Jeffrey von Drehnen – Senior Consultant
Katy Hughes – Senior Consultant
Chris MacLeod – Senior Consultant
Caitilin Studdert – Principal
Infinite Monkey Theorem suggests that given enough monkeys and time, you could achieve almost anything.
Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough monkeys nor time. Competition abounds, customer needs are dynamic, and the world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
We must improve as much as we can, as quickly as we can, lest our customers find someone more capable of creating value. And then repeat.
A range of tools, systems and processes can help you to deliver more value for customers, faster. We also find coaching invaluable in cementing new techniques so that the results persist into the future.
Here are three relatively quick actions to get you started, suitable for almost anyone in any sized organisation:
- Team – do you have a stable and diverse team?
- Time – is it running out?
- Tasks – does everyone know what comes next? (And does the task even matter?)
Team – do you have a stable and diverse team?
You would have heard of the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning’ model of team development. Created by Bruce Tuckman, this model has stood the test of time. It suggests that all teams go through these five stages. While not all teams go through the same stages at the same speed, the general idea holds true.
Forming: As teams come together, they seek to understand each other. There is little clarity of one’s role and responsibilities
Storming: Personalities start to bump against each other as group dynamics are discovered
Norming: An understanding emerges of what is acceptable behaviour
Performing: The phase we have been waiting for – where the work gets done
Adjourning: Teams conclude and move their separate ways
There are steps leaders can take to encourage teams to progress from forming toward performing. For instance, concerted effort to promote genuine connection at the forming stage can limit its length and ease the transition over the storming stage. Likewise, having a clear and systematic process for setting and agreeing to expectations early on can help the norming stage progress. However, these are all attempts to make the process leaner.
An easier approach: keep the team stable.
Having the right mix of people, with a diversity of skills, experience and thought, and then keeping that team together, means we can avoid repeatedly moving through Tuckman’s five stages. This saves us time and effort.
Even ‘Agile’ organisations often get this wrong, moving people around from team to team based on the next priority.
With less time and effort spent moving between the five stages, teams spend more of their time in the performing stage. This is where organisations get the best return on their investment. We want to maximise the duration that teams spend in the performing stage, until we reach the point that the organisation would derive even greater benefit from rotating staff into new areas (to encourage new thinking or skills).
There are other benefits as well. Once a team is performing well together, they are in their rhythm. They know how to interact with each other to achieve the results they need, which makes it a less stressful environment.
There are many large organisations transforming how they deliver value by moving toward Agile Ways of Working and a new operating model – ensuring they are putting their time, energy and resources into the right priorities for customers.
Many large retailers are also making this transition, fuelled on by how they rallied over the past year in responding to COVID. Katy Hughes, a Senior consultant with ADAPTOVATE, has been working with a leading retailer on their transformation.
“With this retailer’s new approach to ways of working, we have seen that stable teams perform better than those teams that have encountered some disruption, such as changing team members. Every time a team encounters disruption they restart their journey through Tuckman’s five stages, impacting their ability to deliver,” says Katy.
In short: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Time – is it running out?
Having the right team in place is no sure-fire recipe for success. Next, we need to ensure there is a general feeling that time is running out. This leads to the ‘Uh Oh’ effect.
Building on Tuckman’s idea above, Connie Gerseck decided to look more closely at how teams get the work done. What she found was that teams don’t work in a linear fashion; rather there is a stop and start motion to their work.
At first, teams go about their work based on their early understanding of what is needed. For instance, they might be reading or having conversations, trying to understand how the pieces fit together. If an outsider was watching, it is likely little progress would be seen at this point.
However, at about the calendar mid-point something amazing happens. The ‘Uh Oh’ effect kicks in. This is when people take what they have learned so far and begin to apply it to get them to their goal on time. Working patterns, designs, to-do lists, team dynamics – everything is up for re-work. It is where the rubber hits the road. They then continue working until the end time is reached, where they will either succeed or fail.
The ‘Uh Oh’ effect occurs in that special, pivotal moment where teams know enough about what they are doing, time is starting to run out, but enough time exists to course correct. Once the moment passes, the team is seldom likely to amend their plans or patterns of behaviour again. It is a one-time opportunity triggered by our awareness of deadlines.
A common example many of us can relate to is the mid-life crisis. At some point we look up, realise we are not where we thought we would be, and re-adjust accordingly. Or perhaps you are due at dinner at 7 but only started getting ready at 6.30 – you will almost certainly experience a flurry of activity at about 6.45. It is a necessary moment that helps us deliver with speed.
Increasing the frequency that individuals and teams experience the ‘Uh Oh’ effect, will keep their attention on the task at hand and maximise the value you gain from each colleague. For instance, instead of a monthly or weekly meeting, try having daily meetings with your direct reports with clear goals set for the next day. This creates a near milestone that individuals and teams must then strive toward. Instead of one ‘Uh Oh’ moment per week, you are creating five, with the added benefits of transparency and accountability that come from a team environment.
Note, we aren’t trying to over work people with this technique. This is about making sure we minimise downtime and keep people focused on the job at hand.
Tasks – does everyone know what comes next? (And does the task even matter?)
The chances are that if a task feels meaningless, it probably is.
PowerPoint presentations that go nowhere. Meetings without clear outcomes. Staff with too much or too little work. These are all symptoms of poor task creation and prioritisation.
Particularly in large organisations or in enabling functions, where the customer feels distant, it can be difficult to know what work is going to create the maximum impact on customers’ experience.
To overcome this, we need to connect the organisation’s goals with the day’s work.
At the organisational level, cascaded Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) are a powerful tool to create alignment, breaking down the big strategic goals into smaller ones, each with measurable results and timeframes. While many organisations do well at setting objectives, they could improve at cascading objectives and tracking momentum toward results.
Eventually, organisational objectives need to be turned into a person’s work. Here a tension exists between alignment and autonomy. We want all of our people pulling in the same direction, but only they really know what effort is needed to get us there.
As a team, try and assess what tasks are needed to achieve the objective. How much time is needed? Do the necessary skills exist within the team? How will you know when the task is done? Do you all understand why you are doing the task?
Various exercises can help the team to prioritise these chunks so that the work achieving the greatest value is delivered first. The answer is not always clear cut. All options usually deliver some value but there may be competing interests at play. A good rule of thumb: what is going to enhance the customers’ experience the most, soonest? This will likely generate a better return for the organisation over the long term.
The pipeline of work can be re-visited as frequently as you need, but no less than every month or so.
It seems so simple as to be almost obvious, but almost no organisation we have worked with had an effective and transparent pipeline in place when we arrived.
If a good pipeline exists, it means teams can reach for the most valuable task when they have capacity, understand what is needed by when, and then deliver it. Limited time is wasted in the nebulous decision phase, as the team has already transparently and collectively agreed on what needs to be done.
At least at first, don’t get caught up on what form the pipeline takes. A Kanban board, a product backlog, a to do list with pen and paper – they all work well. The key here is agreement and transparency.
Organisations that do task pipelines well are more efficient, returning greater value to the shareholder. The customer experiences the value created sooner, keeping you ahead of the competition. Just as importantly, staff experience greater motivation because their work is directly linked to real and agreed value creation.
Senior Consultant, Chris MacLeod, is helping a client with prioritisation via ‘Big Room Planning’. This is an exercise in getting all stakeholders – leaders and team members – to look at what pieces of work will need to be done if an objective is going to be achieved by a given time.
“The best thing about Big Room Planning is how effective and efficient it is,” says Chris.
“When we start to list all the different pieces of work needed to achieve an objective it becomes clear that something has to give. What is actually important to helping us achieve our goals? We need to celebrate the things we aren’t doing, as well as the things we are. It’s a conversation organisations need to have, and they need to do it frequently.”
Team + Time + Tasks
You don’t need to be an ‘Agile’ organisation to implement any of these actions, nor is it an exhaustive list leading to high-performance. However, they are all actions largely possible regardless of the environment you are in or the positional authority you hold. Rather than starting with all three, begin with the action that seems easiest for you
- Can you hire for, and maintain, a diverse and stable team to maximise the amount of time they perform?
- Are you able to co-create near-term milestones with your team to inspire a little more drive?
- Do you have an agreed and transparent to do list that your team can pull from?
Wherever you start, you are about to create more value, faster.
Tuckman, B W & Jensen, M A C 1977, ‘Stages of small-group development revisited’, Group & Organization Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 419–427.
Gersick, C., 1988. Time and Transition in Work Teams: Toward a New Model of Group Development. Academy of Management Journal, 31(1), pp.9-41.