Coaching Leadership

Decisions, decisions

A really fast way to fail is to stop being able to make decisions. It manifests in lots of ways in an organisation, from tiny things needing multiple sign-offs, through to people chasing just “one more data point” before committing to doing something.

If you aren’t shipping you are losing, and if you aren’t making decisions, then you certainly aren’t shipping anything.

So how to fight against this and keep moving forwards?

Don’t sweat the small stuff – Do some due diligence on the big spend, but just let people do something small without major chains of approval. If you can’t change that process, then do whatever you can to make it easier for people. Try to say ‘yes’ wherever you can if it’s not going to break the bank.

Measure reality – Hypothesis and theories are great to point us in a direction, but the truth is found out in the world. Figure out the fastest way to get to measuring real behaviour, implement that and then iterate on the results you get. The majority of value in your analysis comes from the early effort, get enough confidence to try something and then go from there.

Reduce the risk – Don’t do a big bang release, instead roll-out to a few customers before ramping up over time. Test a solution with a few simple cases to see that it solves them before investing in solving every possible thing. Turn decisions into two-way doors so you can undo them if it doesn’t go well.

Sometimes you have to put the effort in, do the due diligence and make sure that you have everything that you could possibly need lined up and covered off before you make a decision.

That’s really rare! Don’t let it become the default or the gears will stop turning and you’ll never progress.

Use the techniques above to keep moving, keep learning and you’ll keep on delivering massive value!

Coaching Leadership

Fix the Small Things

In any organisation, there’s always a lot of really big things going on. The bigger the org, the larger they are likely to be. They are also going to span over ever longer periods of time, as more people need to be consulted, included in the loop or given the chance for a final review.

Sometimes, we get so fixed on the big things and how difficult they will be to fix, we let the small things go, even though they are causing us pain right now.

I’ve talked before about how we can fix small problems to build traction on solving the big stuff, or get some big improvements from a small fix, but sometimes it’s worth just fixing a small problem that is causing you a minor amount of pain, just to clear that distraction out of the way.

If you get a stone in your shoe, you can stop right away to get it out and stop the irritation. Sometimes you are rushing because you are late, so you don’t stop to make this quick fix. You suffer the pain all the way to your destination, leaving you with some longer lasting damage and maybe even ending up getting there later than if you’d just stopped to make the quick fix.

The same logic holds true in the workplace. Those big things are going to take time, and you should put your consistent effort in to build up the flywheel effect.

Sometimes, you’ve just got five minutes spare. Use that to fix a small pain point. It might just have an outsized effect, and it’ll certainly make you and your team feel better.

Coaching Leadership

Give it Some Slack

In any complex system, small changes can have big impacts. That’s especially true if the system is under stress, or running at almost full capacity.

There’s lots of research on this, but the basic advice is to target no more than 80% utilisation, if you go for more then your wait time gets longer much faster than expected, you can’t react to changes or anything that’s unexpected.

Building software is a classic complex problem with changes and unexpected problems. Sometimes you’ll discover a team that is running slowly, often missing commitments and not delivering the value that they are focusing on. Often they are the most optimistic team you know, sure that they will turn it around, or that next quarter will deliver double.

If you dive into it, then it’s often a problem of capacity and utilisation. For whatever reason, the team thinks and plans as if they can always work at 100%, that there will be no changes or surprises and that every problem will be solved externally to them.

Rather than trying to fix these symptoms, strip it back to that utilisation belief.

Be ruthless, and cut back heavily on what the team is trying to achieve. Cut it in half, free up time for the team to get back on an even track.

Go back to some key agile practices. Prioritise the most valuable things first. Make the work as small as possible. Ship value as soon as you can. Cut back on work in progress, and start saying no to increasing this value.

When you’ve done this, you’ll find the team turns around. They are able to deliver faster as they aren’t overwhelmed, and the utilisation becomes more healthy.

When the unexpected hits, they are able to absorb it and keep going. They become predictable, and the time to realise value goes down.

So keep some slack in your schedule, and you’ll actually go faster and do more!

Coaching Leadership

Personality Tests

In the corporate world, you are certainly going to encounter a range of personality tests. I’ve previously talked about not ending up in a box, but rather to take what you can from the test.

One way to do this is to take a range of tests, as this can both help you pull out some themes, and not get too stuck into that single focus from a one-off result.

So whether that’s Clifton Strengths, Management Drives or something else, have a go and see what comes.

There’s not necessarily a lot of real science behind these tests, but if you take them honestly, you’ll probably find something that resonates with you. A major benefit is the language that they use to talk about certain personality traits. Particularly if the test is favoured by your org, it can build in some useful shorthands.

The best tests are the ones that open you up rather than close you down. Thinking about how to be more successful by leaning on your strengths or being aware of blind spots is always powerful. It’s the process and time that you take to reflect that gives you that chance to grow.

You aren’t a giraffe, you aren’t green. You aren’t a Judger and you aren’t an Alchemist. You are a person who can learn and grow and change, and you can do that the best when you focus on the practice and reflect on your journey.

Coaching Leadership

Who’s Already Doing The Work?

There’s a particular type of tech minded person who is so focused on ‘disrupting’, ‘innovating’ or ‘problem solving’ that they seem allergic to doing the due diligence on what’s gone before.

Even with the best of intentions, this can be draining, wasteful and sometimes downright dangerous.

They come up with a big new idea, it’s something that’s not being done obviously in the part of the organisation they are working in, and they dive right in, cutting through bureaucracy and getting stuff done. With any small early success, they may well then go on to be a ‘thought leader’ on the problem, urging everyone to take up this magical new thing that they have been driving forwards.

If it’s truly new ground, then this can be a great thing, moving forwards the state of the art.

The problem manifests when this person hasn’t done their due diligence. They haven’t stopped to review what’s already going on in the space. They don’t know who else is working on the same issues and they have no idea why things are the way they are right now.

They annoy people already working on the problem. They work on things that have already been solved, covering old ground multiple times. They ignore vital checks and balances that ensure fairness as they don’t stop to wonder why those check were put in place in the first place.

So, don’t be that person. Be the person who understands why a fence is there before trying to take it down.

When you spot a possible problem, ask some quesstions:

  1. Does anyone else think this is an issue?
  2. What was tried in the past to fix this?
  3. What’s being done about it right now?
  4. What’s been done in similar organisations to solve this problem?
  5. What research or other information informs solutions to this problem?
  6. Who can I support to bring about a change?

Once you have collected this information, then you should be well enough armed to drive forwards a positive change, rather than just re-treading the ground someone else is already covering.

Smart people Observe, Orient, Decide and then Act.

Coaching Leadership

Timeboxing Exploration

It’s easy to fall into the trap of Analysis Paralysis. One more bit of data, a couple more answers to a survey, the feelings of that final stakeholder.

Whenever we are in an uncertain time, you can think that it’s best to get to certainty before trying to act.

It’s a false premise, fight that urge.

Most of the information that you need to make a decision will be easy to gather, and the last few pieces will be a lot more expensive and probably less valuable.

So instead, set aside a timebox to do this exploration and to gather information. I find it works best if you are clear about what you are trying to learn, what the decision is you are trying to make, and also honest about what you know now.

By making decisions based on a fixed amount of data collection, you can move on to actually seeing how the analysis you’ve done holds up in the real world, and start on any course corrections early.

Pick shorter timeboxes for smaller decisions. If it’s low impact or low risk, don’t waste much time on it at all. If you are investing a couple of weeks work for the team, then spending a few hours to validate assumptions is great. Spend a couple of days on your plans for the quarter, and a week or two to set a annual strategy.

You need to be disciplined, and actually stop and make the decision once you hit the limit of the timebox. So start with the smaller activities to build confidence and go from there.

Once you’ve done the analysis, made the decision and implemented the outcome, then review the outcomes to see how you did.

The way to make good decisions is to make lots of them, to learn what went well and to do more of that. You get there by focusing your exploration time, learning the most important things, making that decision and doing it all over again!

Coaching Leadership

Carrying the Pager

I prefer to build teams that own the whole lifecycle of their work. They get involved in the design, understanding the problems of their customers. Everyone pitches in to build the solution, whether it’s describing possible features, writing the software or packaging it up to deploy.

Most importantly, the team run and operate the systems they build. There might be supporting ops teams, but if something goes really wrong, the team is on hand to fix it.

This model encourages the team to work in balance. No one behaviour is over incentivised. They are encouraged to solve problems rather than build systems for the sake of it, and they feel the pain of something being broken straight away.

Maybe it means that new features are not delivered quite as quickly as they could be if the team are just building them and having someone else manage them. However, this split model causes more dependencies. The management teams are often a bottleneck, so when things go wrong they can be harder to fix, and if it’s not an urgent issue, it may never be looked at all.

So, if you are just starting out you can drop features at pace, and if you are running them as well you can fix up what you need to immediately. You have fast feedback loops.

In bigger orgs, you move at the pace of your customers, you cut dependencies and aren’t at the mercy of an overstretched ops team.

Carrying the pager instils the philosophy of care and concern in your team, forces them to feel the pain of their users and to resolve issues when they come up.

You should then also take a turn. Leaders should also carry a pager. Maybe an escalation rather than sitting on a single rotation, but in the same way that the team feels the pain, you need to feel the pain of being on call. You make sure that you don’t let this pain get too much. An occasional page for a real issue is fine, constant noise of a system working as expected should be squashed immediately.

We should all carry the pager at some point, it’s one more way to stay connected to what’s going on!

Coaching Leadership

Small Efforts, Big Improvements

I’m a strong believer in the power of small efforts to make some big improvements. It’s particularly powerful when you need to repeat a task often, but just getting into the practice of making things slightly better each time almost always pays off.

There are a couple of XKCD comics that illustrate when the investment might be too large, or ways you can distract yourself from the original goal. Get in the time sweet spot and stay focused, and that’s where you make the big impact.

It can be especially satisfying to put the small effort up against something that’s slowly been getting worse. When you don’t notice the daily change, but looking at it over months it’s maybe half as good as it used to be.

I recently spent some time fixing up all my taps. London water is hard, each day you get just a bit more limescale and a slightly slower flow. Leave it long enough and you can be sitting around for ages each time you fill the kettle!

So I grabbed some tools, stripped back the offending parts of the taps and gave them a proper clean. Each one took less than ten minutes, and it got quicker as I went.

Each little fix has massively improved how the taps work, and now I know how easy it is to fix them up, the motivation to keep them maintained is high.

So what can you do that’s only a small effort but will make a big improvement to your daily life?

Book Review Coaching Leadership

Managing Humans

This is Michael Lopp’s first book, now on its fourth edition. It’s sixty chapters, short pieces of advice, anecdotes and stories.

If you are familiar with the blog, then it’s very much like revisiting some old friends, but polished up and putting their best foot forwards.

It covers every core leadership topic, from how to hold a 1-2-1 to how to manage the rumour mill, and on to navigating reorgs and the politics that go with them.

I read through the fourth edition in couple of sittings, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of “just one more” as each chapter really is only a few pages long. However, I’d say the real value lies in dipping into a particular chapter that’s related to current concerns, absorbing the lessons and putting them to use in your context.

Not everything will be valid for you. If you are in a high growth tech start-up then a lot of it will be, in other organisations you might be able to take less overall. Lessons on individual leadership, meeting culture and the needs of people will be universal.

I found that the thread running though the book was less well formed than in The Art of Leadership, which Rands recognises as having the fuller arc.

As a leader, especially in a tech org, if you were only going to read one, I’d point you to Art of Leadership, but I really think you’d benefit from both!

Coaching Leadership

Fail in Novel Ways

To be successful, you have to take risks. If you take risks, then sometimes you are going to fail. When you fail, you need to learn from what went wrong.

As a leader, it’s important for you to put in the effort to learn some things before they are actually seen in your context. The risks you take should be smart, and they are smart if you’ve thought about, and mitigated, the familiar ways to fail.

You should always strive to make your failures novel.

If it’s easily predictable, something that’s failed similarly before or a direct repeat of a failing in the past, then you haven’t learnt what you needed. You are letting down those that rely on you.

This Saturday, Swatch launched their Moonswatch, a collaboration with Omega. Only to be sold in stores, available on launch date in limited numbers. Wildly anticipated, certain to be incredibly popular.

These types of product drops are becoming more familiar in retail environments, and there’s a standard playbook to manage them.

Unfortunately, this playbook didn’t make it out to every store. Some managed well and gave people a great experience. Some really didn’t, leading to scrums in the street, the police being called and stores closing a few minutes after opening.

There’s a school of thought that all publicity is good, but here the company could have avoided the bad with better planning and just basked in the good of a well managed launch, a popular item selling out fast and lines of people waiting for their chance.

What basic mistake are you going to avoid? What can you learn today to make sure your next failure is a novel one.