The Dormant Environment

Death Valley Spring 2005 Bob Canfield

I was listening to a TED talk and the speaker threw out the word “Dormant”.  He used it to describe Death Valley which is named Death Valley because, well, nothing grows there.  No rain=No growth.  However, something happened in 2004….it rained (7 inches in fact) and in the Spring of 2005 Death Valley was having quite a hard time living up to the name.  The floor of Death Valley was covered in flowers.  Turns out Death Valley isn’t dead.  It’s dormant.  Underneath the barren landscape was loads of potential just waiting for an inviting environment.

I’m a little obsessive about environments – specifically environments for teams to be successful.  Today, more than ever, there are companies, consultants and coaches out there trying to crack the Agile nut in order to deliver value more frequently, efficiently and of higher quality.  It’s a HARD nut to crack.  The frameworks, Scrum, Kanban, XP and the consolidation of them in SAFe provide the manual and direction for companies to take.  Yet….they’re [still] not seeing the expected and much-desired results and I believe, with every nook and cranny of my heart, the reason lies in the environment.

DORMANCY:  The state of quiet (but possibly temporary) inaction. – Definition from http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu

Underneath the surface of the frameworks we’re using or, if you prefer, the foundation, are the Agile and lean values and principles.  But, I don’t believe the appropriate amount of time and attention is spent on teaching these.  Certainly not to the point where they’re understood well enough to be put into practice.  What’s more, I don’t believe most environments are suitable for the demonstrative manifestation of these values and principles.  So then what you end up seeing are the process side of frameworks in action – not people.  The frameworks are designed to bring the values and principles to life.  Frameworks need people to bring THE FRAMEWORK to life.  So, really, you need people to bring the values and principles to life and the environment, generally, just isn’t conducive.

Occasionally, there will be a micro-climate where, somehow, a team is flourishing.  I’ve heard these teams referred to as “magic teams”.  The magic of them is they created their own environment or micro-climate and bucked the odds – kind of like the Spring of 2005 in death valley.  Which, goes to show you, it’s not actually magic…it’s the environment.  Creating the environment is the key to unlocking the potential of people to bring the framework and the values and principles to life which will then bring the amazing results we’re all searching and striving for.  Oddly enough, those micro-climates are noticed by others as well.  The magic team is sought after and asked about their secret and the magic team will gladly, willingly give it away and, then, those seekers will tell you all the reasons why replicating it just aren’t possible elsewhere.

Maybe we just take for granted the environment will be there or it will evolve to meet the changes in process and approach.  Or, perhaps we don’t even want to think about the environment because changing or creating environments is difficult, hard work.  Also, there’s nothing telling you that a framework NEEDS any certain type of environment.  All of that said, I can’t think of a single organization who isn’t fully capable  and up to the challenge of creating an environment to enable success.  Especially if, at the end of all that work, the results would be nothing short of spectacular.  I would go so far to argue that the environment of every organization is dormant….quietly inactive.  I may even take it a step further and say the “environmentalists”, or those with the ability to be, are complacent.  Meanwhile, there’s all this potential just there, waiting for the right environment or a very persuasive environmental activist to get the ball rolling.

 

 

 

Monkey in the Middle

One of the keys in Agile is an empowered team.  Empowered to make decisions, self-mange and self-organize.  In order for a team to be empowered, they also need to be trusted.  Trusted by their teammates, their managers and their stakeholders.  I bet if you were to ask HR what kind of attributes they looked for in employees, they would tell you they want intelligence, creative thinking, a team player, a self-starter, one who has and takes initiative…..all attributes which, really, should make it very easy to trust that associate.  If you ask managers about the attributes their direct reports have their list would likely look a whole lot like the one from HR.  So, when it comes to empowering teams, why is it so difficult to relinquish control?  And, if managers aren’t willing to relinquish control, what happens?  I’m getting ready to make some guesses and assumptions here and would LOVE to hear your thoughts.  I don’t believe I have the whole picture myself, I’m just starting to dig in to this challenge more deeply.

WHY IS IT DIFFICULT?

1.  Fear.  Managers are afraid if they empower their teams, they won’t be as necessary.  If teams are identifying, designing and implementing their own solutions and they work…..why, then, do they need a manager?  What happens if the solution an empowered team implements doesn’t work?  Will the manager be blamed?

2.  Communication or lack thereof.  I see managers who don’t feel comfortable communicating the whole picture to their associates.  They operate in a mind-set of “need to know”.  When associates don’t have the complete picture, they can’t possibly design a complete solution.  They only have a fraction of the information.  A manager is needed to review and expand on the solution using the remaining information.

3.  Job Description.  Managers are held accountable to the performance of their associates.  Also, they are expected to manage work, find ways to improve the work and make the company overall, better.  Is the same true for those who aren’t managers?

4.  Trust.  Managers don’t trust their associates enough to empower them.  Managers also don’t trust those above them enough to realize the value and benefit of empowering their associates.  They may be worried it will look as though they’re not contributing themselves.

5.  Lack of Safety.  The environment isn’t one where it’s safe to trust those beside, below OR above the manager.  The “system”/environment is so fraught with booby traps, inefficient processes and fragility that it’s not safe to do anything without understanding the safety procedures and having a buddy or entourage.

WHAT HAPPENS?

1.  Disengaged associates.  If they aren’t trusted, don’t have the whole picture, aren’t expected to really live up to the HR job description and can’t implement any solution that isn’t fraught with risk there’s no reason for them to engage.  Their contributions aren’t valued, recognized or rewarded.

2.  Angry associates.  You ask people to give Agile a go.  You train them and emphasize empowerment, self-managing and self-organizing then, they’re not allowed to walk the walk.  It’s all just talk EXCEPT there’s an expectation of more, better and faster.

3.  Frustrated associates.  Tired of feeling they’re not valued and angry at the bait and switch move, they struggle to do as asked and told and don’t see any progress.

Now, the funny thing is, most managers were once regular associates and, I’m pretty certain, it would not have been acceptable to them if any of the above possible reasons were truths for them.  Managers grew into their position because they exhibited those attributes most companies seek and seem to value.  It is probably also due to….THEIR MANAGER.  Great managers exploit the positive of their associates.  They develop their strengths and find opportunities for them to shine.  They seek the input of their associates and teams because they know it’s not possible for them to have all the answers themselves.  They know the better their teams does and the more they grow can only reflect well on them and, ultimately, contribute more value to the company.  They know that being a barrier to their associates success serves no practical or valuable purpose.  They aren’t afraid of one of their associates surpassing them organizationally.

So, now I’m stuck.  What do you do to help overcome this challenge?  Ask provocative questions – there are so many!  Reveal the picture to them through questions.  They may be able to see it but, may also still be resistant.  It’s easy to help people who are aware and open…how do you help people reach awareness and openness?

I chose the title “Monkey in the Middle” because it’s one of the MOST frustrating games I can think of.  In the situation I have begun to lay out here, there are several possible monkeys.  The associates who are just waiting for an opportunity to grab the ball.  The manager who wants to be secure enough to empower their associates but doesn’t feel empowered themselves.  Then there are the people passing the ball, trying desperately to make sure the monkey in the middle never gets it.  Dropping the ball would mean giving someone else an opportunity to play and that would be????