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 🙂

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.

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.

Confidence vs Arrogance

Recently I was in conversation with one (relatively younger) colleague (say named A), who is at peak of his career. He is been handling plum assignments, Work activities matching to his strengths, Strong backup from senior leadership for his assignments, Very high visibility with customers – a great combination anybody can ask for. Definitely his hardworking ability and capability matched with this opportunity which has made him a star performer over years. Everybody (including myself) have seen such phase of career, during which individuals demonstrate lot of confidence, positivism and energy. However during the conversation, I found A slowly crossing limit and started behaving in a arrogant manner. He quickly gets into ‘godfather’ mode and start providing unsolicited advice as if he knows everything under the earth. Frankly I didn’t expect this from him. As a higher performing individual, I always thought he is a mature individual, who still has a long way to go in his career. Success (that too when it comes in abundance), starting affecting his behavior now. By looking more closely, he always been an individual contributor working on plum assignments with heavy duty back-up. Any change/issue, he is given necessary power to get it escalated because of which he always got his things done in his own way.

Similarly, some years back I have seen another individual who was in pinnacle of his career (say named B). You name any award he already got it. In fact there were some special award categories were created in order to acknowledge his contributions and results. This individual has organically grown his group from the scratch, because of which he enjoyed enormous amount of ‘organizational currency’ in terms of higher reputation with customers, better command over customer dynamics, deeper understanding of people etc. Faced by same behavioral he ended up rubbing shoulders against individuals, picked up fight with peers and demonstrated as if there is no tomorrow. However due to certain business situation, organizational structure got changed and he was rotated into a different role where he was put into a total new situation in a new business with new team.

As B always grown things organically, it was like ‘fish-out-of-water’ feeling to take up something in between and struggled to gain grounds. As his behavioral issues (like arrogance) has multiplied over years it became impossible for him to adapt to the new situation and demonstrate leadership. Slowly-and-steadily he lost his credibility and became ineffective in the organization. Another job rotation followed, which has made B’s life even miserable. Even today it is very hard for B to come in terms current situation (caused because of multiple changes). Since he has not faced the situation in the past, one small change has literally blown away his career. I am now wondering if the similar situation comes for A, how will he come out? What if he is asked to lead a set of people whom don’t know at all? How well he will be able to manage change? How effectively will he be able to keep his ego under check? How well he will adapt to new situation and perform? How effectively he will be able to handle ‘out-of-limelight’ situation for which he has not used to?

Often there is very thin line between confidence and arrogance, which makes whole lot of difference. Unless individuals are able to manage it well, individuals and their career soon becomes history.

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.

Migrating from Blogger to WordPress

I have been writing blogs over years now, which were spread across multiple places. Last week I have worked on integrating them in one place, mainly importing my older posts from Blogger to WordPress. I have also done some changes in look and feel, by creating fav-icons. Following URLs were really good, helped me with a smoother migration:

BOOK REVIEW: My journey – Transforming dreams into action

Abdul Kalam
Transforming dreams into actions

Author: APJ Abdul Kalam

Price: 195 INR

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!

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.

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.

Technically, hands-on

Often ‘Technically, hands-on’ becomes a critical skill to have no matter the type of role/responsibility an individual is handling in an organization. Bitten by the same bug I thought of making my hands ‘dirty’ by working on some of the older Linux programs I have created. Long time back Yahoo used to offer their Geocities services, where individuals can create their personal websites. There were no automated wizard those days, where I ended up creating HTML pages on my own and uploaded into particular location (provide by Yahoo) by keeping all my older projects in ‘cloud’. Eventually Geocities services was discontinued by Yahoo, luckily a replica maintained by *.ws domain. I was able to retrieve all my old projects and corresponding data from this updated domain. Here is the URL, where I learned my first baby steps about personal website development and writing: http://geocities.ws/b_jayakumar2002

Cut to Linux! I have downloaded two of my older projects which perform the following functionality:

Both programs were written in older version of Kernel (2.4.2) whereas current mainline is running with 3.11. In the mean time the Glibc (GNU C library) also gone thru significant changes, some of the older routines and data types may not work as expected. Since I have been out of programming for years together, I had some initial difficulty to get these programs working. However I was taken by surprise the way open source help system has evolved over years. Let me state my key observations as follows:

  • Thanks to Virtualization, I was able to get a development machine up and running in a matter of 30 minutes using VMware. After trying out multiple distributions (Suse 11, Open Suse 12.3 and Ubuntu 12.04) I decided to go with Open Suse 12.3 as it offered all pre-built libraries. No doubt, Ubuntu offers excellent user interface, suites more to a desktop users than programmers
  • Compiling kernel and booting up new image has become much simple. There are very less manual steps to be followed as some of them (ex: making entry into grub) is created automatically. I still remember how much challenging it was to get kernel 2.4.2 image with lilo loader up and running!
  • There are tons of Linux related documentation, help sites and real-time experience sharing happening which makes getting help much easier. Especially Stackoverflow (http://stackoverflow.com/), TLDP (http://www.tldp.org/) and Linux-cross reference (http://lxr.free-electrons.com/) seem to provide anything ranging from syntax to data structure tracing inside Kernel
  • For any theoretical reference, Slideshare (http://slideshare.net) is having excellent presentations, where I was able to quickly refer back in case any theoretical questions
  • Linux Kernel debugging ecosystem also matured as lot. There are a bunch of diagnostics tools available (I only used strace, printk though), which makes Kernel debugging much easier. Need to explore more on both user and kernel space Linux debugging tools

It was fun to catch-up with programming after a long time. Will share more ,as I explore more into the world of Linux, Kernel and Open source!