Agility for Executive Teams

I recently had lunch with a former colleague turned friend. Teina is an executive innovator and disruptor in one of the largest global non-profits in the world. Besides family and work updates, she posed a great question we wrestled with over our lunch… now covered in this article:

“How can an Executive Team become more Agile?”

It’s a very common question as businesses and organizations across the world try to understand, adopt, and evolve this almost mystical concept called “Agile”. I say “mystical” because of the breath of understanding that exists in the industry. For the most part, there is a general understanding that Agile is both an approach (process) AND a set of principles (mindset). Past that, there is a multitude of interpretations and adaptations of the approach as well as many cultural interpretations of the principles (e.g. interpretation of “continuous improvement” in various countries). Having said that, the approaches were born from principles and that’s where I’ll anchor recommendations provided in this article.

Lets start with the WHY

First let’s understand why this would be important and appropriate for an Executive Team? Why should they become more Agile? This is a particularly difficult challenge for a group of Directors, VPs, and CXOs! Why? Because the very nature of their work is quite complex organizationally, often requiring multiple teams (reporting to them) to deliver, and therefore takes quite a long time to execute. First let’s define the top benefits we are going after in the executive level (may differ depending on your executive team and organizational context):

  • Greater transparency and visibility of what everyone on the executive team is working on… resulting in more informed and less fragmented decision making (and fewer personal agendas)
  • Greater understanding and higher alignment on strategic priorities… resulting in more successful and efficient objective achievement
  • Reduced executive team friction especially on HOW to realize various business objectives… resulting in higher executive team morale and less wasted work / time (e.g. duplicating efforts)
  • Increased focus and engagement… resulting in improved team productivity and success of business objectives

The HOW

Teina and I landed on five main progressive steps (all based on Agile principles) in this executive journey. These steps allow for gradual learning and improvement almost like Agile maturity levels.

1. Executive Standup: Focus on how you Communicate

Communication and frequent feedback loops are foundational. So, let’s start with Standups. Instead of long formal executive meetings with an endless agenda, create a cadence of more frequent (as often as weekly) but shorter timeboxed Executive Team Standups.

  • Start with traditional standup questions but don’t hesitate to evolve them based on points further below:
    • What did you (or your department) finished / decided / discover since last executive Standup
    • What do you (or your department) plans to finish / decide / discover prior to the next executive Standup
    • What impediments / obstacles / blockers do you (or your department) have to achieve plans above
  • Focus and prioritize your time on items that advance strategic objectives… ignore other items that may be important but do NOT advance strategic objectives.
  • Use proactive and strategic alignment over reactive status and approvals. If you trust the strategic direction and trust the people at the table, you don’t need approvals. Validation and corrective approaches are inefficient and require too much effort.
  • Focus on accomplishments (what got done or was decided)… ignoring describing activities to get there. Activities are important but not in this context / forum.
  • Focus on team-relevant highlights (e.g. dependencies / integrations)… ignoring personal highlights only relevant to your department.
  • Timebox each person’s updates to keep the standup short and focused.
  • If you find specific people keep getting sidetracked and need additional alignment, introduce the “meeting after” activity to facilitate this alignment without burdening all executive team members.

Who should run / facilitate this session? At the beginning it should be a person who understands the principles above. However, long term each member should take a turn in facilitating the session.

2. Executive Retrospective: Focus on Continuous Improvement

Ideally, introducing the Executive Standups above created a bit of excitement and openness to further changes. It’s the perfect opportunity to introduce Executive Retrospectives. This monthly session is meant to focus first on HOW the executive members work together and only later HOW their departments work together.

  • There are a number of Retrospective formats. Personally I recommend you begin with “Start Stop Continue Improve” or “Successes Lessons Improvements Actions”:
    • Successes: What went well?
    • Lessons: What important things did we learn?
    • Improvements: What needs to improve?
    • Actions: What key small or large improvement we change quickly (prior to the next retrospective)?
  • Focus on the improvements and actions… avoid the rabbit hole of going into business objectives or execution details.
  • Celebrate successes and lessons as a team. Same goes for improvements. Avoid blaming, finger pointing or calling out specific individuals.
  • When identifying specific improvements and actions, focus on a few short-term things you can build on (Kaizen approach) rather than massive complex changes that will take months to improve.
  • As you improve the retrospectives, you can evolve them to focus on impediments / obstacles / blockers identified in your Executive Standups.

You now created a powerful vehicle to improve HOW you operate creating efficiencies benefiting your entire organization.

3. Sprint Planning: Focus on how you Plan & Work Together

Next, create a less-disruptive cadence of planning and working. In Scrum this is called “Sprinting”. Instead of massive ever-changing and constantly conflicting project timelines, work on a predictable cadence of shorter and more focused Sprints. Why? Humans are terrible at multitasking. They are more efficient (and less stressed) when working on fewer items in parallel.

  • You can adopt a Scrum format or simply follow these three steps:
    • On stickies everyone writes down / identifies key objectives that need to be done as a group. All stickies are placed into a pile (this is called the ‘backlog’). Ensure members provide objectives / outcomes not activities.
    • I recommend every member dot-votes on the top items to focus on. Allow members to vote on only 30% to 50% of the items. The larger and more unrealistic the list is, the lower % of items members can vote on. If there is lack of alignment, allow the most senior member (e.g. CXO) to provide direction on priorities.
    • Move top items to a different part of the wall into columns (verticals). Create rows for each executive / department (horizontals). Then ask each member to write down and provide activities they plan to do to achieve the objectives / outcomes.
  • Focus only on what work various groups need to get done in this coming Sprint. This includes work for all projects no matter when they go into market.
  • Only after you’re able to deliver 80% + of work planned, can you extend your planning to include the upcoming Sprint plus the next Sprint.
  • Resist squeezing more than you can realistically accomplish. Create space for uncertainty, risks, and external delays.
  • Don’t overcommit. Get fewer things done completely rather than starting but not finishing a whole lot of them.
  • It’s ok if you start with a monthly cadence but ideally get to a bi-weekly or even weekly length to reap greater benefits.

This stage is quite difficult, especially for executives that default to forming comprehensive strategic masterplans. This is common. This change is actually one of mindset and culture, not simply a planning process. Can you learn to plan in smaller pieces that build on each other… accepting and embracing ambiguity? Or, will you give-in to the comfort and security of big plans even happily ignoring their uninformed assumptions and premature decisions? Can you empower and trust your teams that know HOW to deliver (more efficient) instead of relying on continuously outdated documentation and endless status reports (less efficient)?

4. Experimentation: Focus on Exploring not Managing the Unknowns (Advanced)

If, and only if, you’re able to do step 3 above (i.e. you’ve acquired a new mindset), should you venture into this fourth stage. Your executive team may struggle and journey in this stage for a while before being able to proceed to the next stage. In fact, you will probably need a coach or consultant to get you here.

A real-life example is the best way to explain this approach and principles behind it. Let’s say you’re a marketing executive with a $10 million budget to launch and sell $100 million of your new product. The common approach is to spend 10% on a bit of research, marketing plan, and creative work… than maximize the remaining 90% on the media-buy reaching as many people as possible. There is a catch though. The research in the initial 10% will barely give you 30% certainty that you will be able to achieve $100 million in sales. Sound familiar? This flawed approach quintessentially represents why waterfall projects are not effective in our digitally disruptive times.

But there is another approach that does. What if instead of the 10% masterplan, you used a different approach that can build on itself to achieve maximum sales. What if you took the first 5% to develop and test the top 10 marketing ideas with just a small set of customers (e.g. just in Social Media)? Then you would take those top five ideas and spend another 10% of your budget on a larger customer test (e.g. now adding website and mobile ads). Then you would take those top three ideas and spend another 15% of your budget and conduct an even larger customer test but also test various versions of the creative, messaging, and even technology. Then take the best two ideas and top three creatives and spend 20% of your budget to do an even larger test giving you 80% information of who your ideal customer is, what the best messaging is, what technology to use, and most importantly how much sales you should predict. Now you can spend the remaining 50% to achieve optimal sales without taking significant financial risks.

Now imagine applying this approach to organizational change and transformation. Imagine exploring continuously, building on each experiment and learning from the previous one. Imagine deeply evolving your staff as you restructure the organization in stages. This is how you can achieve maximum business impact with the least effort and friction.

5. Simplicity: Focus on crushing operational Complexity (Advanced)

Spotify has an interesting concept of MVB “Minimal Viable Bureaucracy” meaning the minimum operational complexity necessary to achieve a desired business outcome. See, our business processes tend to outgrow their purposes over time. But there is a very simple way to manage operational complexity even in the most complex ecosystem. This approach is based on Little’s Law and is called WIP (work in progress) limits. Even if you’re completely unable in decreasing business or technical complexity, you can limit the number of things you’re trying to advance at any single point in time… thus constraining operational complexity.

MVB = Minimum Viable Bureaucracy

Spotify

What does this look like? Instead of working on 40 items over one month, work on finishing 10 items per week. It’s much easier and more productive to focus on 2-3 per day vs 10 or even 20… especially when dealing with a disruptive environment full of uncertainty. Here is how to experiment your way into this approach:

  • Start with each member setting a personal WIP limit… how many items are they multi-tasking on at the same time? Perhaps start with 3 activities. You can add a new activity only if you finish an existing one. Please note this doesn’t limit how many tasks you finish each day… it simply limits how many you’re working on at the same time.
  • Next ADD a WIP limit to what the executive team will multi-task on during any point of time. Perhaps start with a number equal to how many team members there are. This WIP limit means that a team of five can only start working on five tasks… and cannot start another task until they finish one of the five they already started.
  • Next, and I will disclaim this is a difficult one, limit how many tasks your department will focus on at any point in time. Again, they can’t start a new task without finishing an existing one.
  • Next, decrease WIP limits till you achieve optimal business outcomes. No, not optimal capacity allocation. No, not an optimal number of tasks completed. Focus on the outcome, not the output. “Doing more” doesn’t necessarily result in “achieving more”.

I realize this may sound inefficient and even feel unnatural. But think about what kind of tension and behaviour this approach will create within your teams. This is based on a very fundamental principle in Lean and all Agile methodologies called “Pulling Work”.

Let’s start by understanding the “anti-pattern”. The most common behaviour is based on “capacity allocation” principles… to push as much work as the team can handle without screaming. This results in increased operational complexity, work switching costs, loss of quality due to multi-tasking, team stress, massive work queues, and consequential work delays. But yes, everyone is very busy and working very hard. This approach also promotes sub-optimizing for personal efficiency at the cost of the system-level organizational efficiency.

WIP limit introduces a different dynamic. What happens when one person cannot finish work without another person being done? They collaborate to finish that work together faster. Short-term this may feel sub-optimal due to different skills, but long-term knowledge is shared and work actually gets done faster. More importantly with multiple people co-creating you will get a higher quality product faster. Another important benefit is how simplifying operational complexity (how many things are worked on at the same time) reduces multiple inefficiencies (e.g. task switching), decreases team stress, and promotes system-level optimization.

All this because you stopped starting new tasks and started finishing existing tasks. Yay WIP limits! Go ahead and experiment.

Are we Agile now?

So, if your team is doing all of the above, can they say they are Agile? I like Teina’s answer to this question. You can say your team is “Agilish” meaning ‘in the journey of becoming Agile’. There are many other principles and changes we didn’t cover here: empowered cross-functional teams, servant leadership, continuous innovation, and many more.

You can say your team is AGILISH…

To say you’re “Agile” is to think of it as a destination rather than a journey. The destination and the purpose of Agile is to better achieve business / organizational purpose. Agile is a HOW we get there. As such, it keeps evolving with every new WHY the business / organization tries to achieve.

How about other teams?

The principles and steps described above can in fact be applied to any team driven by clear business objectives and working with significant market disruptions / ambiguities… where Agile works best.

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