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How agility, collaboration, and accountability go wrong
Agility, collaboration, and accountability are essential to an innovative culture, but they must work in balance. Here's how to make that happen
For many of us, lessons about finding balance started early in life: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” taught us that the ideal is often found between two extremes, for example.
In the spirit of the classic fairy tale, let’s explore three elements of the innovative workplace culture – agility, collaboration, and accountability – that must be in balance to make the process of digital transformation feel “just right.”
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Agility becomes extreme (and unbalanced) when you follow established rituals too rigidly. This leaves no room for adjusting to the zeitgeist, and you will often find yourself having meetings for the sake of having meetings. Rigidity is an enemy of agility – you must remain flexible to meet the challenges of current needs.
General Stanley McChrystal writes, “The crew’s attachment to procedure instead of purpose offers a clear example of the dangers of prizing efficiency over adaptability,” in his book, Team of Teams. This is a succinct reference to the extreme end of process.
At the opposite end is providing little or no structure at all. This is common in startups. As the company grows and more people need to understand what is happening, chaos results. If this is your situation, do not panic. I would choose chaos over rigidity simply because there are infinite possibilities to improve – but be careful not to overcompensate by shifting too far toward rigidity.
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In his book, Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink states, “Discipline equals freedom.” In other words, the right amount of process provides leaders with a measure of discretion. Imagine a fence surrounding an area in which the leader is able to move freely. An overly rigid process simply makes the fenced area too small.
You need enough structure to enable standard procedures that promote repeatable outcomes, and enough flexibility for product and project managers to take ownership and make necessary pivots. Because these managers are closer to the ground than senior leaders, they must be able to maneuver within your processes. Without that maneuverability, you risk being overly rigid.
Keep in mind that deploying Agile practices does not guarantee agility; agile is as susceptible to process bottlenecks as any other methodology. I have seen less agility in Agile environments than waterfall environments (and vice versa).
Moving things along faster and quickly adapting to change can be achieved with any methodology in a culture where the collective priority is the outcome rather than the process. Followed as intended, Agile practices do promote agility – as long as the focus remains on serving the needs of your customers.
There are extremes in collaboration as well – for example, when individuals overload themselves with work. Some people can perform effectively that way in the short term, but they will eventually burn out.
I experienced this personally when our company started to grow: Over the course of a year, I averaged less than two hours of sleep per night, and I made two trips to the hospital due to high blood pressure. Meanwhile, I was proud of how much work I was taking on – even as my colleagues watched me slowly fade. Fortunately, I was able to “rebalance” with help from my leadership chain, but the impact was real and potentially deadly.
Another collaboration extreme happens when leaders are left out of a project and eventually swoop in like a seagull to change its direction. This situation is self-fulfilling: Lacking information, leaders must either intervene or remain in the dark. Any feedback they may have provided early on is then thrown at the project team all at once – “seagull management.” To prevent this from happening, include leaders in the right degree during all phases of the project.
When it comes to collaboration, consider scope: A project might involve two team members, two or more teams or departments, or even the entire organization. While many of us try to limit the number of people involved in meetings to keep them more efficient, the goal should be to keep meetings on track and reduce the number of meetings for employees in general.
In my experience, reducing the scope of meetings results in key people who do not know what is happening. Those people then schedule other small meetings to catch up and meet objectives, and they come to their own conclusions. They then schedule more meetings to synchronize with the team from the initial meeting. The result? An endless series of related but disconnected meetings – followed by even more meetings to get everyone aligned.
At SentryOne, we hold regular all-hands meetings that serve different purposes. One demonstrates recently completed engineering projects. Another provides product management with feedback from the field. A third is a “town hall” where we discuss any boons or threats to employee engagement and company performance.
We still have smaller team meetings, standups, and one-on-ones. At the same time, we avoid flooding everyone with smaller meetings by getting everyone together regularly. This ensures that everyone, regardless of their role, knows what is happening and has an opportunity to provide input when decisions need to be made.
The first extreme in accountability is no accountability at all. In this scenario, everyone is on their own: There are no measurements, no goals, and no sense of purpose. People ask questions like, “How does what I’m doing make a difference?” or “What does this project do for me?”
While accountability can often be perceived in a negative way, it is necessary (in balance, of course) for a healthy work environment. People with no sense of belonging or purpose feel lost, aimless, and generally unhappy.
At the opposite end of the accountability scale, people spend more time measuring details than pursuing vision and purpose. Key performance indicators should be just that – key, high-priority measurements. If you are reviewing 50 - 70 KPIs or more, you may be measuring too much. Similarly, if any one of your senior leaders cannot recite your top KPIs from memory, you probably track too many.
What does it mean to have a culture of accountability? It is not about checks and balances or measurements; rather, it comes from a group of individuals who are dedicated to a purpose greater than their own personal desires. It happens when each individual holds him or herself personally responsible for outcomes that benefit that purpose.
How do you foster a culture of accountability? Offering open meetings like the ones at SentryOne is a good start – but you must act on the resulting feedback. When projects move forward based on what is revealed in these meetings, your team members will gain a sense of ownership and connection to the projects, which translates to accountability. There is no greater motivation for individual accountability than having a sense of ownership.
Innovation management requires balance – extreme positions do not generally yield positive outcomes. Strive to balance agility, collaboration, and accountability, and make this balance part of an up-front contract as you proceed on your digital transformation journey.
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