Category: Team Culture and Performance

Maturing from a StartUp to a StartedUp culture

The content for this discussion is several pages long so I will release it in posts as a series.
Introduction

A couple of weeks ago I had interesting discussions with a software lab focused on mobile tech out in the Boston, MA area. Ideas were exchanged, we spoke about different issues that impact teams, growth, product, process and discussed different ways they could be solved.

After the dialogue, reflecting back on the content and looking for a root cause or pattern I realized that this wasn’t the first time I had discussed or worked on solving these type of issues; growing pains, single threads, lack of process, maturation are just some of the terms used to describe the root cause and in most cases its all of them as they mean the same thing and to me that is “growing startup culture”

A startup company or start-up from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Startup_company

A startup company or startup is a company, a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.[1] These companies, generally newly created, are in a phase of development and research for markets. The term became popular internationally during the dot-com bubble when a great number of dot-com companies were founded.Lately, the term startup has been associated mostly with technological ventures designed for high-growth. Paul Graham, founder of one of the top startup accelerators in the world, defines a startup as: “A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”

And from the same source, a startup culture

Startups utilize a casual attitude in some respects to promote efficiency in the workplace, which is needed to get their business off of the ground. In a 1960 study, Douglas McGregor stressed that punishments and rewards for uniformity in the workplace is not necessary, as some people are born with the motivation to work without incentives.[11] This removal of stressors allows the workers and researchers to focus less on the work environment around them, and more at the task at hand, giving them the potential to achieve something great for their company.

This culture has evolved to include larger companies today aiming at acquiring the bright minds driving startups. Google, amongst other companies, has made strides to make purchased startups and their workers feel right at home in their offices, even letting them bring their dogs to work.[12]The main goal behind all changes to the culture of the startup workplace, or a company hiring workers from a startup to do similar work, is to make the people feel as comfortable as possible so they can have the best performance in the office.

This is what most of us understand startups to be; but I would argue that startup cultures do not only apply to a new or young company (a startup) or that the culture is inherited through acquiring a startup; applying the culture and model that exist in a typical startup one can “build startup culture”.

If startup culture is a “must have” then how can there be any issues with that culture? To clarify, in my opinion startup culture is great, they build great teams, focus on product, have a great culture and are fun to be in – and I respect and thrive in them; you start running into issues once the startup has started-up and you need to scale three core P’s: people, product and process. For me, the key is using teamwork and relying on your peers to figure out how to scale all three at the same time while everyone is busy with their other workload.

The next post will outline some of the end-products of startup-culture that should be addressed/changed in order for the startup to mature as it goes from being a startup to started-up culture

Building high performing teams by showing your employees why they suck

This topic builds upon the previous “Building high performing teams by telling your employees they suck” (its not as simple as telling someone “you suck”); the emphasis really comes down to communication (showing) and attributes (why) they are not performing to expectations (sucking).

I learnt very quickly in my career that quality metrics do not lie and can easily convince to win an argument. I also learnt that pictures and diagrams help me explain (and understand) things much quicker than words alone. This is why, whenever I have had to prove something to myself, or explain a point; I have turned to metrics and diagrams.

So lets first cover some basics

Many companies do an “annual review” dance; some do it twice a year, some don’t even do it (we wont talk about them)…  and during this review, the expectation or assumption is that the person being reviewed has been working towards their goals that were defined the year prior; or that if goals had changed, then things would have been appropriately documented to reflect that change…. Truth is.. we do not have time for this; especially when you are in a high demand team where priorities change on you all the time. However; if you have been actively carrying out your 1-on-1‘s and have been using it to develop the person/your team and have some sort of career path or individual development plan in place; you may be well prepared for this annual review – Great for you!

Some lucky ones get an annual, semi-annual (or sooner) 360 review; I believe this provides more value than an annual review because it lets you hook into career development much sooner and/or it will give you insights to how you efforts are perceived by a larger audience who may be working with you on much closer day-to-day basis; this can one stay on top of their game if its done in short enough period as it is a great motivator. Managers can then review the trend over time and see how one is progressing to give a more accurate review.

At the end of the day, with all these reviews, coaching, development plans, etc. what we are really trying to do is grow people (or remove the ones that wont grow), make sure they perform and build teams that work well.

High-performing teams don’t just happen, they are made.

It is my opinion that in order to build high performing teams that work well; you have to instill a culture around “working well”. The annual, semi-annual, etc reviews really need to tie into a day-to-day type of thing; it may be seen as a lot of work (initially true), but just like good and frequent maintenance goes a long way, so does this.

To recap; what I have just stated is that we should focus on reviewing everyone on more frequent basis; something that ties into the day-to-day and can be captured daily or weekly… or best, if it can be captured adhoc as long as its captured within some frequent frequency. We would of course want this to be documentable, repeatable, measurable and actionable… we would want a process.

So, if this all has not added up yet, we want quality metrics that will provide diagrams/results based on process that can be used to communicate performance.

Every couple of weeks; I will ask my leads “without any thought into this, respond to my email and stack-rank your team”; or I will ask “If you had to do a project, who are the 3 people, in order of preference, you would pick”. Then there will be the “who is the most active volunteer” or “who is the least to volunteer”…  While these questions lead to answers that I plugin to my brain somewhere and maintain on spread sheets… they do not translate to quality metrics because they are not standardized enough… nor really repeatable.. (and probably other reasons as well). Another flaw with my method of capturing metrics is that it doesn’t allow “everyone”offer an opinion; only the ones I happen to ask or interact with that day. So while I may be able to “wing-it” and come up with diagrams based on some metrics… we need to focus on improving the quality of these metrics.

Quality Metrics

What does “team work” mean to you? What are the attributes of a team player? What type of people do you want to work with? or what type of people do you want working for you?

Here are some interesting data points that one can use a 1-5 scale to rate someone on (in no particular order)

  • Reliability
  • Constructive communicator
  • Active listener
  • Problem solver
  • Active participant
  • Shares solution/ideas
  • Volunteers assistance
  • Flexible
  • Customer focused
  • Respectful

In addition to defining the data points; you want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to provide this data on “any one” without a need for self-identification (remain anonymous) and you will want some way of reminding people to go back and update (or resubmit) data at some frequency.

Creating a process around capturing these metrics and emphasizing the need to submit feedback sends a strong message to your team(s) that this is important.

Communication

Once you have reviewed, tweaked and confirmed (adhoc charts) that you are capturing data that is meaningful; its time your shared the results with the team (where appropriate) and with individuals (as needed).

The diagram below is probably more for your own viewing (rather than sharing with the team)

ImageThis diagram identifies the low and high scorers (averages of combined attributes); and you can see from above, Employee 4 is a low scorer.. (bottom of stack rank)

You may want to dive deeper into this, and you will see

Image

Where everyone lies based on attribute; is there a deviation for anyone? or does everyone score low in a specific category?

Again, from the above two it seems like Employee 4 isn’t at par with the rest.

Communicate

Communicate how/why/where they are not performing… a picture says a lot more than words, see below:

Image

 

This chart can be used in a 1-on-1 with Employee 4 to go over their specific performance; and can be tied in with what the “average employee” scores (which is just avg score per attribute), see image below

Image

This image that compares employee 4 to the average employee accomplishes the “you are sucking” message and gives the employee actionable data that is backed by metrics. They can then use this information to focus improvement efforts.

Conclusion

So while its easy to focus on the literal words used. The goal should never be to tell someone that they suck (and stop at that); it should be to help drive change, development and improvement in someone by clearly communicating areas they need to focus on so that you can build a high performing team.

 

 

 

Fear defines us

Fear defines us.

It sets our boundaries telling us what we can or cannot do. It makes us comply with the rules set in our societies. It keeps us in check….

Fear reminds us to think our our actions rationally and impacts. ‘If I go faster than the speed limit, I’ll get pulled over and get a speeding ticket’. Fear also sets our comfort level with how much risk one will take. ‘If I get a speeding ticket and If I don’t pay the fine and don’t show up in court a warrant will be issued’. Social and intuitive fear is needed, it helps us survive and co-exist; some fear is good.

But the same fear, can lead to regrets as it stops us from taking risks..
I wish I had quit and worked on my idea. I wish I had gone to culinary school. I wish I had moved to x rather than y. I wish I had said more. I wish I had dropped out. I wish I hadn’t dropped out… I wish…. had….. All paths taken and not taken in the past….

Why? Fear of failure? Fear of success? Fear of being different? Fear of being the same? Fear of change? Fear of being noticed? Fear of being unnoticed? Fear of leading? Fear of following? Fear of the unknown? Fear of Fear?

There’s still time; one can still pursue what they strongly believe in; its never too late as long as you can face your fear’s.

Fear is learned; unlearn Fear and defy Fear by redefining what Fear means to you.

Building a dynamic onboarding program for Martians

Chances are that you have been through some form of schooling (high school, college, maybe some random instructional education) and have hopefully figured out that everyone learns differently.

For me, learning and passing my classes meant that I showed up to all classes, took no notes – just listened and the day or so before a test or final, skim through the text books (if i had purchased them) and then just showing up for the tests. Once I figured out how to do that very well, my last 3-4 semesters for my Bachelors, Comp Sc were filled with A’s and my Masters, Software Eng was a solid 4.0.

Was  it a piece of cake? Nope, but I surely made it seem like it was.

So whats the secret? or whats the relationship to that with onboarding? or well what is onboarding?

From Wikipedia

Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.[1] Tactics used in this process include formal meetings, lectures, videos, printed materials, or computer-based orientations to introduce newcomers to their new jobs and organizations. Research has demonstrated that these socialization techniques lead to positive outcomes for new employees such as higher job satisfaction, better job performance, greater organizational commitment, and reduction in stress and intent to quit.[2][3][4] These outcomes are particularly important to an organization looking to retain a competitive advantage in an increasingly mobile and globalized workforce. In the United States, for example, up to 25% of workers are organizational newcomers engaged in an onboarding process

Some organizations have great onboarding programs; some don’t. There are going to be cases where you inherit a team that has single-threaded subject matter experts and as a manager you may be expected to distribute that knowledge and grow the team – with no process or onboarding program in place. Yes, you have to create it, so where do you start?

Do you invest time in meetings? create videos? printed materials? who will read all that? who will do the work if your team is off training new hires? is that really a good use of their time? or a real-world question “Do you have bandwidth?”. The answer is No.

So, why not use what you, or I learnt during schooling? when we ourselves were learning? how did you learn? How could you create an onboarding program from nothing? and how could you be sure it would work? You really do not want to invest time in something that is  not going to work so it needs to be agile enough to change on a whim.

Okay – enough of the red flags, here is what I did. Ill try to make this as generic as possible.

I inherited a team of martians, and the problem is that they only speak a special language, called martia. Turns out that its a very ancient language and that no one really speaks martia nor is it taught in college. The small group of martians have been speaking it for 15 years and they as a team are great at it, theres just a few of them. It also turns out that there are all these documents that come in that need to be checked for grammar and spelling, and corrections – in many cases the martians really have to research and see what the intent of the document was because in some cases they have to re-write the document correctly – it can definitely be time consuming and this is the only team that can do this.

This team of martians is also aging, some have retired, others were move to other planets so I have to hire more martians – but, there are none around. So I hire a martian from a different universe and tell it that it needs to learn martia and I will help it learn this language; the language it speaks, we dont care for it. Here is the process that gets put in place

1. Every day the new hire will sit with a senior martian for 2-3 sessions and learn stuff

2. The sessions will be 30 minutes long and after every session there will be a break, during which the new hire will document all that was covered

3. During the next session, the senior martial will review notes, as a refresh to where they left off, and continue the information offload

4. Steps 2 and 3, repeat for a week or so; after which the new hire will then attempt to work the documents

5. as the new hire works the documents, it will have questions, it will document them

6. the new hire will setup additional sessions with the sr martian to get clarification and answers

So – you say this is just common sense and normal stuff.. how are we reducing the dependency on the sr martian who is already busy? here is the answer:

A couple of months go by and another new hire is brought on

1. The new hire sets up sessions with the x-new hire, i.e. the junior martian.

2. the new hire reads all the documentation created by the junior martian

3. several sessions take place where the junior martian and new hire go over content

4. a session every now and then takes place where the sr martian comes in to listen in, and see how the training is going

5. if the sr martian adds anything, its documented in the growing on-boarding document

6. the new hire then also attempts to work documents and goes to the junior martian for assistance – and if needed, they both go to the Sr. martian.

So, its somewhat like train-the-trainer you say…. yes, it is., except, the trainer role gets passed down to the newest hire. if you keep hiring, you start building a 2-tier training team, where the junior martians, through teamwork, will try to come to a conclusion, and then will be empowered to go to the senior martians for confirmation. This helps build teamwork, confidence and helps them acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.

Sooner or later, your team of martians will grow and the martia language, once so uncommon, will become common and the perception that its the monster in the closet that only the select few can understand, soon goes away.

Leadership: Mini-Motivators of Motivation

In my journey through leadership , I learn a lot through experiences and observations… here is one observation:

We all work for different things and we are all entitled to our personal (or not) reasons for what motivates us. Motivation is probably the single most powerful thing that keeps an employee (willingly) at a company.

Motivation comprises of many things; I will not pretend to be the expert on motivation (or leadership) but for me and maybe for you (and possibly the general public), I think it breaks down into three mini-motivators.

  • Market: Product/Space you work on/in, the day-to-day things you do
  • Money: How much you get paid to do what you do
  • Manager/Management: Your belief, trust and/or respect for the person or people who is/are your leader(s).

To ensure that people are motivated, all leaders should focus and be challenged to ensure that all three mini-motivators are attended to as in an ideal job, one would have a good mix of all three.

So the question is: What happens when you start taking things away? or what if you had to focus on just one to grow your team? In my opinion (and many others as well), “Manager/Management” is the silver bullet.

People work for great managers/management teams and will continue to work for them even if the pay is low or the job is boring; however, if you take away the great manager/management team and give the person a great market opportunity and/or over compensate, eventually, the individual(s) will leave for other opportunities where they feel they will also get the “manager/management” balance.

There have been quite a few times when I have heard the phrase “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers” and slowly, it has started to make sense.

Leaders must focus on motivation and be managers that are looked up to; if you have leaders who are not respected and looked up to, or “followed; you have a motivation problem and (good) people will leave.

Horizontal Management – Maintaining momentum: Keep progress moving

While machines might give the same level of output everyday, the same doesn’t apply to people.

In a real environment, each member’s momentum and motivations will change without notice. This requires management to step in and make sure they are constantly evolving the processes so that members will remain motivated. Leadership is important to motivate key players, channel information to keep everyone engaged and make working horizontally routine. To accomplish this, management might bring in an outside champion, who will help wring in new ideas and “fresh” stream of motivation. Instead of looking at a project as a whole, it should be broken down into smaller goals that are realistic and achievable. Management should encourage and build on small success, to demonstrate that it was an important milestone and motivate members. Progress and results should be demonstrated so that members can all acknowledge the ongoing progress and success.  Management can keep the members interests by ensuring that they are always focused on achieving the goals that were set, and if deviation is detected, corrective action is taken to bring things back on track.

A horizontal team is dynamic as it is always changing, management needs to account for its dynamic nature and make necessary adjustments to accommodate/adapt to the change. Money is probably the best motivator, but too much money too early in the process can hinder individual initiative and prevent people from innovating. Since horizontal structures focus on team collaboration, a downfall is that meetings can go on forever and schedules can be missed; this can unmotivated some members who feel that decisions are not being made in a timely manner, which is why management can implement deadlines which will help practitioners develop a common schedule and manage workloads effectively so that the projects momentum is kept at a steady pace.

[Source: Moving from the Heroic to the everyday: Hopkins, Couture, Moore]

Horizontal Management – Building support structures: To keep Horizontal team in check with Vertical roles

Even though a “horizontal structure” is flat in nature, it does still need a (vertical) support structure.

The main purpose of a support structure is to help managers build lasting relationships and achievements with teams. There are two basic type of support structures that managers can mix and match when building or working with teams, depending on the requirements as each has its own attributes.

  • Informal structures don’t define rigid roles and responsibilities, they are open to interpretation and people can define their own roles and swap roles as needed, hence they are less resource intensive, more flexible and less binding on members; Informal structures help promote open discussion and communication among its team members; and
  • Formal structures are more rigid and roles/titles might be defined where members have specific responsibilities; this makes them more resource intensive but less ambiguous; they require some logistical skill and expertise to implement. These structures are great when consistency and quality are important factors.

It’s important for management to recognize what type of structure needs to be in place and when its put in place; as “when” a structure is erected, it can play an important role in the success of the teamwork initiative. If too much formality is introduced early, people might feel there is no difference in the “horizontal structure” and the “vertical structure” where vertical structures are rigid, formal and bureaucratic and would be less motivated to work with the initiative. In contrast, waiting too long to build a support structure or the lack of a support structure can hinder the ability of the team to successfully work together as a team, especially when they need to be able to adapt when in tight spots.

Since the resources and effort required are greater when setting up formal structures, informal structures are great for short projects, however when the projects will go on for a long period of time or are of large scale, formal structures would be more suited as they are less ambiguous and will stay well formed longer (as they are more solid than informal structures).

Authority and roles in informal structures are more ambiguous and can be swapped around; In formal structures, the roles and responsibilities are more definitive, hence less ambiguous and in that regard, formal structures would work best in situations where important decisions need to be made.

[Source: Moving from the Heroic to the everyday: Hopkins, Couture, Moore]

Horizontal Management – Developing shared framework: Working for the same goals

When we work as a team, we usually work for the same goal(s). There will be times when we might stray away from the goals that were originally specified and we will not realize it. By developing a shared framework we can help ensure that we are all (still) working towards the same goals.

Image

With open discussions, patience and a shared fact base (mental model and vocabulary) we can deal with conflicts internally (within the team) and develop a shared understanding of the key issues.

One major issue of working with a team is accountability, as many forget their individual accountability and it becomes unclear where the accountability lies (does it lie with the individual, or a team as a whole?). This is probably because the lines of individual accountability and the shared sense of purpose become unclear because of the focus and emphasis on the “shared” attitude towards everything and it is important to acknowledge the difference and maintain the separation. Clarifying roles, responsibility, shared goals and results upfront with open discussions and debate will help resolve accountability issues in advance. We might need to revisit and re clarify these elements as they might evolve over time due to changing circumstances and new opportunities. Having a shared and clear understanding of planning and reporting can help accomplish all these tasks (involved with developing a shared framework).

[Source: Moving from the Heroic to the everyday: Hopkins, Couture, Moore]