Leadership & Management70

Reality Bites and Stranger Things

Renee Troughton

February 24, 2017


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Conference Video

Watch the video here: https://www.infoq.com/presentations/leaders-tough-times


Transformations are like roller coaster rides – they are filled with thrilling highs and stomach dropping lows. The lows are those moments when reality bites, when strange and unexpected events occur. How do you work with leaders in these moments, often when the very low has been brought on by their decisions, language, or their behaviour? This is a story of such moment; of actions taken with respect, timing and optimism in mind so that the ultimate goal of business agility is reached. There are no new tools, ideas or gimmicks in this talk – just a warm-hearted story about influencing change in leaders.



[Introduction] This presentation was recorded at the Business Agility Conference 2017 in New York. This audio file and others like it are available for free download at infoq.com. [End introduction]


We all know the old proverbial question: is the glass half full, or is it half empty? So which is it for you? Can the glass half full people raise their arms, please? Oh, thank you. If we were to ask that question to President Trump, is it half full or half empty, he'd probably say, "BuzzFeed and CNN are making up fake news about the glass. It was definitely full!" If you asked me? Well, I'm a bit of a Lean thinker. I've always thought of the glass as at 50 percent capacity. 

It's interesting to me, this idea between optimism and pessimism. If I'm in a room and no one is black-hat thinking, I will enact that role. Does that then make me a pessimist?

There's a really great TED talk by Brené Brown, she talks about trust as if it's like marbles in a jar. When you have a trust moment, you add a marble to the jar. When you have a distrust moment, you take a marble away. I think that of these moments are very similar to being pessimistic and optimistic, in that they're a additive, and they're subtractive. I think that we are all both optimists and pessimists. A series of lifting moments will leave us optimistic, highly engaged, energetic. A series of crushing moments will leave us disengaged, apathetic. We may even want to leave our jobs. We live in these moments, and importantly, we are a part of these moments. We make choices as we enter the moments. We make choices as we're within the moments, and we make choices as we leave these moments. 

We've heard some truly inspiring ideas today, but like all great ideas, when you go back to work next week and you try to implement them, sometimes reality bites as stranger things happen. My story is one about working with leaders. It isn't about patterns or frameworks, but about success sometimes being dependent upon timing, respect, and above all, optimism. 

I've worked for many large organizations over the years. The one of my story today employed over 30,000 people, and was certainly the most dysfunctional that I'd seen. I saw it as a challenge, or as an optimist would see it. It had many opportunities for improvement. It's probably another tale about how the transformation came to be, but after working there for nine months, they finally started to get serious about a real transformation, and within one month I managed to land myself into the transformation team. 

The impetus for a serious transformation was driven from a leadership spill in one of the biggest portfolios, a portfolio that had a roughly a four hundred million dollar year spend. One of the new managers, Bob, had a really strong background in Agile. Bob's boss, Jane, was new to the organization and she had a really strong background in Lean. I'd classify Jane as a level two leader. She reported through to the CEO, and had talks with the leaderships team at the executive level. 

Bob was more like a Level three leader, and had layers of direct reports underneath him. With Bob's knowledge on Agile and Jane's on Lean, the pillars for potential success were there. We formed a team to define the organization's new way of working. A team comprised of people with many specialist backgrounds. Backgrounds in Agile, Design Thinking, Lean, and change management. Bob was to be our product owner. We started by doing some big picture thinking, and began to ask questions like, what were the problems that our programs were facing? What things were not being done that should be being done? Who should be doing those things, and why are they not doing them? 

Eventually, we found that the handoffs across the organization were causing too much debt. Our first diagram was one of a large circle, one where work was a continuous loop without handoffs. We looked at the role of strategic thinking, of prioritization, and of delivery in this loop. 

We ended up building a process with five core high level stages. We added our bits into each one of these stages, looking at inputs, outputs, artifacts, and activities. This is what the picture looked like. A team of seven people, people who had never worked together before, got version one of our approach up in the space of a week. We were excited and went into our first showcase on cloud nine. We took 30 minutes to walk through what we had done, highlighting our thinking, and keen to get some real feedback from Jane and the other stakeholders in the room. At the end, both Bob and Jane said that they were really happy with the outcome. They knew it was just the start, and that many discussions and activities were still to come. High fives of success were sent around the room. But in the last five minutes, something very strange happened. It was one of those reality bites moments. Bob said, "Next sprint, we need to make sure that everyone commits and contributes. We need to reduce the team to only the people that can give 80 per cent or more of their time." 

It was completely unexpected. There was no hint of it beforehand. It was like that scene out of Stranger Things when an arm starts to crawl outside of a wall. The people in the team who tried hard to balance their normal job with this side gig were visibly disheartened by the comment. I also happened to be one of these people, but this paled to the next comment that Bob made. He said, "I'm really glad that we went through this exercise", he went over to a wall and then he stuck up a picture, "because," he continued, "I wanted to test whether you would come up with something like this, and you did,  well, close enough, so we can just move forward next week with this model." For those of you in the audience, unfamiliar with this model, this is the Scrum@Scale picture from Scrum Inc. The hand rising out of the wall turned into a full on Demogorgon, a monster from Dungeons and Dragons. 

Jaws dropped and eyes rolled, but all the other stakeholders, and Jane, were ignorant of what had just happened. Not only had our work just been thrown away, we'd been unknowingly participating as an experiment. In moments like these, I seem to shift towards being the optimist. I thought, "OK, well, maybe that was just poorly worded", or, "sure Bob has no idea what he just did". After all, we hadn't worked together for very long. I attempted to clarify, even giving him an easy opt-out of the pain that he had just given the team. I said, "Do you feel next sprint that would be good to test the new model against what we've just built, you know, to see where there is any gaps?" Bob pondered and replied, "Maybe. Well, maybe not. I've used this approach before. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to handle what we need." The demo ended and the team walked away in a haze of confusion. 

It was certainly one of those big crushing moments that happened at the end of a Friday. I managed to speak quietly to a few team members afterwards. They all interpreted it the same way. They all felt disheartened. I clearly had a choice: my choice was how to react, given how I knew both myself and the team felt. I could sweep it under the carpet, knowing that it would be one of those moments that would add to my pessimism over time, or I could address it there and then whilst the memories were fresh in my mind. I understood the importance of fast feedback, but ultimately my main concern with giving feedback right away was twofold. Firstly, Bob hadn't asked for it, and I didn't know him well enough to know if he'd be receptive of it. Secondly, I wasn't his coach. There was no mutual agreement on us having these types of conversations. So I went with my third option. It's my general approach anyway, even when a coaching agreement is in place. It's based on my fundamental position of respect, timing and optimism. 

Firstly, I respect that someone may not be mentally ready for feedback, that it is something you have to be willing to open yourself up to. Think about the standard HR performance review process that most organizations do. How much have you valued your feedback in these sessions? Is there a person that is forced in this process? There is. It's the employee that is having this done to them. Think about how people react in these sorts of situations. They're defensive, they feel shamed. They justify their behavior. Respect means waiting for someone to be ready, waiting for them to ask for that feedback. 

This brings us to timing. You have to be there at the right time to recognize that moment, and it won't necessarily be clear cut. And lastly, because it is a waiting game, you have to be patient and optimistic that that moment will come. My moment took a week, a tough week, of many people being cynical, apathetic and pessimistic. 

Bob, who was a happy and outgoing person, asked me at the end of the day, how I was feeling about how we were going as a team. "I'm not feeling good", I said, and I could feel the emotive part of me rising, so I asked, "Can we talk about it next week?" Bob agreed, and a few days later I took Bob to a quiet space. I explained to Bob how his comments had affected myself. I said, "If you had a framework in mind that you felt was appropriate for us to use to build our design off, or to experiment against, then as a product owner, you should have made that clear to us in the vision from the sprint. Well, what you effectively did to the team was on one hand say, 'hey, guys, I'm empowering you as experts of your domain to get this done', and then on the other hand, in the sprint review say, 'I've got the solution and mine is better.' The biggest issue wasn't that you had an idea in mind, it is ultimately that you gave, and then took power away." Bob reacted positively to the conversation, and asked me to raise further issues as they arose. 

Over the weeks that followed, I saw him actively try and course-correct his own behavior. But it certainly wasn't without moments where it was undermined again. As we were trying to make sense of the Scrum@Scale model, we found gaps in it. When we found these issues, we would highlight them back to Bob. He was very receptive of the feedback and we would start to shift away from the basic model, tailoring to suit the organization. But days later, it would have bounced back to the original diagram. It was frustrating to hear of these changes second hand. I would ask Bob why they changed, and for the most part, I found his logic to be incredibly sensible. Sometimes in these discussions, I would see the Demagorgon in myself. I would say something and I could see the horror reflected in Bob's eyes. 

We all know that we have our own cognitive biases, our own beliefs. It's just that often we don't take a step back, and try and see ourselves as others see us. That the stranger things can be happening around us, but also being caused by us. We often don't have the mindfulness to see the big picture whilst we're within it. 

Over time, Bob and myself continued our journey. We both tried harder to quell our inner Demagorgons, by recognizing them and not letting them escape as often. One day, Bob sat down with me, and started to ask more about how I'd implemented Agile in the past, at scale. He asked the questions, not as they related to the model, but more importantly, how they relate to the portfolio leadership team. He wanted to change how the team worked, making them work in the same way that their program teams did. I had been dying to give this information for a while, and was finally thankful for my optimism that the right moment would come, paid off. We discussed it for over two hours. Over the following weeks, that discussion heavily influenced what the model would look like. It also resulted in an opportunity to work with Jane and her direct reports. I was asked to go to an offsite and give a 90-minute "What is Agile?" training session. My training moment ended up turning into a 'facilitate the whole day' moment. The day went mostly to plan. Of note was how I dealt with questions as they arose. I would wait to see if Bob could answer them, not because I didn't have an answer, but because it was important to me that Bob was seen as the champion, especially as he was their peer. If Bob was mildly incorrect with what he said, I wouldn't counter him. I would only add a comment if it was significantly off track with how I wanted the other leaders in the room to think. The feedback from the day was that it was one of the best group sessions that people had ever had, but more importantly, the group valued both the new collaborative, Agile techniques that they had utilized, and the new knowledge that they had gained. This led to an agreement in the new way of working. 

I strongly disagree with two elements with how they wanted to work, but tried hard to quell the Demagorgon inside of me. They wanted to try one week sprints, and wanted to keep with their current teams, which were quite silo-based teams like Change, Design, and PMO. We talked about the pros and cons as a group, but they wanted to stick with the plan. It was important to me that they experienced process success, and failure - just like their program teams did. And so I gave them the space to fail, without an 'I told you so' reprisal, when they later worked out that they wanted to change. 

The event also led to the recognition of the value of having a coach, and I was asked by Jane to coach the portfolio leadership team. This gave me the opportunity to coach Jane, and specifically to begin the influence and education process that Jane would need to sponsor the transformation with the executive leadership team. We started by implementing a leadership wall with categories of urgent, strategic, operational, and general leadership. Work was broken down into what was planned to be achieved within the week. We had the usual ceremonies booked in, identified Scrum Masters, product owners and head coaches for each team, and within one week had everyone working within sprints. Each ceremony was an improvement on the previous one, and the leadership team, over time, became both more comfortable with a new way of working and importantly, better understood what each other was doing. For the first time, they were able to cross collaborate, and have real conversations as a leadership team. 

A few weeks into this process, I was invited by a friend in another organization to do a talk for them on business agility. I invited Bob and Jane to come along as well. It was my opportunity to open their eyes to what business agility was, and for them to see Agile from a different perspective, from a lean startup perspective, where flow, and metrics were at the heart of the transformation - and not a three tiered Scrum process. My presentation highlighted the generations of Agile, that we were now going into the fourth generation, which was business agility. I showed them my model loosely based on Frederic Laloux's book, Reinventing Organizations, where I had modeled the command and control orange to Agile green behaviors. 

As I talked, there was an active banter between Bob and Jane. The days subsequent to that presentation were filled with new thoughts and new ideas from Bob and Jane. After that discussion, we started to get serious about strategically planning a transformation, and a small group, including myself, Bob Jane and a few other people, locked ourselves into a room for three days. The outcome of those three days was a six-year strategy to become one of the highest performing organizations in our industry worldwide, in a period as little as six weeks. The leadership team changed from a group of people who weren't working together, who knew little about Agile, business agility, and Agile transformations, into a team that had understanding, collaboration, strategy, and an executive buy-in for significant transformation. It was a journey for each of the leaders, and was built not on an Agile framework, but on timing, respect and optimism. 

Yes, lots of stranger things can happen, and reality can bite, but it can also be done. You can make a difference, one little step at a time. 

Thank you.


About Renee

Renee Troughton

Renee Troughton is one of the most experienced Enterprise Agile Transformation Coaches in the southern hemisphere with extensive experience working in small to large organisations across many sectors including finance, insurance, superannuation, government and telecommunications. The author of both ‘Agile Forest‘ and co-author of ‘Who is Agile Australia and New Zealand‘, she also contributes heavily to her blog at Agile Forest and co-chairs one of the worlds leading Agile Podcasts. Renee specialises in enterprise transformations, Kanban, scaled and non software development implementations of Agile.

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