This Dilbert comic strip provides us with a good reminder of the fine line which exists between reasonable oversight of activities and micromanagement. Dilbert has allowed sufficient time to pass before seeking an update on a colleague’s assigned task only to find that it has been neglected due to a lack of following up. When Dilbert attempts to get commitment on a revised completion date, he’s accused of micromanaging the activity.
What is deemed a reasonable amount of oversight by a manager may be perceived as micromanagement by team members.
While some teams might possess sufficient psychological safety to embolden team members to voice their concerns, the culture within other organizations or teams might actively discourage this sort of straight talk. In such environments, the frustration felt by the team members festers resulting in impacts to their productivity and slowly poisoning team morale.
And this can become a vicious cycle as team members become progressively more disinclined to share updates with their leaders which results in even greater degrees of oversight.
So how can we avoid this?
It has to start with the leaders and team members collaboratively developing work management practices. If these practices get imposed by leaders or solely developed by team members they will never satisfy the needs of both parties. Early in the life of a project if the objectives for both sets of stakeholders are put on the table and an honest, frank discussion is held about principles governing how those objectives can be met, a set of practices which both sides buy into can be developed.
It also helps to make the oversight process as seamless as possible. Use of visual work support tools such as physical or online Kanban boards can shift the model from assigning work to team members to team members signing up to complete specific work items while simultaneously providing transparency into what’s done and what’s left to be done.
Finally, reducing cross-initiative multitasking can enable staff to complete tasks quicker and with higher quality while eliminating the need for managers to have to constantly follow up with team members to ensure that priorities haven’t shifted.
Micromanagement is like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous description of the threshold test for obscenity : “I know it when I see it”. Given this subjectivity, it’s better to avoid getting being accused of it to begin with.
(Note: this article was published without micromanagement in March 2017 on kbondale.wordpress.com)
I've run into a few situations recently where Scrum Masters (SMs) are performing multiple roles and while they might have the capacity to do so, on any moderate sized initiative, it might be difficult for them to fulfill all the responsibilities of the SM role.
Some people may challenge this by stating that the SM needs capacity for daily standups, sprint planning, sprint reviews & retrospectives, but that should still leave them plenty of time to take on another role.
This perception is incorrect.
Agile ceremonies represent just the tip of the iceberg for an SM. As the intro to the SM role in The Scrum Guide states: "The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values." Notice the use of the word "everyone" instead of "the Development Team". Surrounding any project or release are many stakeholders who the SM needs to work with to ensure that their interactions with the Development Team are in alignment with Scrum values. And as any good Project Manager will tell you, effective stakeholder management consumes a lot of time! Removing impediments from the team's path will also take significant effort.
If the company does not have separate agile coaches to work on elevating organizational capabilities, the SM will likely spend effort on activities such as coaching executives, training functional managers and collaborating with their fellow SMs to identify patterns.
But let's say we have agile coaches and there are minimal stakeholders for the SM to work with. Couldn't an SM play another role?
Even if capacity permits, I'd still recommend avoiding either of these roles:
Focus is one of Scrum's five values. An SM playing multiple roles may not be providing their team with a good example of this value in action.
There are multiple types of external events which a project manager or Scrum Master could consider to increase the level of collaboration and cohesion within their team. Escape rooms provide a fiscally responsible, but highly effective option.
For my readers who have never experienced one of these, an escape room provides a small team (ideally no more than eight people) with the task of completing a set of puzzles within a fixed duration of usually 45 minutes to one hour. These puzzles are incorporated within a fictitious scenario such as escaping a prison or surviving a zombie apocalypse. The narrative and challenges in lower quality rooms will follow a linear path and focus on solving one combination lock after another whereas better ones will provide the opportunity for parallel and alternate paths as well as providing puzzles which test multiple senses.
So why am I such a proponent of this type of team building activity?
Collaboration is a must, not a nice-to-have
I've enjoyed almost a dozen escape rooms and the mental and physical work involved in solving most challenges requires close collaboration. If one is shackled to a fellow "cell mate" at the start of a scenario, both have to work together to ensure that the keys to their shackles can be reached. Many puzzles require team members to coordinate their activities across different points in the room so once again, you can't go it alone!
We is greater than the smartest Me
It's a lot of fun trying to solve escape rooms with a group of self-stated Type A leaders. As the clock ticks down, it becomes apparent that the wisdom of the group needs to be harnessed rather than relying on a single leader. Situational leadership is exercised as some puzzles require spatial acuity, some memory or mathematical skills and others will demand physical dexterity. Escape rooms often have a few fiendish red herrings which can mislead one or more team members and ignoring these can be a good exercise for overcoming group-think.
We all need a helping hand sometime
All escape rooms provide teams with the ability to ask for assistance from a staff member at least once over the duration of the game. Deciding when is the right time to ask for help can pose its own challenges, especially if some team members are unwilling to show vulnerability. The same is true within the team - someone might believe they can solve a puzzle, and refuses to ask for help, but with limited time, the team will need to have the discipline to swap them out if they aren't making progress.
Communicate, communicate, communicate!
With clues to solve a puzzle scattered around the room or even split across multiple rooms, team members need to effectively communicate with one another in order to efficiently solve puzzles.
There are lots of distractions in an escape room. Multiple puzzles, false clues, artwork and interesting (but useless) trinkets and gadgets can trap us into losing focus. Support from the team is needed to help individual players focus on solving one puzzle at a time.
Unless the escape room is very simple it's rare that a team will complete their first escape room. When time runs out, rather than just rushing to the nearest watering hole, it might be worth holding a quick retrospective to understand what everyone learned and to identify opportunities for improvement with the next escape room event as well as with our projects.
To plagiarize Michael Jordan, a single team member's talent can solve individual challenges, but teamwork completes escape rooms.
A lot has been written about the challenges caused by functional managers when their company undergoes an agile transformation. But with this emphasis on what they shouldn't be doing, not as much gets published about the specific activities we should be doing to help them through the change.
Here are four questions to ask when considering this key role.
Are they learning?
To support a change you need to understand the change. Delivering training focused specifically on what functional managers need to know about agile which includes scenario-based learning to understand what sorts of behavior changes are expected when faced with common situations will help. But it is also important to identify which managers have already shown evidence of having embraced an agile mindset and recruit them to help support their peers who will have a harder time with the transition. In the absence of such internal support, coaches could be hired to create a critical mass of change advocates among middle management.
What are they measured on and what are they measuring?
Metrics aren't the sole driver of behavior but they do draw a lot of focus. As Tony Robbins would say, "Where focus goes, energy flows". If we haven't updated performance measures for functional managers and their staff, it will be much harder to encourage them to change. If existing metrics are focused on how well team members and their managers achieved certain objectives but didn't also consider how those objectives were achieved, deadlines and budgets will continue to dominate rather than collaboration and engagement. These measures need to be augmented with ones specifically assessing stakeholder and team member satisfaction to understand whether the "how" was as good as the "what".
Who are they hiring?
I've written previously about the importance of adjusting job descriptions and hiring criteria but it is equally important to train functional managers on how to leverage these changes. If the job profile calls for servant-leadership but all the functional manager asks about is what a candidate accomplished, the risk of hiring people who are not aligned with the new way of working will persist. Pairing functional managers with properly trained HR staff for panel interviews is one way to address this.
How are they supporting their staff?
Team members will be experiencing many of the same fears and doubts that their manager has about the transformation so it is important that functional managers meet regularly in both one-on-one and team settings to address these concerns. Managers play a critical role in helping their staff gain the confidence to take their first baby steps towards self-organizing and becoming T-skilled. To do this, managers must cultivate a psychologically safe environment within their teams so that their team members feel safe about expressing themselves and taking chances both in the project roles and in their functional ones.
Buy-in from middle management is necessary for any successful organization change, and even though you might think that the sandwich approach of committed senior leadership and enthusiastic front line staff squeezing out compliance, actively guiding and supporting functional managers will be essential to a sustainable transformation.
For those of us who have worked most of our careers in companies with functional or matrix power structures, project-oriented organizations can appear very attractive in comparison.
This is understandable given the many challenges project managers can face when their roles are poorly defined or when they have no little authority over team members or decision making. I can recall countless cases of project managers escalating concerns over individual team member behavior to people managers only to be told that perhaps the project managers themselves are the problem.
Support for project managers can also be limited.
If they are lucky, they might report into a PMO which provides professional development opportunities and they can benefit from the support of their peers but unless the company is at a higher level of organizational project management maturity, the role of the project manager might still be a thankless one at times.
In a project-oriented company, the role of the project manager is well defined, they usually possess formal authority (including hiring and firing power) over their team members, and they are likely to have greater decision making authority than in matrix or functional organizations.
Seems like Nirvana, right? Unfortunately, formal authority is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Just because you have the ability to directly impact someone’s performance evaluation, annual bonus or even their job, doesn’t mean that will automatically motivate them to give you their best efforts. Possessing formal authority over team members can be a curse – you have to work twice as hard to capture the hearts and minds of your team members through vision, influence and persuasion as it is all too easy to fall into the habit of saying “It’s my way or the highway!”. In functional or matrix organizations, that approach isn’t even possible, but in project-oriented organizations, team members will listen because they fear the consequences of not doing so, but you will get their support at the cost of true engagement and commitment.
In project-oriented organizations, the project manager can also bear the brunt of negative project outcomes. They possess the authority, but with that comes the risk that if the project fails or the customer is unhappy, they are more likely to be impacted than in a functional or matrix organization where decision making authority and accountability is diffused.
Finally, what happens when your project ends and there is no more work? Project managers in functional or matrix organizations might lose their jobs if they are unable to find a lateral role. In a project-oriented organization, lack of new projects could mean that not only the project manager, but their team members could also be negatively impacted, and the project managers will have to bear the resulting emotional stress.
Can project-oriented organizations be better than functional or matrix ones? They can, but caveat emptor!
(Note: this functional article was originally published on kbondale.wordpress.com in February 2015)