Friday, 23 February 2018

The important features of a great team

There is a game we play at home that I would like to share.

The rules are simple:

Given you are alone in a dark room or corridor
When you hear someone else approaching
Then you have try jump out at them
  And scare the c**p out of them

There is some skill to this game. Once you have played it a few times everyone knows what is going to happen. In anticipation, everyone goes very silent in order to detect where the other one is. Inevitably, people stop breathing but start laughing - first one who does has lost.

None of the kids play this game. This is something myself and Mrs A do, which is most unbecoming of some 40 year olds.

It is something that is uniquely ours. Something that does not really make sense in another context. It is special to us but probably completely dumb to others. It was not planned but was spontaneous and if it was copied would not be the same.

But this is where the good stuff is.

Teams also have these special bits too. They come from working closely with each other and letting your guard down enough to reveal our human selves.

This does not happen immediately. I often does not happen if there conditions are not right, if there is not enough freedom to express who we are and explore our relationships with one another.

Often unprofessional, usually silly and totally unique to each team, these are the special features that make teams great both to work in and with. Love them or loose them.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

All worship Board God

The use of boards by teams is nothing new, every team I work with has some way of visualising their work. Many teams seem to stall at changing the board, leaving ownership to some individual (maybe the ScrumMaster or the most vocal member of the group).

This is a shame. Since the board mirrors the teams process, which is owned by the team.

I was in a situation where the board was being dictated by a single person and the team looked too scared to change it. People would compain about the board by not try to do anything about it.

In a moment of frustration, I thought "Fine, you fix it".

Enter the 'Board God'.

If anyone ventures a strong opinion on the board you can appoint them as 'Board God' for a week.

The Board God can do anything to the board they like and the team have to follow their direction for that week. At the end of the week, the team decides what they will keep and what they will reject. Stripped of his or her powers the Board God must accept their decision.

If I hear someone grumbling about something on the board, I usually appoint them 'Board God' to see how they will solve the problem they are grumbling about. Eventually, people will start to ask if they can be 'Board God' to address a specific issue that they can see.

This can trigger a spate of change, where different 'Board God's' mess with each others changes. This is a positive thing since people are getting involved with the board and ultimately the process itself.

Teams that have learned to embrace changing the board often evolve their process outside of the retrospective, shortening feedback to days or even hours.

When used in conjunction with scoring stand-ups, a team can inspect and adapt quickly. I have seen stand ups of 20+ people go from train wreck to useful in under a week using peer feedback. A score of 3 or under means you have to share what was wrong for you and the team agree corrective actions for the next day there and then.

'Board Gods' provide a solution to a problem that is then inspected by the team. The process adapts to the use the good bits and things that do not work are discarded in a safe to fail way. One team I worked with even versioned their board to help them understand when a lasting change was implemented.

This idea started as a punishment but has turned out to be a useful tool to remind teams who owns the process and encourage them to get involved in shaping it.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

"But they won't listen to me!!!"

On entering the house last Friday I was hijacked by my daughter. What happened next I was not expecting but it was an interesting experience for both of us.

She explained that she has been asked by the teachers to be the manager of a cafe to raise money for charity. She has a small team and they need to organise the event and make sure everything runs smoothly. She is 10 so the rest of this makes sense :)

So my daughter comes up with a plan, tells the team what they will do and.... well, you can imagine what happens next. One of them ends up storming off to the bathroom, 2 of them rip up the plan and come up with their own one and the rest slope off to do something else. I think we've all been here, right?

OK a double serving of coaching coming right up.... let's establish the goal.

"I want them to do what I tell them to"

Wow. OK. Healthly dose of reality required. So sweetheart, how do you feel when you are told what to do? She ponders for a bit and comes back with something else.

"I want to do something that will help us bond so we can work together"

OK, nice. Still not sure this is the goal but we are thinking differently. So, if I could wave a magic wand and fix this for you what would it look like? How would people behave?

"People would listen to me and we would come up with a plan that we would all agree on"

Damn it! So close. Oh well. I know her plan is confetti but it sounds like there is 'a' plan - what is wrong with the plan the others came up with? What won't work about it?

* rant * rant * rant *

Synopsis: takes too long to serve people and everyone needs to queue which they won't do

So it takes too long to serve each person. What kind of too long to wait is too long?

"It will take 5 minutes to serve each person"

Wow. That is very exact. How do you know it will take 5 minutes?

"That's how long it will take"

Could we test this? If I asked you to sit still and tell me when 5 minutes has passed, how close do you think you would be? For the record, my daughter has never sat in the same place for 5 minutes. Ever. So I feel this is pretty good bet.

So we test our assumption - I set a timer and she sits on a chair. After about 2 minutes I notice that she seems to be counting under her breath so I start saying random numbers since I figure she is counting so she knows how long is passed. I seem to have underestimated the sneakyness (but am secretly impressed).

After about 3 minutes I ask her how long has passed and she says about 3 minutes (!) but acknowledges that it is a really long time so I deem the experiment a partial success and we move on.

How long do you really think it will take to serve each customer? What could do to find out? The shrugs are less than encouraging so I ask what she would like from MY cafe....

We act out serving a drink and a cake in the kitchen and both agree it probably wont take very long at all to serve people. We talk a little about assumptions and how we can usually test them rather than accept them as truth which mostly gets ignored.

So what's wrong with letting the others go through their plan? Could you act it out like we just did? Would that be better than trying to come up with a plan that you all had to follow? After all if something didn't quite work you could always change what you are doing.... it's also a lot more fun.

"Yeah, that might work. I still want to do something that will help us bond"

OK. I'm tired. We go through "String of Pearls" and she assumes the roles of all members of her team. Again secretly impressed she can remember each persons role and moves into each of their imaginary positions as she says them.

Since everyone can say what ever they want, how come we end up with a story?

"We listen to each other and know it all needs to join up to make sense in the end"

Wise words indeed.

So the next day, what happens? My daughter goes and finds the teacher who organises the McMillan tea morning and asks her to help her team. Just like what Mrs A said before I got home last Friday.

I think I will leave this to Mrs A in the future, we all know she's always right :)

Friday, 10 November 2017

Can you really manage people?

My wife says I get hung up on words a little too much, which is probably true. She often tells me I am reading too much into the word itself and forgetting what it really means.

Of all the words I hear every day, 'management' is high up on my list of words I don't like. This is speaking as a line 'manager', with line 'management' qualifications who 'manages' stuff as well as people.

Here's how I found a happy place for my 'management' responsibilities.

I like to swap things around. So here's a simple test - has anyone,ever come up to you and said "Manage me"? How about "Please manage me?"

No? Doesn't that seem a little weird. If it was something that people wanted or needed don't you think they would ask for it?

Whilst the settings on my computer might need management I think that people do not.

How about the following:

* Help me
* Teach me
* Guide me
* Coach me
* Listen to me

My wife would argue that the word 'management' really symbolises these things, the word itself is not important. And she is probably right (as always).

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Do yo' Dojo?

One of the major bits of my personal development has been through coaching dojo's, which were first run by Helen Meek from RippleRock.

Taken from martial arts a dojo is a place for practice. How we use them is not much different - it is where we practice coaching.

Just like a real dojo a coaching dojo is a special place and it needs to be cared for. In a coaching dojo:

* We create a safe space - nothing is judged, nothing is shared with others
* We are all learning and mistakes are inevitable
* We turn up on time!

The setup works best with one host and 3 participants, 2 is OK as well. 1 hour sessions work well, you can expect to be pretty tired at the end of one!

We often focus a session on a particular coaching method. Starting with GROW feels right and is a simple method for people to understand and use for the first time. We usually include an intro for first timers to help them understand what coaching is and is not - discussing the difference between coaching, teaching and mentoring often helps people understand.

Through multiple sessions, once people have enough practice in one method you can then introduce more: SARA, OSCAR, CIGAR, 5 Whys etc.

We ask people to come with a problem. Ideally this will be current and real, something you need help with. Alternatively, you can go back to a situation you have already been through and maybe had some sort of resolution to. The key thing is that it is real for you. You can role play but it is just not the same, you are welcome to have your own opinion.

In a timebox of your choosing (7 - 10 mins) you have a coaching session. Someone volunteers to be the coachee (the one with the problem) and someone to be the coach. Everyone else is an observer, writing notes is a great idea allowing you to play back your observations in sequence. It is important to feedback both good AND bad since both perspectives are required. Suggestions are always welcome.

You allow the coach to complete their session and then the host gathers feedback. We ask the coachee for their perspective as well as the coach and the observers, including the hosts. It is somewhere in these perspectives that you learn what works and where you can improve.

Swap the roles round and repeat as many times as you can in your session.

In running these sessions, we have found there is no one type of person who benefits - everyone who has attended these sessions has found them useful irrespective of role. There is a lot that can be said about people taking the time to learn how to listen and ask 'powerful' questions....

For me personally, I have a tendency to solutionise. This led to me asking closed questions very frequently which is not helpful for the coachee. I was also pretty terrible as listening, often steering a conversation to where I wanted it to go rather than where the coachee needed it to go. Had I done this with a 'real' person I fear I would have done more harm than good.

True Story: In an effort to show me how many closed questions I was asking, Helen once simply responded 'no' to each one. It was brutal. Having said 'no' for most of the session, it was pretty obvious what I needed to improve. It was only through coaching sessions did this happen even though I had read several books and been to several meetups about coaching.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Diversity in thinking about Diversity

There has been a lot of talk of diversity in tech. This has been building for a while which is awesome, specifically around women in tech. I can still remember when it was inconceivable that you could be a software engineer without a degree of some kind. Although the movement is glacial, there is movement which is one reason to be cheerful.

I had a pause to think about diversity recently. I have worked in all male teams and there is definitely a different energy. When there is a mix it feels different - it's not something that I can explain but I can recognise it even if I can't explain it.

What I am a little worried about is that thoughts about diversity seem to stop at gender. What about other types of diversity, which we seem blind to?

How about age? How many 50+ do you have in your team or organisation? Given that we will be working into our 70's, what does that say about our industries view on experience? Where do all the 'old' developers go? If you were to band your developers by age, what would that look like? Are we happy with the diversity of ages that we would find?

I am currently working in a team which speak over 10 languages between them. Lots of people have a different cultural background. This is a great bit of diversity to celebrate! Each person has a different way of communicating, thinking about problems and working with people. I can see differences in how people pair, discuss and even get annoyed. We can all learn something from differing ways of interacting with people.

Where I really started to think was when I thought about neurological diversity, covering conditions such as Autism. I think these are currently labelled incorrectly under disability in most organisations.

Neurodiversity helps us understand that people with Autism, who see and experience the world differently to most people, have natural variations in their physical neurology. I don't identify this with disability. By pulling these into the light of diversity, we quickly see problems with our workplaces.

From the outset, neurodiversity is hampered by our recruitment processes. We typically have a process and for most with Autism this would be a big challenge. There has been some fantastic thinking about by Microsoft, which is well worth a look.

Is it 'the' way it should be done? Probably not - but it's represents people thinking about the barriers in place that are stopping a more diverse workplace. There is a beautiful saying that if you have met one person with Autism, you have met one person with Autism... each person is different so no one approach will work universally.

Most of us find interviews stressful, so thinking this same process would be fit for someone with Autism feels very unfair. At worst, could it be purposely shaping our workplace by stopping certain types of people from being able to join our organisations in the first place?

If we make it though that barrier, I think our workplaces are actually quite hostile. We often work under time pressures, in noisy environments which you cannot control and mandate ways of working that some people may find hard or even distressing. For people who are stressed out by the workplace alone, is it fair to add commercial pressures? What does our responsibility as people manager look like in this scenario?

Taking this further, what about career progression? Do our current methods of assessing people for promotions in an organisation work in a workforce which is purposefully neurodiverse? Certainly matrix style assessments could be so explicit that they effectively rule out career progression for certain people, obviously taking us away from a fair employment culture.

So the next time you hear about embracing diversity, maybe ask a few questions about what people think this is and where is stops for your organisation.

Friday, 6 October 2017


If you have the pleasure of working on a big programme of work, which involves many teams you will have probably encountered a status meeting.

For those from the 21st century, this where a collection of people get together on a regular frequency to share their status with the rest of the group. This usually forms some sort of rag ("RED AMBER GREEN") status which is usually in a huge spreadsheet which is usually accompanied by some words to explain why your status is not green.

If you cannot get rid of this then how about changing the way we deliver the news.

My favourite so far is by dressing in the colour of your status, so you proudly show everyone as soon as you enter the room.

The person asking for this will be able to focus immediately in people wearing red, forget about people wearing green and selectively pick on the more nervous looking oranges.

Who knows, if you all end up wearing green the encounter might only last for minutes freeing the meeting space for less fortunate souls.