Is your team effective?

When agile hit the market, any tech team which adopted it was virtually guaranteed to see improvements in product quality, delivery cycles, and customer satisfaction.

Now, any tech organization not exercising scrum or any of its agile siblings, there is probably something very wrong with how the organization thinks of its process. Then for a team who are already matured in the ways of agile, how do you know you are still offering relatively higher value compared to your competition?

Is your team focused on the end users?

One may say, of course, we are focused on users, what else would we be focused on? Well for starters, top management, career growth, latest technical fads, etc.

Now your user does not need to be the general public, in Twiga for example, our end users for a long time were sales reps and scouts. The point to remember here is who actually gets to interact with the application. Eventually, their need wins out.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need a UX team before you can consider yourself user-centric. Jeff Bezos famously keeps an empty seat for the customer. Such simple acts are enough to prompt your inborn empathy as you work on the product.

Do you understand how the business generates value?

I naturally love puzzles. One of the reasons I fell in love with tech is I genuinely felt I was being paid to come into work every day to solve puzzles. I would bet a good number of engineers are cut from this cloth.

The best engineers love their work, they continuously pursue excellence in their craft simply because it gives joy.

It came as a surprise to realize mastery of craft does not necessarily translate into business value. In fact, my answer to the question “How do I become successful in my business career?” is simply “Be reliable.”

The truth is most business problems are simple, you just need to take the time to understand them and then orient your team towards solving pain points with the greatest business impact. Sometimes this means reworking the entire architecture to microservices most times it’s merely splitting out a SQL report to better fit different types of data consumers.

Are you taking advantage of your opportunities?

Problems almost always seem to win over opportunities. Problems are clear, immediate and painful. If your head hurts, you will find your way to a hospital in short order, if a gym opens up near you with a lifetime 50% discount for all charter members, you may never sign up.

Yet, as a tech organization, you have unique insight on the going concerns of the business, you may see chances for dramatic improvements in operational excellence which you are the most suited to solve. If you are only focused on the problems of yesterday: The users who crashed, the inefficient use of the DB pool, etc. then you will never have the mind space to contribute to the future of your business proactively.

How do you measure the effectiveness of your tech organization? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex


How to write an agenda


Previously, I have talked about the value of an agenda In fact. I went so far as to say a meeting without an agenda is probably a waste of your time.

I still stand by these words thou now there is more to say. Having an agenda at all gets you 80% of the way there, how do you cover the rest of the way? Better agendas of course!

In this entry, I will be sharing some thoughts on how to craft your agenda. These are the questions you as the meeting sponsor should be mindful of.

Why is this meeting needed?

In organizations, meetings are a way of life. In fact, once you become a manager, meetings are the way you get your work done.

A basketball player has his court, a sculptor his marble, a manager has his meetings.

Yet every meeting needs to have a purpose. Do you want to:

  • Pass on some information to the team?
  • Get an update from the team?
  • Collaboratively solve a big strategic problem?
  • Have the team update each other?
  • Hold court so they all know who is boss?

If you don’t know what you want, the confusion will radiate across the whole group spreading woe and misery to all who have to sit in.

This doesn’t mean you have to be dead set on what you want to be done. It simply means you have to have an end goal in mind if then you have to modify it, at least you know what you are modifying.

Who needs to be in the meeting?

An organization, at least the successful ones, pull in one direction. To achieve this, you must understand what it takes to get things done.

You must be acutely aware of who can:

  • Provide know-how on the meeting objectives
  • Veto the meeting actions/decisions
  • Will act on the outcomes from the decision

Provide know-how on the meeting objectives

In today’s economy, knowledge is specialized, this is why we form organizations, to bring together multiple domains of knowledge to bear on a single well defined problem.

With this in mind, if you are calling a meeting to solve a problem, it’s useful to think who would have expertise in these kinds of problems. This way you would save time otherwise wasted in trial and error.

Veto the meeting actions/decisions

I have heard of flat organizations, I am yet to see one without any kind of hierarchy and is a going concern.

Unless you are the owner and CEO, you probably have someone or a group of someones who can overturn your decisions. You need to be mindful of how important the purpose of the meeting is to them.

Consider inviting them to the meeting or at least sharing the important factors you are to discuss and have them give you their opinion beforehand.

Will act on the outcomes from the decision

Handoffs don’t usually work. If you want someone to do the work well, they need a sense of ownership over the work. The most effective way to get there is to co-opt them into the decision making progress.

Even if you don’t end up adopting their ideas, they should be sure their ideas were given full consideration and turned down on the basis of merit.

What will be the output?

A meeting that does not produce any artifact is better classified as a hangout.

You need to be clear on what exactly will be the output of the session. This can come in multiple formats:

  • An action list
  • A decision
  • A report
  • A statement

The idea here is a meeting is rarely a reason in itself for existing. It supports another process or a bigger objective. The output of the discussion then needs to come out in a format another person or team can consume.

How will the meeting be run?

Meetings come in all types, some are short and sweet others are long and engaging. The point is to identify how you plan on having the team work together.

Some of the common ways include:

  • Individual updates in a round robin
  • Brainstorming session where all ideas are dumped into a common board
  • Listing session where ideas related to one item are solicited
  • Executive update where the sponsor gives information and fields questions
  • Timeboxed deliberation where agenda items are discussed with no aim for a resolution

The way of working will depend on your organization. The point is by being clear on it, you are able to make the most of the time the session runs.

How do you build an agenda in your organization? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex



Making better decisions



Good decisions matter. In fact, it could be argued the primarily KPI for a manager is decision making.

Confronted with a decision, I have seen many professionals give instructions based on the first thing that comes to their mind. As in any other field, some managers are particularly gifted, and this works out, for the rest of us, it makes some sense to have some rules of thumb handy.

In this entry, I will be reflecting on the various actions I have found useful in making effective decisions.

Be Precise

SMART. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time based.

Surely we all must have heard about this acronym somewhere. As a framework for evaluating goals, its merits are beyond dispute, yet I argue the method can be simplified even further. For decisions only two factors matter.

Measurable and Time-based.

By definition, a decision implies the existence of alternatives. Here, I mean real options. For example, a decision should we or should we not pay our top employees is mute, the alternative is untenable

A good choice gives proper stead to the other options. It explores the possible costs and benefits in ways that can be measured.

Consider the  decision such as:

We will introduce game night to boost employee morale

Sounds great right? Now what about:

We will introduce game night, this will cost us Kshs 1M per month. It is expected in the coming year, we will experience a drop in voluntary exits from average of 5 per month as seen last year to 2 per month saving us recruitment and training costs of 3M per month

The decision is not only measurable, but it is also possible to reflect on the decision in a year and see if it was actually the right decision.

Build in a way for the decision to be executed

If you happen to attend a government function, you can expect to hear words such as:

As a government we will work to ensure you have clean water, a hospital here, jobs for every able person and reduce your taxes.

Obviously high aspiration but mostly fluff. No decision has been made here, after all, how will all these goodies be delivered on the back of a government cutting its own funding means?

Any manager worth his salt sees through this hyperbole, the same manager then goes to the office the next day and declares to his team.

This quarter we have adjusted our sprint goal to 60 story points per sprint. I trust in you to deliver this.

If the confused looks from your team were not educative, let me explain what went wrong. The decision made here is merely un-executable.  Don’t get me wrong, as a goal, it has some excellent characteristics, it’s definitely measurable and time-bound but how the hell is the team to execute on it?

Perhaps a better way to do this.

Due to company x ( a new threat) entering our industry, a decision has been made to more quickly move along our product plan. Our historical average has been 40pts/sprint but I believe we can get this to 60pts/sprint. To do this, we need higher quality hires, the HR team will be holding a session with us on how we can systemize our hiring process. Further, I believe as surely you must that higher quality code is the basis of faster development due to reduced rework. Thus going forward enforce a strict policy of 100% code coverage on all new code.

Of course, don’t give orders, ensure whatever decision you come up with and its attendant actions have well been negotiated with knowledgeable parties within your team.

Embrace conflict

I work with a great team at Twiga, for the purposes of this example, I will discuss two particular managers within the product team, Evans and Seth.

Seth is extremely precise in his thinking, his attention to detail is something to marvel at. In discussions, he will usually be the first person to notice inconsistencies in what we are working on.

Evans, on the other hand, is unusually perceptive.  He is able to synthesize a great number of facts and come up with a simple and clear explanation.

In any working session, there will always be some opposition to my ideas. At first, I merely accepted this, but I have come to embrace it. These two gentlemen have sharpened my thinking, through their eyes, I am now able to see through my own blind spots.

This is not a fringe phenomenon in my own little world or even within Twiga but indeed a general truth. To get the best thinking available, you must submit your ideas to argumentation and be willing to take the best ideas.

It is only through this means your decisions will get sharpened.