Great Leaders Ask Great Questions

May 20, 2016 by in  Blog

For the last few years, I’ve been working with and studying some of the best teams in the world; Red Arrows teams, SAS and US Navy SEAL units, Racing yacht crews, a Formula One pit crew, etc. I set out to study teamwork. In particular, I wanted to know how these teams have become world class. In the course of my studies, I identified six common characteristics, which differentiated these incredible teams.

Interestingly, I didn’t set out to study world class leadership. However, when I found world class teams, I also found world class leadership (I know, I probably should have expected that!). So, as well as studying teamwork, I also began to look at the characteristics that differentiated world class leadership. One of the most powerful insights that I discovered is this…

Great Leaders Ask Great Questions.

In fact, the great leaders that I encountered often didn’t provide any answers! Instead, they realise that the group has the potential to generate a better answer than they could on their own. It’s a principle that James Surowiecki outlines in his book, Wisdom of Crowds. When I shared this idea at an educational conference last year, a Head Teacher responded by saying, “That’s rubbish. Are your trying to tell me that Einstein should ask his class for the answer, and that the class will have a better answer than Einstein?”. “No”, I said, “Einstein is part of the class. So by engaging the class you get Einstein plus the class, not instead”.

Knowing that great leaders ask questions is one thing. Knowing what constitutes a ‘Great Question’, is another. So, what makes a question ‘Great’?

Here are some of my thoughts and reflections…

To me, ‘Great Questions’ are simply the right question, asked at the right time. To ask great questions, we need to understand the problem we’re trying to solve and where we are in the process. Do we need to ask a strategic question, or a tactical question, or one that’s related to implementing and executing a plan?

Strategic Question – Why?

Tactical Questions – What? …. How?

Action & Implementation Questions – Where? …. Who? …. When?

Very simply, it makes sense to understand why we are doing something (and whether we should be doing it), before deciding what we’re doing or how we will do it? Equally, it makes sense to know what we’re going to do, before deciding who will do it, when and where.

To me, ‘Great Questions’ are also well defined and simple. Sometimes it takes time and thought to frame a question well. The world class leaders that I saw at work often ask simple questions, which engage their team to collectively solve a problem. Some of the most powerful questions I’ve heard simply begin with the words, “How could we…?”.

To find out more, read Stronger Together; How Great Teams Work and hear from world class leaders sharing their wisdom on Be World Class TV.

By: Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.

http://www.be-world-class.com/node/251

Rejecting roles

Mar 29, 2016

Rejecting roles: That’s marketing’s job. You need to talk to IT.

Having roles is considered essential by most organisations. We’ve read dozens of business blogs, HR advice articles and even management training courses that insist clearly defined roles lead to better results, greater productivity and higher motivation. Without clear definition of roles, they warn that tasks get missed, no-one takes responsibility, the office is chaotic and individual motivation drops.

We disagree.

The writers of this advice have grasped the outcomes they want – people taking pride in their work, everyone focusing on delivering value, individuals coordinating and collaborating – but they’ve applied the wrong solution.

They’ve confused roles with responsibilities.

That may not sound like a big deal, but we think it is. Rigid role definition has some major downsides. We believe it hurts companies and individuals, costing them in creativity and happiness.

Most organisations intend their role definitions to be a way of signalling particular specialisations, expertise and responsibilities… but instead, the definitions swiftly harden into barriers, marking out territory which is defended against ‘interference’ from others. Have you ever been told to back off by the marketing manager for commenting on the new advert? Been refused access to the code base by the developers, ‘in case you break something’? Been told to leave presentations to ‘the sales guys’ or forecasts ‘the finance guys’? At the extreme, you may have your opinion rejected with a straight-forward ‘well it’s not your job to worry about x, it’s mine!’.

Individuals may also use their role definition as a way of avoiding unpleasant or boring tasks. This ‘that’s not in my job description’ approach ends up making the company less efficient as well as eroding team motivation. I remember organising a last-minute marketing stunt when I worked at Unilever. I was booking a double-decker bus to turn up and I wanted to check it would actually fit into the office forecourt. The marketing assistant nipped down to Reception to check. An hour later, she returned. The security guard had refused to measure the gateway and if it was beneath the dignity of a security guard, then she reckoned it was beneath the dignity of a marketing assistant as well. So I borrowed the security man’s tape-measure and checked the gateway (you could – quite literally – have fitted a bus through there). Anything wrong with doing my own measuring? Absolutely not. Anything wrong with wasting an hour of time arguing about whose job it was? Plenty.

Roles are comfortable – but bad for us

It’s very human to defend our own work and our own opinion. When we can dress this up with the authority of experience, expertise and organisational separation – all the better. Except it isn’t. Rigid role definition acts as a barrier and can stifle innovation. It can also make things slower and less efficient.

If a customer rings up with a problem, they want a solution, not to be told that only part of their problem can be dealt with by this department, and they must be passed on to billing or whoever to deal with the rest of it.

It’s not great for individuals either. Sticking to just one thing may mean our knowledge gets deeper, but also narrower.  We can get bored or worse, so convinced of our own expertise that we can’t take on other points of view.

Being Radical: Sticking to the start up way

In many start ups, a lack of defined roles is the default position. There is not enough money to hire specialists – instead developers must learn to present to investors, marketing managers must be able to create and manage their own customer data, and everyone must have a grip on the financial assumptions as well as a grasp of the their product (this often means some grasp of the technology).

When entrepreneurs look back on the early stage of their companies, they often comment on wistfully on the diversity of work and of how close to the customer it meant they were.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, recalled being the ‘mailroom grunt’ in the company’s early days, driving books to shipping and courier companies in his 1987 Blazer. But this doesn’t scale, right? Jeff Bezos is not still doing deliveries. Actually, he is. He spends a week every year in the warehouse. It’s not a PR gimmick, because he refuses to set up interviews when doing it. It’s an opportunity to stay connected to his responsibility – leading Amazon – and not the role of CEO. That includes really understanding conditions for employees – something for which Amazon has received a lot of criticism – and staying close to core services like order fulfilment.

Another trick used at Amazon is to have individual employees who have no role at all. Bezos has ‘shadows’, people who simply follow him around. It means there’s always someone free to chase a wild idea or set up an experiment – and it recognises that a responsibility like ‘envision Amazon’s future’ requires several people, not just a single role.

So what should we do?

1. Responsibilities not roles

Some radical companies go for a very broad responsibility ‘provide value to the company’ and say that how this is fulfilled is up to the individual. Others go for more precise responsibilities: ‘help the customer’ or ‘make sure we comply with financial regulations’.

The point is that how you fulfil these needs can require doing tasks which, in other companies, would be seen as belonging to differing roles.

2. Trust people

A lack of roles makes people more responsible, not less. Tasks rarely get missed because everyone knows they have total responsibility for the work – no tester will come pick up the programmer’s bugs; no finance controller will correct over-optimistic projections.

3. Trust people some more

A lack of roles doesn’t mean that everyone will try to do everything. People naturally gravitate towards what they’re interested in and what they’re good at. If someone is convinced she’s a brilliant illustrator and everyone else insists the stick men cartoons are rubbish, she will soon stop.

4. Value dissent not consensus

No roles doesn’t mean you have to design by committee. Heated arguments are common, and that’s fine.  Even if people don’t agree at the end of the debate, the important thing tends to be to air the problem. Opinions can be rejected; a decision can still be made, risks can still be taken…

By: Helen Walton from Gamevy

Self selection – How to restructure your team for greater autonomy.

May 16, 2016

One of our largest departments within Ocado Technology recently undertook a revolutionary self-selecting restructuring exercise, changing the entire structure of the department whilst allowing all team members to choose which team they would like to work in going forward. The need came about because multiple teams were stretched, working across two major business propositions and context switching between them. The goal was that following the restructure there would be a clear split between teams working on two different business propositions, such that each of those teams could really focus on that product.

ukteamsanonymous-

The overall aim of this restructure was to achieve greater alignment, autonomy and purpose.

Following the principle that a collaborative and distributed approach is often the best way to solve a complex optimisation problem, we decided to take a full day as a whole department to stop work and have a facilitated event to negotiate the moves amongst the five new teams. We did a lot of thinking and preparation prior to this day and the teams used a set of constraints around team size and experience levels to guide their decisions.

The plan going into the event was shared well ahead of time to allow people to get their questions in (and added to a shared FAQ forum) and to be sure the concepts were clear going into the day. Alongside this, we ran multiple “townhall” sessions where people could air their concerns and ask their questions openly. We hoped that at the end of the process we would have well-rounded, committed teams ready to face the new challenge.

There was a certain amount of ad-libbing and practical adjustments on the day, but on the whole it unfolded according to the plan:

– First, a pitch for each team by the Product Owner, covering the vision/roadmap and why the team is super cool and awesome. There was also a set of target criteria for each team as a guide for what we were looking to achieve in each area.

– Next, multiple iterations where we:

1. Assigned or moved ourselves/each other between teams until we’ve addressed any identified issues in         the previous iteration.

2. See if we had met the pre-defined criteria for each team.

3. Repeat until we run out of time or we meet all of the requirements and everybody is happy and                       committed to the team that they are in.

Fuelled by 18 pizzas, we completed three exhausting rounds of moves and peer voting. At the end of each round, we (everyone, including Product Owners and Team Leads) voted on the viability of each team. From this we measured two scores: an intra-team score (the people in that team scoring the viability of the team), and an inter-team score (the rest of the people scoring the viability of that team). This lead to a few interesting dynamics, for example one of the teams gave themselves a high intra-team score, but scored low on the inter-team vote. They then gave a pitch justifying their viability as a team, and were able to dramatically increase their inter-team score in the next round.

The first round was deliberately obviously suboptimal, so that everyone was motivated to suggest changes and improvements and become comfortable with doing so in a very “safe” way. Naturally, this configuration had dramatically lower scores! This encouraged a large amount of movement in the following rounds, as we had hoped.

votingresultsanonymous

Essential to finding a viable solution was an appreciation from all of the ‘greater good’ of Ocado Technology. On the day, some people chose to make some really big compromises in order to serve the greater good and allow us to form balanced teams that are all capable of smashing out quality software.

After the final round of voting we then took a quick anonymous happiness reading by each dropping a green, yellow or red lego piece into a box. Although they were not perfect, we were extremely pleased the results, considering that our original goals was “at least 50% happy”.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 1.23.46 AM

The very next morning we did a big-bang desk move:

image-resizer

We’ve since kept a close eye on the impact of the shuffle-up by measuring the things that matter most to us: throughput and team happiness. There was an expected initial dip in throughput as many people got up to speed on new products they had not worked on before and as new teams gelled and got to know each other. But the throughput three months on has risen higher than before the change and still rising. Improvements in team happiness (measured before and after by Spotify’s “health-checks”) were noteworthy from straight after the restructure.

In terms of the solution itself: we are delighted. Every team has a reasonable level of experience whilst a healthy number of people have chosen to change domain. It is a vastly better result than we could have hoped for had we chosen a top-down approach and the sense of autonomy it has created is invaluable. It seems that teams and individuals have a stronger sense of ownership than ever before and that they are taking quality more seriously than ever before. This did have an up-front cost in terms of short term throughput, but the long term benefits certainly justify it.

James Lohr, Ocado Tech Department Head

Save the date

Mar 03, 2016

Get ready to Spark, we’re happy to announce Spark the Change 2018 will be happening next June in Paris. We will announce speakers soon. We can’t wait to see you there!

 

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