In December, I made this offer and invited help to learn how it might work. I got 11 responses and chose 3 organisations to work with. As the experiment evolved, I shared some early lessons and more here.
With the experiment now complete, here are some conclusions I can draw both from qualitative feedback from doing the experiment and quantitative feedback from surveys conducted during the experiment.
Always face to face before going remote. Always!
I had two groups that I met with and worked with, face to face, for 2 days as a kickstart to the experiment. During this time I made the invitation as sincerely as I possibly could, reinforcing it regularly during the workshops in my actions and through my language.
This facetime was essential in creating the bridges through which future collaboration. People had online conversations with a friendly personality they knew by name and sight and someone they had laughed with and exchanged stories with vs simply a voice on the end of the phone.
The third group did not have the facetime, we simply spent 2-3 hours online using tools to create the improvement lists and to make the invitation. Whilst this may have generated the same outputs – stuff to improve – I don’t think it we ended with the same outcomes – great rapport and bridges. This third group whilst still somewhat engaged, lost interest very quickly and had fewer collaborative sessions with me and with each other. I also got quantitative feedback that this group would have preferred a face to face workshop at the start.
Remote work tools generally suck
I tried to keep tools to a minimum. Mostly we used google docs and Trello for online collaboration. For communications I tried lots of different tools – iMeet, Skype, GotoMeeting and Google hangouts.
Each tool had its benefits and drawbacks, but the take-away for me is that anything that travels on the interweb is going to be slow and unpredictable at various times. So I need backups and alternatives.
Most effective for me, was not the tech but the design of the sessions. The secret for me was to have shorter sessions with fewer people and to use video sparingly, maximise visual collaboration – ex: google docs to draw vs speak.
Buzzwords like “Agile”, “Scrum” are turn offs
From the very first improvement workshop – it was clear to me that people lost interest in the conversation when we talked on Scrum, Kanban and even Agile. The conversation suddenly stopped being about them – the people and their needs – but about the tools.
Everyone had some opinion why ‘technique A’ wouldn’t work. Different ‘truths’ about how these techniques work and experiences of ‘how’ they work.
At the risk of introducing yet another over-used word, I tried to steer the groups away from dwelling too much on techniques, but focus instead on outcomes and on some fundamental truths.
Keep the focus on effectiveness
Overwhelmingly across all the groups, ‘effectiveness’ was the key word that everyone could get their head round. It wasn’t divisive – even if we didn’t define it explicitly, everyone had a similar understanding that it was about making things better.
I helped by offering my perspective on 4 elements of ‘effectiveness’: Value – what we are building/doing, Flow – how smoothly are we building/doing it , Quality – how suitable for purpose it is and how easily are we able to keep doing it and, finally, Joy – how do we each feel doing what we are doing.
(Major hat tip to Emergn and Joshua Arnold for their invaluable work on Value, Flow and Quality – VFQ).
I invited everyone to consider effectiveness to be these 4 elements in balance; or the first 3 at levels that keep the 4th – joy – high and trending higher.
Most people – more than 80% of all participants – understood and agreed with this simple perspective on effectiveness.
Improvements take time and persistence
Without a doubt, the energy of the workshops and the enthusiasm for improvement was really high at the end of the workshops with all the groups. I believe the openness of the invitation helped the participants give the whole thing the benefit of the doubt and participate more fully. I was really impressed, yet concerned.
I worried about how could we transfer this energy into the work to continue the improvements when people got back into their ‘day jobs’. I was concerned because I thought it would be difficult and undesirable for a single individual to sustain work on any improvement item, so I suggested that groups of between 3 and 5 form around each of the most popular improvement items that we dot voted on and prioritised by the number of votes.
Yet, despite the groups forming, the improvement work – even just meeting to explore questions that could yield greater understanding – still took time to get off the ground. In one case we didn’t even get to have the weekly reviews until the very last one, where it then turned out that there had been a lot of activity that had happened to move the improvements forward!
Persistence is hugely important – at one point, only two out of the five members of one working group turned up to have their conversation. I was so glad they persisted – because what they discovered helped attract greater interest in that improvement and more people joined later.
There is a need!
In my experiment, I worked with over 80 people in total – some more closely than others. Most had experienced some kind of ‘injection’ consultancy and most had generally a negative view of this model of consultants coming in – usually to coach or work with a team in Scrum/Kanban or something packaged – disrupting how people are working and then leaving after a few weeks or months. Most often, people shared that they just went back to how they worked – a bit more disillusioned.
The management in the various groups also generally felt they got less valuable outcomes from these engagements for the amount of money and time invested and disruption that everyone endured.
Almost universally, participants welcomed help and support to help them to focus on their improvements and explore different ideas and experiences to help them work on the items.
I believe there is a need because of a fundamental problem that many organisations have. Here are what I believe are the crux of the problem:
- There are always things to be improved and some of them are critical.
Each group averaged 26-35 things they would like to improve. Some of these were pretty big things – like ‘getting more customers’ and ‘feeling more appreciated for my work’.
- Improvements take time and effort.
During the experiment, most of what people shared were symptoms and therefore needed deeper exploration to understand, diagnose and find solutions for. It took time to get people together, time to explore the questions and sift through data. Most of this time was ‘stolen’ from the other time that people are normally busy.
- There is a general lack of facilitation skills in companies.
The biggest discovery for me – a huge proponent of self organisation – was that empowerment with permission is not enough for people to self organise. To do it effectively and to enjoy it requires supporting that empowerment with facilitation skills. If self organisation means everyone having pointless meetings that go on and on with no measurable outcome, then it is little wonder that groups would rather be told what to do than be more autonomous. My belief now is that everyone should have basic facilitation skills as a fundamental requirement to work with others. Basic techniques to get a group together with clearly articulated purpose, a framework to explore the purpose and means to converge the conversation into summaries, clear next steps and action.
- The people who can best explore the problems that need improvement are hardly ever invited to do so.
This is perhaps one of the biggest aspects of the problem that I observed. The experiment was based entirely on making an invitation -a request – for which there were no consequences for not accepting. Even with the invitation made, I got regular feedback about the fear of it not being genuine or genuinely supported by management. I found myself having to reiterate and reinforce the open-heartedness of the invitation often.
The core need that I identified and validated is that people involved in the improvement work need help, access to expertise and support at a pace that suits them. Most importantly, I discovered that there is a distinction to the way the help must be presented – friendly, empathic partnership is preferable to pushing knowledge or being an aloof teacher/trainer/’guru’.
So, I have data, many mostly satisfied experiment participants, plenty of learning, great ideas and some validated conclusions. What next?
I am working on finalising the details of a new service to meet this need that I have identified and validated and I will be sharing it soon. I would really love your input when I have something to share.
If you would like to learn more about the smaller details of the experiment or are thinking of running something similar, consider booking a free slot on my new soHelpfulMe page and I would happily spill the beans about how it worked, the gotchas, what I would do differently and even share some of the feedback – anonymously , of course.
For all other comments – please use the commenting system or tweet me @mhsutton. Please consider sharing this post. Thanks.