Change Leadership

There was a recent post on the Agile Uprising Coalition by @bradstokes about a scenario where a team had lost all sense of safety.  They were motioning through the daily tasks, but innovation, autonomy and excellence appear to be missing.  When I crafted my reply to Brad, I was thinking from an outside perspective on how an influencer may help to correct the patterns of instability.  My reply was a bit artificial, since I am not sure there is an acknowledgement that the leadership tier see this culture as an issue, that there is someone interested in taking this large responsibility head on and that the team itself is willing to believe in an improvement initiative.

Speaking Typing to Brad, I started to reflect on my prior team.  We were in a tragically similar space about 3 years ago.  The team was working and engaged to each other, but faced external pressures that created a sense of distance from the corporate values and strategy.  They were chronically late on commitments, delivering less functionality than was expected (which was often discovered very late in the process) and did not deliver the quality of software they were capable.  The team was good, they had just learned a battery of bad behaviors and lost the fire that drives your larger group towards excellence.

I was asked to come onto this team and guide them through a transformation journey and learn that it was ok to be awesome.. You may think there was a large amount of effort on coaching the team, which there was, but there was also an equal amount of effort coaching those that influenced the team.  Some leadership, stakeholders, technology peers, the governance teams, the list goes on.  Optimizing silos is an anti-pattern taught in lean theory, we should focus on the entire system.

In a blame-centric culture, teams are targeted as the root of under-performance. Teams are asked to “shape up, or ship out” with a dictatorial tone. As if digital products were akin to assembly line manufacturing. Often, the blame placed on teams is inverted, and the leadership team needs to improve the EQ to first ask “what have I done to enable this?”. In a modern organization, where excellence is built-in, delivery is a shared outcome. A cross-section of all parts of the value stream collectively win or lose based on delivery.

Some basic tactics to enable positive outcomes tend to be:

  • Define value in your organization. Is it revenue? Is it an attrition metric? Is it something else?. What is your primary source of value? This sounds simple, but if you have never had the discussion with various people in the organization, I imagine you will learn a bit.
  • What is your value stream? Map it.  Does your value stream change?  Map that to.  Focus on which value stream you want to start improving.  Set metrics, assumptions and hypotheses prior to improving.
  • Establish working agreements. I like to have no more than five agreements per team so that there is an expressed focus on living up to the agreements.  Too many will muddy the water.  The agreements should be defined by the team, stretch goals but achievable, and regularly reviewed.  When one agreement is regularly achieved the team should remove it and select a new aspiration to take on.
  • Reflect regularly. Waste is the antithesis of value.  Look at yourself and your team, ask “What waste can we impact positively?  What waste have we created?”.  Micro-reflections happen many times a day, but more ceremonial reflections are important too.  A time for the collective team to share reflection on how to improve, and taking on new experiments to iterate on for waste reduction.
  • Visualize and vocalize learning. Learning is not just positive outcomes.  Celebrate the negative outcomes to embrace the idea of foregone waste.  IF that bad code went into production, we would have waste in the form of tech debt, failing tests, displeased customers, etc.  Learn to love the failures from this stance.
  • Make safety a prerequisite. Taken from Modern Agile, this is the pillar of high performing teams.  Early in an improvement change, this is harder to do when there are months or years of learned behavior to impact.  Leadership setting the safety example early is crucial.  When something does not go to plan, blame the plan – not the team.  If a failure occurs, celebrate it as a learning from on top.  Exhibit the empathy and culture we want to see within our teams.  Hearing that story of an employee that was unable to define what their role was to Steve Jobs resulting in him being fired is a reminder that the tail should not wag the dog.
  • Go to the gemba. If there are delivery issues, sit with the delivery team. If there are market issues, engage your market.  And if there are process issues, look to your value stream.  I have been in some beautiful offices in my life.  One CXO from a previous life had a balcony that attached to his office and he would regularly be seen smoking a cigar from that balcony.  It was glorious.  But nothing good happens in four closed in walls.  You spent your entire career getting into that office, now spend the rest of your career rarely in there to learn how the work is really happening.

Change is not easy. Nor is leadership. Being a shepherd of change leadership is both difficult and rewarding.  In spite of the bullets above, there is no formula to successfully bring about a culture turnaround. There is only observation, measurement, and response.