totally a contrarian perspective. No matter how good an idea an individual or a team has, it’s all about execution.

The reason is very simple. Strong execution is what helps organization create customer value and business results. Let me take example of our education segment itself. It is very easy for anybody with decent technical knowledge to come up with a training program in a relatively niche area like Linux. Thanks to lower entry barrier it is easy for an individual to come up with learning materials, doing market research and coming up with value proposition of a particular training program. However following are the key questions are not hyped enough but very critical when it comes to business.

  • How quickly can I find a paying customer, who is in real need of my service?
  • How can I ensure that the customer signs a cheque?
  • How do I gauge current skill level of target audience and figure out what exactly they expect?
  • In case I already know I can’t exceed their expectations in the training program how do I manage it at least by meeting their expectations?
  • How do I tune my way of delivery so that audience have maximum take away?
  • How to I collect feedback from them, in case of negative feedback how can I address them?
  • In case of getting positive feedback how can I convert into a repeatable business?

The whole crux of all above mentioned questions directly relates with the way of a particular training program is executed. Apart from above mentioned questions there might be another bunch of questions, issues, challenges we face every day at ground zero level when we actually deliver something to our customers. When we go through this grind every day it has become quite obvious that execution is super important than idea. With technology advancements, mentor ecosystem and internet it is very easy for anybody to come up with relatively new idea. However ensuring that a particular product or service is really accepted from the customer end and generates value requires a strong execution backed up by the idea. I am not under estimating or downplaying the importance of having an important idea, building a strategy or having marketing/GTM activity, eventually execution is what makes all the difference.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Product quality as an experience

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices,” –  Steve Job’s statement during iPad 2 release

I was able to relate well to his statement, which is visible in terms of user experience when it comes to Apple products. I still remember the day when my mother (60+ year old) was seamlessly able to listen to music from iPod when I handed over to her for the first time, even though she didn’t had any previous idea about using any sort of gadgets. The same was true with iPhone, where I felt immense amount of joy owning it. Till date I don’t think any organizations or products can beat Apple when it comes to the seamless experience of integrating software, hardware and user experience.

Purely taking a software view, I could say the excellent user experience achieved because of the high quality software. Professionally I have been handling multiple software programs and projects, mainly focusing on quality which has multiple elements like quality control, quality assurance and metrics based project management. Often as a project manager, one gets into so much bogged down in meeting project metrics, often customer and his experience goes out of window. For example, having a lower priority defect in user interface v/s higher priority defect in corner case scenario resulting in device crash. From the defect density or defect index perspective, it will look better to have lower priority defect open but imaging the impact of it from user perspective.

In such cases I feel metrics based project management should be abandoned and quality should take user experience route. All design and measurement mechanisms for project should be attuned to ensure users get a great experience, which is what Agile or Lean software development is trying to advocate. Perpetual beta, demo releases, iterative development are better ways to do this I also wonder what Apple should be doing in their software development method to ensure such a high quality with on time releases.

After all no customer talks about defect density while using iPhones!

Product building – A discovery process

“If you build it, they will come” is becoming more and more outdated when it comes to product development. In most of the cases former thing (i.e. building) happens but later one (i.e. paying customer) never happens. It is mainly because product development mainly has been focusing on “what I can offer” (as an organization) rather than “what customers want”. The only way to understand what customer wants is to involve them during the product development activity by providing them with working product incrementally (which is popularly known as “perpetual beta” these days)  and ask them to try it out. When the actual customer uses it he will figure what he actually wanted. In summary this is what Agile methodology advocates. Activities like perpetual beta, multiple demo releases to validate the idea, building product backlog based on customer requirements have become critical elements in product building rather than making it as a static activity.

After being part of multiple product development teams, I could also see changes in the way even customer see this way of building products. These days customers are also more than willing to be part of this “discovery” process they will eventually get what they want even though it is not coming out at one shot. Recently in conversation with one of my friend he put it in a very simple way when it comes to a simple item like providing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to customers:

  • If you ask FAQ in first week, I will give you a notepad file
  • If you ask FAQ in second week, I will give you a PDF file
  • If you ask FAQ in third week, I will give you in HTML file hosted as a part of my website
  • If you ask FAQ in fourth week, I will make it as a interactive platform where you can contribute back to FAQs by making it as a collaborative activity

Recently I came across a very interesting presentation which talks about this whole new product development paradigm. Have a look into the presentation below.


Aapkapainter – Home painting at ease

Aapkapainter.com
Aapkapainter.com

It’s been quite some time since I got my house painted. As our little one was growing up, she ensured home walls were her initial canvas using pencil and wax crayons! During vendor short-listing, I came across Aapkapainter (incidentally it is a start-up done by some of my RECW/NITW juniors), eventually signed up with them to get my house painting done. It’s been an awesome experience working with them, right from shortlisting to painting work completion. Wanted to write few details about the work done by them.

Competitive pricing

Initially I had no idea about how to get the painting done. Upon some search, I came to know popular brands (Asian Paints, Nerolac etc…) are offering home painting service on a contract basis and took initial quote from them along with Aapkapainter. To my surprise prices quoted by Aapkapainter was very competitive compared to popular brands, even though they assured me that they will use standard paints for the work. Please also note the fact that standard brands redirect their work to local contractors/vendors, we are also not sure how well they do the job. Finding competitive pricing and placing initial trust (as you know they are my college juniors) I signed up with them for my house painting work.

Professional approach

Right from initial phase, Aapkapainter folks have been very professional in their approach. Understanding painting requirements in detail, providing quotes, suggesting which paint to use for what type of wall, recommending some cost optimization approaches etc, were something I didn’t expect from them. It was a very professional approach in area like home painting, I could clearly differentiate this approach from other vendors with whom I had some initial observations.

Quality in execution

After starting the work, painters showed up properly every day on time, without any major hassles or follow-up. Since we are also living in the same place, they ensured a step-by-step approach by starting the work from one room. Before starting the work they ensured house hold valuables (TV, sofa, fan, wooden/glass cupboards etc…) are well cove

Texture wall
Texture wall

red. None of my family members need to put any effort to move any single item as the painters themselves taken care of it completely. Every day before winding up the day’s work painters ensured cleaning is done in order to ensure living conditions are maintained. The same thing they demonstrated after completing painting work at a particular room by moving back things and setting up in the way they have taken the work before. During the painting they ensured work surface preparation, main-painting and minor corrections were done to the minutest level possible. Check out some main texture work done at my home wall to have a look at their quality of work.

Concerns on safety

As I spend most of the day time at workplace, I was having some initial concerns on my family safety as painters would be working throughout the day in my absence. Aapkapainter folks ensured they sent qualified and proper painters with regular supervision. This ensured here is no safety concern.

What they can do better

This article would remain incomplete if I fail to mention on areas that they can do better. Primarily Aapkapainter has taken an approach to connect consumers to paint services in a vendor independent manner, where their website plays a major role. In that context, their website user-experience can improve. I understand they started off recently, can think of making it much more interactive (ex: Some links are broken in the website). Also some interesting tools (ex: Color comparison, Paint calculator) can be introduced using which users can get a better online experience.

Definitely an area like Home-painting is an unorganized segment. Even though big brands are trying to get it organized, eventually it is up to the local vendor to execute it, where there are definite challenges that need to be met. This also presents a huge opening, which Aapkapainter is trying to address.In summary I got my house re-painting work done in a cost-effective manner with very high quality with zero hassles. I would highly recommend Aapkapainter folks for people who want to get their house-painting work done.

Fallout of Airtel and its customer service

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This seems to be truer in case of Airtel.

I have been Airtel’s loyal customer more than a decade now, ever since I took my mobile phone connection. Few years later I have taken broadband + telephone connection as well. In both cases their customer service was really good, always used to have great experience in every other interaction of support. For example they have surprised me even during a normal phone call, which I wrote in post titled ‘A great customer experience’. However over the years their service quality is consistently taking toll. During 2011, I again wrote a post titled  Irate customer – A lost opportunity, where I called out painful experience I had with Airtel, while resolving some issues related to Jwritings domain.  Over the past two years their service level even gone down, which I heard from many of my friends who have Airtel connections.

My recent experience was awful when I visited them to get my mobile rate plan changed. Even after spending 30 face-to-face minutes with customer service representative he couldn’t even locate which rate plan I am currently using. My objective was to convert my plan into a corporate plan, so that I can bring down my monthly rental as the corporate plan seem to offer more benefits in terms of free minutes. The issue hit the roof when I asked him about my current data plan, when the customer service representative enlightened saying “Sir, till 2 GB data limit, you can download anything from the Internet. However after that limit you can only browse the Internet”. This guy doesn’t know the difference between browsing and downloading from the Internet. I thought I will forget my computer science fundamentals if I continue to stay in their showroom.

Definitely Indian service providers are under tremendous cost pressure due to various issues (Regulatory issues, scandals, ARPU challenges and maintaining healthy top- line etc.) in telecommunication sector. In order to meet these challenges, Airtel looks like subcontracting customer facing services to third party providers who are ruining customer relationships.

Ten types of Innovation – Concluding notes

With article on Bigbasket, the ten part innovation series comes to an end. When I understood the innovation types (created by Doblin) way back in 2011, my idea was to apply it from Indian context and make case studies fitting various types. It took two long years for me to complete this series with decent satisfaction.

Innovation has gone beyond building a particular product or service. By building something different doesn’t guarantee a business success, whereas ensuring customer derives value will. India, unlike some of the developed countries, is in the cusp of transformation where we have both traditional old school thinking and new school of thinking co-existing with each other. This made my inquiry to innovation all the more interesting. As and when I observed some innovative way to serve customers, I started mapping them back to Doblin’s model and came up with this whole series spanning across industries.

Please find URLs to individual posts as follows:

Innovation – Type 10 – Customer experience innovation [Case: Bigbasket]

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

The tenth and final type of innovation is around customer experience, which is all about creating a superior experience to customer’s entry to exit. In India many players attempted to do online grocery store for quite some-time now. It is extremely challenging business in Indian context (logistics, poor roads, unpredictable traffic, varying climate conditions etc…), which Bigbasket is able break by creating very good customer experience around it. I have personally tried and tested this many times, it works all the time with great experience.

Simple and effective User interface

The first thing that impressed me about Bigbasket is their simple and effective user interface. It was very easy to search/navigate for individual grocery items and create an order in a hassle free manner. Every item contains optimal information (neither too less nor too much) with put me into ease. Also when individuals go back for re-ordering, it keeps previous list handy for modification, which saves time for second time. This works very well for monthly grocery ordering.

Prompt alerts

While building an easy to use user interface might look relatively easy, integrating with backend supply chain to meet the promise is super critical. Especially in India, where the probability of providing prompt service is less (due to inherent challenges like infrastructure) providing prompt alerts to customers about the order status creates a lot of trust. In case of Bigbasket I get regular alerts (both in form of email and SMS) about my order status. Just before the final delivery of goods, authentication PIN is provided via SMS, so that both delivery person and customer can be assured about delivery.

Service delivery guarantee

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

After placing order, customers get to choose the time-slot in which they wanted the goods to be delivered. This super critical item (similar to Flipkart’s cash on delivery service) which helps office goers to get goods delivered at a convenient time. Their interface also shows the current booking status and slot availability in order to help customers choose the proper delivery time. From execution point of view, I have always seen they deliver goods on the time promised.

Return policy and wallet

During delivery, in case of item mismatch (ex: quantity) or damage (ex: broken seal), Bigbasket delivery folks take it back without any questions. Upon entering these items in backend (using Mobile application) customers again get immediate notification about when the updated item will be delivered. In case of item return, the money is kept back in a digital wallet which can be adjusted for next purchase.

In summary right from order placing to goods return, Bigbasket has done massive integration and prompt execution of their service. This gives a great end-to-end experience for customers in terms of quality, on-time delivery and reliability.

Innovation – Type 9 – Brand [Case: Decathlon India]

Decathlon
Decathlon

It’s time to catch-up with ten part innovation series. The Ninth type of innovation on Brand is about how offerings are expressed to customer to their benefit. It’s been quite a bit of challenge to identify a right case for this innovation, finally nailed it with Decathlon sports India. Decathlon entered India as a sports goods retailer, primarily catering to high end customers by having closed membership association. This was partly due to their positioning and partly due to retail industry regulations in India. Over a period of time they changed the way their brand is expressed to customers, which has made Decathlon as a popular brand today.

To start with, Decathlon instrumented making their employees as brand ambassadors by hiring sports enthusiasts for specific departments. Say if you are passionate cyclist, then you will be hired and made as cycle department sales person or supervisor. Naturally this makes a huge difference to a customer who walks into the shop to buy a bicycle. Given the pre-existing expertise and passion, naturally the sales person will understand customer needs better and ensure they are suggested with proper options in comparison with the person who don’t know anything about cycles. Added to that these employees are positioned well in their marketing communications, hoardings and future job hire needs.

The store and employee appearance also establishes a unique brand image among customers. Unlike other stores, Decathlon’s real estate size is relatively large in order for customers to try out various sports goods (ex: cycles). However they ensured their internal store arrangement (ex: racks) is very simple with lesser investments in order to optimize cost. One gets ‘no-nonsense-I-get-what-I-want’ feeling by entering any of their stores. Their employee appearance (ex: French beard with trendy hair-style) is also something different that I have observed in comparison with other places.

When Decathlon entered India, it was not open to all retail customers. One needs to get membership in order to shop from them, which got repositioned now. It is not open for all retail customers. By targeting upper-middle customer segment, they are able to establish Decathlon as a synonym for quality with decent pricing. This repositioning and communicating right message also changed the way Decathlon is perceived among common people.

In summary Decathlon changed the sports expression by innovating around their brand – in terms of store design, employee appearance, profile of employees and positioning. Globally they have been existing for more than three decades, but by adapting to some of the local challenges, they are well positioned their brand in sports goods retailing.