Not Knowing is Not Bad

“The best way you can find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”          – Ernest Hemingway

I had an interesting experience at work this week that I wanted to share. I had been out of the office with some personal matters and upon my return I was catching up on emails, issues, etc. During a few meetings I had that day an issue came up in which one of my direct colleagues who during the conversation expressed “but I am sure that you are aware of this issue” to which I replied “no, I actually am not”.

They looked puzzled with an expression of “your teams are not informing you of this issue”? I went on to explain to them that from my perspective that the teams were acting as I hoped they would. They were addressing the issue with the people that could help them solve the problem and given it was not an issue that had significant repercussions, they were handling it at their level of ownership.

Two core concepts for Agile Leaders to become comfortable with (and they can be hard)

There are two core components that I believe in when leading a team, a group of teams or an organization:

  1. People use concepts of “reasonable and responsible” in decision-making and knowing when to escalate an issue.
  2. Problems should get solved at the lowest level of responsibility.


Being Reasonable and Responsible

For me, this is a core litmus test that I use when making a decision and my goal has to been to instill in within the culture of the organization I lead. This sounds great and very positive thinking but how do I actually pull this off?

  1. Stop assuming that people’s actions are the result of them trying to do something bad or the wrong thing or some other evil motivation. For the most part, people want to succeed and do what they need to do. But given knowledge, motivation, lack of understanding or maybe difficulty of the obstacle, they’ll make a bad decision. Have a general faith in this and when evidence seems to the contrary stop and ask “why did they make that decision” or (and this is truly groundbreaking) maybe ask the person themselves. You may find that they had no idea of your perception in that decision.
  2. Explain it, repeat it, explain it, repeat it and then do it again. Don’t just tell people to be reasonable and responsible as that is absolute rubbish. It means absolutely nothing. If anything it gives carte blanche to make really stupid decisions. Explain what reasonable and responsible means to you to them and don’t make it a “one and done” scenario. Use this concept in things you talk about, weave it into cultural values and if possible give detailed examples. For example, when I explain to my leadership team and our product teams this idea, I use the following base concept

Reasonable and Responsible is the litmus test for every decision we make. And when I say these words I do not mean being reasonable and responsible to just yourself and your own opinions and thoughts, I mean stopping to consider if the decision or action you are undertaking is reasonable and responsible to your team, your company, your customers. As an example:

I want to take off this week as this product sprint has been difficult and we are struggling to complete the value we committed to for the sprint. I need a break!

Ask yourself:

  • Is it reasonable and responsible for me to take time off (I’m stressed)?
  • Is it reasonable and responsible for me to leave my team during a difficult sprint leaving them to finish with one less team member (therefore creating more stress)?
  • Is it reasonable or responsible to my company for me to take this time when their product may be put in jeopardy as a result?
  • Is it reasonable or responsible to our customers to continue to delay our product?

Asking these sorts of questions gets us outside of ourselves and makes us at least consider the impact that we have upon others. This is not a solution provider, just a way to expand your thoughts outside of just you.

Using the concept of the lowest level of responsibility

This is one that I have seen is one of the most difficult things for leaders to embrace for a multitude of reasons. The idea is that when work or an issue occurs, the actual ownership of that problem should be at the level closest to getting the work done or solving the issue (coupled with reasonable and responsible considerations right?)

How many times have you seen a C-level leader or even a line leader come into a meeting and “decide” an approach or solution for which they in absolutely no way will be involved in the work? Or a leader who has “all decisions” run through them so that they can give the nod of leadership before proceeding? This is not an uncommon top down leadership style, even if it is antiquated.

This can occur for many reasons; the leader has had a bad experience in the past in which a decision of which he was unaware resulted in a severe “posterior gnawing”(another future topic I’ll get into), a leader has risen to the ranks of their position from the line level and has not really let go of wanting to be more deeply involved in the daily work itself or a leader has made poor hiring decisions or has a fear of trust in staff making decisions perhaps based on a fear of repercussions from their leadership. Whatever the reason, be it control or mistrust, this can a very difficult thing for people to overcome. This often times works itself out as an organization grows as the mere ability to have that much involvement is difficult, although I have seen, and coached, many leaders who become so stressed by the level of micromanagement that place upon themselves.

When I started leading teams, the former manager was the first person to receive a call when there was a software outage and so they assumed that I would just take over that role.

When asked for my number to do this, I asked “why would you want to first call the person with the least amount of possibility to actually solve the problem”? I instead, told them to provide my teams with rotational phones so that the primary on-call contact could be notified first and worked out a plan of issue communication based on severity, length and resolution. I wanted the people that could actually “fix” the problem to be the people called, not their boss who would turn around and call them and say “hey, there is a problem, I need you to fix it”. I later learned that this was because the former manager had risen from the ranks as a developer so it gave him a chance to stay really technical.

Ensuring that people are empowered to solve problems at the lowest level possible is healthy for an organization.


So in the situation I started this post with, I responded my “lack of knowledge” about a situation based on the two concepts I have outlined. First, I had trust and confidence that my leadership team and my staff members would be reasonable and responsible in the things they requested and the decisions they make. Secondly, I support and believe in the ability to solve problems at the lowest possible level as it promotes responsibility, reinforces problem solving skills and shows trust in your team to remove their own impediments. I express to my teams and hopefully demonstrate through my actions a full support of them that if they need to escalate a situation beyond their capability or capacity to address a problem that I will handle anything they need. But they also know that they are empowered to own the work that they do as they are the people that get the work done.

I hope these small concepts can help any new leader or leader looking to change the way they address problems.


The Balance of Potential and Capability

“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

This is a very inspiring quote and from a personal level I really like it. But I struggle with it sometimes in relation to business as their is always a tension between the concepts of potential and capability. One thing that this quote points out is that one “acquires” the capability as a result.

We know that acquiring a capability to do something not done before requires effort, investment and often sacrifice. On the broad end of the spectrum given that perseverance might not be added to the mix you could fail (and maybe learn something in the process hopefully).

So where I struggle in business with this natural tension is that often we base decisions on the potential and then work to retrofit the capability to meet the potential of what we are trying to do.

I have seen many organizations fail as they implemented a framework (like scrum) with “silver bullet” mentality without realizing what they could support or what they were lacking.

My Thoughts (and only my thoughts) …

So as I struggled with this over time, I have often thought, what if we start with a “goals first” approach to what we actually want and disregard the potential of everything possible?

So you may say “ok, I want to be an agile organization“, there’s my goal. I would say that you are looking again at potential without regard to your capability. This is a broad end state epic goal. Maybe you can decompose that into smaller goals to meet this overarching epic.

But, what does that mean to you? What things are you doing or not doing now that are your goals to be changed through an embrace of working in a more agile manner? Have you assessed your current state to determine where your strengths and weaknesses are now in meeting that goal and what does success in working in this new way look like? These feel like measurable goals and a way in which you can couple a plan to those goals.

My thought is that instead of being focused on all the things we “could possibly do” it seems more reasonable to define what we want to do. This allows us to take action and develop a plan to meet those short term goals while not losing sight of the potential. It also allows us to continuously assess if we have the necessary capabilities to meet those goals and determine what capabilities we need for those “future goals” and “future potentials”. It even allows us a way to “start starting” and ” pivot or persevere” in our plan. But it keeps us grounded to accomplish the goals that we determine bring value as opposed to focusing on “how great we can become”.

This is something that has been on my mind and I just needed to work through my thoughts in a blog post. If you find yourself in the midst of this tension between these two things, this may be something to help or you may have even better ideas. As for myself, I am going to try and listen and simply ask the questions “tell me what you want things you want to provide or accomplish today or soon” or “do we have the capability to meet those things you want to do”. From those two questions, a conversation about the prioritization of goals and alignment off capabilities and deficiencies should be able to start.

Have a great day and stay agile!



Offer Your Respect

“The only respect you should have is the one you earn” – Stellan Skarsgard

Recently, I have been asked to prepare a program for some coaching with a leader who is struggling with issues of command and control and has lost the trust and respect of those who they serve. In preparing some materials to assist this leader, I began delving into the basic concepts of respectful leadership and how if modeled can bolster respect with the organization at large. In doing this, there were items I found myself many times asking “do I do this”? I wanted to take a moment to state a few of them just for your own personal reflection. A lot of this comes from my recent reading of The Respectful Leader which centers around the idea and base common courtesy in the workplace.

Respect the Timebox

This is something that a lot of us as leaders struggle with and can become more cognizant about in general. We are often pulled into emergency situations, demands rise without warning or we are needed for in the moment coaching or guidance. I get this. It’s part of the job demands. But, we do have control over how we demonstrate respect to others when we see ourselves in jeopardy to meet commitments to meet with others.

Failure to keep our meeting commitments, especially as a leader, means we are clearly communicating “my time is far more valuable than yours”. Or is demonstrates a lack of focus, clarity and resolve to respect the time of others.

I am unsure the origin from the quote (although many quote Eric Dickey’s 2007 book “Sleeping with Strangers” but I try and use this personally when I need to attend a meeting; “early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable”.

If you find you are going to be late or a meeting will run over, try these 2 simple things:

  1. Interrupt the meeting running long apologetically and notify the upcoming meeting participants that you will be late (try and give specifics of when you will be there).
  2. Keep focus of the time and if you need additional meeting time, notify your current meeting that you will need to re-convene at another time as you have another meeting you must attend. Be courteous and apologize for the disruption if needed.
  3. Have an agenda for meetings so you can “parking lot” anything that deviates and if time allows revisit the lost for the highest priority issue or setup a follow-up as timely as possible.

If you see people drag into routine meetings late, as opposed to calling them out, ask; “is this still a good time for the meeting? I noticed we have difficult starting on time.”

Focus your attention on the conversation

In a world of constant “tethering” to our electronic devices, it is so easy to become distracted or disengaged when meeting with others. We often talk about people “checking out” during a meeting and reading email or typing away on a laptop as an accepted practice. But does it have to be? And what kind of respect do we show the others in the room or the host of the meeting when doing this? What perception do we create for ourselves with others when acting in this way? This is at base level a clear sign of disrespect to others in the meeting. This is especially harmful when we are meeting with another person directly or schedule the meeting ourselves. It demonstrates a lack of concern or desire to be engaged in the conversation. As we are asked in this age to “do more faster” it often engenders a thought for me of being a waste of time that could be better spent.

I get that, especially in a leadership role, that we often have a high degree of demands on us. But also, as a leader, we typically have a modicum more control over time as well. Our time is no more important than anyone else when it comes to respecting others.

Here is what I do for myself to eliminate these “distractions”. I close my laptop and engage in the conversation often taking notes on paper. I try and set my phone on at least silent and whenever possible “do not disturb” mode (so I can avoid the impulse to respond to the buzz) and I listen. Yep, it may be absolutely nothing I care about, nothing I can do anything about or something that is merely a vent.

I listen and engage so I can ask questions. It often makes meeting shorter as they are more focused and avoids the “late questions syndrome”. The late question syndrome has been experienced by everyone at least once in their lifetime usually in school. The instructor covers a topic and explicitly states “this will be on the exam” to which a student daydreaming or generally disengaged raises his hand once the topic ends and asks “will this be on the exam”? Yes, that is disrespect in action.

Control  emotional shift

In the book referenced above, author Gregg Ward states “keep your shift together” when dealing with situations. What he means here is that as humans and as leaders, we are experiencing continual emotional shifts throughout the day.

A bad start to the morning can cause someone from the time they walk in the door to say “it’s a bad day” to troubles at home coloring responses to work issues or encountering en disrespectful behavior from others pushing us as leaders to be disrespectful.

I think the idea of “keeping your shift together” is sound advice. Basically, pay attention to your emotions when dealing with problems or difficult situations. We all encounter these, especially as leaders, and it is important that we are aware of our emotional state and do not allow them to color how we deal with these issues. Give yourself a moment to center and focus on the issue at hand. Don’t make a difficult situation more difficult through a knee jerk reaction or addressing it with a storm of unrelated emotions.

These are just 3 small areas and suggestions I think relate well to the idea of cultivating a more respectful workplace. After reading them, take a moment and reflect on people you know who may do these things and think about how it impacts your respect for them in the moment. How can you help coach them? Are they even aware of these things?

And, if you are even more brave, think about which of these things (or other similar items) that you may exhibit and how others, especially those whom you lead, may reflect these same behaviors or continue to exhibit them and deflate the respect of their fellow employees.

No great wisdom or insight here but more common sense. As Morgan Freeman stated in the movie “The Bonfire of the Vanities”

“Let me tell you what justice is. Justice is the law, and the law is man’s feeble attempt to set down the principles of decency. Decency! And decency is not a deal. It isn’t an angle, or a contract, or a hustle! Decency… decency is what your grandmother taught you. It’s in your bones! Now you go home. Go home and be decent people. Be decent.”

Let’s all practice being decent to one another in our workplaces and set the example starting with ourselves …





Missed Tasks

“It is more important that you know what stories you can complete in an iteration than to be perfect in your decomposition of tasks” – Mike Cohn

I heard this statement early this week and it really resonated with me. I have always been a fan of “tasking enough to get working without perfection” and have always coached teams towards this goal. My reasoning behind this is just as I cannot perform BDUF (“Big Design Up Front”) for a given software product with real accuracy typically,

I feel the same about BTUF(“Big Tasking Up Front”) when it comes to decomposition of stories. While I think tasking is important for a team to have insight into the work to be done, I do not think the world will stop spinning and tend to agree with Mike Cohn that insight into the commitment and its completion is far more important than 100% accurate tasks. And if you are reading this line and saying “how will we gain our metrics”, I would say perhaps you are focusing on the wrong measurements.

Does this mean that I am saying “wing it” or dump estimates. No, I am not. Not at all. I think that decomposition of work is beneficial, not only to the team members but in completing the work. What I am agreeing to is just as we have accepted on the base level that we cannot fully design a system being built, I do not think that we can 100% accurately task the item being worked on. The core idea for me is whether or not the end goal, feature, story or whatever may be more important than this level of accuracy. I have yet to hear in any conversation with a team all work that has been done has been tasked and estimated. Everyone has a threshold. For many teams it is a split second measurement of the overhead of creating and estimating the task versus the effort in “getting the work done”. If it takes 2 minutes to do something and 4 minutes to task and estimate it. A 50% savings in time may push them to not define that task. Could they do it post work? Sure they could but updating work completed after complete seems counterintuitive and likely counterproductive as well.

What I am saying is that if you put good faith effort into decomposition of the items that you know you need to accomplish the completion of the work committed, you might miss some small things based on the degree of knowledge you have in the moment. It’s ok. The seas will not begin to boil and the clouds will not crash to the ground. But try and keep these things to the exception, not the rule. Do your best to identify what needs to be done and maybe even make a team agreement of when injected tasks need identification. Failure to do so can put a team at risk in making over-commitments and not having the data to understand why in a retrospective or just hiding work by working unrealistic hours to make a commitment fit into the sprint and hiding the work by merely not making it visible.

I suspect the likelihood that you have all forgotten some “product altering major issue” task is much lower. What you may have forgotten is some lower end tasks or some tasks that you know you have to do but they are much smaller in scope. Maybe they were emergent in the moment as you inspected and adapted the solution as it was built. And if you complete those tasks but forgot them, are the scrum police going to come and snatch you away?

Certainly not.

Because the goal is the commitment is a whole, not the individual tasks. I would only be concerned about a team missing tasks when they begin failing commitments or I observe a team health impact to hidden work or defects. I suspect in this case, they just did not understand the work ahead of them and without good decomposition, they found a point in time where the work outweighed the team capacity.

So be mindful but also be aware that tasks are vehicles to complete ideas into working software. Be focused in creating them but also be realistic to know that there will be some that never get visualized. Observe for the onset of problems caused by this, not the applicability of a “rule” that demands compliance. Focus on the end value and mode the idea that breaking these larger ideas insto discrete parts reflect continuous progress on the journey to get there to the team.

Have a great day, a great weekend and keep getting more agile each and everyday!







My ideas for Hiring and Onboarding – Part 2

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act. It is a habit” – Aristotle

This is a continuation of my personal thoughts regarding the hiring and on-boarding process (I am applying this to the public sector specifically in this series of posts) and what I think can be beneficial or leaders should apply consideration towards when thinking of building a team of people and creating it in an effort to build a greater culture. After all, I believe that creation of a talent pipeline and good hiring and on-boarding is critical to any organization and should be at the forefront of a leader’s thoughts.

And based on losing some people recently who have moved on to “bigger and better” things as they grow within their career, I will discuss what I feel is the best outlook towards off-boarding of employees top new opportunities and why that matters as well.

In my prior post, I identified several things that were driving factors that helped me shape and guide my personal approach to this activity within the public sector.

  • Hiring the “right candidates” that provide  cultural value-add (as opposed to the ever used “cultural fit”, which just means everyone is the same and we have no diversity) to the current culture in helping it grow.
  • Providing an on-boarding experience that is timely, engaging at both the micro and macro levels of the organization and provides a positive experience that engages and supports them from day 1.
  • Create an opportunity to “prepare them for success” in their new role through proper tooling and focused education and direct experience before introducing them into their daily routine of their role.
  • Possibly hire them with other team members so that through the process an underlying sense of bonding can occur to create a secondary support system when they transition to their daily work.

In the first post, I centered most of the exploration around the first and second points of this direction. This post intends to explore more of the concepts, using the public sector as a area of context, of how we might on-board new employees and create a trajectory for success for them starting on their very first day through investment and engagement.

We just wait for them to show up, right?

Unfortunately, with all of the “pre-work” that occurs when we hire someone new, this is the general mental place we often come to when we prepare to on-board someone.

We perform the required things of requesting accounts, hardware, necessary paperwork, jumping through finance, HR and process but in terms of our preparation for being an active continued investment in the person we hire before they step a single foot into the door we often can fall short. And I mean a tangible investment. One that makes them feel connected to their new company and one that helps them feel comfort that they selected the right place to be as well.

You have just made a significant investment in time, people, effort and process to hire this person; the hard work to connect them to your culture has just started. Don’t allow that gap not to engage your employee immediately and begin to demonstrate the investment that they have made in you! Some people say “I merely don’t have the time” and they may be right as hiring can be one of those “other duties as assigned” which is why people often do not work to get good at it. A lot of private companies (and more public organizations) are investing in groups to better and more effectively talent acquisition and management as a tangible investment b y the company.

In the public sector, there are lots of hoops to jump through as often times a great deal of the “things” a new employee needs. It is that “web of bureaucracy” that you often hear about. It really does exist. It’s an actual and tangible thing. But overall, it’s just extra work. And we can do the work.  Establishing that experience of the person from the very first day can be valuable about how they tell others about your organization, grow with you and how they feel they can contribute. Believe or not, there are a lot of folks who really appreciate the ability to shape their working world. And let’s admit it, the first engagement to a new employer is often a very exciting and engaging time for a new employee. Let’s do it right.

I have compared our current hiring practices with some of the same size or larger enterprises and find us on par if not sometimes above.

Enterprises take time. Startups are often much easier, they like you, they want you and the guy “Larry” who owns the company may write your paycheck personally or even make you the offer as he is a founder who is now the CEO, CTO, etc.

As companies become larger with insurance plans and benefits to choose from, retirement or matching plans, etc. it often just takes more pieces of machinery within an organization to manage all of this. In this case, it is often a more deeply managed effort that has moving parts and has to be coordinated. Add in the public sector the overwhelming concern to ensure that fairness of the process limits the scope of liability and this can be a significant process of oversight.

I think that many in organizations do a poor job of communicating this time investment to our prospective employees and keeping them engaged during this process. One thing I find really important is to discuss this with the candidate upfront. They should understand how long it takes to secure approvals to hire someone so that they can reasonably set their expectations. Does this mean that you will lose some candidates who are unwilling to wait through the process? Sure you will. But ask yourself if you sold the position as one worth waiting to be ready for them.

My hiring process (with all the approvals and hoops I need to take) takes no less than 4-6 weeks on average for a one week posting, including the initial posting, interviewing, selection, hire processing, etc. It’s not optimal but we manage within this process.

We do not throw are arms up and talk about how “we can never hire under this process”. Is it more difficult, yes. But work is hard and it takes your commitment and focus if you want to build something great. Blaming the process or allowing yourself to just give up is not going to get a single employee hired.

Start engaging your candidates before they even show up. Do everything you can to ensure that they know what’s important to you, what values you hold and they can begin visualizing how they fit into that? If not, I encourage you to find a way to market better.

To give you some context, ask yourself this … why do people wait to be hired at Google? Is it the money? Is it the prestige? Maybe both? Ultimately if you are worth your salt in silicon valley, I speculate that Google is not the only place you can get a job. It is likely the place that you want to work and I also suspect that once they have sold you on the company and the job, you’ll wait to get that job. The money could be lower than you want, you could be a grunt on a team, etc.

The process in 2016 took on average 4-6 weeks to hire for a job at Google. It has been recently projected to be streamlined to 2-4 weeks. So in the context of this, did they “hook the candidate” better and make their job worth the wait? I have to say, I am operating under the time constraints so it seems that it is up to me to sell my environment as the place someone wants to wait to be a part.

If it’s a pure competition of money, I will certainly lose but I speculate that many of us learn in this industry, the pursuit of money can leave us to very bad environments that are perfectly willing to pay you outrageously to work in a bad environment.

Learn your hiring pipeline process. Know it. Stay aware of it and make partnerships with the people that help you get it done. After all, to be really successful means “getting the right people on the bus” according to Jim Collins.

My Organizational Cultural Beliefs

*As a precursor to this section, this is how “I” personally look at building and running an organization.

I have several basic things that I believe in when it comes to an organization:

  1. Hire well. Don’t allow yourself to hire for people who just “show up”, hire for the people you need for the job that needs to be done. If they do not show up during your process, do not hire people who you justify can meet that need or you think you can get there. Balance this with taking risks based on passion and drive but also be willing to separate if the ROI just is not there.
  2. Money and Perks do not mean retention. Not just financially or in terms of perks. Money and stuff will only keep people getting out of bed for a certain period of time. People want to be part of meaningful work that they have a direct hand in guiding. I can recall working for a company once that had a putting green in the office for employees. I can honestly promise you that my choice to get out of a warm bed and drive to an office to do my work never had a single decision made based on that putting green. Was it neat, was it fun? Sure. But in the end of the day, the thing that brought me there and kept me there (for a while) was doing meaningful work that was challenging. And money and perks are never infinite, I do not care what company you are. Eventually how do you “one up” yourself?
  3. Invest in the person you hire. This becomes especially important when they are more junior developers. Find ways to create learning opportunities on a recurring basis. Feed their minds for their careers. And guess what some will flourish with it and others will not. Be OK with this. People learn differently. Never stop providing the opportunities whenever possible. Allow them to experiment via hackathons or business challenges. Let them show you possibilities of which you cannot imagine.
  4. Build a culture first not just a software group. Jobs are easy to leave when you are a talented individual. You can just make up your mind, find the person hiring your skill set and win the job. But a culture is a social strategy. It’s a mission and the thing that permeates how you make decisions, guide the work and what you cling to when chaos surrounds you. Changing cultures is hard. It takes deeper soul searching to reach the determination to see if the grass is indeed greener on the other side. Everyone that has ever left my organization says it has been a really difficult decision. Good. It should be. That means we are building the right kind of organization. Build something that makes people reflect before they leave. Understand what the people in your organization find value in from their job on a regularly basis. The job of building and maintaining culture is not a “one and done
    ” sort of approach. For each employee you bring on you potentially impact your culture.
  5. Be realistic in your view of software careers. The average time frame before a person is likely to change jobs in the software industry is 15-24 months. 1.5-2 years. This means for your highest performing workers, the likelihood is that they will move on by at least 36-48 months on the average (if your retention is good). A lot of factors can contribute in their staying, continual hard challenges to tackle, regularly pay or promotions or maybe they are just comfortable in how they work today. But someone around them will leave. And once someone does, an immediate thought by others may be  “should I consider leaving”?  Here is the cold hard fact. People leave jobs. It’s OK. It does not mean you are not creating something wonderful, it sometimes just means that people need a new challenge, new faces, new teams, new growth. How can a you developer remain assured that this culture is amazing if they have never experienced another. How can a talented developer not want to continue to grow, maybe faster or in a different direction than you are going? I am probably one of the last generations of people who joined the work force with the hopes and promises of some longevity within a business. This is just not the way it is today. People will remain while they are inspired to be here. Many of us were more risk accepting when we had less tether to other responsibilities.
  6. Let people own the work they do. Create a culture that trusts the expertise of the people you are hiring to give you the honest and most accurate estimates of the work ahead. Let them use the power of openly and honestly telling you what effort is needed and let them commit to levels of work that they can successfully deliver. If you set projected dates, communicate this and allow them to know what compromises they may have to make to achieve your goal. Respect teams knowledge to refactor work and make it more robust and supportable. Giving a solid team a voice into their work will do amazing things. It’s a scary and fearful thing for teams to experience as it implies commitment and responsibility. Couple this with learning (such as using failure as an opportunity to learn and not a point of contention or reason to “take over”) and you will see teams grow, take commitments highly serious and deliver consistently. And if you have people not taking this power, you may have the wrong kind of people to build this type of culture.
  7. Know when it’s time to go. I dislike the word “fired” or “terminated”. It implies that someone has been physically harmed. I tend to believe that these terms grew from the contentious end situations that usually someone is being asked to leave a company experiences instead of addressing it and then parting ways if not resolved. I don’t think it has to be this way. I think this contention usually arises from the fact that we do not communicate in an ongoing fashion the expectations we have of people through whatever mechanism we have as to what is important in our culture and what we expect of them. We tend to say “we can teach them” and in many cases this works but in the ones that do not, I often see people reach frustration and say “we gotta fire person X” when no one has told person X what a terrible job they have been doing or how they are unequipped to do the job we need.  I’ll speak of this a bit more in the off-boarding section.

Bringing them into your Culture

This starts the moment they seek to know more about you from the marketing you do online to the engagement you provide when they accept your offer. Here are a few suggestions into my thoughts on this.

  1. Ensure you create a presence in which to connect them that outlines who you are, what you believe and why you do what you do. Let them learn about you before they ever even meet you. And I hope it goes without saying but be genuine. The worst thing you can do is to talk about how you work and not demonstrate that same culture during a phone or face to face interview. People can sniff out a scam typically.
  2. Let them know about what you care about as an organization but give them the opportunity to care at the level in which they feel comfortable. Having a company that believes in “Toys for Tots” and requires everyone to build bikes is great but some people would rather donate money rather than time than effort. This does not mean they do not care, it just means that they may value that time for something else and rather support folks in a different way. Give people some space and flexibility in the way they contribute or let them decline to contribute at all. Not everyone can care about everything the company cares about. It’s OK if someone chooses to work rather than be charitable.
  3. Give them a way to get to know their new co-workers if at all possible. Have a blog, newsletter or arrange coffee or drinks for them with some of the new workers after their hire. Some companies may assign a “big brother/big sister” concept to give them a point of contact. Use your imagination to see how they can begin to get to know you and have a pipeline to the people they will work with. Engage them early and support them when coming on-board with your company. This small thing will pay off in the long run.
  4. Do not hire out of panic. As a leader, we all get pressure from above to do more with less. Hiring should be a core skill that as a leader you have and do but be strategic and hire well. The cost of a bad hire, not only in the time and effort it may take to rid yourself of a mistake, can be detrimental to good hires you already have. The adage of  “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” can be true. Be decisive and protect your teams from this kind of experience.

Where do I go from here?

Hiring, on-boarding and occasionally off-boarding team members is an ever changing landscape. Pay attention to it as a leader. This is not a “one and done” activity. You have to research other companies, look at how you compete and determine how you need pivot when necessary. Sometimes, you have to push boundaries like perhaps paying a potential candidate for working on a project to see how they work or if hiring for a team, bringing all potential candidates in to work on a toy project to see how they can work together possibly. The options are endless and you have to know what the state of the industry hiring is and how you need to adapt. But never compromise. Don’t get a “butts in the seat” attitude and remember that utilitarian players and deep experience can be of value. Don’t lose site of the power of diversity of your people. That will enrich the depth of your teams and provide many new team members exposure to experience that they may never gain elsewhere.

Just focus and hire the right people. Give them interesting work and get out of their way. You might be surprised what you see.



Are you a brick layer?

“A man comes across two men laying bricks. He asks the two what they are doing. One says “I am laying bricks”. The other says, “I am building a cathedral.” – Anon (story contained within “Disney U” book.)

Seems like an odd intro to a blog post, right. But hopefully I can shed some light on my theme. A lot of my thoughts recently have centered around employee engagement, not just in what they do, but with other people within the organization about what they do. This story demonstrates in a very small way how one worker perceives what he is doing in a very small scope to the overall work. The other sees his work as integral to the accomplishment of the end value goal at hand.

So this got me to thinking a lot about this as this story, as odd things sometimes do, resonated for me personally. When I look across the vast landscape of the organization of which I am a part using this context, I began to see things in a different way and wondered if individual people see what they do in the context of the sole functions they perform as just “what I do” or do they truly understand how what they do contributes to many other aspects of the end business value goals, even within groups in a departmental level.

How do I impact something else …?

I started thinking about terms I hear in my organization (hence the title of this post) and if they adequately convey the value role that these groups play and the broader impact they have. I’ll give a few examples (mostly in relation to software products development, which is where my direct leadership lies) and see if I can illustrate what I mean.

Service Desk – The group that provides support for both internal and external products as well as perhaps hardware trouble shooting. This feels very self contained like “brick layer”. What is we considered our service desk staff as “service partners”? After all, they are the frontline of engagement to our end stakeholders using a product. Are they not a direct partner to us and what we do?

Should we not educate and prepare them to provide the highest level of customer service for products to create the best experience possible? What is the shaped perception of the overall product itself if the end stakeholder (possibly in crisis at the time as they need to get something done) receives a poor customer service experience? They are partners and should understand this and we should treat them as such. To not prepare them adequately through to provide the best customer experience through product and support knowledge is ultimately doing a disservice to the difficult creative work that turns ideas, design and shuffling bits and bytes into a product.

Operations – The group that keeps our infrastructure up and running and maintains the overall structural health. Are they a partner? Of course they are! Without them, we would have a line of customers stretching in queue as far as the eye could see because the developer says “it works on my machine”.

From people that know me well, I am often apt to say “a software product that cannot be deployed is useless as it brings no end value”. Even if it works perfectly in a development environment, if it cannot be deployed with quality and stability into a production environment so that people can use it, what does it matter how it works locally?

I have been so excited to track the development of a more dev-opsy type approach that I see people experimenting with that begins to truly solidifying this partnership and as a result using the idea of runbooks and support tools we are beginning to see more service partners have the ability to better assess the state of a product (which in turn allows them to give better information to customers and often resolve issues at a lower support tier giving more immediate service and therefore a better customer experience).

Database – The group that may provide a wide array of data services from design to tuning to database support and upgrades. Again, a partner. Yep.

In my environment, which is a larger scale service enterprise, the backend of the a product is highly important as it contains the data for which the business needs to store to complete a given business function. It also ensures that we are making use of existing data sources as opposed to replicating silos of data whenever possible. They are often a partner to creating end repositories of data at rest that create an enterprise or external view into data for insight from visualization or analytics. Any product we build without this group in my environment, unless it is perhaps a small functional tool, would be devoid of a core component of what we do.

Do we engage them as partners when we consider data designs or do they partner directly with us in this effort? Do they understand what choices we may make in terms of thinking about data design and do they sufficiently understand how the data design supports the application so they can respond efficiently under failure or need for ETL or abstraction?

Product Management – This group is probably the most engaged partner (or easily identifiable) in what we do as they are the pipeline for us to the end business needs. So how are they a partner? Without them, we would be “guessing” (even if intelligently and perhaps based on metrics) what the end stakeholders want. It would require us to not only discover the “what” of need but also to derive the “how” of getting the end value.

So it is imperative that they understand and communicate the need of the business through whatever means possible to the team for shared and unified understanding. This may mean that they have to utilize partnerships that they have developed in gaining that understanding to help communicate this understanding as well as bring the end stakeholders in as partners to the overall team as a whole to understand roi, criticality of function and how the end business unit may be a partner to the overall organization in achieving their end mission value goals.

Leadership – The people who should be setting overarching goals and focus at an organizational level and ensuring the support of those team members of which they maintain organizational oversight and healthy, happy, growing and productive.

I often get very disheartened when I hear line level people say “leadership or management doesn’t understand what we do” and it is in the context of some random edict that is being passed down for the good of something or other.

As leaders, there are some fundamental truths that you should understand by now:

  1. You will not please everyone. Any overarching decision made will not please everyone it impacts. That is just the way it is. If you build you organization to be flexible, open to experimentation and accepting of failure then you will likely have people open to try something if they feel the culture will listen to feedback in a reasonable horizon.
  2. If you are trying to control isolated poor behavior issues through a universal edict, get out of leadership today. This role is not for you. Being aware and responsive to issues is a core component to leadership but if you are trying to handle bad behavior of one or two folks by a global “rule” you are likely harming your culture. Address the problem with the problematic. Create a culture that can have open conversations when people perceive a problem and allow them to discuss it and give them a clear course to escalate.
  3. Accept the fact that you do not know the job that all of your employees do (even if you did that job before). If you want to know how someone does what they do, go have a conversation and ask them to enlighten you. And if you did that very same job before, likely you know how you did it; not how they do or how things may have changed within that particular role. You are a leader now. You have to gain and cultivate a new set of skills, which means you have to release previous ones most likely. Hire well, train well and trust your people and ask them how the role works. You may find that even though they do it differently it works even better than when you did it.
  4. Being a leader can often be a lonely existence. Leading and making leadership decisions are sometimes difficult and often are rooted in a larger purpose to the organizational health as a whole. Being firmly placed into situations where you have to determine how to “prune the weeds to protect the garden” or have to stand your ground to protect a value, purpose or team and become unpopular outside of your group carries a lot of heat to shoulder sometimes. But just like I was in school and struggled with mathematics, I had an instructor tell me I had to lean in and put in the effort as “math is hard”, leadership is the same and often you have to bare the burden to make the call as you are focused on the wall and not every brick

I do not say these things to infer that I do not have the deepest care and concern for each and every member of my group, I truly do. They are my daily inspiration of a creative force that takes ideas and turns them into solutions, however, I have to be conscious to step out of their way to meet this challenge and do so with intention and purpose. I would do anything I can for each and every member of my teams within my ability, however, I also have to be broadly aware of the organization as a whole.

So take a moment and ask yourself and consider your teams … Do they focus on the brick or the catherdral? If they do not see themselves as a part of something larger than what they do, I challenge you to get busy and help them see this connection.

As always, go forth and do good … and stay agile while doing so!

Are you leading or managing?

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” – Kenneth Blanchard

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I am well-read in the aspects of leadership and agile principles, consuming as much as I can to fill not only ways to do my job better but as a personal fulfillment of exploring ideas. One thing on my mind lately has been surrounding where leadership lies and what it should be focused on as opposed to those people in which you have doing the work or helping management the work.

In my opinion, the cornerstones of leadership, agile or otherwise, is to create that compelling end goal and vision for the unit/group/organization, make it transparent, effectively communicate the needs from others that you have within your role, hold them accountable to the work being done, coach and guide as needed and get out of their way to accomplish what needs to be done. I believe this. It is core to who I am.

But as leaders, we often cannot get out of our own way. Many of us have come to our role through amazingly successful careers within the technical industry and are still deeply attached to that. The idea of solving people’s problems through smart solutions probably lit a spark for each and every one of us. However, even as much as we shed this past, I observe so much of it being held onto for various reasons. Organizational pressure, people issues, want to “be involved” or a perception of ultimate responsibility.

Lyft or Uber?

In the area in which I work, these crowd sourced car services are very popular and people use them for short trips for errands to leaving work and returning from an appointment or for safe rides after the bar crawl they undertook with their friends.

But when you secure one of these services, do you feel the need to take the wheel? Guide the trip? Watch out for every pothole, distraction or provide constant directional guidance to get to your destination? I doubt it. I imagine (as I will admit I have never used these services) that you provide a destination and you trust in the exchange of service for money that the driver will get you to that destination. If you are doing all of things I mentioned above, I have to ask; why didn’t you just drive yourself?

But as leaders, we can often find ourselves being that “jerk” of a passenger that distrusts the person we have hired and we have to lay hands to the wheel ourselves.

Do you trust the people you hired?

Have you hired well? Do you have the skills you need today with the capacity to think about where you are going tomorrow? Maybe you have people in place to manage daily operations, are these people that understand what you needs are and coach and hold accountable the people doing the work meet the clarified end goals and needs? If not, are you directly involved as a result? Do you distrust the people you hired to actually do the work? Then, my agile friends, you have a people problem. If you hired the right people, provide them coaching, guidance and freedom to meet the goals with accountability; they just might amaze you.

And on a side note, stop carrying dead weight if they are not the right people. If you have people that are not meeting the expectations (that are being clearly communicated) you have two options, coach them up or coach them out. Putting your head in the sand or allowing higher performing to make up for the lack of effort or skill in others breeds nothing more than resentment to your leadership and a unhealthy culture.

If as a leader, you communicate the things you need to support your role clearly, are available for any refinement or feedback and hold accountable those people you hire to achieve these goals, haven’t you done what you need to do? Are you supporting them when they hit unknowns by coaching them through ways to solve s problem when they hit an impediment and empowering them to try and find solutions? You’re off to a good start here in my humble opinion.

But if you cannot trust the people you hire to design the mechanisms to do the work or managers of daily operations context to ensure that the work is being addressed, why did you hire them? If you have to be personally involved in the deep woods of solving the how of every need, perhaps you need a role in doing, not leading.

Assuming this posture is hard

Being a leader who steps back and empowers the lowest reasonable level to design how the work gets accomplished and holding accountability to this being done is difficult. The pang of fear of “ultimate responsibility” creeps into your head. But guess what? If you are clear on expectations and accountability for that work, the team will design the system in which to meet that need without you and you can hold them accountable to do so and also accountable to provide the information in a transparent manner so that you can provide it upwardly or maybe just get out of the way and make it transparent to everyone and gain deeper insight into areas that you see as problematic based on the things you feel are important to keep a pulse on.

It’s easy to say “yeah I trust my people” or “they’re smart and they can figure this out” and then your actions demonstrate the contrary. Things like “I need to be in that meeting” or “I will do this small thing that actually another role should be doing” are examples of you saying the words but not demonstrating your stance to let people use the power they have in the role you hired them to do (as empowering people is a myth; they already have power) sends a poor overall message.

But what if they screw it all up?

Let me answer that question with a question to consider … “do you want a sustainable organization that knows how to take in problem, organize the work and act to deliver end solutions”? If you do, how will they ever learn to do that if they never start doing that? Yep, they may screw up. And it could be bad and you could get your ass handed to you by leadership above you as a result. But you can take that beating, pull them together, make them aware of the issue and ask them to solve the problem then hold them accountable for that solution. Because, if you have not learned this in business yet, you can believe 3 truths:

  1. Things will sometimes screw-up. You try and mitigate that or have a plan of restoration for those things you know about.
  2. People will screw-up. People are fallible. Utilize these situations to recover and learn. Keep things transparent and visible and hopefully you’ll see them coming more easily.
  3. You will get you backside chewed for something you are not responsible for sometime in your business career. If it’s a routine thing, you might think about a new organization But when you are responsible, you are responsible. You take the hit and do not pass the beating forward. Communicate effectively the issue and work to get people to solve the problem and set accountability. Do not take it personally or become embarrassed and mettle as a result. Shoulder the burden of being a leader.

I have worked places where there have been more than one screw-up within the company doing the work (see coach up or out statement above) . I have never seen these people so invisible nor so powerful to bankrupt a company or close it’s doors alone.

If people screw-up, allow the operations level folks to address the problem once you communicate the problem effectively. Don’t just solve it for them.

Demonstrate and hand over ownership

If as a leader you have a young or growing organization that need something more than being provided a direction and vision at first, this is ok as well.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with you creating an initial guidance or starting a process and modeling it. But you have to turn it over ultimately to the people who need to own that process. Once you get the ball rolling, let them begin pushing and if necessary change direction or change the game altogether.

What you should spend the time doing is clearly articulating the need being met, the end goal being accomplished and the expectations you have of the effort. Don’t let the pride of being the initial creator get into the way of how the work is done. Once they get the understanding of the process you champion, the underlying goals and the expectations, they will either continue as you modeled or may even take it to an even greater level you never though of. Your continued method of involvement is expectation and accountability at that point, not direct involvement.

Let you managers manage how things get done

The last advice I will explore starts with a reiteration of what a leader needs to do in their role:

  1. Set vision and direction
  2. Set expectations for the things from the organization to meet your goals
  3. Trust your people to do what you hired them to do and get out of the way

In closing, if you have an operational manager level, please allow them to do the job for which you hired them to do, manage the work. Part of managing the work (and the people as there is administration that occurs with people management) is organizing the work and often designing the workflow of effort. Let them learn to to do that with the people in which they need to get the work done. Hold them accountable that a consistent, visible, clear method that can be communicated exists and hold them accountable to how they say the work will get done through actual value deliverable and continuous improvement (as any organization should focus on both).

Let them solve problem with the people that they have to work with to ensure that the work is getting done so that the work and the pipeline of work is more sustaining at that level than the leadership defining it. Those things tend to have a destructive effect when leadership leaves as a) people are often unclear “why” the work was done this way and b) the ownership of the how of work is completed is lessened by the lack of direct ownership.

Hire managers that can shape this work with team members and peers, getting the right people in the room and that focus on the growth or the organization to meet the pipeline of work, Give them the space to execute on the large ideas that you feel are important for guidance and work to refine them into tangible things. Trust, support, mentor and coach them. These may be the future leaders in the very organization that you lead today. Prepare them for that should they take on that responsibility.

I hope this helps you really think about the difference between leading and managing in a broad sense. I have to remind myself of this a lot and constantly remind myself to stand where I need to be in terms of being an effective leader. It’s a hard thing not to get pulled into those conversations in which I get to be in the weeds or abandon these ideals. I just have to remind myself of all of this and why it is so important,

Until next time, stay agile!