Categories
Coaching Leadership

Continuous Feedback

Why we give feedback, we want to make another person aware of how we saw their performance. Sometimes it’s to say how great something was and how they should do it more often, sometimes it’s to course-correct and help them to be more effective in a given situation.

All too often, it’s too far removed from the situation to be truly useful. This time of year is the end of the annual performance cycle for many of us, and it might just be the only time you give or get feedback from a number of your peers.

Sticking to the annual cycle is super inefficient. Anything that happened more than a week ago will be really degraded in people’s minds. The situation will be hazy, the behaviour non-specific and the impact debateable. So you’ve lost at least 51 weeks worth of opportunities to give valuable feedback. Being 2% good at something is not where we want to be.

Instead, practice giving feedback as close to the activity as possible. Start off with things that went well. Be specific as to what you’d like to see more of. Ask for feedback yourself about specific recent situations, and practice taking it onboard well.

Giving positive feedback will usually be taken well! Showing you can take on suggestions from other will also make them more likely to listen to your own, it builds trust.

Then you can move on to the course corrections. If it’s close in time to the situation, then the correction is likely to be small, and easier to make. Rather than only having a week from a year to draw from, you can make those small positive changes early and often, and really build up momentum.

Finally, to make the performance review easy, capture some of these in the moment pieces of feedback in a more permanent form. Whether it’s Slack messages, emails or you just keeping a note of them, it’s a lot better to build up a picture of the last year with evidence, rather than what you can remember off the top of your head.

Feedback is super important, give it often, hit the positive as well as the course corrective and do it close to the situation and you’ll be massively more effective in the long run.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Fix Small Problems

It’s too easy to get caught up in the big issues, things that are intractable at first glance and that feel like they an never get better.

If you stop and look a little closer, you will find that there’s something that you can do to improve things. It might be a very small step, and it might not feel worth doing, but fixing something small is a great start.

It changes your mindset, you become powerful rather than powerless. It starts to build momentum, powering up the Flywheel of Change. It also marks you out as someone who “gets things done” rather than complaining about the way things are.

Even if you can’t find something that’s tied up to the big problems, there’s bound to be something that’s small but annoying to you and your teams. Set aside a few hours and get it sorted out. Cancel a recurring meeting if it no longer provides value. Fix some spelling mistakes in documentation. Make a template for a weekly update. Delete some tickets that you know will never get done.

Once you’ve started, it’s easier to keep going. You’ll be able to break down some of those tougher problems and make good progress, and each change you’ve made will improve the overall state of play for everyone, so each one is worth doing.

Don’t complain, don’t let overwhelm win, go out and fix those small problems!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Dont Innovate to Hit the Date

When we’re building software, we’re creating something new. It’s exploratory, it’s uncertain and it might not work.

Often in the world beyond the tech teams, we think we’re just following a plan to build to a schedule.

The mismatch between the two causes approximately all of the conflict in a software focused organisation.

We use a lot of techniques to bridge the gap, all loosely badged under the Agile heading. Basically, we always endeavour to have working, shippable software that we can show to people, and we always complete the most important things first. That means we can launch the software on any given day, and it’ll have the most vital pieces.

Engineering have the power to solve problems, stakeholders have the power to decide if their problems are solved enough or not. So when we work in this way, everyone gets their key pain points addressed, and everyone is happy.

This works best when we’re working in an incremental problem space, building out a product that provides benefits with some features, and will provide more as those features are added to and refined.

Sometimes we’re not in that space. Instead we’ve got to hit a fixed date. We know what we need to and we know when we need to do it by. When the date is truly fixed, it’s usually due to some sort of regulation, so there’s the added spice of needing to be compliant with some law or face a penalty.

In this scenario, we need to strip back some of our exploratory instincts and move more towards the schedule model. Nevertheless, we must also keep in focus those agile principles of solving the most important problems with always shippable software.

Rather than innovating, we make sure we hit the date:

  • Pick known technologies
  • Extend solutions that work today rather than starting from scratch.
  • Choose the approach that has least work
  • Sequence your plan to get to done sooner
  • Allocate additional resources

When we know what we need to do, we are following a map along a known route rather than exploring the territory.

Measure your progress, correct your course when needed, and don’t innovate to hit the date.

Categories
Book Review Coaching Leadership

Top Posts of 2021

We all get a bit reflective at this time of year, so I’m looking back at my most visited posts over 2021.

  1. Radical Candor
  2. Coaching Tools – Model T
  3. The Coaching Spectrum
  4. Coaching Tools – Scaling
  5. When?
  6. Elevator Pitches
  7. The Advice Trap
  8. Slow is Smooth
  9. I’ll Know It When I See It
  10. Coaching For Performance

It’s another year where book reviews have done well, people are especially keen to keep learning about Radical Candor! Check out my full list of reviews for more, and watch out for some fresh writeups in the New Year.

It’s great to see how many people are honing their craft with my series on Coaching Tools. Given how popular they have been, I’ll certainly be continuing with these, let me know if there’s anything that you like me to cover.

Finally, it’s great to see a few of my more recent posts breaking into the top 10. This is all down to the growth in readership over the last couple of years, so thank you so much for joining me on this journey. If you are new this year, then dive into the archives so you don’t miss out!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Unshipped is worthless

Software can be changed quickly. High performing teams can ship a new release to end users multiple times per day.

When we realise this and make use of it, we can push against the problems of perfection, of doing nothing or endlessly refining plans. Instead, we can slice up changes to be small, to be good enough to take the next step and to be quick to revert if they weren’t actually what we wanted.

The thing that unlocks these behaviours most quickly is building in the deep understanding that something that is out in the world providing value is better than the most perfect system that’s still stuck on your private network.

It’s hard to do, as you need to get used to things not being the absolute best they can be, instead that they are good enough to solve a problem today and can be improved tomorrow.

The best way I’ve found to break the desire for perfection is to connect directly with your end users. Every layer between you and the person using your solution is an extra chance to focus on something other than shipping the change, so cut through them to go faster.

When you meet up with users and see their daily pains, shipping something now that solves some of them is always more appealing than shipping something in a couple of months that might solve all their pains.

You also get fast feedback on the things you’ve already given them. You find out what’s really important to them, and also which of the details you sweat over they really care about.

Fast feedback loops like this encourage you to go faster. Ship small incremental changes when they are ready rather than building up big blocks that will be ‘perfect’ from day 1 but never actually going anywhere.

Unshipped changes are worth nothing. Get them in front of users and iterate, and capture that value now!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

The Reframer

It’s time to make a decision. The meeting is scheduled, the agenda and pre-reading sent out well ahead of time. You sit down, do some introductions and dive in. You outline the problem, highlight the known constraints and list the options that are available to decide between.

Before you get any further, you are hit by the Reframer, a particularly specific weaponiser of the “What’s the problem?” question.

They challenge the framing of the problem, with the goal of either claiming it’s not something worth solving, or inserting their own favoured option into the pile to consider. It’s usually not a data-driven interjection, instead they “don’t believe” something, or don’t recognise it as something they’ve experienced.

You’ve got to stop the Reframer as swiftly as possible. Otherwise they’ll derail this meeting, drag you back to an earlier time and prevent any progress from being made.

To keep moving forwards, apply the following approach:

  1. Thank them for the contribution
  2. Note that the concern has been covered in pre-reading or is out of scope of the current conversation
  3. Offer to return to the issue later if it’s not settled in the ongoing conversation
  4. Move on to your next planned step

Depending on the exact attempt at reframing, you might need to go heavier at one point or another to be able to move on. If the concern is covered in previously provided data, then highlight that. If it’s totally separated from the decision to be made, then make the offer to return very light.

If the Reframer won’t let it go, then put it in the Parking Lot. Write down whatever they raised, put it somewhere visible and record it in meeting notes. If all they want is to be heard, then doing this will help keep you moving.

Don’t let Reframers drag you back, but keep on track and get to the decision you need to make.

Categories
Leadership

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

It’s really common to get hung up on optimising a particular metric, rather than thinking about improving the entire system.

I’ve usually seen this where we have a proxy for some desired behaviour that is usually good, but isn’t perfect. The classic e-commerce example is conversion at a particular point in the funnel. Increase this, you get more orders, which is a good thing!

However, some improvements to that number won’t work out overall. If you push more people down the funnel just to have a higher proportion drop out later on, then it’s not an overall benefit.

Even worse, sometimes that proxy metric goes backwards quickly, but it takes a long time to see the impact elsewhere and understand if you’ve got a better overall business.

In a big organisation, it can be tough to get people to look beyond the proxy. The day-to-day is focused on this single metric because that is the one they have scope to move. When the team makes a change, this number is one they have control over.

So, how can you step back a bit and make these overall system improvements?

First up, you need to make sure you are tracking your fundamental success metrics as well as the proxy. Order volume, value and profitability are some of the major ones depending on the stage of the business.

Next, be clear in your hypothesis. “We believe that by showing out of stock items sooner in the funnel, we will increase the number of completed orders, with a reduction in the conversion from basket to checkout”.

Finally, agree what your maximum decrease can look like. “If the reduction in conversion for customers seeing the new experience is more than 2%, then we will end the experiment early”. To get this agreement, you will need to work with all the relevant stakeholders, as this is going to cost money, and you need to agree that the budget to find out if the benefits really outweigh the cost.

Do all of this, and you’ll be able to make improvements to your overall system that negatively impact your imperfect proxy metrics.

Figure out “What’s the worst that can happen?” to step back and make the bigger change..

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Slow is Smooth

We often fall into the urgent trap, thinking that something that’s just come up is the most important thing in the world, and we need to drop everything to pick it up.

That means we end up stacking up lots of suddenly urgent things. Slicing our time between many of them and not actually really making major progress on any. Small amounts of progress on lots of different things is totally worthless.

In contrast, when we are smoothly working through things, we get fast. There are fewer distractions or interruptions, product increments are done and we move on to the next.

We get smooth by going more slowly. Take the time to look at the requests that come in or the issues that are raised. What’s the true impact? Is it really worth dropping everything to pick it up. How much does it cost to stop doing what we were doing, and what’s the cost of delaying the activities we had going on.

Urgent is easy, it’s cheap calories and high fives all round when whatever it is it gets solved.

To balance it, you have to recognise the cost of doing that urgent thing, not just enjoy the sugar rush of jumping on it straight away.

You need to broadcast the costs and impacts of going urgent, managing the expectations of the stakeholder who wants this “Right Now!” and not forgetting the stakeholder who was promised major changes on a longer timeline.

If it’s really urgent and important, then you need to suck up the costs and distractions. If it’s not, then use your usual prioritisation methods to slot this new request in, and keep smoothly delivering valuable outcomes.

If you can stay slow rather than rushing from urgent fire to fire, then you stay smooth and you get more big things done. That’s when real change happens.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

What’s the Problem?

There are a wide ranging set of power-move questions that can be asked during a meeting. “What’s the Problem?” is a classic example of the type.

As with all powerful things, it can be used for good, or for ill. If you bring it into play, then try to always be the first and be prepared to defend against the second.

When you use it for good, then you reset a conversation that has dived into detail or solution mode too quickly. It’s really powerful when people are pitching a particular feature or asking for something specific, but they haven’t shown why doing it that way is important.

So you can pull back, understand the problem and confirm if the proposed action is really the best solution to the question on the table. It lets you check the foundations of the argument are sound, and that the work done to get to the solution is solid. If it’s not a sound request, then you are able to a put a pause in place to get to the right final outcome.

The flip side is when someone tries to use this move to derail a fruitful conversation. Maybe they feel like their voice hasn’t been heard and they don’t like the direction that’s been agreed on. Possibly they are only just now paying attention and have missed the discussion up to this point. Sometimes, they just want to feel clever at having made a serious sounding contribution.

To reduce the incidence of the question, lay the groundwork ahead of time. Give out pre-reading as part of the agenda that sets the scene and discusses the problem space. Cover what’s been tried, what’s discarded and what’s on the table now. Next, prep the 90 second summary for the start of the meeting. Outline the problem, share the constraints and set the scene, “This is a meeting to solve this problem”.

Now anyone asking what the problem is can be pointed back to the opening statements, keeping the meeting focused on the solution.

If they disagree it’s the problem to be solved, that’s a different conversation to have. This might be raised early in the session, or they might wait to ask “What’s the real problem here?”. In either case, you can pause quickly and ask what they meant by the question. At attempt to obstruct or bring a new agenda is likely at this point, so ask if there’s any fresh information to consider, and if not, you can thank them for their question, point back to the opening statements and then move on.

If there is fresh information, then it might be an ambush. Something critical to the decision making has been left off the table until the last minute. This is a difficult area to navigate, as whilst the person bringing the info may not be acting collaboratively, the information itself might still be vital.

You’ll need to think carefully about how to handle the conversation, but don’t lose your cool. Thank the person for their contribution, then consider if it’s significant enough to change the parameters of the meeting. If it is, then it’s better to postpone the decision until we’ve included the new info into our parameters. If this happens once it’s something you can handle with private feedback. If it’s a pattern of behaviour, then that’s a time you need to share the impact with the person’s manager, to bring them back to collaborative decision making and proactive information sharing.

Asking “What’s the problem?” can defend you against moving to solutions too quickly, meaning you get to a better final outcome. Use it with care, and understand how to protect yourself from those that ask it with bad intent.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Don’t Burn Your Bridges

As you go on your leadership journey, you will ever more be called upon to use your influence to get things done. You have to convince people, win them round to your way of thinking and show them why what you want to do is important.

That means you have to negotiate. Understand what you want, what you can give and what outcome you are after. You might try to Get to Yes, or you might prefer to Never Split the Difference, but you’ll need to get better at these skills as you’ll need to use them more.

An important thing to realise when you are part of an organisation, is that you’ll be going round the loop multiple times. It’s no good “winning” once if that sours the relationship for the future.

That’s short term thinking, when you need to be in for the long term. You need to think about how to make it better for everyone, so you enhance your reputation as someone great to work with, rather than someone to be avoided at all costs.

Your basic outcomes should always including building the relationship, as you know you’ll be back, whether it’s next week, next quarter or at the start of the next year.

So, don’t burn your bridges, build them up instead and make your future path smoother.