What do leaders do? Communicate.
Communicate by Default
A manager's default task is to communicate. If the manager finds themselves prevented from communicating to their stakeholders by more "productive" tasks, they risk failure in their role. All managers face this challenge at some point or another and fall into the "I'm too busy leading to lead" trap. Managers should communicate all day, everyday. They should overcommunicate by sending the same information through multiple channels - email, meetings, presentations, group chats.
For example, if a manager wants to advertise each team's project status, they could:
- Send an email detailing each team's project status.
- Setup a meeting and ask a delegate from each team to give an update.
- Attach a meeting agenda to the call to communicate what they need to prepare.
- Send a follow-up email after the call showing the summary and highlighting any actions.
Look at how much communication has occurred for an effective cross-team meeting. There can be no doubt for anyone included what the status of things are.
Here's how not to do it (taken from a real-world scenario):
- Invite every team member from each team into a call.
- Ask a delegate from each team to give their update one-by-one.
- Finish the call.
In this example, the manager could say that everyone now understands what's going on. But in reality, most people who joined the call knew they didn't need to be there and zoned out. The critical actions and cross-dependencies between teams were not captured and followed up afterwards. The manager is relying on everyone to:
- Be present and attentive when someone else is talking.
- Recognise critical information.
- Recognise hidden information
Communicating in L&D
For "horizontal" responsibilities that cut across the whole company, communication is even more important as so many people rely on hearing from you. In Learning and Development for example, employees want to hear about new initiatives and opportunities that come up that they could participate in. Even if an employee never joins any L&D initiative, seeing other people participating acts as a reminder to them to keep improving themselves. An L&D practitioner can communicate to the company in multiple ways:
- Display the L&D dashboard at the all staff update.
- Send out a monthly L&D newsletter summarising the latest initiatives.
- Communicate to managers and major stakeholders that engage with the company.
These methods of communication are for the general employee. Each initiative must also be communicated individually. Few things frustrate people than feeling like there is a secret project they don't know anything about, especially in smaller companies.
With all this in mind, it therefore makes sense that a large portion of time is spent preparing to communicate. Effective emails and clear visual dashboards help people see the trees from the forest. So spending the time, whether it's 15 minutes before a call or 1 hour to prepare a company slide, is extremely worthwhile.
Most of the time, we focus on the biggest problems of the moment. What's the biggest headache today? Who is causing me inconvenience? When will this pain and stress end?
It's no surprise that focusing on the negatives all the time leads to increased stress and burnout. It reduces motivation and engagement with our lives and the people in it. We forget the good things we have and wish everything was perfect all the time.
Recognising the positive events can be a big step towards a more enjoyable and meaningful life. And I think this is difficult to achieve alone - I think we need to celebrate with others.
Benefits of Celebrating Wins
Give people credit
A great joy is found in telling people "Well done" when they've achieved something. Their face lights up, they try to hide a smile or they shrug it off. But you can tell that they are really pleased with themselves and excited by your compliment. The biggest part of saying well done is that you are telling them "You should do more of this". So they go away and work hard to get another "Well done".
Get people on your side
People like you more when you give them compliments and celebrate their achievements. Celebrating produces positive emotions and so you become enjoyable to be around. Even if you're known for being hard on people, if you consistently give credit where it is due, they will forgive your faults. New opportunities come up too when people are on your side. You make more progress and people are more likely to help you achieve your goals.
Celebrating small wins shows progress. When we celebrate small wins, it shows we are on a journey towards a larger win. Ignoring small wins leaves people with a sense of "I haven't accomplished anything lately". For example, authors like to divide their books into smaller chunks so that they can feel a sense of accomplishment as they complete each chapter. So they're not creating a book - they're creating a collection of articles.
Give a positive outlook
Celebrating wins encourages us to celebrate more wins. There will always be nay-sayers who say things like "Well that's not very impressive". But we're not solely aiming to impress people when we celebrate - we're aiming to get credit. Amabile and Kramer's Progress Theory shows that celebrating and tracking small achievements leads to more a more creative, productive and engaged person. This gives everyone a positive outlook on the future where everyone is excited to see what will happen next.
Identify who should celebrate wins
Knowing who to celebrate with is important. Rather than an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to tell them what we achieved today, a better idea would be to send a report to our manager at the end of each week. When I start a new job or project, I keep my reporting manager up to date on every win each week for the first couple of months. This shows they are getting value from money from me straight away, rather than guessing if I was worth the hire.
The biggest dopamine hit is not when I send my manager an email each week, but when they reply back saying "Well done". That's the first group of people who should celebrate wins - leaders. If a leader gets into the habit of celebrating and showing off the people around them, they will find enormous gratitude coming from their people. People get excited when they are celebrated. They feel more creative and courageous to bring new ideas to the table. We all want that appreciation - more than money. This is the tip of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs - self-actualisation. We want to know we are creating something great.
While leaders should celebrate wins, it's not always clear to them what small wins happen during the day. A team sees every piece of progress each day. So they are in the best position to celebrate. Take a look at your team today - what small wins were accomplished? It could have been a code commit, a ticket closure, a bug breakthrough, a difficult conversation. Turn around to person in your team and say "Good job on closing that ticket this morning!". Imagine what multiple "well done"'s throughout the day can do for people. It drives them on to achieve more and do better things.
Identify your Wins
Focusing on your wins over your failures is a different mindset than we are used to. Whether this is on a personal level, a team level or a business level, we always find it easier to find fault. In contrast, we are glad when things work out and breakthroughs happen, but quickly go back to the next headache. This is called Negativity Bias. When presented with two things similar in kind and of equal intensity, we will focus on the more negative thing. This results in a short-term outlook on situations. By focusing on the negative, we are only concerned with getting over the pain and make rash decisions that affect long-term progress.
This isn't to say that we should never focus on the negative things that happen. But we shouldn't focus only on the negative things. Acknowledging wins brings a long-term, forward facing attitude to decision making. We can see what has been accomplished and, with a little effort, work to create a similar environment for more wins going forward. There are a couple of ways to identify wins.
Celebrate during daily reflections
I'm not a big fan of daily journaling - it never clicked with me. I prefer to write about ideas (hence this blog). So when I talk about daily reflections, I'm not saying anyone should buy a bullet-journal and start drawing pictures, though feel free to do so. A daily reflection can be a 5-minute intellectual exercise with yourself or your team. Ask yourself "What was 1 good thing that happened today?". Then ask yourself the most important questions: "How can I make similar good things happen again tomorrow?". This is a tactic I credit to Woody Zuill who asks his teams everyday "What went well today and how can we turn it up tomorrow?".
Celebrate wins as they happen
One of my biggest learning curves was as a Scrum Master a few years ago. I made the mistake to view our team retrospectives as yet another "pesky" meeting. One of our phrases was "We'll talk about this in our retro next week". Imagine that - we just achieved something and we said we would acknowledge it later. We could have done much better. We should have said "Let's get on a call so that John can show us what he's done - great work John!". John gets to show-off what he's accomplished, everyone else gets to learn and we all get to give him a big pat on the back.
Simple phrases like "Well done" or "Thank you for doing that" are huge boosts to morale in any scenario. My approach is: When in doubt, say good job.
How to Celebrate Wins
Wins require effective project management at both a macro and micro level. Setting clear goals, avoiding micromanagement, allowing time, providing support - these are all trademarks of a good leader. But many managers are effective in these skills, yet forget to celebrate the wins. So we need another ingredient. We need to record and advertise these wins.
Nothing gets celebrated if it is not written down. So the first step to celebrating wins is to write them down somewhere. This might be in a chat, an email, a dashboard or even a notebook. The simple act of writing it down is a win in itself. You are giving yourself and your team permission to celebrate by taking the time to write it down. As you build up a record of wins, you can start advertising them to others.
I'm not good at claiming credit for things. If someone pats me on the back, I prefer to say "Oh it was nothing really". So advertising our accomplishments and achievements can seem a bit cocky in contrast. But the simple fact is this: Nobody will ever know what you've accomplished if you don't tell them. And if nobody knows what you've accomplished, they will assume you haven't accomplished anything at all. So once you have your accomplishments and wins noted down, it's time to advertise them.
Pick your Celebrants
How you advertise your wins depends on your position, your stakeholders and your surroundings. If you are a manager, you probably don't need to advertise your wins to your sub-ordinates, especially if you're not in the habit of advertising their wins on their behalf. Or if you are on a team, it probably doesn't make sense to email your friend about all the great things your team are doing. So pick the right people - who are your main stakeholders? Who is charge of your raises? Who is charge of advocating on your behalf? Who are the people you work with daily? These are the people you should communicate to.
For example, if you are a software developer on a team, it makes sense that you advertise your personal wins to your team, your project manager and your line manager. Your team because they are who you work with everyday. Your project manager because they advocate on your behalf with other managers. And your line manager because they keep record of your achievements for performance reviews. Make sure to reciprocate the "good job"'s! When your manager and teammates achieve something great, say thank you and well done. They appreciate hearing it as much as you do!
You can communicate your achievements in many ways:
- Powerpoint dashboard
- Team Chat
- On a call
Pick the medium that best suits your stakeholders. If you are advertising to your manager, an email is the best way to ensure they see it. If you are showing-off your team's wins at a company update, a powerpoint dashboard is best. Choose the best medium for the situation.
Say Thank you if your win is celebrated
It's one thing to celebrate your own wins and the people around you. But what happens when somebody else calls you out and celebrates what you have achieved? It is just as important to accept praise as it is to give it. If we decline someone else's praise, we are saying that we don't want to hear those things in the future. It doesn't mean we need to jump up and down when someone says well done. All it takes is a simple "Thank you - I appreciate it", and move on. There is no need to make a big thing of it. But there is equally no need to make nothing of it (if you want people to say well done in the future anyway).
Learning and Development Theatre
What is L&D Theatre?
I'm approaching 1 year as an L&D manager. Mentorship and community are an important part of learning any new role, so 12 months ago I joined a virtual L&D community. I attended some meetups but didn't enjoy them. I couldn't take the community seriously. Everyone had the voice of a teacher talking to a young child. That condescending tone that high-fives everyone and says "that's so awesome" a little too much. Coming from a software development background, this was grating. Give me a problem and let's get some ideas on paper!
Not only were we avoiding real-life problems - everyone was making up problems that didn't exist! It dawned on me that the community didn't understand what true problem-solving looked like. They were engaged in "theatre". Everything was a show. Value was manufactured rather than created.
Theatre is when we pretend something is important without bringing forward tangible ideas or solutions. There are many public topics where we engage in theatre: environment, politics, equality, education. In the workplace, there are many more: leadership, HR, marketing, innovation, security.
I'm not saying these topics are unimportant - quite the opposite. They are so important that to treat them as theatre destroys their reputation. The same goes for Learning and Development. Every organisation and L&D practitioner knows the modern, fast-paced environment requires constant learning and better performance. So if we all agree on the problem, let's get serious about the solutions.
What are examples of L&D Theatre?
Since I joined and left the community, I've done a lot more reading. I now think L&D practitioners are our own worst enemy. We propagate the notion the L&D is soft and fluffy. The literature has great principles - OKRs, business results, learning in the moment of need... But the success stories are few and far between! We focus on the number of people that attend training rather than how it affects their decisions. We track soft, easy metrics rather than the difficult business metrics. Some key leaders are focused on changing how L&D operate. For example, the Learning and Development Podcast by David James hosts guests dedicated to valuable learning and development. I'm an avid listener.
Companies that hire L&D divisions often do so because they want to be seen as a place of learning. I repeat - they want to be seen as a place of learning. But learning by itself is of no benefit without a goal.
The best learning companies in the world understand this. Pixar uses learning as a means to create new ideas. Similarly, Google's learning culture exists to drive performance and business goals. These companies understand that learning is not the ultimate goal - it is a means to an end. Therefore, L&D practitioners must swallow this pill and focus on the outcomes the business wants to achieve.
Why does Theatre happen?
Theatre is a marketing exercise. We market things in our company to attract both talent and new customers. That's not to say we shouldn't market valuable assets in ourselves or our company. But if an asset exists for the sole purpose of marketing, it is an empty asset. Organisations must market valuable assets. If an organisation markets L&D as a cornerstone of its operations, it needs to deliver on it. Otherwise, people join the company and realise it was all for show.
How can we combat Theatre?
Beware of theatre and work to avoid it. The first step is to take ourselves seriously. How are you adding value to the business? At the end of the day, if we cannot add value, we might as well not be here.
Secondly, we need to take credit for the value we add. This is often overlooked in favour of a modest approach. But if people don't see what we do, they won't see the benefits and will perpetuate your work as theatre. So we advertise our successes and track our value added. For example, you could give an update on the monthly company call or the weekly management meeting to advertise what has been achieved. Or use a dashboard with your metrics and graphs to advertise successes.
As you create and advertise your value, everyone takes you more seriously. What's more, they will want to get involved and help out. This will lead to more opportunities to add value. Granted, none of this is easy and it takes consistent hard work.
How do we deal with Actors?
I mentioned that L&D practitioners can be our own worst enemy. The same might go for any other discipline. So how do we deal with the actors around us? There is no point is saying "Don't do this" unless you have a better idea. So suggest alternative ways of working.
Instead of focusing on maximising the number of people attending training classes, ask what brings value to each team. Instead of using the number of workshops as a success metric, track the number of workshop ideas that generated new business. Demonstrate value instead of counting numbers and show there is a better way of doing things. People will get on board when they see this way of working makes them look good too.
How do we deal with Theatre facilitators?
Some people only want theatre. They don't want to put in the work to add value to the company. They will always detract from the mission. A direct conversation results in an argument. Ignoring them results in sabotage. These detractors are not our friends when we introduce new ways of working.
Instead, show them incremental and early wins to demonstrate the value of the new ways. Do not focus on what they have to say, but make sure they hear other people promoting your new way of working. In time they will get on board when everyone else gets onboard.
Theatre is everywhere. Many people enjoy the theatre - I don't really have a problem if you do. But if I can't add value, then my employer makes a loss on me. In my mind, this is the equivalent of theft. If you want to break out of theatre, figure out what is valuable to the people around you and do more of it. You will be taken seriously, more opportunities will open up and you will feel great satisfaction in picking the difficult route.
How to Develop an L&D Vision
What is an L&D vision?
A Learning and Development vision is one of the most powerful tools you can use to improve your organisation's learning culture. An L&D vision describes the future you want to create for your organisation. A good vision depicts 2-5 years into the future. Anything shorter term is more a short-term goal than a vision. For example, your short-term goal might be to increased your click rate by 10% in the next quarter, while your vision might be to become the leading provider of affordable education in the world.
Secondly, the L&D vision differs to the company's overall vision or "mission statement". For example, your mission statements might look like "To create great recordings of old books" or "To save people money".
Thirdly, the L&D vision is not a plan. It should not describe the steps towards achieving some goal. Its primary purpose is to communicate the future to stakeholders, colleagues and customers.
What are the benefits of a vision?
A strong L&D vision statement is marketed to people to get everyone focused on the same destination. It gives you a starting point to make your arguments with stakeholders, managers and colleagues. People will find it much easier to help you if they get onboard with your long-term vision.
A vision brings focus to your L&D strategy and backlog. L&D leaders often find themselves with too many things to focus on. A vision gives the leader the ability to say no to things that do not align with that vision.
For example, if part of the 5 year vision is "to support the business in diversifying their customer base", then initiatives like "improve our current customer engagement" can be deprioritised. There are always an infinite number of things to work on. The L&D leader needs a method of saying no to maximise their effectiveness and focus on the high-value opportunities.
Find 'True north'
The L&D vision is the true north. A vision gives your L&D division a direction. The direction might not be 100% accurate. In fact, you can be sure it won't be. But you need to go somewhere and aim for something. We could spend days, weeks or even months analysing the best way forward. But business and needs change too quickly. L&D need to move forward quickly and adjust for change. A vision guides you for each step and decision you make.
As you move forward towards your vision, you can celebrate wins along the way. Even if your vision is something that may never be fully achieved, breaking it down into milestones gives a great sense of progress. As each milestone is achieved, you can celebrate with your team or colleagues. Metrics are important to attach to each milestone so that you know when it is accomplished.
Strive for excellence
The L&D vision should be grandiose. It should aim for something that seems just out of reach, but not something impossible. Setting a high bar will push you and your division towards something great.
How can I develop a vision?
"Start with Why"
Simon Sinek's book demonstrates why visions are so effective. Explaining people the 'what' is relatively straight forward. What are we doing? What's the next step? What's the goal?
But answers to these questions will not get people on board. Answering the "What" does not convince people to change or to join you in your mission.
Explaining the "Why" is much more important. It is also much more difficult and thus, we often either forget about it or push it away for another day. It requires a lot of thinking to define the Why. But once you have defined your purpose, it is much easier to communicate it to colleagues and stakeholders.
Obsess over the destination, not the journey
You may have heard this put in other ways: "Fall in love with the problem, not the solution". It means the same thing - the solution is not your end goal. Many L&D leaders get caught up in delivering the perfect solution. They get caught up in the journey, the analysis, the design, the delivery and the review.
These are all important aspects to L&D, but they create a "production trap" where we get caught up in the journey and forget about the destination. What happens if the problem statement changes in the morning? What if our idea had false assumptions? What if our solution needs to change? We know by focusing incessintly on the destination. Everything we design and deliver is questioned at all times: "Does this get me to my destination?".
Big ideas inspire others. Small ideas do not. If the L&D vision is not grand enough or big enough, nobody will get excited about it. Think about Google's vision: "To provide access to the world’s information in one click." Focus on visions that add value to other people's lives. These sorts of visions inspire and grab people's attention.
It helps people
People get inspired with vision of helping themselves and helping other. The horrible cliche "making the world a better place" is perhaps one of the only statements all people can get behind. A vision statement that focuses on the person you are helping will inspire others to get on board. A great vision will get people to say "I want some of that".
An L&D vision that stays inside the lines and does not attempt to push or break boundaries is too safe. Too often, L&D are treated as one-stop training shops. If L&D wants to affect real change and change business outcomes, we need to think big and dangerously. When people ask us "This doesn't sound like a learning initiatives - why are you focusing on this?", we need to answer with a strong vision.
A realistic future
Your vision should push the boundaries to the extent that circumstances allow for them. For example, an L&D vision that says "Allow learners to download any information to their brains in an instant" is not supported by any realistic technology (yet). Similarly, a vision that focuses too conservatively is no good: "Help teams to learn together". A great vision should push the boundaries while remaining in the realm of possibility.
Changing vision = Weak vision
An L&D vision that changes or iterates means that it was a weak vision to begin with. A good vision needs to be feasible. Challenges will still come up, but the vision should be able to withstand. A vision that iterates and changes because the challenges are too great means either the vision is weak or the people aren't actually behind it. Having said this, the journey can always change. The details are not set in stone and the strategy can (and should) iterate constantly. But the destination should always remain.
Ingredients to a compelling L&D vision?
A great L&D vision is an exploration process. You cannot hope to create it in one sitting. If you rush your vision without giving it time to soak in, you won't be able to argue in its favour and it will feel flimsy.
Write and rewrite, then rewrite again
As you take the time for your vision to soak in, it needs to be hammered out. Writing down your vision is the best way of adding depth to it. Furthermore, without writing it down, how will you know if it makes sense or not? Most proposals I have sound silly once I have them written down. I'm writing a new L&D vision as we speak. I look back at the first draft I showed my manager and cringe at how little sense it made. I'm on my 6th draft now and it's finally beginning to take shape and make sense to the business.
Stakeholders need to be involved early on so that they can get a sense of what you are trying to achieve. Early and frequent conversations with stakeholders gives them the context they need to understand your vision. If you come at them with the vision statement, they will wonder where it came from. Bringing them through the journey will help them agree with your final vision and give you buy-in when you start executing the strategy.
Start with Why
I make this mistake all...the...time. It's infuriating each time it happens again. Why do you have this vision in front of you? What is the point of saying you want to create a culture of learning and innovation? Why does it matter to anyone who you talk to? If you get the why down, it will be much easier to get a what. Furthermore, the what will really matter rather than look like a bumper sticker.
Take the leap
No L&D vision can be validated up front. If that were possible, it probably means the vision is too small or short-sighted. The vision should be for 3 to 5 years into the future so that it drives people towards something meaningful.
Become exhausted reminding people
People Need To Be Reminded More Often Than They Need To Be Instructed. - Samuel Johnson As leaders, we don't like repeating ourselves. Phrases like "As I said before" or "Going back to my last point" tell people that we are frustrated when we have to repeat ourselves. But leaders have no choice - we have to continuously repeat ourselves. This is important when evangelising a vision. We need to have our ducks in a row - then we need remind everyone what our ducks look like. Remind people of the vision again, and again, and again. Ideally, you should be able to write out your vision in a sentence and explain in through an elevator pitch.
How to Participate in a Retro
Difficulties of retro participation
The team retro is the sacred space where all team members bring improvement ideas to the table. Team retros are not complicated. But it can be difficult to participate given all the distinct personalities in a team. A great retro will leave all team members satisfied that they have spent their time productively. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that many teams have retros as a tick box exercise rather than a productive meeting. I firmly believe that effective, regular retros lead to teams that are a joy to be a part of.
The key ingredient to effective retros is participation. After looking online, I have only found articles and books describing how to facilitate a retro. I haven't seen anything describing how I should improve my participation. So here we go.
"I don't like talking in groups"
The engineering industry is full of introverts. Most of us didn't enter into software engineering to talk to other people. The dream was to stay at our desk in the corner of the office and write code. This may have been possible up to the mid-2000s. But today software is so complex that is requires multiple minds working together. The team is the new unit for software development. Everyone must work with other people to deliver high-quality software, whether they like it or not. If we don't have a choice to work with other people, we might as well make the most of it in our retros and discuss how we can work better together. Furthermore, why not figure out how to enjoy working together in a team?
- Speaking up in groups can be tough. Think about what you want to bring up in the retro before it begins. Write it down on a piece of paper.
- Instead of speaking up to your whole team, talk to 1 person about your concern or idea. Pick the person you like the most! Then present your idea to the team together.
"My teammates don't give me a chance to speak up"
In an effective retro, people talk and argue together. If you don't have many chances to speak up, keep in mind this could be a sign of fruitful conversation. The retro facilitator's job is to ensure everyone's voice is heard, but this is difficult. Sometimes, dominating voices want to give an opinion on everything. Whatever the reason, it is important to get your voice heard, especially if you have something valuable to say.
- Try to enter the conversation by saying "Do you mind if I share my thoughts?". This politely signals to everyone that you would like to be heard.
- If you continuously struggle to speak up, pull your retro facilitator aside and express your concerns. Tell them you would like them to make more space for you and your quieter teammates in retros. The facilitator will likely appreciate the feedback. The biggest concern any facilitator has is to get everyone participating.
"I can't think of any serious problems"
This is common in less experienced or new engineers. People new to the team tell themselves "I'm new here. I need to gradually integrate myself to the team, so I'm not going to speak up yet. Anyway, it sounds like my problems are tiny compared to the problems my team are bringing up!". But this ignores one fact: everyone is part of the team. Therefore, everyone should express their ideas, no matter how small they are.
- If you have nothing big to bring up, offer up a smaller suggestion. Maybe it's a blog post you saw online explaining how to make better code reviews. Or maybe you want to receive more pair-mentoring from a team mate. All suggestions are valid.
- Not everything has to be a problem. Think back to a day or hour where you thought "This is great - I love this". Offer it up and ask "Could we figure out how I can do more of this?". This is called strength-based inquiry. For example, maybe you had 2 hours yesterday when you were in the zone. Explore with your teammates how to get more 'zone' time.
"I'm afraid of someone disagreeing with me"
We never want to look foolish in a new team. Depending on the team dynamics, teammates may be either be comfortable with disagreements or they may be more tentative. While a team who are comfortable disagreeing with each other is a sign of team trust, it can be intimidating for a new joiner to raise suggestions.
- Start small. Test the waters. Talk about something that affects you rather than a general team issue. If you don't want to tread on other people's toes just yet, focus on yourself.
- Write down your idea. Practice arguing against yourself and come with a list of pros + cons. This will help you argue your point if you get pushback.
- Change is necessary, but uncomfortable. Therefore, disagreements are signs that the team is exploring real change. So speak up! If you don't, nothing will change.
"I can never think of anything to say"
It can be tiring to think of problems week-on-week. Sometimes, we go blank or have a bad day. When this happens, it feels like we are not contributing. Or worse, if we fail to contribute regularly, it can feel like the team relies on 1 or 2 people to make all the improvements.
- Tell a story of something good that happened. Retros don't need to be full of problems. Talking about the good things helps people remember their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
- Thank a teammate for their help. People like to feel appreciated for stepping up.
- Prepare before the retro. Write down your own thoughts on things that have frustrated you in the last few days. Maybe it was the way someone spoke, or maybe you don't understand what someone in your team is building. Reflect before talking with your teammates.
"I think the retro is a waste of time"
Let's face it - bad retros are a waste of time. Companies tell teams "We do Scrum", so the team ticks off each Scrum event without spending time to get good at each event. The team is disengaged because the same questions get asked every retro: "What went well? What went poorly? What should we improve?" Maybe you sometimes get a good discussion, but then the team comes back at the next retro to realise that nothing has changed and no actions were taken.
- Express your feelings. Say you don't enjoy talking about the same things every retro. If you have a scrum master, ask them if they could research some improvements in their retro.
- Do a bit of research yourself. Retromat is a great, quick resource for retro templates.
- Ask your teammates how they feel. Maybe it's just you that feels disengaged. But maybe everyone feels the same.
- If you're not enjoying making your team better, ask yourself why. Nothing ever changes...we still have the same problems...I'm the only one that speaks up. Talk about these problems to your teammates and come up with some experiments.
3 More Onboarding Antipatterns
Onboarding Antipattern: Obvious Blindspots
...where the company assumes that obvious information is obvious and the onboarder will 'just know it'.
Problems with this antipattern
- Less experienced people have less knowledge. Something that is obvious to a 20 year senior is not obvious to a junior fresh out of university. For example, steps to setup a dev environment might include "Install the docker container named 'company-dev-123'". This is a terrifying instruction for a junior. What is docker...what commands should I type...what websites should I visit. These are all questions that need to be documented.
- Most information is quite complex in the beginning because the onboarder doesn't know what info is important and what isn't. They cannot separate the wheat from the chaff and regularly go down rabbit holes. I've even seen this with senior engineers who are too proud to ask their new team for clarification.
- The manager often lacks empathy if this antipattern occurs. They might say "Why didn't you just ask someone for help?", without seeing that the new joiner didn't know who to ask or even that they were allowed to interrupt other people's work.
- Many antipattern solutions come down to decent documentation together with a mentor. This combination gets the onborder through 95% of their issues in the first couple of weeks.
- Assume every new joiner is a junior straight out of university. Assume they don't know what technologies they need to learn, who to contact or how to message another human being. Take your expectations and cut them in half. An optimistic onboarding means a bad onboarding experience. The more hand-holding in the beginning, the better.
Onboarding Antipattern: Social Exclusion
...where the onboarder doesn't meet anyone in their first few days, making no new relationships or meaningful connections.
Problems with this antipattern
- Contrary to popular opinion (especially in engineering circles), the most important part of any job is not what you do but who you do it with. The best onboarding experiences people remember are not when it goes perfectly, but when they make meaningful relationships and have fun with the people in their new company.
- Most jobs today require group thinking. In other words, success is not dependant on a person's individual abilities, but their contributions to a larger team of people. - The onboarder does not feel part of something greater in their new job. They start asking themselves "Is this really what I signed up for?".
- Companies often focus on processes and projects instead of the important part of their company - the people. A bad onboarding process where people struggle together is better than a "perfect" onboarding process with nobody to interact with. In the former, at least the onboarder is making personal connections.
- The onboarder feels like an obstacle to be avoided instead of a valued employee. "If nobody talks to me, I'm not worth people's time."
- Have a list of people from various areas to introduce to the onboarder in their first day and first week.
- Introduce the onboarder to their team, ideally in person. If this is remote, make sure the onboarder knows what everyone looks like. I've met people who don't know what their teammates look like after a year of working with them because the team never had their cameras turned on!
- Ideally, the team should do something non-work related like going for lunch together. This breaks the ice and gets the onboarder talking to their new team.
Onboarding Antipattern: Onboarding Carousel
...where the onboarder finally gets comfortable with their colleagues and responsibilities, only to be told they are moving areas again.
Problems with this antipattern
- The onboarder has spent weeks, if not months, soaking themselves in the information, practices and people of their new project. All this effort is not in vain because they have been told they are moving to a completely different area.
- The onboarder is frustrated - all their efforts have been flushed away.
- The company has spent weeks and months of salary on the onboarder to no avail.
- This antipattern can be prevented in advance with a bit of foresight.
- Don't put people into teams with projects you know will be cancelled.
- Avoid putting people into teams that are likely to be moved soon.
- In cases where it is unavoidable, give the onboarder as much notice as possible. Lay out a plan for their new area so they don't continue wasting time learning things they won't need.
A good onboarding experience will get the new-joiner up and running quickly. A great onboarding experience will stay with them forever. A terrible onboarding experience will leave a horrible taste in their mouth about their new company on their first day. They will lose confidence in themselves and the people around them. The onboarding experience is a litmus test for how seriously a company supports their people.
Building a great onboarding experience doesn't require much secret sauce. Most of the battle is to understand what makes a horrible onboarding experience and then do the opposite! Here are some antipatterns I've come across to ensure your onboarder has a terrible experience.
Onboarding Antipattern: Information abyss
...where the company provides no information to the onboarder, assuming they will figure it out or "just know it". This leads to onboarders feeling lost.
Problems with this antipattern
- Without clear instructions, the onboarder must be brave enough to ask for help. There is enough to contend with without trying to improvise every step of their first few days.
- Every obstacle to getting started is another frustration for the onboarder.
- The company loses time to productivity. This is the moment the onboarder starts returning value on their salary.
- Provide a document (physical or digital) containing clear instructions how to setup their laptop and access the internal company resources.
- Include instructions for the basics like email, online accounts (eg. microsoft suite), development environment, password reset procedures...
- Build on the documentation over time and include new procedures to make the onboarding process more seemless.
Onboarding Antipattern: Muddy Instructions
...where the company provides instructions that are unclear, ambiguous or incorrect.
Problems with this antipattern
- The new-joiner feels productive at first but gets more frustrated as time goes on.
- Bad information is worse than no information. It only serves to frustrate the onboarder.
- The onboarder is torn between trusting the procedures which don't work and interrupting someone for help.
- The onboarder feels stupid that they can't figure out the procedures.
- All documents should be sanity tested every few months.
- Gather feedback from every onboarder, asking specifically about information that was unclear.
- Give onboarders the authority to update documentation to make it better. This is simple if the documentation is digital.
Onboarding Antipattern: A Philosophical Onboarding
...where the company focuses on documentation and videos to give their onboarder a strong grasp of the theory of their job instead of focusing on what tasks the onboarder needs to do.
Problems with this antipattern
- The onboarder gets frustrated when they are asked to learn as much theory as possible in their first few days.
- Without knowing what they need to do, the onboarder feels like they are not progressing.
- The onboarder is delayed in becoming productive because they have no practical knowledge of what to do.
- Write down the main 3 tasks that qualify new-joiners as 'productive'. For example: First code commit, first ticket closed, first improvement introduced. Write the steps to each of these tasks and bring the onboarder through them before giving them the theory.
- Give the onboarder a mentor to clarify their questions.
- The onboarder is a member of their team from day 1. Ensure the team understand this and include them at all moments.
- Replace steps containing "Learn about A, B, C" with steps that say "Do X, Y, Z".
Onboarding Antipattern: A journey without a destination
...where the company has no clear goals or success criteria for the onboarder. The onboarder wonders what they should do next.
Problems with this antipattern
- The onboarder is left without any clear goals, wondering what tasks they should prioritise.
- The onboarder doesn't know what success looks like and therefore get demotivated when they feel they're not progressing.
- The company is not getting quick return on investment from their new hire because they don't know what to do.
- The onboarder should be provided with a list of goals they need to achieve in their first day, first week, first month and first 3 months.
- Clear criteria should be provided to each goal (eg. To confirm you have setup your outlook account, open the email titled "Day 1".)
- Each goal should be supported with either documentation or a go-to person such as a mentor for questions.
Beyond Root Cause Analysis
Using root cause analysis for people problems
Let's say James (a manager) pulls me aside for a talk.
"David, my teams just don't collaborate. They work by themselves and only talk together in their morning standups. Even their planning sessions and retrospectives are silent. Because of this, the team is duplicating their work. People find out they are working on the same code as their teammate. Instead of helping each other out, they wait for the other person to finish before starting their own task. I'd like to have a workshop on collaboration - that should fix things I think."
I've had a lot of these conversations and they can be difficult requests to navigate. When I was an engineer, I could look at a bug and trace the logs to create a story of what's breaking. I could use root cause analysis to find the underlying problem. Usually, it was a problem underneath a problem underneath a problem. The beginning is tiring, but as you get good at root cause analysis, it becomes quite enjoyable. It's a mental challenge to figure out quickly what all the different causes could be.
This is how I've treated my L&D conversations until now. If I'm talking to James about his problem, I would open with a couple of questions like:
- Why do you think this is happening?
- Have the team ever collaborated together?
- Has anything changed to worsen that collaboration?
Usually, the answer is something along the lines of "They have been under a lot of stress lately". In my tradition root-cause style, the next step is to figure out the cause of stress.
- Where is the stress coming from?
- Why did they overcommit in the first place?
- Is their project manager supporting their workload?
I've asked 100 probing questions to build a full picture, and he's exhausted.
And the problem is rarely unqiue. It's usually along the lines of overcommitting, scope creep, bad management or something similar.
So let's say we identified that James' team overcommitted and are stressed as a result. As a reuslt, the team have shut down communications and blame each other when work isn't done on time.
So what's next??
We can't undo the root cause of overcommitting, only prevent future occurrences. James is looking for an answer now, not in three months time.
No matter what the outcome of the above situation is, James probably hasn't come out of our conversation with high hopes. He's just spent the last 10 minutes tirelessly digging into the teams problems. I've asked 100 probing questions to build a full picture, and he's exhausted. What happens next time he has a problem? He will think back to this conversation and remember the pain of talking to me. He'll leave it for another day and potentially leave me out of his future issues altogether.
This is the challenge with using the root cause analysis as the only tool to diagnose people problems. It's annoying to be asked "And why do you think that happened" 10 times over to find the root cause. I've always found the 5 Why's to be an irritating exercise.
Other conversational types
We've established that a single conversational tool in our toolkit is not enough. What other types of conversational tools can bring more insights and value?
Appreciative inquiry focused on what's working in an individual, team or organisation. Rather than using a problem-solving approach to conversations, it looks at the individual's or group's core strengths to identify improvements. Once the person identifies their strengths, they are encouraged to dream about a vision of the future.
- What does the perfect future look like?
- What could happen if we felt like this all the time?
- What else could we do if we allowed this to happen indefinitely?
Woody Zuill took this approach in his "Turn up the good" method of team improvement. At the end of each day, he gathered his team together to ask "What went well today?" and "How do we turn it up to 10 tomorrow?" For example, if the team enjoyed programming together as a team for the two hours today, they could ask themselves "How can we do more of that tomorrow?". They might decide to program together for 4 hours the next day to see how it goes. As the team build on their strengths, they bring a new kind of energy to the day. The team is no longer concerned with the most stressful problem on the table. Now they have something to get excited about!
The Appreciative Inquiry model looks like this:
- Discover: What are the things we do best?
- Dream: What would happen if we did more of this?
- Design: What's the outcome we'd like to see next?
- Deliver: What should we try?
In Woody's case, his team's daily retro probably looked something like this:
- Discover: What did we do really well today? (eg. Our 2 hour team programming session was great!)
- Dream: What could happen if we did more of this tomorrow? (eg. We might be tired, but we also might figure out that difficult ticket we've delayed)
- Design: What would we like to see as an outcome? (eg. We would like to see our most difficult ticket resolved)
- Deliver: What experiment will we try tomorrow? (eg. We will try team programming for 4 hours tomorrow)
The team analysed their strengths and picked an experiment for the following day.
Powerful questions is a coaching technique used to engage the other person with open-ended questions. Instead of directing the conversation down a specific path, we can use powerful questions to take advantage of the other person's expertise.
Powerful questions generate curiosity, encourage reflection, invite creativity and generate energy. A constant focus on the problem becomes tiring and stressful. When we ask "Why did this happen?...and why did that happen?...and why??..." to get to the root cause, this can sound urgent and stressful. Furthermore, looking at the negative problem stifles creative solutions. Powerful questions bring some energy and excitement to the conversation while keeping it solution focused:
- What opportunities do you foresee for our team to expand our skill sets and take on new responsibilities in the future?
- I'm hearing you would score your team a 2/10 in collaboration. What would 10/10 look like to you?
- What are your team's strengths? How can we use those strengths to solve this issue?
- How can we reframe this problem as an opportunity for learning?
Coaching techniques capitalise on the other person's knowledge and strengths, facilitating them to solve their own problems. Instead of giving advice, the coach guides the conversation through questions, encouraging the other person to brainstorm and test their own ideas. There are various coaching techniques:
- Active listening: Get comfortable with the silence and repeat back to the other person your understanding of what they have said.
- Goal setting: Establish clear goals together using something like the SMART framework.
- Accountability: Help the other person stay accountable to actions by checking-in frequently. This encourages them to take ownership of their development.
When practiced, these tools transform the L&D practitioner into a skilled conversationalist. They come across as clear communicators and, most importantly, creative problem solvers. The difficult problems in any industry are people problems. Therefore, having a single tool (such as root cause analysis) to solve every problem is like using only a hammer to build a chair.
Don't know what to focus on? Develop a vision
How to know you're not focusing
Do you ask yourself any of these questions?
- Where am I going in my job?
- Why do I feel demotivated even though I have the position I always wanted?
- How do I get rid of the feeling of being stuck?
- Why am I not motivated to improve anything?
- Why do I feel the need to try everything?
I've had some of these questions in the past. Sometimes, I've achieved exactly what I wanted and set out to do, but I still had the feeling I wasn't progressing. Some people say "I'd love to be the CEO of a company some day". But when I hear that, I hear "I'd love to achieve the title of CEO some day". And this tells me that they probably have no idea what being a CEO entails. Because achieving the title is arguably the easiest part of being a CEO. The real journey begins after that.
And this is what I admire about people in big positions. Think CEOs, presidents, politicians, sports people. They understand there is no final destination. Once they have accomplished something big, they know they have to wake up the next day and keep moving. This mindset is different to the mindset most of us have. We generally treat the goal as the final destination. The CEO treats their accomplishment as a milestone along a bigger journey. When we treat goals as final destinations, we can get caught asking ourselves the questions like "Ok I achieve my difficult goal...what's next?". The CEO needs to start leading the company. The graduate needs to start looking for a job. The PHD graduate needs to know what to do with their PHD. The Wimbledon champion needs to prepare for next years' competition.
Developing a Vision
Goals need to have a bigger picture that include ourselves and the people around us. When the CEO wakes up everyday to a new problem that could end the company, they need to be able to say "This is worth getting up for because...". When the PHD student is feeling burnt out in their 3rd year of consecutive study, they need to be able to say "I'm going through this pain because...". The same goes for any difficult task. You need to be able to say "This is worth it because...".
The "because" is our vision.
- What will solving this problem get you?
- What step of the journey will you be closer to after today?
- Why is the pain today / this week / this month / this year worth it?
The answer is unique to everyone and can include visions like family, career, health and finances.
Writing it down
For some reason, writing down our vision and integrating our current goals gives it more power. It is difficult to write down what we want for the future, because acknowledging what could be means acknowledging what might not happen. But doing so organises our messy thoughts. We might think we know what we want becuase we've said "I've thought about this a lot". But we haven't really thought about it unless it's written down. The future is too complicated to analyze in our heads. There are too many variables, conflicts and outcomes.
For example, I recently wrote down my vision of the future. After identifying the main goals and defining the steps to getting there, I realised two goals were in conflict. I saw that developing my new hobby required me to be away every Saturday for a few hours, conflicting with another goal to spend more time with my family. Until I wrote this down, I didn't see the conflict, even though it seems obvious in hindsight.
Steps to developing a vision
If you want to try this out, you can start developing a vision by answering the following questions:
- Where do you want to be in 5 years with your job?
- Describe what your ideal family life would be like. Include parents, siblings, children, partner...
- Combine everything and describe your ideal future:
- Where do you want to be?
- What do you want to do?
- What kind of person do you want to be?
- Why do you want these things?
- What steps will you take towards these goals?
- When will you start each step?
Finally, describe the kind of vision you don't want. As you right out a future you dislike, you will realise that it is not only possible, but likely to happen if you don't work towards your vision.
- If you failed to achieve the above, how would you feel?
- What does the future look like with none of the above goals achieved?
- Would failing to achieve your vision cause pain or anxiety on you or your loved ones?
While the previous exercises describe a vision to run towards, this will help you build a picture of the kind of future you want to run away from.
Turning up the Good
Get better results by focusing on what's working
In his book, Extreme Programming Explained, Kent Beck describes how Extreme Programming was conceived: "My goal in laying out the project style was to take everything I knew to be valuable about software engineering and turn the dials to 10." Woody Zuill, the author of Mob Programming, took this idea with one of his teams, running a short retro at the end of each day with his team. In their 15 minute retro, they asked themselves the question: "What went well today and how do we turn it up to 10 tomorrow?" After deciding what the team did well for the day and figuring out how to turn it up to 10, they came back the next day and tried their new practice. Over time, they developed a mob programming way of working which Woody now talks about all over the world.
We often forget to look at what we're doing well. We're too focused fixing problems. And once the problems are all fixed, we make up problems to fix. For example, software teams often have an excellent 'root cause' mindset. They look to problems in their team, quickly find the root cause and fix it. But many problems have complex root causes, particularly when it comes to interpersonal, team problems. Questions like "Why is our team engagement low?" or "Why is my team not motivated?" have multiple intricate root causes. These root causes require skilled practitioners to diagnose. Turning up the good avoids this way of thinking. Instead, it focuses on what is working, encouraging people to collaborate together to come up with a new idea.
Why is it important?
Focusing on the good has multiple benefits. Firstly, focusing on growth leads a team to being excellent at their jobs. When we pick something we do well and focus on improving it further, we leverage our strengths instead of minimizing our weaknesses. If I'm the keyboard player of a band, should I improve my keyboard skills or learn the drums? Given my value as a keyboard player, I argue it is better for me to learn new keyboard skills! This will give my band a better keyboard player instead of a bad drummer. My strengths as a keyboard player are what make me valuable.
Secondly, problems seem to fade away when we turn up the good. A team that does great code reviews could turn their reviews up to 10 and create smaller code commits. Over time, this leads to more frequent code reviews, reducing the number of bugs and reducing development cycles.
Thirdly, focusing on what you do well is energising. Many teams host retrospectives with dread. "Oh great - another set of problems we haven't fixed since the last retro". Teams that have a "Good | Bad | Improve" retro often skip over the "Good" section, assuming it's there as a tickbox exercise. But what if we removed the "Bad | Improve" sections and just focused on the "Good"? The team will focus only on what they have done well and celebrate their successes.
Turning up the good in our personal lives
Take a sheet of paper and write at the top of the page "Good things I do in my life". Your list might look something like this:
- Spending time with my family after work.
- Meeting up with my friends for coffee.
- Reading fantasy books.
- Playing music in my band.
For each idea, write how you could turn it up to 10.
- Spending time with my family after work: Dedicate 2 hours after work each day focused solely on my family without any screens.
- Meeting up with my friends for coffee: Schedule a coffee every two weeks with your friend to catch up.
- Reading fantasy books: Set aside 30 minutes before bed to read a book.
- Playing music in my band: Practice an extra 30 minutes each week before band practice.
This way of continuous improvement is motivating over time. It encourages focus, ensuring you don't spread yourself thin by taking on too many new tasks or hobbies. This is particularly helpful for someone like me who wants to do new things all the time. We can do new things all the time by turning up the good.
How to turn things up
When I started diving into this concept, I quickly realised that it's easy to see what my team and I do well. The difficult part is turning it up to 10. Here are some ideas on how to turn things up to 10.
Scale it up
Apply the practice to more people or more teams. For example, if there are people that work well together, get more people on the team to work with them.
Enhance the process
Refine the good thing to make it even better, incorporate new ideas and bring in more advanced technologies. For example, a team that are known for following company security guidelines could think of a way to automate some of their practices and share it with other teams.
Share the expertise
Expand the expertise across the team or the organisation. For example: An expert in java programming could pair with some of the other java programmers to show them their techniques and tools.
Set a higher standard
Raise the bar to further increase the team's output quality. For example, if a team have great code coverage, bring in some extra rules like Sonarqube to catch and suggest better coding practices.
Reward the good thing
Celebrate the good practices and behaviours of the team. For example, a person who steps up and helps another team mate in their time of need could be called out and recognised.
Increase the frequency
If the good thing occurs frequently, see if the team could increase its frequency. For example, if the team spend 15 minutes learning together in the morning, they could boost it up to 1 hour learning per day.
Measure success more often
If the team finds that recognising their good behaviour is useful, they could increase how often they evaluate their good behaviour. For example, a team that runs the 'turn up the good' exercise in their monthly retro could think about turning up the good on a weekly basis.