Organizations often struggle to balance top-down direction vs. team autonomy. Too much top-down directive and teams can quickly feel micromanaged, becoming discouraged and disengaged. Leaders, meanwhile, struggle to allow complete autonomy, fearing the sheer increase in variation between tools, processes and practices will make it impossible to collaborate and manage products across the organization. There have been a variety of attempts to address this challenge; the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) even offers a lightweight quantitative algorithm for directing decision-makers.
In my experience—through working directly with both teams and leadership—I’ve found organizations actually can dramatically improve engagement and business results (and it’s not as complicated as you may think). Let’s explore two steps you can take today to quickly improve your organizational culture and outcomes.
Step 1: Start by sharing more information with teams
You can reduce the risk of teams evolving in the wrong direction—or creating the wrong products—by sharing more information with them. Most employees genuinely want to help and make a valuable contribution. Too often teams are given tasks to complete without being involved in the ideation or the bundling together of those tasks into larger more meaningful things. Consequently, the daily grind sets in and teams begin to lose their intrinsic motivation. Over time this can result in a culture where employees check their brain at the door, simply obeying commands while innovation crawls to a halt.
While many fall into this trap, you can reverse this downward spiral. Think about sharing the customer or business problem that you’re trying to solve with the teams, and giving them the ability to be a part of the creative process. Your teams will become more engaged and your solutions more innovative and robust.
Giving teams a chance to hear the “why” and own more of the “what” will only increase engagement over time. It will also create more company and brand loyalty. I’ve seen leaders effectively do this via monthly town halls or during the briefing in their executive review at quarterly planning sessions. Whatever forum you choose, it’s now easier than ever to connect with distributed teams and begin helping them see how their day-to-day matters.
Step 2: Align on the right (seven or less) metrics
Early on in my career, a manager once said, “People don’t do what you expect, they do what you inspect”. That has stuck with me over the years. As soon as you develop a measurement, the measurement becomes a goal in itself and people do what they need to do to meet that goal. There is great power in that – but also great danger.
We all know stories where management used a metric that they expected would make things better but instead made things worse. For instance, a goal for “lines of code” will often produce an overcomplicated codebase. A goal for “number of defects fixed” will increase rather than decrease the total number of defects. To that end, it’s critical to choose the right things to measure.
I’ve also seen organizations focus heavily on a long list of goals, creating complicated dashboards with lots of maintenance overhead. The result is an inability to understand the key points of the story unfolding in the organization. Having worked in environments with overly complicated dashboards, I would recommend choosing seven or less metrics that will provide the right guardrails for continuous improvement in your organization.
Given these considerations, I’d like to offer Dr. Mik Kersten’s Flow Metrics—recently adopted by SAFe 5.1—as a starting point to work from as you develop the key metrics that are most relevant to your organization:
- Flow Efficiency: How much time is spent on non value added wait states?
- Flow Velocity: How many items by type are being deployed to production?
- Flow Time: Time to value for work items?
- Flow Load: How much total work is in the system and is it overloaded?
- Flow Distribution: Is the organization delivering the right mix of work?
Most executive leaders I work with are investing to improve overall speed to market for new products and ensure teams are working on the right things with increasing quality. These Flow Metrics provide a compelling view into these key business drivers.
Many of these metrics can find early improvements on a team-by-team basis. Giving teams visibility into their Flow Efficiency, Flow Load and Flow Distribution will enable them to drive immediate improvement in those areas. The insights will tap into common challenges organizations face, such as being overburned with work, too much context switching and/or an unbalanced amount of time being spent on one specific type of work (like defects or “just features”).
As time goes on and teams make improvements in these areas, bigger opportunities emerge when they are able to see the entire ecosystem. This helps them to collaborate in new ways and make improvements outside their team to positively impact systemic organizational bottlenecks.
A leader’s key job through this process is to give the teams the visibility they need to see how their activities improve these metrics and outcomes and then to support them as they ask for help in areas outside of their immediate control.
Set Your Teams Free!
I’ve never been disappointed when teams are given a clear problem statement and then set free to innovate in ways that work best for them. Giving teams a compelling problem to solve and the visibility to see how their activities impact these issues can provoke a profound reaction. It’s also key to provide support to help in the areas outside their control – such as freeing up budget to address enabling technology or creating space for retrospectives with the broader organization. This will inevitably result in improved product fit, speed to market and increased engagement. The type of organization that operates this way is the one that is inspiring to work for and that generates deep employee and customer loyalty.
Join the Tasktop Flow Framework Community
The Flow Framework Community can help leaders and management to improve the engagement and effectiveness of your software delivery teams. Members have access to a professional, inclusive and supportive environment for learning, questioning and networking on all topics related to the Flow Framework®, Flow Metrics and value stream management (VSM). Via a private Slack workspace, community members will have exclusive access to:
- Tasktop Flow Experts and certified Flow Framework professionals specialized in the execution of the Flow Framework and other value stream management practices
- Public and private slack channels for questions and resources specific to roles and levels of adoption around value stream management and the concepts of flow
- Networking opportunities with professionals from other enterprises in the process of implementing the Flow Framework and Flow Metrics