Tag: team

Art of Delegating

Introduction

Empowering people and teams is critical for organisations to gain competitive advantage and succeed. Smart delegating of responsibilities results in more engaged employees, better culture and improved overall productivity of a company. Knowledge and experience are shared among a larger group of employees which in turn increases organisation’s flexibility and agility. However, it’s easier said than done. Intelligent delegating is an art and it can’t be achieved overnight.

Micro-management trap

Most managers know that they have to delegate some of their tasks to the teams they oversee. The problem is that delegation can be implemented in many ways, and doing it wrong is counterproductive.

Many managers fear for losing a control, therefore, they don’t empower, but micro-manage. They assign tasks to employees, but stay too close to the details, break in on a regular basis and rarely accept final results without any “corrections”. As a result, a quality of work declines, because it’s impossible for employees to meet their manager’s expectations and people stop bothering with producing great results as they are going to be changed anyway.

Delegation is an investment. Employees have to be trusted and allowed to fail in a safe way to gain real experience. They need to be coached and it will take a bit of time and energy before they become competent. Delegation has to be carefully planned and level of responsibility has to be increased gradually.

How to delegate

Delegation is not binary – you don’t need to choose between delegating everything or nothing. Delegation depends on context, maturity of the team and individuals and significance of the decisions to be made. Responsibilities have to be delegated gradually, in a controlled way. You have to designate as much as possible to empower the team and let them build experience, but you also need to avoid introducing disarray and undesired side effects.

It has to be emphasized that to make a delegation work you have to define clear boundaries for the tasks assigned and employees have to understand the responsibilities they are assuming. Specific, well-specified goals and measurable key results may be very helpful, especially when the team is new to a type of actions being commissioned.

Any delegated task must be also followed by a delegation of authority (power, resources, etc.) required to get the job done. A level of authority should be set high enough to enable people gain experience, but not too high that things can easily run into chaos.

I suggested that micro-management has to be avoided, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t monitor the tasks you delegate. Don’t track the details and give employees a freedom to act, but don’t hesitate to share your concerns or take a corrective action when situation slips out of control.

Balancing authority and accountability

It’s vital to keep a healthy balance between accountability and authority. Lack of harmony may calmly lead to failures and, as a result, delegation itself can become an innocent victim.

If somebody is accountable for a successful completion of a delegated task but has no authority to make it happen, she can easily become a scapegoat to blame. She isn’t doomed to fail yet has very little influence on how things are happening. On the other hand, if somebody has wide powers, but no real accountability for the results, it may lead to misconduct and evaporation of trust and teamwork.

Demonstration

Below please find a simple exercise demonstrating that a lack of balance between authority and accountability may lead to behaviours we need to avoid. Steps:

  • Pick 4 strong guys who will be lifting a chair with a person sitting on it. They play a passive role here.
  • Pick 2 volunteers – let’s say A and B – who play main roles in the exercise.
  • A sits on a chair and B is asked to say how far the chair (with A sitting on it) should be lifted up in the air. In most cases B says that it should be lifted as high as possible, close to the room’s ceiling preferably. Everyone, except for A, has a lot of fun.
  • Once done it’s now B who is asked to sit on a chair that will be lifted up to the same high he previously requested for. Out of the sudden A is the only person smiling.

In the first scenario B has a lot of authority and no accountability (he wasn’t risking anything). The second case shows that lack of balance between authority and accountability leads to unacceptable behaviours. In the first case B isn’t personally risking anything therefore he is more inclined to gamble and potentially compromise a success of his colleagues. Long-term it will destroy trust and teamwork and influence overall organisation’s performance.

The 7 Levels of Delegation

As stated in Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 book there are 7 levels of delegation:

  1. Tell. You make a decision and communicate it to others.
  2. Sell. You make a decision and you explain your motivation to others.
  3. Consult. You make a decision based on a careful consideration of other’s opinions.
  4. Agree. You involve other in discussion and you make a decision together.
  5. Advise. Others make a decision after listening to your opinion.
  6. Inquire. Others make a decision and then share their motivations. to you.
  7. Delegate. You’re not involved at all.

The 7 levels of delegation can be used to define how responsibilities for some decision areas are delegated to individuals or teams (it helps to establish basic boundaries, levels of authority, etc.).

Delegation Board

A delegation board is a nice tool to visualise how different types of responsibilities are delegated to teams of individuals according to the 7 level of delegation.A delegation board can be used at many levels (team, department, etc.) and should be located in a place where everybody can see it. It supports setting boundaries and levels of authority and works as a powerful communication tool.

Further reading:

 

Inter-team Commitment Stories

Managing complex and lengthy projects is a challenge. When dozens of people are working on the same product in parallel there has to be a mechanism for identifying and resolving dependencies and cross-team blockers.

In traditional projects, it’s a PM’s task to ensure that all the team members are working on right tasks in right order. She is the one who decides about priorities, monitors progress and initiates corrective actions when required.

In the Agile world, there are self-organising teams that are accountable for delivering outcomes they committed to. There is nobody who defines how the work should be done or what actions need to be taken. Of course, there is a Product Owner who sets priorities, but there is no direct mechanism for synchronising work between various teams.

There are several frameworks (i.e. Scaled Agile Framework or Nexus Framework) for scaling Scrum that provide some solutions for managing complex product development efforts, but still it’s up to the teams how they self-organise around managing project dependencies.

A solution that can help resolve a problem of managing dependencies in complex Agile projects is a mechanism called Inter-team Commitment Story (please refer to Agile Project Management by Jim Highsmith).

Inter-team Commitment Story (ICS) is a form of a story that works as an agreement between two or more teams. It’s a kind of a contract that defines set of responsibilities on each party’s part and specifies what and by when should be delivered to get the dependency resolved.

ICS may be somehow overseen by an integration team or project leader (they can be the ones to identify the dependencies in the first place), but it’s teams’ responsibility to mutually agree how a given dependency will be handled. Of course, it’s also Product Owner’s responsibility to make sure that Inter-team Commitment Stories are prioritised accordingly and that a pressure to deliver business stories doesn’t make some teams blocked.

Inter-team Commitment Stories are planned and scheduled as all other stories in the product backlog. And most of all, ICSs are estimated so that the cost of managing team-to-team coordination is not hidden. The main advantages of this mechanism are:

  • dependency management and coordination work are visible,
  • it downgrades the coordination from project manager to teams that know the details,
  • it helps to build accountability,
  • it supports inter-team collaboration and builds cross-team relationships.

 

Performance appraisals

Traditional performance appraisals

Most organisations have a formal process for evaluating the performance of its employees. Usually, it has a form of an annual performance review where employee’s work performance and behaviours are assessed, rated and documented by direct managers.

The ultimate goal of a performance review system is to reward and retain capable employees by keeping them happy. Managers believe that this process:

  • Provides useful information for promotions and compensation decisions.
  • Motivates employees and enhances their involvement.
  • Improves overall performance of the teams.
  • Boots communication and provides valuable feedback.

Unfortunately, while HR departments are happy with growing documentation records, most employees hate performance reviews. A majority of people find this top-down process useless, counterproductive and, most of all, destroying teamwork.

They don’t see a performance review as an honest discussion based on trust, but rather a place where a superior communicates a pre-determined story and judgement and, in the best scenario, comes up with an already fixed salary raise proposal. Regrettably, it has nothing to do with performance, but largely is a result of the budget limitations and politics.

360-degree feedback

One of the most popular solutions you can use to improve your performance reviews is a concept of 360-degree feedback. It’s based on the assumption that multiple points of view are required to correctly assess somebody’s performance. It means that peers are included in the process and, therefore, everyone gets a more comprehensive picture of employee’s contribution to the organisation.

Suggestions

Changing from a very top-down reviews to a 360-degree feedback model is highly recommended, but it’s not enough to make you succeed. Also other parts of the process have to be adjusted to make it effective.

Set right atmosphere

You need to develop a feedback-rich culture and build trust among your employees. They need to believe that performance review is about learning and improvement they can honestly benefit from.

Get rid of fixed-scale, make it simple

Get rid of checklists or forms created by HR departments that forces you to evaluate employees in terms of a long list of predefined categories and a set of behaviours that are assumed competent people should show.

Please bear in mind that every person is different. Employees come with their own characteristics which include individual strengths and imperfections, and, therefore, applying same fixed-scale to different people makes little sense. Last but not least, it’s really unreasonable to measure the same way employees with different roles and functions which, regrettably, takes place in far too many organisations. It’s far better to concentrate on individual objectives and perform a review based on a short, but descriptive assessment.

Finally, make sure that a process of collecting feedback from peers is quick and easy. Please bear in mind that everyone is busy doing their work, and providing feedback to the peers shouldn’t be seen as an additional burden.

Do it frequently

Conducting performance reviews annually is a waste of time. Personally, I can hardly remember what I was doing a month ago, thus expecting anybody to recall actions from 12 months ago makes little sense.

To make the whole process relevant, you need to start assessing performance and giving feedback regularly. You’ll soon find that doing it on a regular basis (every quarter is a good start) is easier and far more productive.

Encourage self-assessment

Peer reviews are really beneficial, but it make also sense to match it with what employees thinks about themselves. People tend to have a pretty good idea of their own strengths and weaknesses – give them an open and positive opportunity to share it with you. Self-assessment can be a great start for a productive dialogue about goals and expectations.

Collect some quantitative data

Measurable goals and objectives are required, and you should collect and share all the metrics before the review. However, please make sure that the numbers don’t lie in the heart of the process – they should only be used to set a background for honest discussion.

Qualitative data are more important

It’s the core of the review. It’a bidirectional, honest discussion about what was great and what are the areas for potential coaching. You should concentrate on accomplishments and strengths rather than failures.

Please be aware that if somebody isn’t performing as expected it’s not necessarily his fault – the organisation should take responsibility for supporting them or helping them find a better fit if need be.

Foster teamwork and collaboration

The behaviours you should be encouraging are teamwork and collaboration, not individual achievements. Please take it into account while setting objectives and commenting on how your peers contributed to the organisation.

It’s not to say that exceptional individual achievements shouldn’t be appreciated, but it’s teamwork that you should value the most. Please note that in the absence of an understanding of how individual contributions compare to team achievements, self-preservation rules supreme. On the other hand, an ability to link individual performance with a team success increases job satisfaction and employee’s engagement.

Do not rank employees

Stack-ranking employees based on the results of their performance reviews may sound tempting, but it should be avoided. In large organisations even if you get a good score (i.e. second the highest rank possible) it may turn out that there are hundreds of people doing better than you. And it neither feels good nor increases your motivation. And above all ranking employees destroys teamwork by making everyone concentrate on their individual goals and achievements.

Separate from compensation and career plans

In many organisations, the results of performance reviews are explicitly used to decide about bonuses and salary raises. At first sight, it may look reasonable, but the reality is that you should separate the discussions about performance from discussions about compensation and career plans.

The performance review should be about learning and employee’s contribution to the team and organisation rather than a process narrowed down to getting a nice salary raise. It’s not to say that meeting goals or getting a very positive feedback should not be taken into account, but a direct link between performance review and compensation ends up in employee concentrating only on the latter.

Instead of doing good work many employees starts focusing on getting a good review. They spend more time on their “career” than on the actual work at hand. Instead of energising people and promoting teamwork such a process clearly leads to bogus activities, cynicism and employees spending time on cover-your-back actions. I’m sure it’s not what you’re aiming for.

Come up with actionable items

Identification of measurable goals and actionable commitments is critical to successful performance reviews. Open discussion lies in the heart of a good review, but in the end, some well-defined actions should be agreed on.

And the words “measurable” and “actionable” are significant. An accomplishment of measurable goals can be verified at next review, and actionable commitments are well-understood, have clear steps to completion and acceptance criteria.

Please bear in mind that actions may not be related only to the employee being reviewed – it can be also something that a manager has to take care of in order to support the employee, help him with his goals or make him improve his work.

Doesn’t it sound like a good retrospective?

When you look at suggestions discussed above it can be easily spotted that performance reviews are somehow similar to… good retrospectives. I think it’s worth noticing that Agile principles (like adaptation, strive for continuous improvement, teamwork, transparency, etc.) relate not only to software development but a whole organisation and its processes. It shows that you can’t have a high-performing software development teams without transforming other parts of the business.

Next steps

Building empowered teams that take responsibility for their results requires transparency and trust. So the next logical step towards this goal is to make performance reviews… open and public.

It may be difficult at company’s level, but you can try doing it within your team or department. The idea is to gather the team in one place and perform peer assessment of each and every team member together. Despite appearances such an approach reduces time required to perform the review and has several advantages:

  • everyone is evaluated at the same time in equal measures,
  • it’s less formal and, therefore, more open,
  • ability to see if a majority of the team shares same concerns,
  • ability to ask questions and clarify problems,
  • everyone forces themselves to be fair, honest nad more understanding.

Summary

Performance appraisals have a terrible track record. But the problem doesn’t lie in performance reviews themselves, but rather in the way they are implemented.

The process of how performance reviews are conducted has to change. It has to stop destroying intrinsic motivation and focus on teamwork. Most people seek for better performance and strive for continuous improvement. They can do that by getting meaningful feedback from their peers and managers, therefore frequent, honest and transparent reviews are desired.

It makes sense to involve employees in designing and establishing your new performance review process. Please bear in mind that a system designed in collaboration better serves all and engages employees. What it boils down to is that employees want to know how they are being evaluated and want to know that they’re making conscious choices.

Further reading

 

Setting goals: OKRs

I’ve recently come across a great video by Rick Klau about setting goals at Google.

OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results and are used at Google for setting goals at company’s, teams’ and individuals’ level. A great advantage of this system is that individual goals are aligned with company’s goal, therefore, everyone is rowing in the same direction.

Key points about OKRs at Google:

  • Objectives should be ambitious, not straightforward.
  • Key Results are measurable, they should be easy to grade.
  • OKRs are public (starting from CEO).

Last but not least, OKRs are independent from employee’s performance evaluations. That is, promotions, salary discussions, bonuses, etc. should be separated from OKRs. They are used to make people contribute to company’s goals rather than evaluating how employees are performing.

More in Rick’s post: How Google sets goals: OKRs

Good Retrospectives

Overview

Retrospective is one of the inspect-and-adapt opportunities provided by Scrum framework. It’s a time-boxed event for the team to analyse their way of working and identify and plan potential improvements.

Sprint retrospective is one of the most important, but probably also the least appreciated practices in the Scrum framework. Therefore, retrospectives have to be carefully taken care of because inspection and adaptation lie in the heart of agility. It’s an important mechanism that allows a team to continuously evolve and improve throughout the life of a project.

Atmosphere

Sprint retrospective is a time to think about the process and practises hence the full Scrum team has to attend it (including Product Owner and Scrum Master who facilitates the discussion).

Assuming trust and safety are in place, everyone is encouraged to be completely honest and reveal all difficult issues one has in mind. Team members are expected to present their opinions in an open, genuine, yet constructive atmosphere. It’s facilitator’s responsibility to ensure that discussion stays positive and professional, focusing on improvement of the team as a whole. It’s critical for retrospectives’ long-term success that finger-pointing, assigning blame and personal criticism is absolutely avoided.

Quantitative Assessment

Before you jump in into a hot discussion some reporting of important metrics should be done. It’s required to set a context for the discussion and objectively present how the team has performed.

There is no one-fits-all set of metrics you should be using – they very depend on the business context, stakeholders, project, etc. However, it’s the team who should come up with the metrics they want to use to monitor and improve their work.

Last but not least, please bear in mind that whatever you finally produce it shouldn’t be static and set in stone forever. People and teams get used to their own measurements therefore, it’s good to try something else after a while. Replacing your metrics not only helps you cover other perspectives and uncover different unknowns, but it also keeps stagnation from creeping in.

Apart from velocity, risk assessment and product quality assessment the metrics you can use may include:

  • # stories
  • # stories accepted
  • % accepted
  • # stories not accepted
  • # stories added
  • defect count
  • # new test cases
  • # new test cases automated
  • % test cases automated

Qualitative Assessment

Retrospective, though important, is not a heavy-weight ceremony. It’s an open discussion that should include three main questions/points to address:

  • What went well during the sprint?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we do differently to improve our work?

All the improvement ideas identified in the brainstorming session should be noted down, but not all of them should be immediately converted into real actions for the upcoming sprint, though. It may sound disappointing for some team members, but they need to remember that delivering value, not improvement itself, is their primary goal. However, since iterations are short, over time, all the issues will be finally addressed (or replaced with new findings during next refinement).

Actionable commitments

Identification of actionable commitments is the key to successful retrospectives. Open discussion is desirable, but in the end, some well-defined actions have to be agreed on. And the word “actionable” is significant. Actionable commitments are well-understood by the team, have clear steps to completion and acceptance criteria, just like good stories.

Let’s have some fun

The way retrospective meeting should be held is not pre-defined. There are numerous techniques for conducting retrospectives and none of them is objectively better than the other.

To be honest, trying different constructions of the retrospective meeting may keep things fresh and interesting. After all, team’s engagement is critical for a retrospective to succeed. Some sample techniques can be found here: http://retrospectivewiki.org/index.php?title=Tools

Personally, I remember a retrospective where “Draw a problem” approach was suggested by the Scrum Master and it was a great success. The project was depicted as a ship where good things were like a wind blowing sails while bad things were showed as an anchor that prevents the ship (team) from sailing faster.

Potential problems

Retrospectives are critical for the team to improve, but they need to be run correctly to make it happen. The team has to see real benefits of spending time in retrospective meetings.

Some typical smells that retrospective is not effective may include:

  • team members not attending retrospectives
  • unengaged attendees
  • no resulting actionable commitments
  • finger-pointing and assigning blame
  • lack of trust
  • complaint sessions and no desire to improve

The most demotivating and frustrating problem, however, is the team failing to follow through on improvement actions identified during previous retrospectives. It makes the meeting waste of time with no real impact on day-to-day work. The team has to understand that commitments they make matter and have to be met.

There is no silver bullet to address the issues mentioned above, but it’s Scrum Master task to realise that retrospectives are ineffective and work towards addressing issues like these. And if the team is new to Scrum inviting an external facilitator to conduct the meeting is highly recommended.

Edit: A great source of restrospective’s fun: How to Make Your Retrospectives Fun

 

Managing Product Adaptability

Overview

Creating reliable and adaptable software is not straightforward even if the team embraces Agile practices. In most cases, however, it’s not lack of technical capability or poor performance that prevents the team from achieving this goal. My experience says that the teams are aware that constant refactoring, automated tests, design spikes, etc. are required to keep the system reliable and adaptable – it’s senior stakeholders that usually fail to understand it.

Market is very demanding nowadays. Industry after industry demands for continuous innovation. Pressure for frequent releases and responsiveness to constant changes grows. And Agile seems a good solution for software teams to deliver valuable, high-quality products quickly. However, they need to be quick but should not cross the line and make mistakes. They “need to be quick but should not hurry“.

And unfortunately senior stakeholders far too often adds to this pressure and sacrifice long-term gain for short-term wins. Unreasonable deadlines are set and all the features are requested to be delivered. And in most cases the team manages to do that – velocity accelerates and the team delivers what they were asked for. But it’s a false acceleration, because corners are cut. And adaptability is the first thing that suffers from such an approach. Technical debt grows quickly and accumulates.

technical_debt_accelerated_velocity

Technical debt

Technical debt is invisible, especially at first sight and in short-term. Software is being delivered, features get implemented so why to bother about it at all, right? What really suffers, however, is system long-term reliability and, most of all, adaptability, but it usually doesn’t come to light quickly. But it’s a real problem that in long-term results in dropping velocity, increased cost and time to delivery, growing number of defects, and above all decreasing customer satisfaction. The company is no longer ready and able to deliver valuable software and adapt to tomorrow’s client needs.

technical_debt_coc

It’s especially frustrating from team’s perspective, because – if you ask them – chances are that they will directly mention parts of the code that need urgent refactoring and that contribute to technical debt the most.

Product Quality Assessment

This being said I suggest that one of the measures you can use to monitor if system’s adaptability is not deteriorating [too fast] is Product Quality Assessment performed by the team:

reliability_adaptability_assessment

This measure depicts team’s sense of the project’s “feel” (“smell” as called in XP). It can be supported by a chart that plots growth of the test code compared to executable code over iterations (both should be growing proportionally).

Why, in my opinion, this measurement is so important when there are dozens of other KPIs available? It’s not to say that it’s the most important KPI you should use, but it’s a canary in a coal mine that gives you an advanced warning of system adaptability potentially going down before other measures notice it. It gives you a chance to have a closer look into the problem before velocity drops, number of defects grows and the cost of getting rid of technical debt becomes [too] high.

Managing technical debt

Please be reminded that technical debt, like financial debt, has to be managed. It’s important to realise that there is no debt-free product, but you should be aiming at keeping technical debt low so that it doesn’t affect future product development. There are several possible ways of paying technical debt back, but the most important thing to remember is that it should be done regularly and incrementally. You need to avoid large balloon payments as a means of servicing technical debt when it’s far too costly, frustrating and time-consuming. By using some simple measures you can make technical debt visible – both to the business level and technical level. And hopefully convince everyone that technical quality is critical to achieve long-term goals and it shouldn’t be short-changed for current needs. Continuous value generation should be viewed from a whole product life cycle perspective after all.

To be fair, it has to be noticed that technical debt is not bad by definition – it just has to be acknowledged and managed properly. There are situations when technical debt doesn’t need to be paid back, i.e.: product nearing end of life, throwaway prototype or product built for short-life.

Please bear also in mind that technical debt can be intentional, i.e. when a fixed deadline has to be met. However, rather than being hidden it should be well-thought-out decision. The decision that not only allows for technical debt, but most of all acknowledges the consequences of introducing it and involves a concrete plan for getting it paid back in future. Otherwise it would be living a lie and asking for trouble.