We are on a journey to try to truly be an agile organisation. In this post, number three in the Business Agility Series, I will describe how we changed our business operating model in order to help develop new habits to step us towards our desired agile new culture.
At the time we started our agile journey, I was in charge of all things agile at Assurity. My boss, our CEO Garth Hamilton, is a brave leader who wanted a more agile culture. It was fertile ground for some ideas I had been percolating for years.
I proposed the following operating model (you will probably need to click on the image to see the full-sized picture).
I had blogged about this model for some time and felt confident it could work. For details of how it operates, read the post.
I offered my services to Garth as the Leadership Team Scrum Master and proceeded to run the next few leadership meetings. We ran monthly Sprints. Once per month we ran one combined meeting where we
- Held a Sprint Review to review the results of the previous month. My job was to provide transparency on our performance. To do this, I gathered as much relevant data as I could and put it on the walls for all to see (see below for some of the metrics we use). As a leadership team we would try to glean insights from the data that help us in the next stage – Sprint Planning.
- In Sprint Planning we would determine what we are going to work on for the next month. We used our implementation roadmap (a series of ideas/intentions) to guide us, but equally accepted we couldn’t plan everything as by the very nature of business stuff pops up, but we at least chose a goal and some key objectives.
- We held a Retrospective on how we worked together as a team in the previous month.
- We held a weekly stand-up where we would update each other on progress in the last week, objectives for the next week, impediments etc.
We used Trello to as our shared board and based our weekly stand-up around this. Getting the entire leadership team together monthly proved challenging.
We needed to change the way we measured the company. We settled on
- Customer Satisfaction. If we wanted to be truly customer centric then this needed to be the number one metric. We chose Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a way to measure this.
- Employee satisfaction. We discussed a classic chicken and egg for a long time. Richard Branson believes if you focus on your employees and the number one priority then they will naturally delight the client. The other school of thought is that you must focus and foremost on the customer as everything in a consulting firm is dependent on the quality of the client outcomes and relationships. We settled for the latter and again chose NPS as a way to measure this.
- Gross margin – margin is a fundamental of consulting and a useful way to understand how much value you are delivering. Are you just clipping the ticket at low margin, or are you adding significant value to the client therefore able to charge a premium for your service? We wanted to grow margin, along with the above two measures, over time.
Branches operational models
Each General Manager is free to run their branch as they see fit. If they want to use the Leadership Scrum model they are welcome. Equally, they can develop their own.
Three Sprints in our Auckland General Manager resigned. I stepped into the role which meant two things:
- I could implement the this model at a branch level
- My capacity to continue as leadership team scrum master was pretty much non-existent. Garth took over these duties.
How the Auckland branch now operates
In my first 30 days, the most acute thing I noticed was how we engaged our people. Before I joined, Assurity had adopted the concept of Circles from Holacracy. Holacracy is strongly purpose-driven, with each Circle inheriting a piece of the overall company purpose. We hadn’t really don’t this properly and Circles had lost their way.
We addressed this by providing Circles a simple but important purpose:
”make Assurity an amazing place to work”.
We then gave Circles complete autonomy over how they went about achieving this. The only guidance I gave was my target vision:
- a warm space to collaborate on the Purpose
- somewhere for clear career development
- somewhere for regular discussion on the work we are doing
- a dedicated opportunity to contribute ideas for improving Assurity
The next focus area was my direct team – the Auckland Management Team. As the leader of this group I made a decision to apply myself as a facilitator/coach and focus on building a high performing team. I work from home 2 days a week and I felt this made a good challenge – instead of being “the boss”, could I instead focus on a team that could run the branch with minimal input from me? Could I build a self-organising management team?
I based my approach on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team model by Patrick Lecioni. Over the next four months I held a series of day long off-site workshops to build trust and confidence in the immediate branch management team. We developed a social contract, and a plan for the remainder of the year (I had taken over mid-year).
On reflection, this was a bit naïve. Partially, I chose to act as a coach/facilitator as it was easy for me– I am an agile coach. However, I quickly found out that much more was needed.
The team also needed
- An arbitrator to be able to weigh in and make a call when the team was stuck. A purist agile coach would probably disagree with this. However, this was a newly formed management team that was going through the storming phase, while also under immense pressure to turn around a challenged branch. The needed me to “lean to the left” on the directive<->facilitative scale.
- A people manager. This seriously challenged me. I have always hated the entire concept of “people management”. It feels like the antithesis of agile to me. However, my colleague Dan opened my eyes to a totally different angle on people management. He argued that it is all about transparency. As much as the company needs to be transparent about its objectives, individuals also need to be clear about their objectives. As a people manager, your job is to collaborate with the person to capture these objectives, then regularly provide open and honest feedback about progress, using client and team feedback. Finally, you provide coaching to assist. He said “it is just like a Sprint. Imagine starting a Sprint without any objectives, then progressing with no transparency or visualisation and no regular checks on progress. How would the team learn if they didn’t have objectives to start with?”
It is interesting that it was only because I was prepared to listen and take advice from someone nearly half my age that enabled me to grow as a leader. For anyone interested, I recommend reading The One Minute Manager, through an agile lens.
We still have a lot of glitches to work through. We aren’t into a smooth, regular cadence yet and getting the team together monthly is a real challenge. As a group, have also gone through the classic team formation stages – forming, storming, norming and performing. We keep slipping back into storming when we are under pressure.
So with the management team on the path to self-organisation, what about the rest of the staff?
One challenge we faced is that consultants spend most of their time at the client’s premises. How could we engage them in this new culture?
The only time we all get together is our monthly branch meeting, so this was an obvious candidate for change. Branch meetings had traditionally been dreadfully boring affairs where management updated the staff on what had been happening and what was coming up. Nobody enjoyed them.
To change this we decided to dedicate most of the branch meeting to an open and honest retrospective. We actively visualised all the stuff that really sucked (along with suggestions for how to fix it) , and all the stuff that was awesome (along with ideas for doing more of this).
The outcomes of the retrospective went into an improvements backlog, and then the management team would work through these on a Scrum board throughout the month as “stuff to fix in the branch”. At the next month’s meeting the management team would demonstrate what stuff they had addressed. Initial items included things like “crappy laptops are impacting our performance as consultants” and “our office layout in the branch sucks – we should change it to be more collaborative”. Getting these things addressed demonstrated that we were committed to change and that we cared.
Recently I realised something important: as a management team, we were assuming that it was our job to address these impediments. By doing this it was actually disempowering the staff and supporting the entire them and us management and staff culture. If we were trying to build a culture of collaboration, shouldn’t we all by accountable for addressing impediments? We modified our model…
Eventually I aim to have the staff completely run the branch meetings. I want the management team to simply provide the branch performance evidence (data) transparently, and then let the staff analyse it and collaborate on how we can improve.
So now Auckland was running using in agile-ish way, we needed to integrate this with the cycle the Leadership Team runs. Here is what I proposed to Garth:
- The consultants are the real value creators. Value is created at the intersection of our people (consultants) and our clients. They are the outer ring.
- Circles serve the consultants. They are the consultants tribe.
- Branches serves Circles, removing impediments and enabling self-organisation.
- Leadership serves branches, removing obstacles and maintaining a company-wide view, looking at trends and patterns.
To support this, the branch ensures that its Sprint is completed prior to the leadership Sprint Review/Retrospective so that I can take any company wide impediments that require attention to the leadership table.
We have had some challenges, but we are definitely improving.
We still have a long way to go. We have big questions to answer, such as “how much transparency?” How much autonomy do we provide and how quickly? We don’t have any answers right now, but are confident the right path will emerge as we inspect and adapt.
In the next post I will talk about where we are going next to build upon what we have achieved so far.