Virtual Co-Development Opportunities

When talking about the virtual office or remote working in general we often find ourselves comparing to a physical office and talking about how it is almost as good in a variety of situations. Or highlighting the indirect benefits to the business such as the ability to focus less time commuting, the improved happiness of employees, and lower turnover. These are all great but they are not easy benefits to convey to customers.

There are a few areas where a ‘virtual office’ is better and I previously described how we could be more Agile by being virtual but over the last few months we have discovered that we can solve some really fundamental business objectives for our clients without compromising on any of our values, standards, or profit margin.

Example case study

As an example: we have a client that historically outsourced much of their software needs to third parties, the result for them is a mismatch of tools that do not integrate well and have varying standards of quality. They also have problematic and often costly support models and the overhead of dealing with a myriad different vendors.
As a result they have now adopted a policy of owning and supporting their own tools and bringing back in house the tools that had previously been outsourced.

But this raises a number of issues. There are four issues in particular with this situation that they are seeking to resolve. I see these issues as being common to almost all engagements and all companies when they have identified a need for using an external software consultancy.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth: their IT department has limited capacity, the teams can only do so much and there is a lot of work to do. There are only so many people available to do it and they have a limited spectrum of skills. Conversely the value of the projects to the organisation is vast. However, limitations on hiring, head count and domain knowledge acquisition mean that the cost of delay justifies using a consultancy to bolster the capability.

Cost

Cost: The work could be outsourced and ownership retained if a consultancy firm is employed. After a period of knowledge handover the internal teams could support the software after the project is complete. However, hiring a large team of consultants is expensive, coordination and communication can be difficult. Integration with other tools at the client site is complex – often slow and painful, and knowledge handover is time consuming, all of this is very costly.

Outsourcing to a third party may be difficult from a budgeting perspective. Bespoke software projects are notoriously difficult to assess scope and cost and it is not unusually for projects to exceed initial estimates.

Knowledge

Knowledge/Expertise: The internal teams may not have the knowledge and experience necessary to do all of the work, especially in specialist areas like mobile application support and so it is often necessary to hire experts and then transfer knowledge to internal employees. Knowledge handover is time consuming and when done at the end of a project is often incomplete or doesn’t fully sink in. Risking later failures or expense.

Trust

Trust – Generally software is pretty opaque and so when there are problems or delays or unexpected work, or tasks that are more complex than anticipated clients are naturally anxious as it is hard to tell the difference between genuine problems or mismanagement. Trust is often unspoken and hard to rationalize, particularly when you are paying large sums of money for what is often a black box. It can sometimes seem like writing a blank cheque and hoping. Much of this is the nebulous nature of software and the every changing environment but when you are paying the bills this is a hard pill to swallow.

Co-Development

One of our common offerings is co-development this will generally resolve some of these problems.

Bandwidth: We can offer a co-development setup where we intermingle part of the client’s development team with our smaller team and work together on a project essentially half a team each. This is a great solution for this situation, the client retains ownership of the software, they are already working in the client’s IT environment with their employees, so integrating with other systems and teams is easier. Because the client is not committing a full team to the activity their bandwidth is maximized, they could essentially double their capability if they split all of their teams this way.

Knowledge: This method enables the consultancy to supply the expertise and the client to supply the domain knowledge. Knowledge is transferred throughout the project with no need for a clumsy handover period at the end. Knowledge gained by doing the work is far more valuable and reusable. It also shares knowledge of practices and processes in addition to the knowledge of the software.

Trust: By using a co-development effort it becomes a partnership, your team is part of the solution so you have much more insight into the situation so much more confidence in what is being reported. If there is a problem that is more complex than anticipated your own employees are engaged and able to offer transparent and unfiltered insight into the situation giving you far greater trust and awareness. As your team are part of the decisions there is less second guessing and more accepting that the decision made was the best with the information we had at the time. This is not a substitute for good planning and good management but it removes the nagging uncertainty when using a third party.

Cost: The main problem with this model is that unless the client is very close this becomes expensive and inconvenient. The development team needs to be prepared to work away from home for extended periods, there is a lot of lost time for travel. Generally speaking people do not enjoy working away for long periods and of course the client now has travel and accommodation costs on top of consultancy rates, making the service very expensive.

We essentially solved three of the problems but made the cost problem worse and added the complication of inconvenience to the employees. It limits this solution to those where cost is less of an issue or those local to the consultancy.

  • + Bandwidth:
  • – Cost & Inconvenience
  • + Knowledge
  • + Trust

Virtual Co-Development

Virtual co-development enables us to solve all of these problems. A Virtual co-development model brings all of the benefits of co-development listed above but by the virtue of being virtual there are no travel or accommodation costs, there is no time spent travelling. This cuts out a significant chunk of the cost with very little in the way of consequence.

The virtual nature also makes the team more accessible to the client and the home office, it essentially brings everyone closer.

Shifting to work virtually does come with a slight adjustment period and there are a few technical hurdles to be able to share screens and get access to client’s software environment but these are fairly trivial and common problems and access to a a VPN will resolve this generally and as most companies are already prepared for employees working remotely some of the time it is rarely a complicated request.

  • + Bandwidth
  • + Cost
  • + Knowledge
  • + Trust

Magic Bullet?

It is rare to be able to offer a solution that seemingly ticks all the boxes but this seems to me to be one of those rare opportunities where we are able to offer a better service for less cost, with less complications and without compromising profit margins, it really is a win-win situation.

The partnership style of this also reduces complications over scope and budget, it can be more easily budgeted for. By the partnership nature of the work budgets for the outsourced elements can be very accurate as they can be for a fixed duration – rather than arbitrary scope set before the product is fully understood or nebulous outcomes. There is no risk of being forced to extend because of incomplete work or scope change. The ongoing partnership means that the internal team can continue at any time with little or no hand-off. It becomes a much more clean and simple contract.

This model won’t suit everyone and is not ideal for all clients but for those with similar needs to the client above I feel this is a golden opportunity and one where being a virtual team is a clear and distinct advantage.

First, do no harm.

Medical students are taught early to carefully consider the possible impact of their actions, this often translates to a bias towards inaction. A paradox when many of us consider them as being ‘fixers’.

“Given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.”
This reminds physicians to consider the possible harm that any intervention might do.

The rationale behind this is that the human body is a marvelous piece of engineering and has an astonishing capacity for self-healing. A staggeringly high proportion of injuries, ailments and afflictions will simply fix themselves if we do nothing, and almost all remedies come with some risk of side-effects or unknown complications.

Which is why a doctor will often advise rest of some description, or suggest that you monitor and come back in a week. Or they will prescribe a low dose of a low risk remedy to buy time for you to heal, this gives you confidence they have acted and the time for you to heal.

Physicians are therefore faced with the certain knowledge that doing nothing will in most cases result in the problem resolving itself and the certain knowledge that any remedy bears some risk of harm. And yet their chosen profession is to help, they chose the profession because they are motivated to ‘act’ to help people. Helping by inaction is excruciatingly difficult for people with a desire or bias to act, their desire to act very often overrides their desire to help. This is compounded by patients that expect action even when no action would be better.

For a physician the real skill is the ability to evaluate which situations from the multitude presented truly require intervention and then diagnosing the correct intervention.

Management

A similar phenomenon occurs in management. As an organisation typically we structure teams to be largely autonomous (or have delegated authority), we hire individuals who are capable of getting the job done without regular interference from management.

The rationale behind this is that a human body self-organizing team is a marvelous piece of engineering and has an astonishing capacity for self-healing improvement. A staggeringly high proportion of injuries, ailments and afflictions problems the team will simply fix themselves if we do nothing, and almost all remedies interventions come with some risk of side-effects or unknown complications.

So our starting position should be non-interference, if you hired the right people and they are structured effectively they should be able to resolve most situations themselves. Intervention should be an abnormal action not your go to response.

The problem is that we are humans: managers generally become managers because they have a bias for action and because they care (either about the people or the work or both). They also suffer the most horrible of curses, they are curious.

When an employee comes to you with a problem or you observe something that sparks an interest we as curious fixers have an overwhelming urge to jump in. We want the details, we want to help, whilst the person is describing the problem we are evaluating and preparing a response, an intervention of some kind. We are so interested in a situation we forget to ask whether it is in the interest of the individual or team for us to be involved.
We forget that we lack the same level of information, or context or situational awareness. We substitute this for our experience and opinion. Don’t get me wrong we hire managers for their experience and opinion, but like any tool it must be used judiciously.

I see this happen over and over, especially in a matrix organisation, a variety of managers become aware of a problem, often trivial and want to ‘help’ but the reality is that the responsible party – either the team or the responsible leader is already capable of resolving the issue and is already acting, but now they must also to respond to your advice, they must keep you informed and as the situation escalates the number of people to inform and respond to grow and becomes a problem of it’s own. The lack of context may often result in bad advice that the team feels compelled to follow because of the assumed authority of the manager giving the advice.

Æthelred the Unræd
This chap is Ethelred the Unready, king of the English (Not England), the poor man has gone through history with this title. But in this context Unready is somewhat unfair pseudonym for him. The Anglo-Saxon noun unræd means "bad advice" or possibly "evil-council" it is not a reflection of him being unprepared. He was badly advised, he came to the throne at 12 and suffered from interference from his political advisers.   The bad advice he received has led to a reputation for over 1000 years.   

The true gift of a leader/manager is the ability to listen and evaluate when it is beneficial to act and when it is better to let the situation resolve itself in an acceptable fashion. And that there is the stumbling block suffered by many inexperienced managers, they see a situation and possibly even a potential solution and they ‘know’ they could handle the situation better. They would handle it differently and want to step in. This inability to delegate and to trust others is the hardest part of management and the part where most fail.

Just like physicians, the true skill of a manger is knowing when to intervene and the strength of character to sit on the sidelines and watch when your intervention would be unnecessary.

Agile and self organized/self managed teams

So what does this have to do with Agile Coaching? First you could very easily replace the word Manager with Coach in the last section and heed that advice. Teams in most situations could and should be able to resolve situations themselves. However, I am going to take a slightly controversial stance on this and suggest that in Agile communities we have taken that advice a little too far.

In many ways Agile has created a community that shuns medicine. We have heard that 95% of health issues resolve themselves and we have interpreted this as a belief that physicians are therefore completely unnecessary. Not only unnecessary but should be chased from the land with pitch forks. In essence we have become zealously anti-management.

I have been in a number of agile workshops where we assess the role of a manager and conclude that most of the responsibilities of a manager can and possibly should be performed by the team. #NoManagers This is a really great exercise and is very empowering for the team and will generally give them the confidence to step up and take ownership. The downside is that whilst in theory the responsibilities of managers can be delegated to the team it is not always possible to delegate big picture awareness, experience and capability. These tend to get dropped on the floor as they are only valuable when things go wrong.

Even Scrum Masters seem to be being shunned now in favour of more remote Agile Coaches or in many cases the belief that because SOME teams are capable of autonomy and have the necessary experience and understanding of Agile that they can function without support, that this somehow translates to ALL teams should function without ANY support. Companies will abandon Coaches, Scrum Masters or leaders of any kind and expect even relatively junior teams to make effective decisions.

In those 5% of cases where the team hits a situation they cannot handle they are by definition lacking the knowledge or experience or support needed to resolve it. We have moved from a situation of too much unnecessary intervention to a totally hands-off situation where teams are left to flounder, with no one willing or able to intervene. In some cases those that do step-in to assist are challenged as being anti-agile for undermining the team’s independence.

One of the key elements of a management or support role is the natural distance from the team, the ability to distance oneself and see the bigger picture, something that a team member can rarely do.

As an example I recently worked with a very capable and experienced team, they were working hard and getting the job done. The problem was they were not delivering value by the customer’s standards (not overtly articulated by the customer). Through a variety of small and seemingly insignificant events the situation had evolved. Early on there were some obstacles relating to a production environment that at the time and with the information available the team chose to postpone, choosing to remain productive(busy), later more obstacles arose and again the team didn’t want to slow down so chose a path that enabled greater utilization(rather than value delivery). The result was a very happy and busy team, they were getting a lot of work done. The team was unaware there was a problem until the customer grew frustrated at the perceived lack of value being delivered. The team would have eventually resolved this issue but the cost to the customer would have been considerable.

The Quest for Balance

This is a typical tale of a team optimizing for itself, there needs to be someone with an eye on the bigger picture and an emphasis on the entire system. It is hard to assume that every team has this, when it is a rare skill. Of all the responsibilities of a traditional manager this is the hardest for a team to replicate. The ability to see the system is the primary reason we hire managers/coaches/delivery leads/product owners/project managers, in my opinion the key skill to look for in those roles is the ability to visualise the big picture and to know when to act on this knowledge.

This is not a claim that teams cannot self organize or that managers are necessary in all cases. This is a request for balance and awareness of the bigger picture. Previously I talked about the greatest skill of a physician or a manager being the ability to discern when to act and having the strength of character to do nothing when it is unnecessary. The flip-side is true for teams, you cannot handle every situation without support, the ability to know your limitations and when to ask for help is a significant skill and highly underrated. But equally the willingness to listen to advice from those with a better view of the entire system is also crucial.

Yes the team might be able to resolve a situation eventually, but at what cost and who is footing the bill? The cost here is one of those ‘Big Picture’ areas that is often underrated by those who are abstracted from that. Self-organization is very powerful, but understanding when a problem is one that should be left for a team to resolve and when someone with a better understanding of the big picture should step in, is one of the hardest questions to answer.

Generally I like to believe inaction is best, trust that we have hired the best people and that we have set them up for success. But also being aware that self-organization is not a silver bullet and it comes with a cost that may not be appropriate to pay in all situations. Learning is costly and we do not learn from all failures. Having people prepared and skilled enough to act is crucial, knowing when to act comes with experience and not acting requires a huge amount of self-discipline.

By nature I am insatiably curious, I have an opinion on everything and I have a strong bias for action. Of all things not intervening is one of my personal challenges. This post is as much a letter to myself as anything else. It is a reminder to trust and to observe rather than prematurely act.

Advice on splitting stories

One of the most common reasons we reject people interviewing for coaching or product ownership related roles is an inability to grasp the purpose and value in splitting stories effectively, especially lacking an understanding of vertical slicing.

This is also a commonly requested topic for me at the meetup or speaking engagements. Yet it is a topic I have struggled to effectively explain. The conversation often ends up as a narrow technical example on certain techniques, or difficult stories or becomes too abstract for people to apply. In short it is a large and complex topic.

But this video sums up the notion of story splitting and in particular vertical slicing and the ‘why’ behind the method so perfectly that I felt I had to share it.

“Successful problem solving requires finding the right solution to the right problem. We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.”

Russell Ackoff

Dr Ackoff sums up the issue with the analogy of the parts of a car, if you assess the purpose of a car to get you to a destination then an engine alone is worthless, even the best designed and most efficient engine cannot get you to your destination. Until it is connected to the minimal set of features to achieve the user’s purpose it is useless and remains useless.

Building any feature that does not work end to end adds no value, and building any feature that does not support the purpose of the user also adds no value. But more crucially it is often the interaction between layers or between components that is the most complex aspect of any development, be it a car or software. and the notion that we can build an engine, and a gearbox and fit them together later and expect them to work seamlessly is laughable. But I hear it all the time in software design.

A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system.

W. Edwards Deming

We’ll build the database first then add the other layers, or we’ll work on an API layer 3-6 months in advance of the front end. It is as if we assume that the integration is the easy bit and worse is the assumption that we have anticipated every need of the user (and omitted everything they don’t need) before we design and build the interface, and before we ask for any feedback. And yet as software designers; planners; and project managers we repeat this error over and over, never learning from the pain of not using vertical slicing for splitting stories.

I believe our fundamental attribution error is the focus on the blocks of functionality (the components of the car) rather than the interactions, and rather than focusing on the purpose of the tool and user feedback we plan for efficiency of the workforce. The result is an optimized workforce and an inefficient workflow. We create a sub-par product that has efficient working components but do not effectively work together, and generally this results turf wars over interfaces that do not match the use cases and last ditch efforts to fit square pegs in round holes.

We can learn so much from Dr Ackoff, software alone is not the system, software is a tool, it becomes a system only when it is in use. The only way we can know if the software is efficient is by putting working software in front of a user and for them to use it and give feedback. So the only good way to split a story is in such a way that you are able to get feedback from the user that helps shape the design or to assist in making decisions.

If a story cannot lead to feedback or use, then it has no value, it becomes inventory or work in progress, it is a liability rather than an asset. That Database or API layer that is built with nothing utilizing it is not benefiting you, it is waste, it is an over engineered liability and the pain comes when you integrate it with other components. This extends to unused data fields or unused end points, “we know we will need them later” is a poor excuse for creating additional WiP (work in progress).

Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival

W. Edwards Deming

We as Agile practitioners can learn so much from Dr Deming and Dr Ackoff we are building systems, and the development process itself is a system, if we applied a little more systems thinking I believe we could be far more effective.

But as Deming said “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival ”

Brexit: manipulation or inspiration?

I recently saw an article where someone said that all leadership, sales and politics can be simplified to just two types of influencing motivations. Inspiration or Manipulation. Essentially you can be stimulated to act or you can be persuaded to act. (Push or Pull)

Manipulation

The manipulation aspect is fairly easy to understand. In leadership this can be reward or compensation, authority or threats. In sales this can be price incentives, offers, fear of missing out or fear of consequences of not having it. Politics is often the same, you will get ‘x’ reward – direct or indirect, or the other guy is worse he will take away ‘y’. We see it all the time it is part of our culture: reward; fear; peer pressure; even bullying; it is rational although not always obvious.

Inspiration

Inspiration is far harder. One person says I believe in ‘x’ and if you do too then you may be inspired to follow them, vote for them or buy from them. A great example would be green companies, we are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products or animal humane products because we are inspired by their values.
The problem with inspiration is that you limit your supporters to those that believe in the same things as you. For sales and politics this is not a great policy as it cuts down your target audience considerably. The benefit is that if someone shares your beliefs they are a powerful voice they are harder to manipulate and more resilient and enthusiastic about your cause.

Inspiring Leaders

By all accounts Steve Jobs was not likable but he was inspiring to his employees and his customers. The same is true for many inspiring leaders even the unpleasant ones. You don’t have to be a nice guy to inspire people you just need to be open about what you believe, to be clear why, and to stay true to your beliefs. Those that share your thinking will support you.

Painful Example

To give you an example of this in action let me talk about Brexit for a little while. Brexit is a difficult and complex topic, I am not an expert and am likely to oversimplify the situation so please don’t be offended. Although I am British I live in the USA and lived here during the referendum so did not get to vote. But I have family that lives in France and everybody British regardless of where they live feels the impact of this decision directly or indirectly. It has been an anxious time for all of us, and it is not over yet!

Background:

The UK joined the EEC in 1973, it was presented to the people as a trading union, over the next 45 years it turned into a confederation and now has an open desire to become a federation.
I think it is fair to say that most people in the UK did not know they had signed up for this, and felt that it has evolved without our consent. There is also a sense that we (the UK) have very little influence in the EU.
The decisions by the EU were often in alignment with our thinking and beneficial to us, or did not impact sufficiently to trigger an extreme reaction. There were a few notable exceptions like the Euro and fishing rights, but mostly the EU could be ignored, that is until it became apparent to the masses just how much power had been ceded to the EU.

The referendum was simply a choice: do you want the UK to remain a member of the EU or to leave the EU?

The EU has a mandate for an “Ever closer union” it is currently essentially a confederation of states, with a long term goal to become a federation of states. Ultimately a United States of Europe.
Currently the member states have ceded power for currency and monetary policy, trade agreements, fishing, agriculture, borders, migration and law in too many areas to list here. The longer term the expectation is a European army (including nuclear deterrent), central taxation, and further power. shifted away from individual states to the EU. To Remain is to support the move to becoming a United States of Europe.

To Leave would mean returning the ceded power to the UK and losing the benefits of membership, and likely exclusion from the EU in the future.

The arguments:

Those voting Remain claim that we have benefited from membership and will continue to benefit from trade and free movement, and that EU policy is broadly in alignment with our views so ceding the power to the EU is not an issue as we broadly agree with the decisions and laws created so far.

Those opposed (voting Leave) have quite a large and diverse number of objections to the EU but the majority seem to focus on the issue that the European Commission – the body that creates and proposes laws and legislation – is appointed and not elected, and that they are not transparent. We ‘the people’ have no influence in the laws proposed or in the appointment of the law makers. For a country with a strong democratic history this is a big issue for many. The UK has almost no influence direct or indirect on the EU, we are passengers along for the ride.
And to really set people off, the leader of this group Jean-Claude Juncker is on record for saying : “When it becomes serious, lie to them” and that in relation to a French referendum: if they vote Yes he will act and if they vote No, he will ignore them and continue anyway.

“When it becomes serious, lie to them”

Jean-Claude Juncker

The vote

Interestingly looking at the two arguments it appears that the Remain have the Inspirational goal and the Leave are based on manipulation and fear.

But the campaign changed that drastically. The Prime Minister David Cameron had the support of his cabinet, the support of the leaders from all the major parties, support of the mainstream media (apart from a few loonie papers), it had uncharacteristically overt bias from the BBC in support of the EU, not to mention celebrity endorsements all over the place. All the PM had to worry about were a few dissenting voices in his own party and UKIP – a fringe party that struggled to get a seat in parliament. He felt the referendum would be a slam dunk. In any other situation he could quite reasonably expect a huge landslide with the way the deck was stacked in his favour.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is voting.png

The Leave campaign was led by a less then credible man that had the aura of a very dubious used-car salesman. I think at the start of the campaign most people felt that the outcome was a foregone conclusion and the vote was simply an opportunity to warn the EU that we are not to be taken for granted and we would like our voices heard in the future.

The primary Remain campaign strategy was “Name calling”

Watching the campaign unfold was shocking to me. The Remain campaign rather than talking up the benefits of the EU or the inspirational goal of the EU, they decided to make their primary campaign strategy to call Leavers names.
Almost the entire Remain campaign seemed to be centered around the claim that if you vote Leave you must be a racist bigot.
Rather than choosing to inspire or even discuss reasonably, Remain were so confident of victory they chose to belittle those that didn’t agree with them. Unsurprisingly those voters with reasonable concerns felt ignored and insulted. They felt manipulated and pressured and that their only voice left was a vote in a secret ballot box.

Leave perhaps in response to the arrogance of the Remain strategy took on a much more inspirational campaign, they talked about “taking control of our destiny”, “taking back our borders”, “making our own trading agreements”, “making our own laws” All this was about independence and autonomy, an inspirational call to arms. It played on out dated notions of empire and sovereignty and in many cases was meaningless rhetoric but it nevertheless inspired the voters.

The Leave campaign certainly had a fair share of manipulation with claims (many questionable) about money not going to the NHS and the waste of funds in the EU, crazy expenses of EU politicians, and there was certainly a vocal minority that wanted to block immigration. But this was all secondary to the notion of independence and autonomy.

In contrast the Remain had similar wild and questionable claims, but I hardly ever heard anyone in the Remain campaign say anything positive about the EU for the UK. It was all just negativity about those voting Leave. Or edge-case examples of how very small groups of people would be worse off. There was nothing inspiring in the campaign nothing to feel good about.

There is an old adage that when you insult the person rather than the policy you have lost the argument, and I think that is what has happened.

When you insult the person rather than the policy you have lost the argument.

Even in the aftermath of the vote, the Remain voters talk about how Brexit will hurt them personally or someone they know, or the near-term disruption to the markets and trade, or the retaliation we should expect from the EU. For people inspired to independence and autonomy, the obstacles, disruption and short-term issues will not change their mind, they have an inspirational long-term vision (that may very well be flawed) but it can’t be countered by complaining about the impact to individuals. They believe in a better future or at least one in which they have some control. Threats of retaliation by the EU just further reinforce the view that they were right to vote leave. I hear a lot of people that were on the fence during the vote but seeing the EU’s attitude since the vote they are now far more against the EU than before.

In my opinion, If you want to counter the Leave vote you need to inspire people to stay, and from what I can see no one has tried. You need to shout from the roof tops why the EU is good for the future and how you and the EU will listen and address their concerns.

Outcome

The result was a clear and surprising victory for the Leave campaign, the leaders were surprised and confused they had no expectation of winning. and Remain had no plan for what to do if they lost. The country is now confused and lacking direction, the losers are in power trying to achieve something they opposed. People we know and care about are in a situation of confusion and uncertainty. Who knows whether things will be better in the long-run we will have to wait and see.

I think it is a rather extreme example of the power of inspiration and the inherent weakness of manipulation. Threats and promises don’t work if a person can be inspired.

In my opinion the Leave campaign did not win, the Remain campaign went all out to lose. When you openly insult your electorate it is hardly surprising that they rebel against you.

The Lesson

For those in a position of leadership it should be an eye-opener to the power of inspiration. State your intent, your vision and those that share it will be fierce supporters. But if you choose to lead through manipulation, your hold on your followers only lasts until someone makes them a better offer.

We all want to be inspired, we all want to share a vision and work towards it but all too often our leaders don’t share their thinking or in some cases believe we can be manipulated, or worse need to be manipulated, the result is that we become what they believe, we react to how they treat us.

We want leaders that inspire us (and I don’t mean political opportunism) but genuinely tell us what they believe and the “Why” behind their actions and decisions. We want to support these leaders because we believe in the same thing.

Unfortunately inspiration alone is insufficient, you also need a plan. Brexit is now a mess, there was inspiration for the vote but no plan for what to do when they won.

The absence of a plan is disastrous:

Vision without action is a daydream, Action without vision is a nightmare.

Proverb.

Right now Brexit looks like a daydream and for many Remain looks like a non-democratic nightmare. Whatever the outcome we are losers.

Note:

It is always tricky using politics as an example but I have tried to be impartial. This is not meant to be a debate on the politics. I just want to highlight the contrast in impact when you inspire rather than manipulate. If you would like to comment could you comment on the this rather than Brexit, there are plenty of forums for that.

Are you pulling your weight?

A question I have been hearing a lot lately is how do you know whether an employee is putting in their hours, or not slacking off. This question seems to be particularly concerning for people in the context of working from home where the perception is that it is more prevalent.

The irony here of course is that being in the office is no measure of not slacking off, there have been many books written about different ways you can slack off whilst appearing to be busy.

I have heard tales of the productive worker that works hard all day long only later to discover they were working on a side project or even for a second employer. Long lunches, toilet breaks, extended coffee breaks, fake meetings, or just browsing the internet or discretely playing games on your mobile phone. Physical presence in an office is not an effective measure of whether you are slacking off.

The average American worker admits to wasting 2.09 hours a day, excluding lunch, according to 10,044 self-selected respondents in a survey released by America Online and Salary.com.

What does it mean to Pull your own weight?

Let’s take a little aside and explore the phrase “pulling your own weight” there are a few suggested origins of the phrase but the one I like best relates to the English Long-bowman, to be considered an ‘archer’ you had to be able to “pull your own weight” Longbows had a draw of up to 180 Lbs. You really did have to pull your own body weight.
An experienced archer could fire 12 aimed shots in a minute at ranges of 200-300 yards, although in battle they were expected to fire at a slower ‘sustainable pace’ of 6 aimed shots per minute. For context a modern bow draws at around 40 Lbs for women and 60 Lb for men.

In a modern terms we usually mean contributing proportionate to your role. We tend to think in terms of productivity and output. Despite this we often tend to focus on hours spent – hence the rise of slacking off at work, even though we can easily slack off time without being noticed, but it is far harder to slack off output or deny outcomes.

So how do you know whether your employees are working?

Personally I think that is the wrong question. When you explore deeper you discover that the employee surveys on why people slack off are far more interesting than the ways which they slack off.
Many described being bored as the primary reason, others felt that their job was easy. So it seems to be a question of engagement.

I suspect in other cases it is that you have hired the wrong people and better filtering at hiring would result in a more motivated workforce. Ironically when you have a motivated workforce getting them to take a break becomes more of a challenge.

So I guess what I am saying is that if you are a leader that is worried about whether your staff are working, then the issue is far more likely to be with you than it is with them.

  • Hire the right people. (Hungry Humble, Smart)*
  • Be clear what is expected of them.
  • Help them understand why it is important – and who benefits from their work.
  • Be interested in them as individuals.

Interestingly all of those actions fall to the leader rather than the employee.

If you follow these steps then I suspect that you won’t need to worry whether they are pulling their weight, you will be too busy trying to keep up with what they can achieve.

Where does the responsibility lay

If your employees are slacking off then it is a failure on the part of the leader not the employee. So when you hear someone ask how they can tell if an employee is doing their hours and not slacking off. Ask them if they have hired motivated people they can trust? Have they given clear objectives and set expectations? Do their employees understand the context and purpose of their role? Do you value them and do they know it?

If and when you do see someone slacking in a damaging way, take a look and see if the route cause is one of these 4 issues, you’d be surprised how often it is one of them.

What I am confident of though is that any efforts to monitor time in the office (or home) – such as time clocks, pressure sensors on seats, keystroke monitors, swipe cards on toilets, or a foreman to watch people – and of course a foreman for the foreman – obviously you need someone to watch the watchers. All will have minimal impact on people slacking but will have deeply damaging impact to productivity.

*Taken from The Ideal Team Player, by Patrick Lencioni

A 3-pipe problem

Sherlock Holmes was a master of deductive reasoning and problem solving, rarely was a problem beyond his capability. However, every once in a while he encountered problems that required a greater level of consideration, it would stretch his mind to it’s limits and required him not to be disturbed for an extended period, he described these as 3-pipe problems, he would need the time it took for him to smoke three pipes.

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I am no Holmes but I have the joy of a 3-pipe problem to immerse myself in. I have been asked to lead an endeavour to create, build and run a virtual office comprising of cross-functional teams that create software. The challenge is to grow an office but maintain agility, retain our company culture, and have the teams happy and engaged. Oh and be profitable too.

Where I have seen remote work successful in the past has been where there were clear tasks assigned and collaboration was a minor element of the work. My observations of many remote workplaces is that they focus on individual contributions, collaboration is asynchronous and there is a heavy overhead of management assigning tasks.

What I am envisioning is a workplace where the team is self organised, and whilst there is likely an increased element of asynchronous working it will be alongside effective collaboration. I see my role as identifying healthy boundaries that enable collaboration and creativity.

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Communication

Naturally communication is key, just as it is in brick and mortar offices, but when we are face to face we have a lifetime of skills to rely on. Instinctive awareness of body language, sensing mood and tone, not to mention touch – hand shakes and physical contact create bonds we don’t fully understand.

Remote teams communicating effectively is far more complex than simply joining a webex. I see the ability to communicate and collaborate as the number 1 challenge of this role.

Why this?

As an agile coach I strongly support the Agile manifesto (alongside Lean, ToC, and Lean Startup) and the manifesto favours individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It also advocates face to face communication. And yet I am taking on a role that is putting barriers between people and pretty soon I’ll be talking about how processes tools are vital for enhancing individuals in their interactions.

So why take on a job that seemingly flies in the face of this? The answer is twofold, First I believe the manifesto is a mindset for guiding teams in improving their way of working to get better at delivering software. I believe we can adhere to that mindset in this environment, I don’t see a conflict. Secondly I think that the focus and scope of the manifesto didn’t consider the larger picture and the changing state of the workers needs. Face to face is better – no argument from me, but it comes at a cost. We need to weigh up what is lost and what is gained from remote working and decide if what we gain is worth the sacrifice and I think with the right attitude, training and tools the desired outcome of effective collaboration can still be achieved and achieved in a way that is better for many team members.

What is more, I think this will be one of the most challenging coaching roles I have faced. Just like teams, coaching is far more effective face to face. The coaching may take on a different dynamic but I still very much see this as a coaching role.

Processes and Tools.

I warned you! To have effective communication and collaboration in a virtual workplace processes and tools are vital ,and are a prerequisite to the individuals and their interactions. But I don’t see a conflict here, in face to face communication there are processes and tools, we just don’t feel the need to mention them as they are natural to us.

Don’t shout, don’t mumble, don’t interrupt, pay attention, look at the speaker, be respectful. Lots of processes and a lot of non-verbal communication. And just watch for hand gestures or pens on post-it’s or whiteboards these are all tools, we hardly consider them that way and we certainly wouldn’t object to any of those processes or tools, they are necessary for our interactions.

In a virtual world the need is the same but the tools are different, tone of voice and body language are harder to decipher, so we need to be more attentive and more explicit. pen and paper are replaced with online collaboration tools, shared screens, electronic gestures and Slack messages to clarify misunderstandings.

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The scope of the task is daunting but I so excited about this. My employer is already a leader in Agile software delivery, this is the chance to demonstrate that we can be agile about flexible work environments without sacrificing what has made us successful: collaboration and self-organization.

This blog will continue to be Agile focused but I’ll also share some of the experiments as we discover what works for us.