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Agile teams don’t scale! They spread (if conditions are right)

Background

Agile teams definition: “Small, smart, dedicated, in-place teams who have the necessary range of skills to seize a new opportunity as it arises. The agile teams manage themselves and are fully accountable for what they do”.

With technologies and competition accelerating, companies are hoping to shift into a more flexible organisational model. The buzzword for this is agile. Agile once considered a radical alternative to command-and-control-style management and is now “rolled out” across a broad range of industries. It is an exciting concept in businesses.  Having these teams mean that in the already happening future of merging artificial intelligence with real intelligence will allow these smart teams to direct much larger teams of remote workers and digital humans. This combination of in-person, remote, and digital workers will allow the teams to react quickly to new opportunities and quickly retreat from failures. It is clear why this concept is so attractive. These teams can be the biggest winners in the digital era.

However, while the concept is widely appreciated, we seem to get stuck on trying to scale, “roll out” or duplicate by using existing, none effective, change management practices. Agile teams are new and, in most cases, fundamentally different way of thinking and operating. It requires a deep change.

Deep change

Deep change happens when we fundamentally change the way we think. It allows something different to grow and spread across the organisation in a way that is sustainable and has long term benefits.

As leaders and change agents we usually focus on activating the self-energizing commitment and energy of people around changes that they deeply care about. However very little if any attention is given to the limiting conditions that exist in all organisations. These limiting conditions might stop the agile teams from forming, these might slow or stop them growing and deliver business results or these might hold them back from spreading. Only by addressing these limiting conditions organisations can really become agile.

The diagram below, inspired by the book Dance of change by Peter Senge describes the self-energizing process of deep change and the conditions that limit it.

deep change diagram 

Seed phase – limiting conditions

Seed the idea of agile teams – Create Small, smart, dedicated, in place teams.

Time flexibility and availability –most people at work are overloaded and under constant pressure to do more with less. However, like with any significant change people that are part of an agile team, should have enough time to learn, develop and embed a new way of thinking and working. To achieve that the teams should be able to control their own time allocation. The teams should also prioritise what to do or not and how much time is directed to learning, planning, reflecting and collaborating. With limited time as a constant reality, start small!

Psychological safety and trust – at the core of the agile team is the ability to experiment, fail fast, learn and continually improve. Teams should feel safe to share their learnings and trust that being open and honest is advancing both their own and their teamwork. It is important to allow the trust to develop through clarity and consistency of Organisational values, leadership that “walk the talk” and encouragement for exploring personal and organisational values alignment.

Help availability – agile is a new practice in most organisations.  It is a new way for individuals, teams and organisations to think and operate and it requires a significant amount of support and help. Help should come in the form of coaches who are able to guide and challenge the team for new learnings, sponsor availability to remove bottlenecks and protect the team initiation and other experts to complement capabilities gaps. Many organisations have not achieved the commitment level required to cause agile to be successful. If you are an executive sponsoring who this change but have no time to participate, if you are a manager but you sit on the fence to see if the experiment will be successful, or if you add this activity as just one more thing to do then don’t even start.

 

Grow phase –  limiting conditions

Grow the agile teams – allow them to manage themselves and be fully accountable for what they do

Measurements in use – Measurement is an important part of building credibility and feedback is key to agile learning. However, if the measurement is used as a lever to change behaviours you are undermining reflection and openness of the team to new learning. For example, if you created the expectation that agile is about short term ROI you will negatively impact the team ability to meet expectations and undermine the overall value that can be achieved from this change.  Instead, organisations who are committed to the success of agile, should consider balanced measures including performance, value creation and team health and use these as real-time, constant feedback to support learning and growth.

Local management of interdependencies – agile teams that are interacting with non-agile functions might feel misunderstood and unsupported. The organisation has to feel comfortable with allowing the teams to manage their interdependencies at a local level and the team must learn how to become aware of the system impacts of their own activities.  Two critical capabilities required for that: the ability to collaborate with others and system thinking.

Tolerance for self – directed teams -The agile teams require a successful arrangement of power moving away from direct and control to setting direction and adjusting in order to achieve their purpose. If the organisation’s tolerance for independence and self-governance does not increase, then this leads to a clash over autonomy between the local group and the larger system. The best way of increasing tolerance for self-directed teams is through setting a hierarchy of purpose where at every level there is an awareness of the purpose and direction of the organisation while considering the current reality and developing the capabilities for local management of interdependencies.

Spread phase – limiting conditions

Ready and able to seize a new opportunity as it arises

Organisational learning – the overall ability of the organisation to accept, learn and adopt new thinking is critical for spreading the agile teams. If you have invested all your focus on the growth of the initial teams and have not worked on developing learning capabilities across the wider community, spreading will be impossible. To overcome this limiting condition, organisations have to break the “silos”, distribute experts’ knowledge and allow participation and sharing of knowledge across all stakeholders.

Culture flexibility – Fear and anxiety are the most prevailing limiting conditions for any change to be successful and sustainable. This fear is rooted in the most common culture in organisations, the culture of winners and losers. It means that for new ways to spread other ways and the leaders that currently practice these must loose. It raises questions like: “am I safe?”, “am I good enough?”, “can I trust others to say I don’t know?”. On top of psychological safety, organisations must accept, demonstrate and embed diversity. Diversity will allow for a smoother inclusion of new thoughts and practices.

Evolving purpose – As agile teams grow in capabilities, deliver business results and gain credibility, they demand more self-governance, the ability to define their own boundaries and purpose and to set new targets.  As teams are learning to be aware of their context and collaborate with others, boundaries should be allowed to evolve.

 

Summary

The concept of agile teams as the winners in the future of work is taking hold with many organisation. To enable the agile teams to spread organisations must alter the limiting conditions that cause these ideas a premature death.

 

@Hadas Wittenberg is a Future of Work enabler and the founder of Adaptive Futures.

The reason you don’t recruit the best talents

I found it interesting to read an article on the NZ Herald talking about the industry of personality tests as a way used by organisations to reduce the risk of recruiting the wrong people. (p.s. as opposed to increasing the chance of hiring the best people). It’s unfortunately, supporting my view that the challenge we are facing in New Zealand and elsewhere is a problem of talent waste not shortage. Our fundamental assumptions about work are causing our economy to be stuck on no growth and less pay.

When I arrived in New Zealand 17 years ago I was lucky. I somehow landed an interview on the first week with a hiring manager who was open minded and inclusive. He had no issue to consider someone for a leadership position that had no New Zealand or industry experience and not the best English. If I was not that lucky then and try it today, I would have straggled to even pass the “sophisticated” screening tests.  When later, I asked that person why he thought to hire me, his answer was “ability to demonstrate positive attitude, overcoming hardship and a passion for the task at hand”.

I took that answer as a guiding principle when later looking for people’s potential. However, throughout the years I was surprised to learn what are the common hiring and talent growth strategies and the way it is limiting potential with a set of assumptions that haven’t been tested. The current economy in New Zealand is of very low unemployment rate. This is considered a good problem to have. However, in this economy many of the existing recruitment and talents growth strategies are making organisation’s talents challenges even worse.

Some examples:

Screen for average

Organisations screen based on past skills and personality traits out of a very limited and not in their control pool. Because organisations assume these can limit mistakes. Most organisations recruit the same way: post a job, screen resumes, interview some people, pick whom to hire.  This is hiring for average.  Most top performers are not looking for work precisely because they are top performers, so they won’t be in that pool anyway. Further to that we apply screening as if we had plenty of candidates to select from based on criteria that no one can prove or link to performance. For example, why do we assume that to be an awesome UX designer in a bank requires previous experience in precisely the same job in the banking industry???.

Entrenching biases

Existing practices like Job descriptions and hiring decisions are entrenching biases not just based on gender, age, ethnicity etc. It is now becoming worse by the flooding of personality tests and AI key words, proclaiming to identify a fit with the organisation and the job before you even talk to the person. Most organisations are not really aware of the culture they currently have, and even if they do, not always this is the one they wish to have.  What makes up a person is far more complex than a set of words or letters combination to describe their personality. With a year of research I found no evidence that anyone showed a validated, predictable link between common tests used and performance. All we do is screening out diversity. Even the approach of matching with a model persona designed based on your current top performers is problematic as it ensures more of the same. (There are decades  of validated research about human personality psychology and motivation that are very useful for people to increase self awareness, it is more our understanding of how to use these researches that is the problem).

Filling the gaps

Hiring managers usually compromise on appointments to fill gaps assuming they can fix potential shortcomings with some training. Designing effective training is hard. It has to be personalised, in context, and internalised over a long period of time. In most cases organisations don’t actually know what and how to cause sustained improvement in performance, particularly when considering that a big (even if unknown) part of high performance is influenced by the environment (i.e. the manager, the team, the organisation culture, and the leadership style).  Add to that the commonly held financial point of view of “we don’t expect to invest much in talent growth because we assume people move around anyway”. But what happens if you don’t? I passionately believe in expanding peoples strengths, ensuring every experience is a growth experience. This is a positive sum game, where everyone wins.  Current approach ensures no growth hence flat productivity at best and people do leave, particularly the top performers because they are motivated by personal growth.

No use of data

We would have been better if we actually used data sourced from personality tests and other screening and performance data points to reflect and improve. Currently we still use like/ dislike and personal intuition as the best predictor of future success. Even if data is available, it is used only as supporting material at the beginning. Organisations don’t usually go back to reflect and improve. With a new sense making model , there is a huge opportunity to create new insights and positive actions based on big data derived from knowing people, knowing organisations and knowing performance.

 

To summaries, in my view there is an ever growing industry that is trying to pull the short blanket to cover skills gaps. This industry made not much difference in recent decades to people’s fulfillment or productivity growth. We have to fundamentally challenge our assumptions about work and the relationship between people, organisations and performance and design new strategies for  a different future.

 

@Hadas Wittenberg is a future of work enabler and founder of Adaptive Futures.

Get over it, we are all biased – part 2

There have been many discussions about unconscious bias, however, we still have not found an effective way to actually remove or at least reduce bias in organisations and work cultures.

The truth is, unconscious bias is the way our brain works, maybe we should just accept it?

Step 1: Leverage first impression bias and the “similar to me” effect

We are all biased by preferring people who are similar to ourselves or who have shared interests and experiences. We also tend to rely too heavily on one trait (positive or negative) when making decisions.

When scanning through CVs I might prefer names that I can easily pronounce or people that are of the same gender and similar age. The problem is that first impression and what we then consider as similar has little to do with being successful at work. Imagine, If first I see the traits that are meaningful and good predictors of work success like our shared values, the style in which we prefer to work and our passions, there are much better chances that:

  1. we can actually connect based on better predictors of work success,
  2. I will be able to overcome other biases, discovered later, that might come from superficial differences like age, gender, ethnicity, certain abilities or disabilities, etc.

Step 2: Create “stereotyping” of talents and community of interests

Stereotyping is our tendency in guessing or making assumptions about behaviors that are often based on group identity. We as humans like to, want to and need to categorize the world into neat little groups. It is efficient, predictable, and makes us feel good.

Many diversity programmes actually emphasise people in groups identities that are non-relevant to the actual work. In doing that many organisations that are trying to increase awareness and reduce bias are actually encouraging the set-up of group identity. Once connecting with people in ways that are meaningful to achieve shared purpose and outcomes, the second step is to create, nurture and celebrate “stereotypes” of talents and community of interests. People can:

  1. be “stereotyped” into groups that are crossing other stereotypes of gender/age/ethnicity etc
  2. get away from structural grouping
  3. separate talents and interests from people hence a person can be “stereotyped” into multiple groups.

Step 3: Reward Confirmation Bias

Another common bias is our tendency to look for information that supports our existing beliefs, and reject data that challenges these. For that reason pressures to recruit to “quotas”, or obey certain policies sometimes increases our focus to justify our biased choices. Instead of using punishment to try and change human behaviors, we can, for example, reward people leaders for:

  1. Discovering similarities that are meaningful for achieving the shared purpose and outcomes.
  2. Reward them for discovering and growing certain “stereotyped” talents groups.

So instead of punishing for undesirable biases or trying to trick our unconscious bias with how we dress, shake hands, speak, or train our Artificial Intelligence, I suggest, we get over it. We start to adapt our unconscious bias by staging experiences that help us see beneath people’s surface on a deeper and more meaningful way.

read part 1 here …

@Hadas Wittenberg is a future of work enabler.

Get over it, we are all biased – part 1

Bias – inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair. (Wikipedia)

Unconscious bias – refers to a bias that we are unaware of and which happens outside of our control. It happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. (Wikipedia)

There have been a lot of discussions about unconscious bias, however, we still did not find an effective way to actually remove or at least reduce bias in organisations and work cultures. Removing this bias becomes even harder if we believe, which I do, that most people want to do the right thing. Here are examples of attempts to resolve the issue and why they don’t seem to work:

Diversity and inclusion training

In the last 20 years, diversity and inclusion training programmes became the norm with most organisations. It is not clear if these programmes really work and some studies even found that sometimes these strategies actually increase unconscious bias. why-diversity-programs-fail

Use of Artificial Intelligence

We hope that the use of artificial intelligence and particularly machine learning can help remove unconscious bias from the hiring processes. After all, machines do not have feelings. The challenge is that machines learn through algorithms designed by humans with biases. For example the Events like a Google photo mechanism that mistakenly labeled an image of two friends as gorillas.

Treat the symptoms

An interesting research by the Talent Innovation Organisation measured the effect that perceived bias has on the employees and the costs for the organisation and suggests strategies to disrupt bias by changing the perception rather than removing it. The strategies are: diverse top leadership, inclusive management and connect diverse talent to sponsorship. While the research shows if applying these strategies the effects of bias can be reduced, these strategies are hard to implement if bias is there to start with.

The truth is Bias is the way our brain works, maybe we should just accept it?

Read more…Get over it we are all biased – part 2