Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Want to reduce digital distraction for your team? Physician, heal thyself!

Authentic agility avoids burnout

Asking for help demonstrates psychological safety

The perils of over proactivity

Agile advice from our ancestors

Want to reduce digital distraction for your team? Physician, heal thyself!

Two articles caught my attention this morning so I thought I'd connect the dots between them in this week's article.

The first article indicates that the Microsoft Teams collaboration support tool has passed Slack in terms of daily users.  In combination, both tools are used by roughly 23 million users daily which is more than half the population of Canada. Tools such as Teams and Slack provide valuable support for geographically or temporally dispersed team members to collaborate on their work activities. Even for co-located teams, the persistent chat capability of such tools allows team members who were not present for a conversation to catch up when they return to the office. Both Teams and Slack can be accessed via web browsers and from their own smartphone apps.

The other article provides four tactics for helping team members avoid digital distraction. Creating quiet spaces for mental recharging, encouraging device-free breaks, facilitating the development of team working agreements which will include reasonable time and location boundaries for device usage and supporting team members who choose to block time in their working calendars for distraction-free work can all help.

Whereas the first article highlights the growing importance and incidence of being constantly connected, the second encourages us to help staff to disconnect.

What is ironic is that an agile mindset values focus and yet the tooling used to support agile delivery encourages greater levels of distraction.

But something critical is missing from the second article.

One of the most important influences for encouraging our team members to find a healthy balance is their perceptions of our own actions. When we are in one-on-one or group meetings, are we closing our laptop lids and keeping our phones in our pockets or purses and letting calls go to voicemail? Are we resisting the temptation to initiate or to respond to team conversations or questions outside of normal working hours? And are we self-aware enough to be aware when we don't model the healthy device usage behavior we'd like our team members to demonstrate?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

Posted on: July 14, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Authentic agility avoids burnout

Categories: Agile, Team Building

Harvard Business Review published an article this week covering six causes of burnout and how we can reduce these. Let's consider these through the lens of agility.

Having an excessive workload over a prolonged period of time is one of the most common causes of burnout. The eighth principle of the Manifesto argues against this: "Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely." People laugh when I say in my classes that we need to strive for no weekend or overtime work, but downtime is critical to maintaining a sustained pace. This requires a shift in thinking for leaders to prioritize delivering value over just keeping people busy.

A perceived lack of control over our work is another cause of burnout. Agile teams are expected to be empowered by their leaders to identify their ways of working rather than having those dictated or prescribed. Team members define and pull their work rather than have it assigned to them. This autonomy means that they can be creative at handling challenging or overwhelming situations.

A lack of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards was also listed by the author as a contributing factor. While the magnitude of external rewards will be subject to economic constraints, informal recognition is usually more frequent through the product (e.g. sprint review) and process (e.g. retrospective) feedback loops that we expect with most agile approaches.

Having strong support from one's immediate work community is a good hedge against burnout. As I wrote in my last article, members of teams which are at a high-level of psychological safety draw comfort from knowing they have someone to lean on when they need a hand. A greater level of team awareness means that their team members are also likely to pick up on subtle cues of excessive stress.

The article includes a lack of fairness as another cause of burnout. While individual contribution is still recognized, the granularity for declaring success is at the team level. Agile transformations must include a review of performance review and formal recognition programs to ensure that team work is encouraged and that rewards are not divisive.

Finally, a disconnect in the values of the individual and the leadership of their company can also lead to burnout if team members face the internal struggle of staying true to what they consider important. Agile may not be a cure for misalignment with company values but within the safety of a team, each individual has a voice to contribute to the values and culture of that team making it a safe haven from the storms outside.

For many, agile is about delivering value quicker or with increased quality, but true agility is also about putting people first.

 

Posted on: July 07, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Asking for help demonstrates psychological safety

Social psychologist Heidi Grant's interesting TED Talk video providing advice on how to increase the odds of a positive outcome when we ask someone for help was published this week. Three of her four tips are to be specific about the help required and why it is needed, to not apologize for asking for help and to make the request live in person or over the phone.

While this advice can be applied to any situation, in a delivery scenario if team members are regularly demonstrating these steps it is evidence that they feel safe working with one another.

Being specific about a request forces a requestor to be more vulnerable. It's much easier to say "I could use a hand with my development work today" than to say "I really have no clue as to how to code this data interface to meet the performance criteria". It also puts the target helper in a greater position of vulnerability by requiring them to respond if they believe they have the necessary skills to help or not. Comfort with expressing vulnerability is a key attribute of psychological safety.

Helping someone is supposed to feel satisfying and should feel natural when we have a healthy working relationship. Canadian stereotypes about saying "sorry" aside, if someone apologizes to me when asking for my help, it makes me feel that they don't feel comfortable with our relationship. In a team with a higher level of psychological safety, team members are confident that they can count on one other.

Finally, if I don't feel comfortable asking someone for assistance and am pessimistic about the likelihood that they will help me out, sending the request via e-mail or leaving them a voice mail message is a safe way to avoid a potentially unpleasant interaction. On the other hand, if I feel that my colleague has my back, I'll have no concerns with speaking with them face-to-face or over the phone to ensure clarity of understanding and a timely response.

"Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on" - Bill Withers

 

Posted on: June 30, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

There can be only one (and it is not YOUR project)!

Managing a high priority project can be a wonderful experience.

You will usually receive ample support from senior leadership in resolving critical issues, getting funding for team celebrations is rarely a challenge, and helping team members and other key stakeholders understand the importance of the project and how its success will benefit them should be simple.

But this is rarely the case. Most of the time, we are working on initiatives which, while important, are not top of mind for your senior executives.

Here are just a few of the challenges with managing such projects:

  • Getting and sustaining senior leadership commitment and support is going to be much more difficult. Even your sponsor might have more important projects to support.
  • Keeping your team focused on delivering the project's scope, especially if they are also working on higher priority projects is a constant struggle.
  • Ensuring that functional managers remain responsive to changes in staffing needs and providing you with the "right" staff to get the job done won't be as easy.
  • Securing funding for more than the absolute bare minimum is tricky - especially contingency reserves or budget for team events.

So what can you do to improve your odds of success?

  • Practice effective, full life cycle risk management to reduce the number and impact of unpleasant surprises.
  • Consider using an incremental delivery approach so that your sponsor and other key stakeholders achieve an early and progressive return on their investment.
  • Spend extra effort emphasizing the holy trinity of purpose, autonomy & mastery to inspire your team members to do their best.
  • Double-down on team development through free or low-cost events and simple, but regular recognition of individual and team efforts. Help your team to identify the rituals and working agreements that will define team culture.
  • Have a "Plan B" handy so that if your staffing complement or funding gets slashed the team will still be able to deliver something of value. Wherever possible, structure your scope delivery to deliver higher value work packages early.
  • Take the time early in the life of the project to develop positive working relationships with the functional managers who will provide the staff for your team. Explore opportunities to help them achieve their goals through your project's success. For example, if they want to raise the competency level of their team members, identify stretch activities or other learning opportunities within the project which might address this. If you can earn some IOU's early on with these functional managers, those will come in handy down the road when you'll need their help.

"You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it's important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages." - Michelle Obama

 

Posted on: April 28, 2019 10:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Scrum values can help your team become psychologically safe

While teaching a class earlier this week, a learner asked how will team members start to feel psychologically safe, especially if they are working in a company whose culture isn't fully supportive of this critical ingredient to a high performing team.

Updating existing corporate values, and senior and middle management leaders holding themselves and each other accountable to modeling behaviors consistent with these refreshed values helps as does coaching at all levels of the organization. For individual team members, the Scrum values can provide good reminders of our own responsibilities for creating a psychologically safe working environment regardless of which delivery framework or method we are using.

Commitment: While we normally think of this value in terms of committing to achieving team goals, this value can also be considered as a shared commitment to creating a safe environment.

Courage: The Scrum Guide encourages team members to show the courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems. This is equally applicable to interpersonal relations. It takes significant courage to speak up when you witness behavior which is corrosive to psychological safety especially when the person misbehaving is more senior than you are.

Focus: While team members should be focused on completing work, living this value also means that we are focused and actively listening when we are part of a discussion or ceremony. By doing that, we are better able to pick up on the tone and body language of others to understand if they are feeling uncomfortable about what has just been said or look like they want to say something but just need that little bit of encouragement to speak up.

Openness: Just as we expect our teams to be transparent about the blockers they are facing, the same level of openness should be exhibited during retrospectives or other opportunities for inspection and adaptation with regards to how we interacted with one another.

Respect: Demonstrating this value towards our team members means not only treating them with respect but challenging others who would show them disrespect.

Edmund Burke - "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Posted on: March 31, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)
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"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

- Orson Welles, The Third Man

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