Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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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Recent Posts

Early experimentation is key to reducing project risk

Cultural transformations of high-performing teams

Small is beautiful for product backlog items

Do your performance evaluation and recognition systems support cross-functional teamwork?

Don't be like a squirrel hiding nuts with project lessons!

Cultural transformations of high-performing teams

Categories: Agile, Team Building

While I was delivering a course on agile fundamentals this week, one of the learners in the class asked me how the mindset and behaviors normally associated with agile teams might impact or be impacted by culture. He suggested context (low or high) as a cultural characteristic which would influence the starting point for a team and which could then change as the team matures, but the same can be said for other cultural dimensions. (So thanks, Tony, this article is for you!)

Geert Hofstede's research into national culture identifies multiple dimensions which can be used to describe differences between countries. Some of these could be considered in addition to context when observing how such teams develop.

  • Context: When members have never worked together, a newly formed team will often exhibit low-context cultural behavior. Ground rules have to be developed, documentation needed to support delivery tends to be heavier and hand-offs are explicitly communicated. As the team matures, its culture shifts towards a higher context where interactions become more tacit than explicit. We often see this in the puck passes made by hockey players who have played together for a long time. Rather than having to yell out "Pass!" or "I'm open!", they seem to communicated with each other using telepathy!
  • Power Distance: Formal power, titles and status will generally be of greater importance to members early in the life of a team, but as the team matures, there is greater acceptance and less attention paid to formal power imbalances. My earlier article about the television show, The A-Team, referenced this with regards to the dynamics between Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith and the other members of the team.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: When a team is newly formed, its members will have varying degrees of comfort with risk and ambiguity based on their individual risk appetites and that of the divisions or organizations they belong to. But as the level of psychological safety within the team increases, there should be a corresponding lowering of uncertainty avoidance. This doesn't mean that people will jump from being risk averse to becoming gamblers but rather that over time they will move down that continuum.
  • Assertiveness: Depending on the culture from which individual team members come from, they might exhibit high or low assertiveness when they first join the team. Over time, the team will become balanced between the two extremes. While higher degrees of empathy and collaboration will emerge as the team matures, we would also see all team members having the courage to speak truth to power or providing feedback with radical candor.
  • Long Term Orientation: This dimension considers the degree to which we value long-term gains over short-term ones. This may be impacted less by the stage in a team's development but more by the shift in collective mindset from traditional delivery emphasis on big, heavy [planning, requirements, design] upfront to the lean principle of deferring decisions till the last responsible moment.

Understanding culture across these dimensions can be helpful for leaders such as agile leads and functional managers to interpret the behaviors they observe so that they can better support the development of high-performing teams.

Posted on: December 01, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Small is beautiful for product backlog items

One of the reasons for having small work items at the top of a product backlog is so the team is able to complete them within a short amount of time. This benefit applies regardless of whether your team is using an iteration-based delivery approach or has adopted a lean continuous flow-based approach.

But what are some of the other benefits of having small work items?

  • While size does not always positively correlate with complexity, usually the smaller a work item, the easier it should be for team members to come to a shared understanding with the work item originator as to what is desired and how they will deliver it.
  • Smaller work items often require less documentation than larger ones.
  • It might be less challenging for team members who are new to test driven development to apply this practice for small work items.
  • If the team is using an iteration-based approach, the probability of getting a higher percentage of completed work items is greater if they forecast a larger number of small work items in an iteration as opposed to a smaller number of large ones.
  • The amount of re-work or wasted effort involved if a particular work item does not meet general or quality requirements should be lower.
  • If most work items for a release are small “enough”, the team has the ability to skip the use of story points or some other relative sizing method in favor of just tracking how many work items they can complete within a given amount of time.
  • Finally, splitting a large work item into small pieces provides greater feature choice to product owners when prioritizing the backlog.

But before slicing our work items too small, we need to remember that size is just one of the criteria provided by Bill Wake when he came up with the INVEST acronym for assessing how good a story is. A work item which is too small might not be sufficient independent or provide value to a stakeholder.

But keeping these caveats in mind, good things come in small packages.

Posted on: November 24, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Do your performance evaluation and recognition systems support cross-functional teamwork?

While it is usually Wally who openly expresses those thoughts which we normally keep to ourselves, Dilbert is letting his inner voice do the talking in today's strip. Let's imagine for a moment that Dilbert's co-worker is part of a cross-functional team which Dilbert is part of. Dilbert's response might seem unnecessarily blunt, but this behavior is not uncommon in those companies which place an undue emphasis on individual recognition or which don't require managers to actively solicit feedback from outside of their own teams.

While most of us would consider ourselves to be helpful, without some measurement and organizational encouragement our willingness to help someone is likely to be reduced by our need to finish our own work as we know the latter is what is measured.

In many organizations, functional managers are under no obligation to solicit feedback from others about their staff's performance. While these managers might ask for input from within their own team, they might be reluctant to contact those co-workers who report to other functional managers. If they evaluate their team members' performance purely on achieving functional objectives or on how they interacted with others from within their own team, they might not consider whether someone works well within a cross-functional team. While this type of feedback is certainly available from project or other functional managers in a matrix structure, the functional manager might not always be open to soliciting or acting on the feedback. When objective feedback from co-workers outside of a manager's team is a required component of formal performance evaluations, it encourages both managers and team members to look beyond the walls of their own silos.

It is also quite common to find generous enterprise-level budgets for individual recognition but not as frequently for team recognition. With strategic or large projects, a project manager might have sufficient influence to secure budgetary approval for team-level rewards but this is usually not the case on smaller initiatives. Without equal weighting given to both individual and team recognition, it is no wonder that team members will prioritize individual success over that of the team they are on.

We want team members to feel confident that if they ask for help from a co-worker who happens to report to a different manager that there is a strong likelihood that they will get it. We would like to encourage team members to be willing to slow down their own activities if it helps their team get ahead. But when environmental factors such as performance evaluation systems and recognition programs discourage such behaviors it can be difficult to build high performing cross-functional teams.

Posted on: November 17, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

I may be a "Crazy Fool" but I consider the A-Team to be agile!

When teaching agile classes, I'm occasionally asked if I could provide an example of an agile team from cinema or television. While the first Avengers movie does a good job of illustrating Bruce Tuckman's stages of team development (especially storming!), they are far from being agile.

The example I most frequently provide is that quintessential 1980's TV show, The A-Team. If your only exposure to The A-Team was the horrible 2010 movie starring Liam Neeson, you owe it to yourself to watch a few episodes of the original series. Keep in mind, this was the 80's so the show does glorify violence, isn't very politically correct and shows many tropes from that era, but it is still worth seeing!

Here are a few of the reasons for this:

  • The team is self-managing. True, they have been disavowed by their government and are being hunted by military police for a crime they didn't commit, but with each episode where they help a new client they figure out their way of working without being mired in bureaucracy or seeking guidance from outside the team.
  • Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith is the leader of the team, but acts as a servant-leader. While he leads planning efforts for their missions, he does this in an inclusive, collaborative manner and will defer to his other team members during the execution of their missions.
  • Plans are created, and Hannibal loves it when a plan comes together, but they are also willing to throw the plan away when it is no longer realistic.
  • They exploit the diversity of their team rather than being constrained by it. Bosco "B.A." Baracus might call H. M. "Howling Mad" Murdock a "crazy fool", but he respects Murdock's ability to fly almost any type of aircraft. Each team member brings a different, but complementary skill set to their missions. In this regard, they are a "whole team". Each is highly skilled at what they do which could have resulted in ego clashes, but they always put the team ahead of themselves.
  • They are comfortable with complex, uncertain situations. Every episode challenges them with a unique mission where their resources are constrained but they still manage to put together creative gadgets and weapons with common household items to help them succeed.
  • There is a high degree of psychological (if not physical!) safety within the team. They operate with true radical candor - while they care deeply about each other, they don't pull any punches when providing constructive feedback. They are also very supportive when a fellow team member takes a risk - they will always have that person's back!
  • They are working towards a shared, strategic vision. While most episodes focused on their helping clients through difficult situations, the team continued to work towards their overarching goal of clearing their names.

Finally, they are long-lived and stable, and as I wrote in my article from last week, this helps to overcome many of misinterpretations which can occur when we first work with someone. This is best illustrated in the following quote from "B.A." Baracus:

B.A. Baracus: You learn to love him, Mama. But it takes a long time. (Referring to Hannibal)
Amy: That's the same thing he said about you.



Posted on: November 03, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Understanding the mismatched is another benefit of long-lived, stable teams

In his latest book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the problems which can result when we expect that there is alignment between how people act and how they really feel internally. Gladwell call this the transparency problem and provides multiple examples to illustrate the challenges we face when we assume that what we see is what we get.

He presents the assumptions which Neville Chamberlain made in the years leading up to World War II based on the meetings he had with Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain assumed that Hitler was being genuine when he indicated that he had no interest in starting a major conflict in Europe and yet his near term actions clearly showed that this was not the case. He talks about the difficulties which judges face when having to decide whether or not to grant bail based on not only case information available to them but how an accused behaves when they are in front of the judge. And he writes about the Amanda Knox case where Italian authorities assumed that she was guilty of murdering her roommate primarily because of her behavior when she was questioned after the incident.

Gladwell sorts people into those whose external behavior matches what is happening inside of them and those who don't. We are quite good at identifying matched people. In fact, Gladwell indicates that our ability to detect when a matched person is lying is almost as good as that of law enforcement experts. What's chilling is that when dealing with mismatched people these experts are no better than we are.

It is not that assuming transparency is a bad thing to do. As Gladwell states, Charles Darwin felt that transparent behavior was critical to creating trust between strangers which enabled our species to survive.

But what's the relevance of this to project delivery?

When interacting with those who we've never worked with before, most of us default to expecting transparency. When someone appears to be acting in a negative manner, this assumption might result in us becoming offended. Alternately, we might be getting warm, friendly vibes from a team member which causes us to assume that they are on our side only to be shocked when their subsequent actions prove they were not supporting us at all. In the latter situation, the individual may be purposefully deceiving us by providing false "tells" (to use the poker term) but in the former, it might simply be a case of someone who is mismatched.

This is illustrated in the movie Joker. Joaquin Phoenix's titular character is prone to burst out laughing hysterically at inopportune moments as a result of childhood head trauma. Strangers exposed to this behavior assume transparency and respond negatively. To attempt to compensate, he has cards which he hands to offended strangers providing the justification for his inappropriate laughter.

But once we get to know that these team members are mismatched, we begin to understand them for who they truly are, and the likelihood of misinterpreting their behavior is vastly reduced. When we are part of long-lived, stable teams, we are able to appreciate the diversity of those who work with us and are able to leverage these differences as strengths and not as sources of conflict.

Posted on: October 27, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.

- Margaret Thatcher