Last week I witnessed a discussion during a workshop on the use of top down goals and targets and a participant was expressing his frustration that the team’s input is often not sought to ensure that realistic targets are being set and cascaded. This triggered a healthy debate about the difference between setting a vision and how this flows down into aligned targets and commitments that we can work to across an organisation. Often our high-level vision and goals are determined by what is happening in the marketplace, specific customer requirements or business imperatives that seem disconnected from the performance we may have previously demonstrated. This reminded me of a previous role where I was leading a programme with really challenging technical, commercial and programme requirements. During this assignment I gained some key insights regarding the importance of creating an environment for teams to identify and ask for help where they observed a red condition.
As the programme lead, I knew our initial focus needed to be on creating the right climate for change, establish a sense of urgency, create a compelling vision, textbook stuff reflecting the first stages in Kotter’s 8 step model for leading change. I knew we had to invest in this phase of the programme to get the buy in from the team and move them from ‘having to’ deliver to ‘wanting to’ deliver the project, I had seen the value of this previously. I also knew that we needed to look at mindset and belief given the seemingly impossible nature of the requirements we were being asked to deliver. We really wanted to ensure people could visualise the ‘crazy goal’ that we were being asked to achieve, to engender a sense of belief that maybe we could do this. We had an explorer come and give an inspirational talk about how he had used a kite to accelerate his expedition across Greenland and break records, we invested time sharing stories and case studies where people had achieved amazing things by believing in their crazy goal. Through this phase of the programme we had a great energy across the team and a real determination to try and deliver something exceptional. Not everyone was on board, but we had enough critical mass to really start to make a difference and we had a team that were willing to experiment and try new ways of working. We started to see the benefits coming through and the energy remained high as we knocked down preconceived barriers and celebrated a series of short-term wins.
Small Frequent Experiments
We were experimenting with how we might scale agile principles in an engineering product development environment, and other teams were curious about what we were doing. This attention reinforced the positive energy and for several iterations, we continued to see great results and celebrate the wins. However, after a while our performance started to plateau. Come the end of a sprint, several teams were falling behind, and their backlog was growing, and this pattern was being repeated. It made no sense, each sprint we would ask the teams to capacity plan their own workload and only commit what they thought they could deliver. Each planning cycle the teams would capture their learning to feed into the next iteration yet very few teams were asking for help so what was the issue?
Late one afternoon I was having an informal chat with one of the team leads that I had worked with for several years and I asked him for his honest views on where we were going wrong. I remember him shifting a little uncomfortably in his chair before he opened up. He told me how much everyone wanted to deliver the requirements of this project and there was almost an evangelical belief that we could do the impossible across many in the team. I remember thinking to myself…well that is a good thing, so what’s the problem? I didn’t speak, and he continued. “The problem is, when it comes to committing what we are going to do, we don’t want to disappoint you. We want to believe we can deliver this programme, but the truth is we don’t yet know how we are going to do it, so we take the challenge, try and find a way to do it and then we fail.” I was horrified when I heard this. This is not what I had intended at all. Was it because people were scared to speak up? He said this was not the case, but I wonder on reflection if there was a fear of being perceived to be the negative naysayer in the team. Often you see the individuals who are viewed to have higher levels of personal accountability are the ones with a perceived can-do approach. “Sure, I’ll take that challenge, leave it with me.” The unintended consequences of me accepting this at face value was that we hadn’t been flushing out some of the more complex issues and focused enough energy on knocking down the more difficult barriers with the right stakeholders.
Embrace your red conditions
I learnt from this experience the importance of creating psychological safety across our teams and that I may need to work a little harder at inviting those doubting believers to verbalise their issues and share how they are really feeling. Surfacing these red conditions is critical to ensure problem resolution is driving the right actions and move us closer to achieving challenging objectives.
What did you say the last time someone said they didn’t know how to meet a challenging requirement? How prepared are you to encourage a little rebellion in your teams? What would happen if you sought out and listened to those doubting believers?