Dramatic Results without the Drama

My guiding vision is to bring about a world where communication and collaboration create miraculous results, where people are present to their innate greatness.

One of my main tools as a leadership coach and management consultant is a kind of deep listening. Listening in a certain way invites full self-expression for all people, including bringing out hidden fears and emotions, which can then be fully voiced as resources for problem solving. I have an opportunity every single day to live my promise for the world, grow and develop my skills to bring out the best in other people. In this way we all expand our capability and make a greater contribution to the whole. Here’s my experience from one such day with unlimited opportunities for growth & contribution..

It’s a sunny day at a high tech world-renowned firm in Mountain View, California. Down the middle of a large open office are rows of tables and comfortable office chairs. In a small conference room off to the side, there are no chairs or tables, just some beanbags on the floor. The walls are hung with erasable white boards. One of these is filled with colored sticky notes, some neatly arranged in rows and columns.

Five young men in jeans and t-shirts huddle around the board. To one side stands a middle-aged man in business casual attire, keenly interested in knowing what this team has to say. Another participant, the team’s coach, stands in the back of the room, watching with intent. That’s me – I’m listening for what is said and what is unsaid.

Jeff points to a sticky note from the column marked “In Progress.” It represents a task he’s responsible for. He says he completed work on it yesterday, and moves it to the column marked “Done.” Ben then picks up a note from the “To Do” column and says he will work on it today. It gets repositioned to the “In Progress” column and marked with Ben’s initials.

Sid goes next to the board and points to a task. He gives an explanation of as to why the task has not been completed. As the team’s coach and consultant, I listen carefully to learn the context for his update. I ask Sid, “Is there anything that’s blocking you from moving forward”? Relieved, Sid says that he’s just waiting for a reply from someone else before he can take the next action. I ask, “Is there anyone you can meet with to get this addressed?” Sid thinks for a moment and determines the next action he will take that day to move the task forward.

Vincent goes to the board next, points to the task with his initials in the “In Progress” column, and says, “I worked on this yesterday…and will still be working on this today.” I’m listening for a positive statement indicating what it will take to complete this task. Vincent looks at his team and says that he has to learn a new tool to see if that works. Another team member, Prashant, steps forward, saying that he’s familiar with that tool and will be glad to work with Vincent that morning, for which Vincent thanks him with a nod and a smile.

Finally, Michael goes to the board, moves a task to “Done,” and waits, implying that he is not sure what to take on next. I turn to Bob, the Product Manager. He’s responsible for ensuring the team is focused on creating a quality outcome; he speaks for the customer. I ask Bob: “Is there anything urgent and important that’s not on the board?” Bob says, “Well, there’s this one bug that’s been bothering the customers for a while…”

I then ask: “Do we know the severity of the impact?” Bob says reluctantly that this issue has been a source of customer dissatisfaction for few months now. He expresses concern that this could lead to revenue loss for the company due to customer attrition; somehow it didn’t make it into the weekly plan for the team. I respond, “Well, that’s why we’re always planning, daily, weekly, and monthly, rather than just having a general overall plan.”

Bob decides to prioritize this item for the team to work on. Right away, Michael says he can start the investigation today and report back tomorrow morning. Bob smiles with relief and says that he’ll introduce Michael to a customer who can provide details. Michael takes a sticky note, writes a few words to describe this task, adds his initials, and places it in the “In Progress” column.

They ask each other if there’s anything else they need to talk about as a team, and Prashant says he’d like to go over his idea regarding a software build. This is a crucial activity in which several teams are working in small increments, making changes on a daily basis. The team gives him a nod, and Prashant turns to a clean white board, takes a dry erase marker, and starts the discussion with a diagram. The others gather around him, and pretty soon they’re engaged in deep technical discussion. In about five minutes, they end the conversation with an agreement about a new process, and Prashant and Jeff add a couple of tasks to the “To Do” column.

In a remarkable demonstration of transparency and efficiency, this entire scene happens in about 15 minutes’ time. Everyone is still standing, and with the meeting completed, they go to their desks to start work. Value gets delivered to customers as frequent as every few weeks, generating revenue for the company in millions of dollars.

This is a picture of an extraordinarily high-performing team who must shift gears frequently in response to customer needs. In spite of these constraints, the meeting we just witnessed was astonishingly efficient – notably free of time-wasters like finger pointing, rambling discussion, and posturing. What makes this possible? How did we achieve such seamless responsiveness? Let’s explore a few elements: Transparency, Autonomy, Support, and Alignment.

Transparency

The white board with movable tasks arranged in columns is referred to, not surprisingly, as “The Board” – and sometimes more descriptively as “The Big Visible Information Radiator” (BVIR). These displays help us visualize and initiate interactions. These interactions are shared directly and visually, rather than having to send email or make phone calls about day-to-day progress and decision-making. Impediments to progress become immediately visible and are addressed quickly.

In these interactions, many elements of workplace dynamics are brought to light and can be re-examined by the group. It’s easy to see which company policies and implicit agreements hinder the project and which advance it. Respect among teammates is increased along with the visibility for each one’s contributions. No one is afraid to disclose difficulties, and because the “blame game” is simply not happening, and collaboration happens spontaneously since secrets are unnecessary.

This 15-minute interaction in front of the BVIR takes place daily and is called “The Daily Standup.” One purpose of the Standup is to alert each person to the work coming up and what each member is working on. This quick interaction gives an opportunity to acknowledge having met the commitments they made the day before – and if not, whether anything is blocking their progress. Each person can experience recognition for the previous day’s work. Finally, the act of physically moving each task by stages into the “Done” column imparts a sense of accomplishment on a daily basis. The BVIR provides visual clarity on what each person can do next to move the game forward at a sustainable pace without team members getting burnt out.

In addition to providing a forum for transparent group process, I also create a space for each individual’s concerns to become clear. In my role as coach, it’s important to encourage blame-free communication so that people trust one another and are honest in discussing their needs.

With this trust established, they all support each other in winning the game. This group of people now emerges as a highly coordinated team focused on fulfilling the vision for the future. There are fewer issues with miscommunication since conversations are mostly held in the open, and since folks know they can trust each other. The Coach encourages them to develop their skills and take on new challenges – as we say, to “fail fast” and learn quickly, with small failures redefined as learning experiences.

Autonomy & Support

After the 15-minute huddle, the team is off to their work area. The work area is just two long rows of desks and chairs, where the entire team sits next to and across from each other, as if they’re at a long dining table. There are large whiteboards all around the periphery, and no sign of any cabinets or shelves. There are no telephones on their desks and hardly any papers, just computer monitors, keyboards, some electronic gadgets, a few notebooks and pens, coffee mugs, etc. Just around the corner, near the large white board, is a round table with few chairs around it, for the team to quickly check in as needed.

There is no manager telling them what to do. There is no need to monitor the team’s working hours or what they do. The programmers get to decide what they work on each day and have the autonomy to come up with how they will build and implement their work.

Catered lunch arrives in a large dining area. Around the late afternoon hours, some of the team members go off to the game area where they play Ping-Pong. The refrigerators are filled with various drinks and even some wine and beers. An espresso machine dispenses freshly brewed lattes. Some folks sit in comfortable sofas and chairs and have conversations with their co-workers, sipping coffee, and others keep working on their laptops while munching on snacks. For those who stay late, dinner is brought in. This organization does a great deal to ensure a culture that values employees and handles their basic concerns so they can focus completely on bringing new ideas to market.

Alignment

Later that afternoon, another conference room is filled with 12 people around a large oval desk and sitting in chairs, all talking at once, arguing and analyzing. The coach enters the room and asks, “What happened?” … then there’s silence in the room. Someone says that a customer called with a complaint, the call was escalated all the way up to the CIO, and the matter is now urgent and high importance. The coach listens and asks again, “What made that happen?” Someone says that the way the architecture is laid out is causing these issues. In answering the question, “Who needs to be present here to get this sorted?” they call out the relevant parties: the architect to adjust the design, the product manager to represent the customer’s need, and the lab hardware engineer to tune the appliance. A meeting is called between these three folks; soon they’re in the same room—having only dealt with each other via phone and email in the past, they now discuss the issue in a small huddle room with white board while the coach facilitates the conversation.

As facilitator and coach, I provide listening and guiding questions that shift the emphasis of the conversation away from “Something’s wrong—Whose fault is it?” in favor of “Something’s missing—How are we going to create it?”

After several minutes of intense discussion, there’s now a space for completion and creation. The focus shifts to the customer’s needs, and together the assembled team determines what needs to be done. The Architect goes to the Board and lays out the design and highlights an area that needs to be tweaked, the Lab Hardware Engineer adds additional items that will improve performance, and the Product Manager highlights the priority order of these items based on customer need. In just a few minutes they have aligned on a common mission for their teams. They agree on what constitutes the minimum viable product (MVP) that can be validated with customers in a short period.

At the end of the session, the three people go meet with the team and communicate this shared vision. Team members ask a few questions to clarify. They quickly shape the minimum set of features that can fulfill the vision. Everyone on the team commits to delivering this in four weeks’ time – and off they go! People at every level are now confident that they can figure out the implementation details and contribute to the emergence of the new design. The power of alignment brings focused intention and peer support to their work.

Conclusion

These elements – transparency, autonomy, support, and alignment – are some of the central themes of a project management style called Lean or Agile, which I use in my work in leadership training and operations consulting. In combination with my technical knowledge from engineering, they are some of the most powerful tools for creating efficiency and good will in the workplace.

As an Agile Practices Leader, I get to empower and enable hundreds of people every day, where in the field of contribution, leaders emerge and leadership is present, people are present to their passion and performance skyrockets, customers are delighted.

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