Lessons in growing a self organizing team

Late last year, in the cold Karen weather, we were in a management retreat discussing Twiga’s quarterly performance and what needed to be done to take the business to the next level.

Grant, the co-founder, and CEO of the business stood up to speak to his gathered managers. He said something paradoxical.

“If you want to succeed in this company, you must make yourself redundant”

The unexpressed question hanging over everyone’s head: Isn’t redundancy an unwanted ticket home?

But then I understood the paradox, if you are needed too much in your current position, you will never have the bandwidth to take on new challenges in the fast-growing organization.

I decided to risk it and work with the team I am part of, tech, to hone our self-organization skills. By this, I mean our ability to identify value creation opportunities within the business and act on it while at the same time remaining reliable in the delivery of committed objectives.

In this article, we will be discussing some of what we think works.

Master communication

A big part of managing is being a message broker. When the team is just you, communication is instantaneous, you make a decision, you act on the decision. When one other person is hired, you now must have a discussion with at least one other person before significant action. Once you get to 5 people, every other person must communicate with every other person meaning you now have 10 communication pathways.

As Richard Hackman points out:

“A colleague and I once did some research showing that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble.”https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work

More specifically, the formula for determining the number of links between members in a group: n(n-1)/2. Where n is the number of members.

The manager then acts by being the person everybody refers to, cutting the links back to a more manageable (n-1). Yet this is what we don’t want.

To solve for this, don’t waste time seeking consensus.

I am generally an agreeable person. Yet, I have come to find out if you put enough smart people in a room they are bound to disagree on important issues. Even worse, you will come to find none of them is demonstrably wrong.

In this environment getting everyone to agree is a waste of time, a more productive path is seeking buy-in.

You will come to find most smart people will support, even commit to an idea if they feel their own view has been given proper consideration.

So what you ask of them is not agreement but commitment.

Provide context and let the team figure it out

No one is promoted to a post where they manage others because they were incompetent at their jobs. Yet what makes you successful as an individual contributor is diametric to what makes you successful as a manager.

Think about the developer who is now the engineering manager. One of his developers is struggling to get a feature done, and the demo is in a few days. The manager knows if he rolls up his sleeves, he can get the work done this evening. He is not looking forward to embarrassing the team in front of the senior leadership, what should the manager do, continue waiting on the feature or get it done himself?

If you chose the latter option, don’t worry you are in the majority. The feature does get done, the powers that be are happy but the team has learned an insidious lesson when it gets tough, give the work to the boss.

The solution here is to appreciate just how much your job has changed now that you are the manager. Your work no longer entails getting things done; it’s now making peoples skills effective.

This shift in mindset means you will no longer experience the highs that come from getting a feature done, you now must find joy in the success of others.

You should now work hard to clearly illuminate the work that needs to be done, then step aside and watch as others find success in this path.

As the legendary Steve Jobs put it:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Find common purpose

Teams are formed for many reasons, the reasons, for the most part, get lost in time. There is no point in focusing on why the group was formed, at best this can help provide context, the team now must decide on its reason for being.

I have come to find smart people generally resist being told what to do. Yet they will passionately commit to what they have chosen to do.

Victor Frankl said:

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

This illustrates then the difference between compliance and commitment. Compliance is what happens when the team does what you tell them to do, commitment is what happens when they do what they have chosen to do.

Your work is clear, let your team know what are your priorities, your posterities, what is going on in the business what are the emerging problems and then ask “Knowing all this, how do you think your contribution will be effective?”

How do you help your teams grow? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchex


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