Learn to improve team flow by creating an environment where experimentation can take place and where real change is possible.

Standing in the Arena: Change takes a bit of courage and an environment that fosters it

Drew BoyerPosted by

In my earlier post, Testing to Improve Flow Means Happier Teams, I talked about how a lightweight test may shine a light on one or more experiments to start with. Let’s explore how one can improve team flow by creating an environment where experimentation can take place and where real change is possible. 

A quote by Theodore Roosevelt has resonated with me for years and at times, has been a good reminder that there’s something noble about tackling the big challenges. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

How to foster real organizational change and improve flow

For real change to occur in an organization, someone has to get in the arena and be willing to get a little dirty. The status quo can be quite the beast to confront and success is not guaranteed. But, if we stay in the arena long enough and learn the lessons, real progress is possible.  

If you recall from Part I, Cynthia and the team came up with some experiments to improve flow for the team members. They were about to return to the leadership team to present their learnings.

Cynthia felt that familiar feeling. A fight or flight instinct that started in her stomach and was beginning to short circuit her prefrontal cortex. Over the last week she had prepared extensively for this meeting. She had considered the many directions the conversation could go. 

But, she hadn’t prepared for what would follow.  

Cynthia had returned to the leadership team to share what the team had learned after conducting a few experiments to improve flow at the team level. The development team was PUMPED! They had developed a few simple tests to run over the course of a couple of sprints.  

Four key steps for successfully planning sprints

Top of the list: say NO to any work not accounted for in sprint planning. This experiment checked a lot of boxes.  

  1. The team could remain focused on the Sprint Goal.
  2. The feedback at the review would be more pertinent as it would be based on the work committed to in Sprint Planning.
  3. They would be able to stay focused on the highest priority work— that being the work the Product Owner  prioritized coming into sprint planning. 
  4. The team felt they could meet the challenge of completing their Sprint Backlog … for maybe the first time.  

It wasn’t easy though. The team had to be resolute and stand in the face of real pressure to take on more.  The team had decided they would say “not now” instead of “no” AND that they would consider the new work as part of an upcoming sprint.  

After two sprints, their flow metrics reflected an uptick in feature item delivery and even a reduction in neglected WIP, because the team was able to deal with some carry-over work in addition to some of the new stories they had planned for.  

Cynthia was prepared to share their insights and the story of how the team decided which experiment to run, and what they learned from the experience. She had barely started her presentation when she was interrupted.  

“Why didn’t we know you were changing your process?”

“We have a lot of work to complete for the mid-year release, we need to start as much as we can, as early as we can.”

“Who approved this?”

Even …

“We expect you to think things through!”

Cynthia’s face felt hot. Part of her wanted to shut off the Zoom and scream. After standing in a bit of fire, she took a deep breath, two actually, and found herself again.  

“I understand your surprise and even your frustration. Can I have a few minutes to tell the story of how we got here and then open the conversation up for feedback?”

“Tina, a new manager to the organization, gave Cynthia a warm smile and said “Yes, we can absolutely do that!”

Cynthia then took another couple of deep breaths and shared a few data points to set the stage.  

After two sprints there was a near 25% uptick in the rate of feature delivery and an almost 50% decrease in the time spent working on a given feature. When considering the number of stories (currently) in the Release backlog the data indicated they could not only deliver that work, but potentially take on additional work, in an intentional and thoughtful way of course. 

The results of focusing on team happiness to improve workflow outcomes

After showing a few simple charts, Cynthia spent a few minutes sharing the learnings. 

  1. The team can deliver more when unplanned work is not introduced.
  2. The team is happier when able to focus on their commitments. This was gleaned based on a simple check-in during the daily stand-up.
  3. They clearly need a more graceful way of handling unplanned work. The team hypothesized that they could even be more effective without the time spent assessing unplanned work.
  4. They might need to think about how to create greater transparency in their planning so that they can avoid the reactions some of you had today.  

The Leadership team sat quiet for a moment. There was a noticeable release of tension in the conversation. 

Niti, a development manager with a 20-year tenure, asked somewhat clumsily “What are you considering for future … tests? … experiments? Seems like you learned a lot over the past month. We should probably continue … trying things?”  

The leadership team at once looked at Niti and then at Cynthia. 

Cynthia once again took two deep breaths. She had hoped this moment would come. She knew what she wanted to say, but wasn’t yet sure if she had the courage. 

She glanced at Tina who gave her a big warm smile. Was that a nod?

“There is something we’d like to try. We have a question though.”

Another breath, then another … Cynthia steadied herself and asked, “We know how much you are paying attention to on a daily basis. Curious. What are you willing to let go of?”

Her voice trailed off slightly right at the end, but the question was released into the air and the leaders heard it.

Mic drop, hear a pin drop moment. 

Your change effort needs a Cynthia … actually a few Cynthias.

Four tests that help to reduce team bottlenecks and common challenges

As a leader, you create the space for the Cynthias to emerge. Consider the following four tests to determine whether you are creating such an environment. 

  1. Is it common to hear competing ideas or diverging opinions in your meetings?
  2. Do your direct reports regularly and openly test your thinking and ideas?
  3. How do you react when your ideas are challenged? Defensively or rather with curiosity? 
  4. Do you openly praise the risk takers or the obedient?

In Part 3 of this series we will hear how the leadership team responded to Cynthia’s powerful question and then join the leaders in a … ahem … mandatory training on Adaptive Leadership.  

I’ll leave you with this question: Are you in the arena?