Don’t Undermine Agility

In the book, “Drive“, author Daniel Pink talk about the primary underlying motivators of people based on research. He indicates that these are:

  • Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: The urge to get better and better
  • Purpose: The service of something larger than ourselves

 

Each one of these elements can then be decomposed even further such as:

  • Autonomy – Giving an individual more control over where or how they work
  • Mastery – Providing recurrent opportunities for investment into skill growth or activities that provide both stretch and deliver propositions for the individuals or teams.
  • Purpose – Making the “why” of what they do highly visible or helping them see how their work contributes to the business as a whole or what impacts that they make through the work they do.

In my experience, these core ideals have always resonated me and they have been used within the culture we’ve built in my organization(although it could be more widely accepted):

Autonomy – We work hard to nurture the separation of the “what” and “how” of the work to be completed focusing the teams to have the freedom to have deeper ownership of the latter. We have balanced this by helping the culture find the value of conversation to find the best solution to meet the highest value. The best idea comes from where it comes from but no one has “carte blanche” to beat anyone into submission to follow their idea.

We utilize a remote work policy that is centered around being a professional and taking the work commitments seriously. Our teams are professional enough to understand that they have the ability to police themselves and have support from scrum masters and leaders in they see that someone is not pulling their weight or may bring it up for open discussion in a retrospective without fear. We expect notification as leaders so we can be responsible for knowing where our people are as a professional courteosy, that they have discussed it with their team and scrum master if they know they need to be offsite. We feel like this is polite notification as opposed to restrictive and teams seem to agree.

We use the general philosophy that “life happens”. I recall personally working jobs in which the expectation was that I took a vacation day for having an appliance delivered or having to take a sick day when I might be too unwell to make an hour commute but could have continued to contribute. By using this underlying idea, we communicate that we understand that people have life obligations that happen and we accept this and are willing to accomodate flexibility in where and when people work as long as we are still getting the work done in the best possible way and not degenerating into remote silos.

Always remember that if the tools and processes you are using carry so much overhead to ask a question, find an answer or interact effectively, an individual is more likely to make a decision in a vaccuum than take on the burder of the overhead of communication.

Mastery – We have realized this in several ways:

  • We provide recurrent week long hackathons to allow teams to focus their creativity on thinking about interesting ways to solve a problem or extend a product. This is focused around exploration of an idea and focused skill work, not product deliverables.
  • We provide to each and every member of our group a pluralsight account so that they can take advantage of learning within their schedule anytime.
  • We have designed our 13 day sprint cycle with purpose to account for a single day each sprint dedicated towards self-learning, skill building and growth. This provides and opportunity of almost 3 weeks of self learning spread out through the year.

Purpose – This is one that I think we could work on more but we do try and nuture product owners to really explain the end value gain that the business receives from the work that the teams are doing. This has often been promoted by talking a field trip out to the field to meet the end recipients of the work and allow them to explain what they do, how they work today and where their pain points lie. This often creates a solid empathetic connection between the team and the stories that they meet. Sometimes just understanding the history of the work being done, why it is done and what it does for the end customers can help them find connections.

Finding opportunities to allow teams and team members to connect to the business as a whole to learn about what it does outside of the product work would be a solid long term goal and is being developed by our Human Resources team within a learning portal.

One of my goals this year is to determine how we can utilize some of Diana Larsen’s ideas suggested in “Liftoff” to connect teams as early as possible to create deeper understanding and allow them to be directly involved in shaping the work such as story maps and user story decomposition as well as using ideas to connect them better to how their work connects to the business.

How you can undermine your own agility

Often, I have observed that people will do wrong things for the right reasons and wonder what happened to the organization that they created. The group they once believed in starts becoming less agile over time. Please watch and mitigate these issues should you see them begin occurring.

Autonomy – You begin stifling ways of individual work. If you begin to lose focus of where people are, what they are doing (especially in being asked by executives) or “situational emergencies” are seen as only possible to be handled onsite. You begin to predict the schedule based on ideas of when and are not open to the conversation of what as part of that equation. Your actions start communicating that you have a level of distrust in the work of teams as expectations and delivery are misaligned. You develop a culture that wants to “see people” more than it values “the work that they accomplish”.

Focus on schedule begins to overshadow value. You set dates in the sand for features based on limited information and begin eroding the team’s ability to provide you input into complexity and delivery to make value based decisions.

Mastery – There is an old joke in which a CFO questions a CIO about the money being spent on training. The CFO states “what if we train them and they leave”. The CIO replies “what if we don’t and they stay”?

In a creative field, the ability to grow with the industry and get better at what you do is often a core part of your career. It helps you promote, it helps you move to know companies, it often refines or grows your ability to lead either technically or otherwise. Becoming better, is a core value to being a creative worker. Sure, you may eventually hit a pinnacle in which you either trade those technical skills for a new skills or you get to a point where the languages become secondary to the patterns upon which they are built. You see languages as tools and the patterns of how they work become more transitive. Basically a creative career without growth means at some point, you will get stuck. The industry will move away from you. It does not need to sleep or play with it’s kids or spend time with its family, people do. With this being said, I cannot see how any organization that seeks to achieve any longevity with employees would ever consider not investing into employees. It’s a fool’s bet if you do not.

But there is a significant cost to this investment if using conferences, learning sites, etc. Which in the grand scheme of budgets is far smaller than people think, in my opinion. But there is something you can use and that is opportunity. Sure, it has the cost of allowing someone the time and freedom to learn and grow. But the pay-off of staying relavent and having employees who are constantly honing their craft is a good thing. Often time, bottom lines of budget can drive these. Look for every opportunity to keep continual learning alive through peer to peer sharing, local developer talks at lunch and learns or even reducing a team member capacity during sprints to allow them to learn. Find opportunities to showcase what is learned to your group as well as the business.

Whatever you have to do, do not allow obstacles to cripple your team member’s approach to mastery.

Purpose – General George Patton was quoted to tell his troops “Better to fight for something than to die for nothing” in terms of his deep patriotism. Teams and team members want to know that they are doing things that are impacting someone.

I have often said that my affinity for public sector organizations has been because “I would rather create a product that helps a secretary do her job a little better than to make a 10% profitability increase for a board of shareholders I never see; even if they give me a bonus in the process”. Maybe it is because I started in the social work sector before I moved into IT in business or maybe it is because the work holds less meaning to me personally when the measureability is based on profit alone.

In general, people want to do good. I have never met an employee or a team member in my entire career that came to work and said “I am going to do the absolute worst job I can possibly do”. They may be incompetant, poorly trained, not a team player, above their head, etc. but they did not intend to do a bad job. I often remind teams that perform legacy work who complain about older code that many times the developers who wrote that code were doing the best that they could with the tools that they had and within the abilities they possessed. They were just trying to get a job done and help someone. They did not intend to write code that they expected anyone besides them would ever support, let alone, complain about.

I recall being part of a team building a system that at a certain point we began calling it the “Titanic” as we joked often heard the ribbets pop as we scraped along the iceberg. The project scope grew uncontrollably and it became death by committee with each person fighting for their individual wants and making it difficult to get any one thing of value completed. In the end it became a bloated system of 80% features.

The reason I mention this project is that it took the team a LONG time to become frustrated even after the chaos started because we believed in the underlying mission of what the system was going to do. It was targeted to help kids. And help those people helping kids. It was going to ensure that they had better care, they got connected more openly to services and community. The vision was amazing and each and every team member was on board. We watched videos showing vaporware and shed tears at the good we were setting out to accomplish. We were connected to something larger than what we did because we knew how it fit into the world that it would be released to. It inspired us, it elevated us, it pushed us, it connected us. That vision drove us even when we as technical professionals should have know that the end was near as we understood what the purpose of the work we were doing was.

Disconnecting your teams from that purpose is a mistake. Sure, we have systems that are like “hello, this is our accounting system. it handles our payroll and benefits”. But what is the purpose of that system. For a team, this is the system that ensures that people are paid in a timely manner, insurance benefits are kept up to date and vacation time is accurately stored. Without that system, we couldn’t pay people, people could not take vacation and if sick, people might not have insurance if inaccurate information is stored. It helps us apply raises and bonuses that pay for the needs of ourselves and our families. The people that use this system do not ever want to be the ones that have to email everyone to tell them they are not being paid and rent and mortgages are late, etc.

Sure, payroll is dull to me, but it has a purpose, a need, a vision and a connection to the business. If a team is being asked to do something on a payroll system, the “why” is important. Are we speeding up a process? Are we adding a new feature? Are we making a problem go away? Are we allowing people to do something easier or better? Understanding this, can create a better connection for the team to do the work. Reinforcing these things with personas, story maps, etc can even inspire them.

Don’t decouple the “why” from team work. Don’t reduce it to “cause Bob says they need this”. Understand the why. Help them understand it and form a connection with it. Taking the time to do this will allow you to continue to remain agile and continue to support a quest of purpose for teams and team members. It will allow they to understand the business terms, frame questions in business ideology and connect to d the end goal they are trying to achieve.

Final Thoughts

I decided to write this article as I reintroduced to the concepts of Drive in some reading I was doing lately and thought about how we apply or should apply these ideals in an organization. They are some good core concepts upon which to build an organization that resonates to the base needs for people (and remember those needs may be broadly unique as autonomy for one does not mean the same for others so think broadly about what avenues you support and what you reject.) and how these items can become corrupted as you introduce less agility or embraces practices that work against their nature. It’s not to say that experiement and reflection are not a great way to see the impact of things. Agile is all about, I am all about it. But be open to impacts of things in a organizational way and don;t be afraid to fail or be wrong. Be an organizational scrum master and protect the teams and team members by protecting those things that helps keep them focused and productive and meets the underlying needs. Remove impediments and reflect often. Be open but be vigilent…

Stay Agile!

 

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Thinking in Moments

“Capturing the moments of today will wow your hearts tomorrow” – Anon

This will be a relatively brief post but wanted to share something that struck me in my early morning reading (which is my habit to feed my mind a little to start the day).

I am currently reading the new Chip and Dan Heath book, “The Power of Moments” in which they explore the idea of what defining moments are in terms of people and how people can make the shift to begin thinking in moments so that they can capitalize of the impact.

Doug Dietz, an engineer from General Electric spent roughly two years designing a new MRI machine. The book describes how he was so excited to see the first patient in a children’s hospital be able to utilize his creation but was absolutely dismayed when the experience was met with fear. He said this was the point that he “saw the room through the child’s eyes” which was cold and sterile and his machine sat inside like a “brick with a hole in it”. As a result, many children had to be sedated to undergo the use of the machine just to allow them to stay still and overcome the fear of the experience.

This heart wrenching experience fueled him to take this “pit” (low point or negative experience) and strive to make it a “peak”. So he worked with a vast cross functional team and was driven to redesign the user experience for children. The end result was he and his team created MRI rooms in children’s hospitals that resembled a pirate ship, a space ship or a amazon adventure (this one encouraging the child to stay still as not to tip the machine painted as a canoe). He careful observed the difference in the experience and was delighted when one small child tugging at his mother’s leg asked “can we come back tomorrow”? He had taken a “pit” moment for these children and transformed it into a “peak”.

I read this and thought to myself, “this is so applicable in organizations”. How may “pits” are we aware of as an organization for people (poor performance, bad service, bad product interaction) for which we have no plan or allow it to sit without putting passion behind turning it into a peak?

Conversely, how many “peaks” (employee first day, retirement, significant life events, transitions in career or life) do we place the minimal effort into a miss the power of creating the moment of connection between people and our organization.

This brief story really impacted me and I began to think (and I feel like I will begin to formulate known moments that I think I am missing for my organization) about what I could do to “think in moments”.

How about you? Are you thinking in moments? Are you turning “peaks into pits” or “pits into peaks”? I have not finished the book so I cannot give you a full review just yet but I can say that this small concept resonated with me and I am sharing it with you in hopes that it might with you as well.

Stay Agile!

 

When Fear of Failure Strikes

“Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure” – Jack Lemmon

I had an interesting coaching moment with a scrum master today. He came to me with a dilemma he had for his present team. He has a new team that has a new senior developer on it and they are in the process of storming as a team. Given this state of team development, it is only natural that they are in a growth period.

In their prior sprint, the team had a plague of sickness spread across them and they did not meet a significant amount of their sprint commitment due to the unexpected loss in capacity. This significantly concerned them as when they reviewed their product at sprint’s end, the stakeholders who attended did not seem to understand what the idea of “undone work” was nor how it was typically handled by the team.

The product owner managed the stakeholders relationship well and explained how the undone work would roll forward to the next sprint as the highest priority (given that was still the case) and be addressed by the team. But the team became very worried about the perceptions of the stakeholders. Fear of failure had reared its head within the team.

The scrum master, being conscientious about this engaged the team as based on some severe inclement weather had forced them to see the possibility of a failed sprint looming again. The team had asked, maybe we should change the process to only demo those features to the stakeholder that actually work. Being a relatively new scrum master, he wanted to explore this with me to help guide them. He came and met with me and told me what the team had suggested and admitted he felt uneasy about this change but wanted additional guidance. Instead of “giving” him an answer, we explored the situation and circumstances surrounding this request once he related the situation of the undone work in the previous sprint and the feeling of dread by the team with their current sprint.

I asked a few questions of him:

“So the team feels confident that they will not complete their commitment”?

“Do you feel this is a reaction to a fear of failure”?

“Do you think the compromise to hide this undone work compromises the agile value of transparency”?

“Is this the first responsible moment to speak with the product owner to indicate the work that will be undone so expectations are set with them rather than surprise”?

These four questions helped him find his own answer. He realized that he did have time within the sprint to engage the product owner and set the expectations of him and in doing so release the pressure of the team without finding some method to place transparency to the users into the shadows. He determine he could help the new team more by helping them understand that failure is opportunity, not a point of suspicion, ridicule and derision. He found a solution within his own problem by thinking through his problem so he could help his team do the same.

As a result, he engaged the product owner to indicate to them the work that may be undone so that they could discuss this with the team, ensure that the items worked on were the highest valued among the undone work (which they were) and kept the issue of fear of failure as a point of opportunity as opposed to the crushing blow of defeat. He helped them find relief and refocus on the things in progress without continuing to worry about the items that they knew they might not achieve.

In the end, they completed their commitment as it was the fear of failure to the stakeholders that made them concerned not the reality of doing so. They were so caught up in not appearing to be failing that they saw the loss of capacity as a reason to react. He guided them to understand this principle as well as one of the “first responsible moment” so that they could create transparency and strengthen the openness and relationship with their product owner. He turned this situation born of fear into one of working more closely together to succeed.

And he did so by just stopping to consider a few questions to allow himself to explore the possibilities. Fear of failure is a real thing with teams, especially teams that are allowed to select work within capacity to deliver as they feel they are driving the work. But failure is an opportunity to learn (although I know many executives who may not agree).

But through inspection of the underlying reasons behind this fear we can often find ways to gain clarity and help shape it into a learning point and create stronger relationships and stronger teams.

We all fear failing. But it does happen and often as a result of things far beyond our control or sometimes when we are doing everything right. So when this happens, it’s easy to just react based on this but the more challenging thing is to examine the fear and determine if our failings can be something that makes us better moving forward.

 

Team Metrics

“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited or erased. It can only be accepted.” – Unknown

Let’s Define some metrics!

I had a conversation with a relatively new scrum master recently who was working to help establish some base level team metrics for their organization. They had made the journey to scrum from the role of a project manager and seemed to really transition the mindset of driving to create an environment of trust and transparency within a team and shunning the ideas of controlling the time/budget/scope and “resources” (word I hate when it comes to talking about people) viewpoint of traditional project management.

So my initial question was “who are these metrics being designed for”? This is something we often do not consider. There is a different need for reporting transparency and one to help teams improve. If oversight is the driving goal then the assistance to the team may become minimized. If the goal is to create metrics that are learning opportunities for the team or generate insight for a conversation then the construction of these may be much different but may provide less insight into what management may be seeking.

All metrics are not created equal …

Except, when it came to metrics it seemed. Most of the metrics they were developing were centered around trailing level metrics (lagging metrics for those who are KPI inclined) for the team. A lot of the focus was on the past as a predictor. So I raised the question; “why are you so concerned with the past” in terms of metrics?  They explained to me that this is how he could help the team improve by knowing where they failed or made bad decisions beforehand. So I asked again “given the dynamic nature of iterative development, how can you ensure that the same cause will generate the same effect”?

We discussed in detail that they were extremely proud of was the tracking of “estimated” versus “actual” hours on tasks. They worked really hard to convince me that learning the difference between the two would help them more accurately estimate the work to be done. I let them go for a while and then I had to call bull%^#$ on this.

In my opinion, the only way an “actual” at a task level will be a predictive metric is if the the same circumstances occur exactly the same way the next time. Estimation is just that. It is not predictive in nature, it is a best guess based on the knowledge known at the time. And before anyone says it, you can make a better estimate by reducing the unknowns but you can never eliminate the unknowns.

If I have a headache,  I had road rage on the drive in,  I had more meetings than normal, I volunteered to help someone, I was tired …  A whole lot of things could impact the differences between my estimation and delivery.  So in my “estimation”, this metric is a “narcotic metric”, it tends to make you feel good but it actually could be very damaging when using it.

And what if we do know this information? The key is to be able to take information learned and make it actionable. How do we do that? Send an email and tell the team to estimate better? Begin to question their estimates? Make them sign off? I cannot see how you “use” this information to help them actionably improve.

Refinement Metrics

One type of metric I always recommended for consideration is one I consider a refinement metric. This type of metric is designed to allow the team to perform self-reflection on a recent event given the context of more knowledge and apply that knowledge to a past decision. Instead of comparing the past to the outcome, it asks “given the things we learned, do we think we made an accurate assessment of the work”? Sounds similar but with a couple of differences. 1) It’s never at a task level. 2) It’s a team level rather than a individual developer level as the goal is that the team learns to become better as a team, not as just an individual member.

So what I suggested is something we would often do as part of a retrospective with a team. We would examine the stories for the sprint just delivered and look at the assigned story points. Then we would have a discussion and asked if given the knowledge today, would we apply the same story points. This typically leads to a discussion of dependencies, issues, etc and the team centers pretty quickly around a “stand/raise/lower”. This does not help them get better in defining the individual number itself but helps them reflect on this type of work and the hidden complexities that can be present to determine questions that they may ask themselves or the product owner to create a better consensus around an item in the future to the potential complexity of the work.

Just in Time Metrics

One metric that I have read about after working as a scrum master that I liked was a daily vote of confidence. If you have ever been in a U.S. hospital and had surgery there is a common tool used by nursing staff to determine the level of pain you are in to report and administer treatment. It is called the “pain assessment tool” often and looks like this:

pain-scale-chart

This allows the patient to quickly indicate the level of pain that they are perceiving and reflect this to the nurse, doctor, etc. The blog post I had read (which I wish I could recall the link) suggested using a similar scale for each team member to allow them to forecast their confidence level to meet the current sprint commitment. This allows each team member to express their confidence on a similar scale from “Yep, we rock!” to “Hey guys, I am really, really worried where we are right now” so conversations can be had to determine what’s going on for the purposes of communication at the first responsible moment or to allow the team to swarm around and issue, etc. A simplified version of this has been used by teams that involved “Roman voting” (thumb up affirmation, thumb down condemnation) as well. This type of metric gives you perception of the current state of work in a very real form and let’s you make it actionable. This is often easier to use than seeing potential patterns within a sprint burndown (which is another post).

So just as I asked this scrum master, I ask all of you. Do you have metrics? Who are they created for? Are they actionable or are they just data? How do you use them? Are they actually helping you and even more important are they bringing value back to your team(s)? How do you know?

I leave you with a quote about the importance of knowing why you are actually measuring something …

“Remember, what gets measured; gets managed” – Peter Drucker

Team Icebreakers

I am a big fan of using small team exercises to just people out of their “head space” for a moment before refocusing back to the area of work. Sometimes it can be a physical (just stand and stretch, take a team stroll) or be just a small thing to let people begin talking about non work focus items to just relax for a moment. I also appreciate, as does my team culture, the value that humor affords in work.

A great way to start teams talking before a daily stand-up or retrospective is with an icebreaker. I have come across a few simple ones (some I have used in the past) that I think is a great way to just stimulate spontaneous response and to allow the teams to loosen up and get ready  to communicate.

One Second Trivia

Prep Time: 5 minutes or less dependent on how quickly a scrum master thinks on their feet. Questions can be prepared on index cards or scrum master can make them up on the spot.

Run Time: 1-2 turns per team member

Goal: To just relax people with potential humor and “prime the communication pipeline”.

Rules: Only 2.

  1. You must provide an answer within one second.
  2. There is no wrong answer in this game.

Play:

As each team member a question and allow them to give an immediate response (much harder within one second than you think),

Examples:

  • “What can you not grow in a garden”?
  • “Why did you borrow $20.00”?
  • (Fill in the blank) “You superpower is …”
  • “What is a vegetable that should not exist”?
  • “What is Beyonce’s middle name”?
  • (Fill in the blank) “The code word for this product is …”
  • “Where are you keeping that candy bar”?

The objective is just to get the team relaxed and ready to connect. Often time hilarity will ensue as coming up with answers for these in one second typically results in whatever pops into your mind.

You can change things up by allowing team members to run the game and prepare their own questions. It does not take very long and it engages them.

Yes. And …

Prep Time: No real prep time needed, just the ability to seed a conversation.

Run Time: 1-2 turns per team member

Goal: To help team members develop engagement and listening skills with one another as well as reinforce being value additive.

Rules: The objective is to listen to the statement made by the previous team member and continue the story by adding “Yes, and …”

Play:

Seed the conversation to start with a topic or lead-in. Examples:

  • “Yesterday, we went to the zoo …”
  • “When I was preparing for my career as an astronaut I went to Walmart”
  • “Today began as the worst day ever”
  • “I came home last night and decided to bake a cake”
  • “I met my evil twin yesterday in a coffee shop.”

Power Animals

Prep Time: 5 minutes or less. Requires either drawing animals on index cards or finding small pictures to tape on cards, etc so that they can be placed into something to draw from by each team member.

Run Time: 1 turn per team pic member

Goal: To just relax people with potential humor and “prime the communication pipeline”.

Rules:

  1. Respond as quickly as possible.
  2. There is no wrong answer in this game.

Play:

Set the stage – “This is the power animal game. In this (bowl/box/hat) are many types of exotic and amazing animals (make a lot of them really odd or very mundane animals). This animal has specifically selected you to be able to channel some of their special abilities in any time of need.

The goal of this game is for you to relay to the team why this animal picked you specifically to be your power animal and what power(s) did they grant you.

  • Have each team member reach into a shoebox or bowl and draw out a picture of an animal and respond. It’s often not only humorous but can often be insightful into gifts that a team member has or wishes they possessed. Good information for strengthening team member connections with one another and with the scrum master.

Capacity and Performance

“Your capacity to say no determines your capacity to say yes to greater things”        – E. Stanley Jones

This is something in business we all struggle with in my assessment. How to sequence “just the right amount of work” to deliver value and still all the desired ability of an organization to remain responsive to shifting value needs. My organization has struggled with it as I feel confident many of you have as well.

There are a lot of techniques, both agile and not, to determine capacity and we’ll look at a few and I will express my own opinions here and what effects poor capacity planning can have on teams and organizations.

Somebody call 911!

A lot of us live in a world of “firefighting” as an organization. Not literally, but what I mean is that we become reactionary as an organization as opposed to responsive.  Organizations often confuse responsiveness as the ability to handle each fire as it occurs when it reality this is chaos at its core. Often, these organizations are so busy fighting the blaze that they never take the time once the situation has passed to ask why the fire actually started in the first place or they confuse every flare up on the same level as the entire city in flames. This is not responsive, it’s reactionary and although you may be defined as the “hero of the day” in the moment, it eventually raises much deeper problems that can become exposed and have to be addressed.

Being a reactionary environment is inefficient. It means that there is a significant amount of waste happening waiting for the disastrous event or worse yet it is a sign that work is improperly sequenced to allow a balance of responsiveness and performance. Signs of this are often team member turnover, sick time increases, increased deep policy to attempt to be preventive (the “ban all matches” approach) or just a general negative outlook to solving a problem. Be vigilant in observation for these types of issues as one you define yourself as this type of an organization, it is often very painful to change.

Capacity, Performance and the myth of being busy

One of the things that I have always believed is “do less better”. Ensure that you are meeting the highest value items for an organization but in the face of emergent needs you have to deliberately create slack within your work capacity for numerous reasons. Things like actually being responsive to the emergent pet project that comes up, capacity to nurture your teams and team members to allow them to grow and give back to the organization in doing so and generally to improve performance throughput

Basically capacity boils down to “how much something will hold” from a true math reference bt in our terms it means how much time and work can we consider and remain effective in our performance. Finding area and volume of a given shape to determine capacity is a relatively simple formula but when it comes to people and time, it often gets tougher (although I know many PMP folks who would explain to me formulas of resource management, resource being a word I strongly detest when referring to “people”).

A general rule of thumb is that you will never receive the maximum capacity of a given person or team. Accept this. If a person works an 10 hour day, the best you can hope for us 70%-80% which is roughly 7-8 hours at the high ends. The reason for this is that people are social creatures and have needs like going to the restroom, checking emails, diverting their attention after prolonged focus, casual conversation, meetings, etc.

If there are CIOs/CFOs/COOs/CEOs reading this in awe and shock, welcome to the reality of people. And it is even possible that 10% of your overall workforce is performing suboptimal based on lack of skills, poor work ethic, sickness, burnout or whatever reason. So how do you handle this and still maintain a level of performance without remaining in a constant hiring frenzy of cycling burnout workers?

First, accept your reasonable capacity levels and plan strategically. If you do, you will find that you optimize the flow of delivery within that capacity and you often see higher percentages executed (which can be a different topic to watch for … “dark work” that has no visibility and creates strain but as things are delivered on time no one questions).

If you think more bodies are the answer. You’re wrong. Read the Mythical Man Month. As you increase complexity to any systems you fragment pathways making performance degrade. Think of a small intimate dinner gathering and how conversation can flow well between 2 couples (as they can keep up with topics or break into smaller sub groups and still reflect to the group). Now introduce 2 more, and 2 more, and 2 more. Make it a large dinner party and afterward come home to discuss the topics of conversation. The pathways are too complex. You cannot keep everyone in the loop on all of the conversation occurring.

The same thing occurs with software development. As you introduce more and more staff you increase the complexity in the forms or handoffs, communication pipelines, individual or small group decisions that get made, etc which make it slower as rediscussion, rework and deeper changes are often a result. This is often why I prefer product feature teams as opposed to component teams whenever possible.

Secondly, if you want to be responsive; be deliberate in building in slack to your approach. Let’s take 3 examples; road networks, servers and teams.

Road Networks:

You are driving to work. There are 30%-50% of other cars on the road. You make your commute in a reasonable amount of time. But we are not utilizing all of the capacity of the road! So let’s crank it up to 100% and make that same commute. What is the expected result? Traffic jams, delays due to accidents, road rage. We actually decreased our performance by trying to fill all of our capacity.

Servers:

This is a little tougher as in the day of invisible scalability of cloud networks it may seem a poor example, however, if a server capacity is maximized to 100%, performance degrades; it is a given. It results in unneeded swapping just to meet all requests. It may seem negligible but if you have ever been frustrated waiting for a web page to load, you may have been experiencing exceeded capacity.

Teams: 

Filling a team capacity to the brim can result in whiplash when trying to meet those emergent needs With that allowed focus, you have teams that maximum their throughput through selection, self-organization and a regular cadence. If they have other responsibilities (support, meetings, etc) not building in that capacity that is aware of these things will result in feelings of being high performing but in fact often degrade performance and hide a lot of work being done on an employee’s own time (which can result in a whole host of issues).

But we have to keep people busy

Do we? Did we hire the individual with a specialized set of skills to ensure they remained “busy” or did we hire them to ensure that we had the necessary skills to realize the end result of value?

If a manager pops into a team room and a team is relaxed, having a conversation about Dr. Who or some world event is that ok? Sure it is. If they are personally making their commitments and failing to deliver value, then you might sense a problem which could be everything from they are sandbagging to they are being disrupted externally for other work to the guidance they are receiving is creating deep and counter productive conversations at the time of delivery from a lack of understanding. It could be lots of things.

The point is not to keep people busy. In trying to do this based on observations of social interaction as a sign of low productivity, you toss the idea of capacity out the window. For me, I want a highly motivated team that wants to come to work and deliver because they know they have a direct voice in setting and communicating reasonable expectations for feature delivery. Does this not mean that occasionally the team may not be forced to ramp up commitments to meet a deadline? Absolutely not. But if you trust the people doing the work to be reasonable and responsible in communication, transparency and of the delivery of that work; often times I find teams will rally to address the hard need.

Otherwise they are back in firefighting mode.

Seeking to ensure teams and team members are “all busy” is a false goal. It equates people with server throughput. People should be cultivated and grown if you want to create longevity of any sort in your company with employees. They will become your greatest champions and advocates if you embrace this. They will tell others of the great company they work for and they will work hard to deliver of their commitments.

I write this post today not out of any personal or professional frustration but from an observation that many organizations focus on “busy” as opposed to intentionally creating space to be responsive to emergent needs. Just like a home’s unused space get filled, professional people fill the unused space (through skill acquisition, environment improvement, idea sharing, etc). But just like a home; should you inherit your grandmother’s giant steamer trunk if you have filled all of your capacity of space it gets placed in an odd location or you “make room in the attic”.

Be honest and kind to yourself as an organization, your people and reflect a true understanding of capacity by considering more than just “delivering more” or “being busy”. Understand what other impacts that people have that impinge on capacity and to become truly responsive, be intentional in creating slack within your overall capacity.

As I always say and I will say once again … “Do less better”.

 

Customer Service

“You are serving a customer, not a life sentence. Learn how to enjoy your work.”                      – Laurie McIntosh

This weekend I had to run some errands and I arrived at a local business just as they were opening to pickup a delivery. I stopped at the drive up window, rang the bell and patiently waited. A clerk came rushing in sat her items down and opened the window … “Name”, she asked sharply to which I provided her my name. She fumbled around and said in a tone as if a burden were being placed upon her “We just opened. It will be at least 30-45 minutes”. I thanked her and said I would return in about an hour. She closed the window and walked away.

As I drove to another place where I could occupy an hour (as returning home and then coming back would be pointless due to the drive) I began to think about customer service. Not about this particular incident specifically but what “customer service” really means. Customer service is defined on the interwebs as “the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.

This being the case, on face value, this woman provided customer service as she indicated how long I should expect before my delivery was prepared, correct? Sure, she absolutely met the definition of “assistance and advice”. But did she delivery it in a way that made me happy to be a customer? I would say not. Her rush into work and exacerbation from that experience translated to how she provided that customer service. I get that we are all human and are affected by life’s experiences but sometimes in the service of others we have to rise above all that. Easy to do, no. But something we should think about in terms of customer service.

The reason I began thinking of this as it made me reflect on a story I had read about Zappos and its early beginnings. One of the values that Tony Hsieh strives to instill in each and every employee is the ideal of amazing customer service as the experience from that places an imprint on people that make them want to return and do business again.

When his company was first starting out, he was courting  all of the major shoe manufacturers to stock his warehouse (as they learned that controlling the shipping timelines was another way to maintain a good customer experience) with their brands so he could provided diversity and brand loyalty names. On one particular case, he had been out for dinner and a lot of drinks with a particular rep from a company and they returned to the hotel at the early hours of the morning. Tony had spent the night selling the representative of this manufacturer on the core customer focus that Zappos had and how their superior customer service. The representative, probably a bit tipsy, told Tony that he wanted to see how “customer focused” his staff really were and if they were as he said, he had their account. Tony agreed to take that gamble.

The representative called Zappos, again in the wee hours of the morning, and got through to a customer service representative. The call center responder answered with zeal and said “This is Zappos, how may I help you”? The shoe representative said; “yes, I would like to order a pepperoni pizza please” in a tone of seriousness, fully expecting the call center to become angered and explain to him :”that is not what we do here sir”.

Instead, the call center representative said in a pleasant tone, “may I have your location sir”? The shoe manufacturer provided it to which the call representative stated “please hold one moment, sir”. The shoe manufacturer waited a moment and the call center came back on the line. “Sir, I apologize that we are unable to meet your need directly, however, based on the location you have provided to me, I have a list of local pizza shops that I can provide to you, the closest being open until 4 a.m. Is there any other way I can assist you sir?” Flabbergasted, the  shoe representative took the number and thanks the call center representative. The call center representative closed the call by thanking the customer for their call.

Over a late night pizza, the shoe manufacturer gave Zappos their business.

This may be an urban legend, but it makes for a good story for sure it demonstrates to me what customer service really entails. The call center representative adapted to situation. They did not become frustrated because some intoxicated person called wanting to order a pizza, clearly not what they did. Instead, they used the situation to continue to provide excellent customer service and potentially establish a customer for tomorrow.

Isn’t that the core of customer service? Our goal is to “help the customer”. This is something that we cannot always do directly but if we go back to the definition of customer service as “the assistance and advice” this means that sometimes we help them by providing them with a direction, not a solution. We have to be willing to maintain that focus to help assist and advise even if out of scope. Does it take more time, sure. Does it mean we may have to try and find information that they could have found for themselves, absolutely. But being focused on customer service means you are there to guide that customer to solve that problem through your direct action or by helping them get a point of direction to that solution if at all possible.

So, coming back to my experience; did the lady provide customer service? Of course she did. She told me when I should return and my order would be ready. And when I returned, it was ready. I thanked her and went on my way.

Could she have left her frustration for being late for work out of the context of her customer interaction with me? Maybe. But that is an area for personal growth for her, not the basis upon which I judged if she provided the end customer service. I weighed this against the outcome. Her brief frustration did not make it a situation where I felt as though I received bad customer service. She was rushed from being late to work. It happens and as a result if we are faced with an immediate interaction, I cannot say that I would have handled it any better.

Are you “advising and assisting your customers” or just merely dealing with them?