Building on the foundations of Joy

I have recently finished reading the book Joy Inc. by Richard Sheridan which is the story of a small software company that has been successful, most notably as being a great place to work. The CEO had come from a an extremely successful start to his career, he had been promoted up the greasy pole to VP of software for an established firm and he had become wealthy in the process. By most conventional accounts he was a success, but he wasn’t happy.  He made a decision to change his work environment with a focus on creating a place that made him happy to come to work. This single minded goal eventually led to the forming of a software company – Menlo – with him as CEO where he could create a place of work that brought him ‘Joy’.

For those familiar with the work of Ayn Rand, I found a great many correlations between Richard Sheridan and Howard Roarke from ‘The Fountainhead’.  Rich Sheridan had a very single minded vision and he chose the path his company would take without compromising on his views. The book portrays how he set the direction and imposed his plan of how things should be done, resulting in a company that has adopted many of the XP practices described by Kent Beck.  The business has been successful and the workers are happy, Pair Programming, short iterations, innovative software solutions and a focus on quality.  The workplace includes dogs and babies and sound like a fun environment. In many respects at first appearance this is a model that we could learn a lot from.

Rich Sheridan has demonstrated the effectiveness of using Agile Practices and that success doesn’t require death marches and unrealistic expectations. Rich has shown one way it can be done, and there is a lot to admire in how he has achieved it. There is certainly a lot to learn and I think there are a great many aspects of what he has done at Menlo that could be used as the foundations of creating a great company.

I don’t build in order to have clients, I have clients in order to build…

Ayn Rand

However, much as I admire Rich and see him as a modern day Howard Roark, it is because of that comparison that I also have a number of reservations.  Rich himself refers to the book “Good to Great” and he acknowledges that he is not a Level 5 leader, this was an assessment I shared whilst reading the book. All his decisions were about creating Joy for himself, but there were dozens of examples in the book of absolutes, where his vision may not be compromised. I got the impression that he made all the decisions, he decided a process and it must be followed, if someone wanted something – such as the wonderful example of babies in the office – they asked him. The decision to allow babies in the office seems to be as much about wanting to be regarded as a great boss as anything else. That is not a bad thing but I am assessing this in terms of a model that can be replicated. 

Rich is uncompromising in his objectivism and Ayn Rand would be proud. Which is only half a compliment, I always admired Howard Roark, for a while he was an inspiration for me, but at some point I realised that taking input from others didn’t automatically mean you were compromising your principles or were weak, we can learn and adapt and improve but still stay faithful to our principles.

Recruitment and single person decision making

His recruitment policy is a great example of what I see as this type of blinkered thinking. Rich has introduced a recruitment policy designed to prevent making mistakes in hiring.  The problem is that his solution is to require two separate interview days, and then a 3-week trial, and after this they make a decision and the vast majority will be unsuccessful.  Anyone else see the flaws in this? 

To get hired you must give up 17 days for one interview. For most people with jobs that is not even close to being possible, and for an good candidate looking they will likely have multiple options open to them and this level of barriers to entry makes it highly unlikely that any good candidate would bother or be able to apply.  Therefore he is limiting his recruitment to the unemployed and graduates that are able to meet his interview requirements.  Now this pool will contain some good (if inexperienced) candidates, but the process has excluded so many other great candidates that I think it is an example of a process that has forgotten what the problem is that it is trying to solve. In this case I assume to hire great employees.

He clearly loves face to face communication and paper based systems and estimation using hours. Therefore everyone must comply, everyone must communicate face to face, they may only use paper based processes and must use hours for estimation. It is not that I am questioning whether the decisions are good or bad, clearly he is getting many right – he wouldn’t be successful otherwise, but it is a company built around a single individual. He is seemingly a strong CEO and charismatic leader, but that leads to an unsustainable business model, where does it leave Menlo when he moves on? What is his succession plan?

Using Agile practices doesn’t make you agile

Menlo use a variety of Agile practices, mostly from XP, but from the way the book describes it they are a set of rules fixed in stone, thou shalt do it this way…

The practices chosen are good practices, but I don’t think that Agile is about using best practices, I think it is about a mindset of improvement. Menlo had adopted a variety of practices that generally I support and endorse, but I didn’t get any sense that there was a culture of reflecting and improvement. Retrospectives did not seem to be part of the accepted practices at Menlo.  This for me was the saddest omission, without retrospectives Agile is weak and ultimately cannot survive in the long run. Menlo seem to have adopted 11 of the 12 principles, but it is the 12th that I value most.

I so wanted to enjoy this book, it is one I had looked forward to reading for a while, but in the end I was left feeling that Menlo was actually on the wrong path. Not that using XP was wrong, but if you have a culture that is not always seeking to improve it will eventually fail. 

I probably sound horribly hubristic, and I have not achieved the level of success Rich Sheridan has, so this may sound hollow.  But Rich, please introduce retrospectives into your culture before it is too late and be prepared to let your teams guide you to improve, you may me amazed to find they have some great ideas. If you do I think you may find a way to improve on the Joy you have already found.  

 

 

 

 

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Hiring and firing in Scrum

I am exposing my ignorance here but I can’t find anything in Scrum that covers this, even Internet searches reveal very little so I don’t know if I am doing the right thing.

Scrum is about product delivery and so I am aware this is not in the scope of Scrum, but for it to work in practice we need to understand how it interfaces with business decisions. On many issues there is little or no conflict but on people management there seems to be a gulf and people for me are where product delivery starts and ends.

Most discussion seems to make the assumption that the team already exists and is highly motivated. But what if it isn’t, what if someone leaves? what if we need a new team?  What if a member of the team is not motivated or is downright destructive? How is that handled?

Hire a new team member

There are some situations that are easier than others. For example, the team is lacking an expertise or has insufficient people with a particular skill, or we simply need a replacement for someone that has left the team. We discuss it at a retrospective and the team conclusion is that a new team member would be a potential solution. I as Scrum Master can take that proposal to the programme manager (the business) and he will take the decision to hire (or not). The conversation likely includes the PO as it has budgetary implications.

But this is where it gets tricky, if they agree and a vacancy is posted, who sifts the applications? I’d want the team to have a say. There are a number of practical reasons it can’t be the whole team, typically there may be over 25 applicants for each role, that is a time consuming exercise, there is also an element of privacy to consider, so as Scrum Master I take it on myself, or the team chooses a delegation perhaps asking a few of the team for input, but hopefully as Scrum Master I am best placed to understand the requirements of the team as a whole.

Assuming I also filter with telephone screening, that is another time consuming task, is it okay to class it as an impediment that I resolve myself? And if so when I have a shortlist of just a few and want face to face interviews, again it can’t be the whole team so I ask the team to select a representative and typically the interview panel will be a Scrum Master the Product Owner and a team member. But if I am objective the Scrum Master has had significant influence in this decision, so does that undermine the sense of servant leader if I am effectively shaping the hiring decisions?

Also if that is considered an acceptable model, it is actually no different to when I was a department manager which immediately makes me stop and question whether the SM has too much authority in this scenario. That aside it feels right to me, it is pragmatic,the team gets influence but the time consuming aspects are shielded from the team. The only real danger is that the SM has a disproportionate influence on the process.

Build a new team

The second scenario is similar, the programme manager has more work or a new product and needs a new team. Best people to hire a Scrum team are likely a Scrum Master and Product Owner, possibly with input from a team member on an existing Scrum team. But this time there is no team to say what skills are needed, it becomes the judgement of the PO and SM. We are back to implied authority again.

I said at the start that I am on shaky ground, is this the right way? I haven’t seen recruiting, talent acquisition and interviewing as key skills for a Scrum Master or Product Owner, but in the last 18 months I have hired at least 15 people. I have bolstered one team and built up another team from nothing. Which as anyone used to recruitment will tell you is a significant time commitment. But whilst I don’t think of it as a Scrum Master responsibility, I can’t think of anyone else better placed and better suited.

Fire someone

But now I move on to a negative issue, let us consider a scenario where the team has a dysfunctional member, they are disruptive and by their behaviour they are holding the team back and coaching cannot solve it. It can be very difficult to get a team to deal with this in a self-organised way. So much time is spent team building, that pointing fingers at a member can be hard, especially if they are popular despite their behaviour. 

As a Scrum Master this is possibly one of the hardest issues to face, helping a team to see that improvement means hurting one of themselves is challenging to say the least, getting them to do so publicly in front of the party in question is almost impossible.  It can potentially be risky from an employment law point of view if the person feels this is done in a hostile manner. Managers are trained to focus on behaviour, and will normally be in possession of facts to support behaviour based criticism or discipline. Other team member may not be.

I see two ways to handle this the first is that the SM goes outside the team and reports his opinions and observations and has the person removed by a trained manager, chances are this is what the team wants but is unwilling to say so. But this in my opinion is wrong, it places the SM in a position of authority and the team have backed away from autonomy and independence. The right but harder way is to force the team to make the difficult decision and for the team to discuss openly and request changes. To essentially bench the disruptive influence. This may be raised as a retrospective discussion and a good SM should be able to focus the discussion where it needs to go, keeping it behaviour based and factual to avoid making it personal, sometimes retrospectives can be tough and even unpleasant but retrospection must be honest.

I didn’t say it would be easy!

Is this now management?

But in all this what I have proposed is moving the Scrum Master well in to the realm of management. Recruitment, discipline action, are yet another skill set to add to an already diverse role.

What I have described has worked, I’ve been there and done it, but just because it works, it doesn’t make it right and doesn’t mean it will work again.

Where in your opinion is the line drawn between Scrum and the hiring and firing decisions and how can we safeguard the SM from losing credibility by gaining authority?

How not to motivate

A friend suggested I watch this YouTube video on Motivation: Worst way to motivate

I thoroughly enjoyed this video and it is well worth watching.  The outcome flies in the face of some conventional logic but supports the view that we have come to know and love in Agile.

Spoiler Alert: for those that don’t watch the video, the premise is that The Federal Reserve bank in the USA commissioned a study in how to motivate staff and get better productivity, essentially how big  a bonus do you need to give to have an impact on productivity.

The study was carried out by scientists at MIT, Carnegie Melon and University of Chicago  and the outcome will surprise some of you.

Essentially what was classed as small or moderate incentive bonuses had no noticeable impact on productivity when applied to any task that wasn’t purely mechanical.  And large bonuses (equivalent to 3 months wages) caused a measurable decrease in productivity. Yes that is right, give someone a significant incentive when working on even mildly cognitive tasks and they got worse.

In other words incentives are bad, very bad.

The key to increasing productivity according to this study is in 3 areas:

  • Autonomy

  • Mastery

  • Purpose

More on that later…

Quick tangent…

My mind immediately jumped to the financial crisis. If the Federal Reserve believe that financial incentives have a negative effect, why are financial incentives the principle method used for rewarding bankers?   Does that mean that if bankers were paid an appropriate salary would they actually be better? Or is the conclusion that banking requires no cognitive input 🙂

It is not all about money.

It should be noted that for the study to reach the conclusion ‘salary’ had to be off the table, people need to be paid enough as a base salary for that not to be a motivating factor. This is easier said than done.

What I find interesting is that this study also supports old-school psychology too. Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Essentially once basic needs are met, security housing food etc. which have a direct correlation with income, things get more fuzzy, needs above essentials no longer have a direct monetary driver.  We get into Psychological needs: areas of personal relationships, social standing, and then on to our need for self-fulfillment, creativity, fun, personal achievement.  All of which have an element of financial impact but it is clearly it is not the primary driver. Once Basic needs have been met money becomes far less important to us.

Maslow's Triangle.pptx (2)

For example we don’t learn a musical instrument for financial benefit, or do a crossword, many of us have a hobby that takes huge amounts of effort, research, expense and often inconvenience and usually for nothing. Some participate in PTAs or Churches or social groups and clubs, or even write a blog. For most people money simply doesn’t drive us (Assuming we have enough to live), it is an enabler. So in theory if you have a reasonable base salary and you are content, then motivation needs to come from elsewhere.

Money cannot buy happiness, but being broke sure makes you miserable.

Aha, all looking good until…

A company in the USA read a similar study and concluded that if someone earned $70,000 they would have enough to be content, all essential needs would be met and so money would not be a factor and they could focus on productivity, so he raised the pay of all employees to $70,000.  Perfect! Only it wasn’t, humans are contrary soles and whilst the pay raise was great for some, we also measure our social standing by income, not because we care about income, but because it is a measurable metric of your value in society (or at least the workplace).  So when someone you felt was in a job that required less skill or less status than you was suddenly earning the same you felt disgruntled, your salary hasn’t changed, last week you were happy but today you feel you are relatively less important.  So it is about money and at the same time not at all about money.

Do you pay fair?

Paying fairly doesn’t mean pay them all the same.  Laszlo Bock from Google in his book Work Rules goes even further than this:- he says to deliberately pay unfairly, if you have a good employee pay them excessively, deliberately take money out of the equation.

My take from this is as follows:

Pay your staff well, pay them what they are worth as a base salary and review it regularly, but do not include any performance based incentives. And if you include profit share or Christmas bonuses, apply them equally (% based) and do not have them performance driven.

What you want is a secure workforce, you do not want them to be thinking they could earn more elsewhere, and you do not want high turnover of staff. Show your employees that you truly value them, pay above market rates to ensure stability, and be prepared to pay exceptional employees exceptionally.

So with a reasonable and appropriate salary (with no performance incentives) as our foundation, we can concentrate on the real issue of how to maximize productivity, and this is where it gets interesting…

more next time.

Who is interviewing who?

How I’d like to do it.

My advice would be to concentrate first and foremost on creating a place where people would want to work, then marketing your organisation to the candidate, they should really want to work for your company, that way you start with a better candidate pool, immediately giving you a better chance of finding the best employees.

Then – even if it feels impersonal, a series of consistent structured tests (IQ and Psychometric) and then formal structured interview questions where the results and responses are noted and then referred onto an independent panel for a decision on hiring. Forget the gut-feel, forget the technical questions, forget hostile interview techniques, they really don’t work. Throughout all this ensure the candidates are treated well and made to feel important.

Sounds like hard work, it sounds like it undermines the hiring manager, it sounds incredibly time-consuming and bureaucratic, perhaps even expensive. But if your goal is to consistently hire good quality candidates it is going to be hard work and you will have to accept that there are some things that cannot be effectively and consistently assessed in an interview situation.

My final thought is that if you have got your hiring right, it is very likely that the most capable, most experienced and most reliable person for a role is the one currently in it. Don’t lose them.  Look after good employees they are your company’s most valuable asset.  Treat them well and do whatever it takes to keep them.

recruitment tips

And next time you are in an interview situation, ask yourself who is interviewing who?

Typical interview styles

The interview itself.

What I have observed is that interviewing is generally composed of one or more of a very small number of techniques:

  1.  Free-form, gut-feel unstructured or semi-structured chat and questions between candidate and hiring manager.

  2.  More formal pre-defined questions structured and consistently asked to all candidates.

  3.  Some variety of standardised test, essentially IQ based.

  4.  Questions posed by a technical expert with a desire to highlight his superiority rather than assess your capability.

  5.  A technical test or series of technical questions intended to be pragmatic and fair.

  6.  Aggressive panel questioning

  7.  Psychometric testing: verbal/numeric/diagrammatic reasoning or personality tests.

  8.  Presentation by interviewer on why the candidate should work for you.

There are studies and statistics that rank the effectiveness of the different techniques for selecting good candidates, I won’t pour them out here – I am not an expert and I’d just embarrass myself. But in my experience 1 is the most common, often combined with 4 or 5. But logic states that 4 is a waste of time and puts off candidates, and studies show that 1 and 5 are actually very, very poor indicators of ability and capability for the role and do not result in long-term success.

So what works? 

2, 3 and 7 are by far a better method of assessing candidates, followed by an independent panel-decision based on the documented evidence taken from the interviews – the interviewer should not be allowed to make the decision independently as they display bias (subconscious or otherwise).

But 2, 3 and 7 are hard, it requires yet more work on what is already a tough and time-consuming process, so very rarely gets done.

The reciprocal nature of an interview (8) is so often overlooked, if you want the best people and you want to get the best out of them, then not only do you need to decide if they are right for you, you need to convince them that your business/team is right for them. You should be putting as much effort in to impressing candidates as they put into impressing you. You are competing for them in a buoyant market.

recruitment2

Doing it right.

As an interviewer, my best experience has been for a company that did a combination of 2, 3, 7 and 5. We put a lot of effort into interviewing, but the majority of people still failed the combination of tests, especially the technical test. The test felt ‘easy’ to us and some candidates did well, but the results didn’t match the apparent skills of candidates, in hindsight I think it confused the process. The problem is that technical tests are not effective at assessing ability during an interview, there are simply so many other factors at play.

Relying on structured questions, IQ tests and psychometric tests may feel clinical and impersonal, but very likely the best way to find the right candidate. But ego plays a role and when hiring for a team, we are only human and so many hiring managers want to rely on their own instinct, even if evidence demonstrates this is unreliable, so it is hardly a surprise that many hiring managers favour their instinct over a structured process.

What makes a good interview?

My experience of recruitment is largely anecdotal, I am not a professional interviewer or HR expert. My limited experience of interviewing has been as a candidate, a hiring manager, or sometimes even as a subject expert. I’d estimate that over my career my experience is approximately 8:1 in favour of being an interviewer over being an interviewee, but I have been on both sides of the table often enough to know how it feels from either perspective. 

Over the last 5 or so years the amount of effort I have put into recruitment has been considerable, especially considering it is not really meant to be a significant part of my role. I’d estimate that I have hired an average of one person ever 2 months or so.   I even like to think I am pretty good at it,  although as you will see I am probably mistaken in that opinion.

What is striking though is how much time this takes, very anecdotally I’d estimate that depending on the quality of the CVs that I receive, on average only 5% will make it through the screening and interviewing to getting an offer(probably less). But the 95% that get rejected still consume a lot of time, and of the 5% selected we don’t always get it right, and I’m pretty sure quite a few good candidates get missed. The process is far from ideal.

recruitment

But what makes for a good interview?

As a candidate I have had interviews lasting less than 15 minutes (where I was offered) and interviews spanning 3 days, for a graduate recruitment programme, and just about everything in between. I have had good experiences and bad.

Some, in fact most interviewers seem to forget that the candidate is also interviewing them, and that the candidate is deciding if they want to work with you in the same way you are assessing them – it is not a one way decision by any stretch. Such is the lack of understanding and sheer arrogance of some that I have been asked extremely obscure technical questions that provide no clear value, I have been challenged(insulted) to gauge my response, I have had panel of interviewers quick-firing questions and had interviewers who were clearly reading my CV for the first time during the interview.  Why would any good candidate have any desire to work for you after an interview like that?

I haven’t kept accurate records, and I appreciate this is anecdotal but I’d estimate I have turned down close to three job offers for every one I have accepted over my career. Now I am well aware that I am fortunate to have in-demand skills at a time when the market is booming, I have also had a lot of rejection.  Similarly, as a hiring manager I’ve had too many candidates turn down offers, or more frustrating get a better offer before we could complete the hiring process.

The hiring process is so expensive and so important I am surprised at how often it is treated in a cavalier manner.   Why oh why would you be so arrogant to treat candidates with anything less than the respect you would expect them to show you?