Categories
Coaching Leadership

Everything Old is New Again

In a large enough organisation, it is easy to lose the thread of where we are now. Great practices and processes can be lost as people move on to different roles or focus on new things. As you grow, people joining the company will bring their own experiences forwards, without necessarily understanding the history of what has gone before.

This is another classic communication conundrum, having people tread the same ground multiple times, solve problems that have already been solved or go chasing off in multiple different directions is incredibly wasteful. What can you do to reduce the likelihood of this happening?

Document the good stuff! People are unreliable over time, so write it down if it’s good. Give access to people who are interested in the specific topic, and make sure it’s easy to edit and keep up to date. This is great for repeatable processes like hiring, and it’s super good for recording decisions, especially when you choose not to do something.

Next, make sure there’s someone who has responsibility for the thing, and time to manage it. For small stuff, that might be part of a role, but again, as you grow you might find it’s important enough to hire someone, or build entire teams around it. I’ve taken onboarding practices from an ad-hoc group of volunteers, to a defined part of people’s roles, to the entire job of a small team. This gives amazing continuity and saved us from re-inventing the wheel multiple times.

Then you need to communicate it. Remind people where things are stored. Ask them if they have seen the docs, or talked to the people who are already doing the thing. Connect them up. If someone is keen to improve a recruitment practice, hook them into the groups already working in that space.

If people are new and want to investigate a product area that’s previously been discounted, then accelerate them by giving them the state of the art. Get them to answer the question “What’s changed?”, and they’ll save massive effort on getting to where you have already been, and be well prepared for any long-serving nay-sayers they meet on the path.

Also, make sure the people who are already doing a thing are easy to find and noisy about what they do. This is when you broadcast, that’s where you share your wins on the public channels. That’s an excellent use of the wiki, intranet or company Slack. Help people find you early, and you don’t crush their dreams when you tell them that you’ve already solved that problem.

It’s poisonous to leave people solving problems you’ve already solved, it’s the quickest way to waste massive sums of money and great tracts of time. Build that organisational memory, and propel people to the novel and new.

Innovate in fresh areas to drive on to great success.

Categories
Leadership

Risk

We are terrible at quantifying and understanding risk. More often than not, we err on the side of positive outcomes, especially if we think something is pretty likely to happen. You can explore this deeply in the classic Thinking, Fast and Slow, but today we’ll look at risk vs optimism in software development planning.

If something is complex, novel or collaborative, then it’s really hard to plan, with software, it’s all three! Previously we’ve looked at the reasons why we use agile methods, and why launching early is important to the creative endeavour, and why “When” is a bad question. Now we’ll bring some number to the party. Exciting!

Sometimes we need to hit a particular date or milestone, usually when there’s an external requirement (think a new law coming in to force, or an immovable date like Christmas). How can we understand the risk we are facing, and also report them out accurately?

Optimism is not our friend in these circumstances. There are a number of ways to be optimistic when planning against these fixed dates, here are the top three:

  1. This is an easy problem to solve
  2. We’ll get faster as we go
  3. Nothing unexpected will happen

A new or naïve planner will come up against all of these, but might not recognise them. They will look at the requirements, split them up, estimate them and slot them into your preferred timeboxes. Almost certainly this means your plan will slip and you’ll miss your target.

Imagine that you hit sprint commitments 90% of the time. That’s pretty good! However, that means within five sprints, you have more than 40% chance of missing a commitment. As soon as you miss one, you are playing catch-up, and experience shows us that never actually happens.

Being right 90% of the time is also massively unlikely, but it’s a nice round number that’s pretty comforting in planning world. If you only really are spot on 75% of the time, then after 5 sprints you’ll have missed at least once move than 76% of the time!

To beat this optimism, put some evidence into your thinking. Track two things. First off, how hard you thought something would be at the start. Second, the end-to-end time to complete it (which includes everything to get it really and truly done and out into the world).

Generally, we’ll perform about as well as we did last time. Maybe a little better, possibly a bit worse, but tracking these two numbers mean you’ll be able to get good confidence in how often you hit those commitments.

Next up, grab some contingency. If you have a fixed date, then aiming at that time is the high risk approach. Remember, you are super likely to slip up, even if you are right 90% of the time.

Assuming that 90% figure, if you extend that five sprint timeline to six, then the chance that you miss commitments twice is only 18%. That’s over 80% confidence of success, much better than your 60% working to 5 sprints exactly.

These calculations can be performed with the help of a binomial distribution. It’s all pretty theoretical, but it can help to shed some light on unexpected outcomes.

Finally, do the things that are most important first. That’s a key part of success in the agile world, and it still helps even with the fixed commitment.

It’s not always the hardest things, but the ones that matter most. If there’s a feature you simply must have or else risk breaking the law, then do that first. If it’s nice to have, or a general solution to the problem, or something else that’s not vital, put it to the back of the queue.

This means that even if you do end up missing more than expected, at least you’ve done the biggest bits first. When a deadline is looming and you’ve got the ‘Musts’ done, then the ‘Maybe’ quite often just falls by the wayside.

These techniques help you overcome optimism, plan better, be more agile and keep more of the commitments you make.

Measure the difference between your estimates and the actual time taken, grab contingency and do the important things first!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Delegation

Effective delegation is a vital skill to scale your efforts as a leader.

As with any skill, it takes practice to get right, and it’s certainly something you can get wrong. Bad delegation is an abrogation of responsibility, it leaves people confused and uncertain, and it’s a super quick way to confirm any rumours that management is ‘out of touch’.

Good delegation is a powerful way to develop people in your organisation, and to get them ready to take on aspects of your role, so you can step up to the next level yourself.

Look out for opportunities that align to the development needs of the person you wish to delegate to. That could be their strengths to take to the next level, or it could be a gap where they need to show stronger competencies on a wider stage.

Early on, it can be hard to let go. Use the 70% rule. If you think the person is going to be at least 70% as effective as you, then they are ready to take on the delegation. Don’t wait until they are 100% ready, especially if you lean towards perfectionism. This is because your judgement is going to be somewhat off, if you think 70%, it’s more likely they are just about there, and if you think they are 100%, then it’s likely they were really ready a long time ago.

Also, start small. Don’t delegate a year long project, start with something that runs for a few weeks at most. It’ll be easier to track progress, and failure here is likely to be less than catastrophic.

To ensure a good delegation experience, you need to set solid expectations, you need to show trust and you need to verify what’s going on. It’ll be rocky the first few times, so check-in on these as you go, and don’t be afraid to reflect and correct.

  • Expectation – This sets clear boundaries, you explain what the goals are, what the parameter are and especially what success and failure looks like.
  • Trust – You then need to give space to the person to achieve the outcome. They won’t do it like you would, so don’t micromanage
  • Verify – Trust the process, check-in on the progress. Agree when you’ll do this as part of the expectation setting, and scale it based on the importance and duration of the task. Daily check-ins on a yearlong project are probably too often, but might not be for a week long effort. Make sure it’s close enough together to enable easy course correction, but far enough apart to avoid constraining creativity.

Use these techniques, and you are much more likely to turn delegation into a great development opportunity rather than an abrogation of responsibility.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Point to Point

Different messages need different types of communication. Big broadcasts will not always cut it, sometimes you need to think about when it’s right to use methods when there are only a couple of people in the conversation.

Going point-to-point is great when the conversation is nuanced, any time that you need to discuss something in a back and forth way. That might be having a difficult conversation about development, or when you need to discover more information before making a decision.

It’s also great if the topic only affects a few people, or if there’s an outsized impact of a change on a small group of people. For example, if you are going to make a change to how a process is run, it’s almost certainly going to be a broadcast message. However, if there are a few people who will be negatively impacted, you should communicate that directly and personally in an individual setting. This is especially relevant for times when the changes are impacting people slightly differently, you use the capacity for back and forth to understand the impact on them, and make sure you are acknowledging that impact.

You might go point-to-point to build up support for an idea or change before sharing the big broadcast. Similarly to the way you look at people who are negatively impacted, here you look for people who will have an outsized positive change. These will be big supporters, so get them onside before you go public.

Not every communication in your working life will be best served with a Slack message, an email blast or a shout out in the all hands. Look out for times when you need the personal touch, and go point-to-point when the time is right

Categories
Coaching Leadership

We are Rational

In any organisation, there are people doing different roles. We’ve looked at how you can understand the complexity in these roles by putting yourself in the position of others.

When you get into a large enough organisation, there will be lots of people working in similar roles to you, some of whom you might never have met!

This brings a different problem to understanding a different role. Sometimes you’ll be thrown together on a project, and you’ll have to adjust your own frame of reference to get what’s going on with people in different teams or departments.

As you are intimately familiar with your own problems, then it’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking all your solutions are right, and they are the rational approach. This is even more common for Engineers and those that work in various analytical fields.

Working with people who have the same role, you can then quite easily transfer this thinking, and project it onto colleagues unfairly. If they take approaches that are not the ones you would have chosen, or value different things, then you risk thinking that these approaches are irrational, purely because you are sure your solution is the rational one.

Watch out for this! It’s a quick way to conflict, and the fastest way to make sure you don’t make any real progress.

Instead, deploy some empathy. Use your expertise to understand the problems of your colleagues. What’s different about their solution? Is it cultural, is there a misunderstanding, or maybe something that they know and you don’t?

Be open and ready to learn, steer away from the accusing Why? and instead build your understanding with questions that start with “What …”

Spend some time just digging in to these concerns, and you’ll reap the rewards of closer working as you get the rationality of others, where you may have missed it before.

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Book Review Coaching Leadership

The Advice Trap

Michael Bungay Stanier gives us The Advice Trap, a guide to understanding your default advice giving behaviours, and a range of techniques to tame them. Instead, he suggests you stay curious for longer, and Michael shows you why that’s important.

It’s another short and punchy book, very much in the mould of The Coaching Habit. It’s not quite a sequel, but it certainly builds on the ideas of the previous book and you might take more from The Advice Trap if it’s not the first MBS book you pick-up.

It’s very much positioned towards leaders rather than pure coaches, and it encourages you towards behaviours that allow your leadership to become more coach-like.

We start with a whistle-stop tour of why giving advice is not a great default position, and how it kills off the Drive of the people you are giving advice to. Next up, we learn a bit about Easy vs Hard change, and how giving less advice is certainly in the “Hard change” bucket.

You get to explore whether you are a Tell-It, Save-It or Control-It type person, although you will probably recognise a bit of all of them in you. I certainly did!

We look at a ways to deflect each of these behaviours to become more coach-like, and also get to see the pain of each type of advice monster. Tell-It means you jump in too early and give answers to the first problem, not the biggest one, Control-It means you avoid risk, so don’t explore new and different ideas, and so on.

You get a whirlwind summary of the Coaching Habit, either as a great summary or enough context to catch-up up if you’ve not read it.

The practical advice continues, digging into a lot of Foggifiers, the tactics and pitfalls that people deploy to get away from the hard work of coaching and bringing about change. You’ll recognise all these behaviours, whether it’s deflecting to other people rather than working on what you can control, or going so big picture you can’t find something that’s actually available to be changed.

We also bring in the TERA quotient, Tribe, Expectation, Rank and Autonomy. By lifting these up, you gain more engagement, and are more likely to then get to great outcomes and big change.

The rest of the book is really about practising and cementing these skills, everything from being generous to finding ways to drop in even more of the coach-like behaviours.

There’s also a bonus chapter of advice on when it’s good to use advice! As leaders we need to know when it’s right to use a range of techniques, and whilst advice is likely to be an overused tool, it’s no good going so far the other way that you never use it.

This is another great book for leaders who want to strengthen their coaching muscles. It’s a quick read that you can dip back into whenever you need to, and the exercises and self-reflection tasks are really powerful ways to take even more from it!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Exponential Starts Slow

When you are looking for any sort of compounding growth, it’s really important to remember that it starts off really slowly. If you look at any curve, you see that most of the growth occurs at the end of the interval.

That’s why you need to take the motivational posts about small efforts with a big pinch of salt. Growing by 1% every day for year does indeed get you to 37x from where you started, but getting to double will take you 70 days, rather than the 10 you’d expect if it was growing in a straight line.

So, you start off slow. It feels hard, and it doesn’t feel like you are making much progress. That’s why I like to think about the Flywheel in this early phase.

When you know the early efforts will be hard, it’s easier to keep pushing. Build up that momentum with an early shove, then you can maintain and grow over time with the same push.

If you don’t immediately see 10x growth, then don’t be disheartened. Look for the positive progress and hold on to the those incremental gains. See it getting easier, and the process of change becoming a habit. Do that, and you’ll get over the slow start, and the growth will come.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

You Don’t Have One Problem Anymore

When you only have one problem, it’s almost certainly got an approachable solution. It might not be easy, and it might take a while to get there, but you will likely be able to see a path to get to where you need to be.

This can often be the state of play when you are working at the level of a single team. You have one big overriding problem to deal with at a time, you figure it out, then you solve it.

As you take on more responsibility, the chances that you are dealing with just a single problem become vanishingly small. Working across a group of teams, you quickly find that each team has their own problems, whether that’s product, project or people issues. There’s also things going on in the wider world, across the organisation and even inside your own department.

Now you need to work with different strategies. These problems are going to be linked to one another, so working on one could make another worse. You won’t be able to solve them all, so you need to figure out where to put your focus. Things will change, so you need to be ready to adapt to what’s coming.

  • Understand – Look at everything that’s a problem right now. Figure out the Important or Urgent ones, delegate or ignore the rest.
  • Relate – Put together problems that are related. If working on one impacts another then you need to understand that relationship.
  • Communicate – If people feel their problems are being ignored, then they will feel that those problems are unsurmountable. Let them know where the focus is, and why.

Keep going through this process on a regular basis. You’ll solve a few problems, some will get more important and need more focus. Some might just go away!

There’s a lot more that you need to do when working at the higher level. You don’t just have a single big problem any more, and you need to recognise that to succeed.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Impact!

There are a number of times in your life where it’s really important to get across the impact of what you have done, in a way that’s really easy for others to understand.

In the corporate world, there’s a few key points where you want to get this right. It’s on your CV, it’s during annual reviews and it’s when you are preparing a promotion pack or for an internal move.

Many people will make one of two key mistakes. They’ll either focus too heavily on what they did, going too deep into their responsibilities. Other times they will make their impact really opaque, something that makes sense to them, but is really dense to any external reader.

You need to fight both of these, and really highlight the Impact!

There’s a really simple trick to beat these problems, and make sure that you stand out from the crowd. You just need to look over any statement you make, pretend you are someone who doesn’t have great context over your work, and ask “So What?”.

“I upgraded all our systems from v1 to v2”. – So What?

“By upgrading all of our systems, I reduced page loading times by 50%, increasing conversion by 5% and driving an additional £1 million in annual revenue”. – Wow!

It can be tough to get into this habit, so there’s a couple of tips you can use to help:

  1. Read your statements out loud. It helps you to see that they flow, and if they feel simple to understand
  2. Pretend to be someone else. Read the statements as if it was your CEO. If it doesn’t make sense, get rid of some jargon and go again
  3. Actually get someone else to read the docs. If they don’t understand the impact, edit until they do.

This technique will get you noticed. Practicing this skill will make it easier.

Show off your Impact, and people will understand why you are the right person for the opportunity.

Categories
Leadership Uncategorized

When?

The more often people ask “When?”, the less likely you are to be working in an Agile organisation.

If we’re building a software product using an agile model, then every day we’ll have the latest version ready, with all the most important features complete and the team working on the next most important. The choice is always with the organisation, they can launch what they have, or wait for another iteration.

If the conversation is always “When will it be finished?”, then you are thinking about projects, about things that don’t evolve with feedback, and most of all, something that has a fixed view of what’s considered good.

It’s much better to get that initial launch out early, and start to update quickly based on the actual activity of real users. That validates the assumption you made early on, or disproves them really quickly. It means that you waste the smallest amount of effort as you correct quickly.

I usually find that Marketing are a major asker of “When?”, there’s often a longer lead time with some channels, and they want to plan in a fixed way to account for these timelines. They aren’t able to move away from these processes, so you have to find some ways to mitigate the questioning.

There’s two techniques that I’ve found to be helpful (and that also work with anyone asking When?).

First up, move away from specific features. Switch up the conversation, and show what problems are being solved for your users. This lets you focus more on the overall value of the package, and sell the solution rather than any particulars that might not yet be complete.

Second, if features are important, take the conversation back to what’s already been done. Show off everything that’s available today. If you are experimenting with features before they reach prime-time, then you can use some that are nearly ready to go. Give the Marketing team early access, particularly to winning experiments that you are working to turn into full features. With the range of access, they’ll be able to slot features into various materials depending on their own lead time needs.

Do these, and you’ll start to wind down the “When?”, and get back into the agile swing of things.