Dan, a senior manager, sees the end of the organization's traditional business lines. He thinks they have a few good years with their current customers and products. However, he's sure the company needs to find another way to meet their customers' needs. And probably, acquire more and different customers.
Dan thinks agility at the management level will work well. He's already encouraged his peers and the managers he serves to create peer cohorts. However, the cohorts aren't working as well as he expected them to.
That's because the organization has a culture of predictability. Everyone is supposed to know the answers when someone asks questions. Especially if that person is “higher” in the organization's hierarchy.
Dan realized he couldn't ask people to be “more open.” How would people know what they should do?
However, Dan sees that the management teams need to move to a more open culture. Dan didn't ask anyone to change their beliefs. Instead, he started with behaviors, which he prompted with questions. That way, everyone understood what Dan valued. He began with these questions.
Tip 1: Ask, “How short an experiment can we run?”
In the past, the project portfolio team has dithered on deciding which projects to fund as the project portfolio. Because they tried to decide for an entire year, the portfolio team asked the teams for more specific predictions of scope and time.
Dan now leads the project portfolio team. He asked, “Could we decide just for one quarter at a time?”
Some of the team members worried that they couldn't manage their finances well enough if they only decided for a quarter at a time. Dan didn't challenge the team's thinking about the effect on Finance. Instead, he asked, “How short an experiment can we run?”
When he framed the possibility as an experiment, the team realized they could always return to their current decision-making approach.
The team experimented with deciding for a quarter. Now the team decides once every six weeks.
Tip 2: Ask, “How will that data help our decision-making?”
Dan noticed something critical about the project portfolio: The portfolio team wanted to start many projects. However, they only had enough feature teams to staff about half of the desired projects. When the portfolio team asked for more data, that extra data made the decisions more difficult.
Dan said, “We have too many options now. How will that additional data help our decision-making?”
That statement and question surprised almost everyone in the room. The people realized the extra data did not eliminate any projects from consideration.
Dan said, “Can we decide on the top ten projects?” Yes, they could. That's when Dan asked, “Can we just staff these ten projects and forget about the rest for now?”
Some people weren't excited about that option. That's when Dan suggested another experiment: “How about we try selecting just the top ten projects to reduce all the work in progress? We can decide again in six weeks.”
That worked. The portfolio team decides on the top 10-12 projects and funds them with as many teams as necessary to finish the projects within six months. Some efforts do take more time or require programs. However, most of the work flows much faster through the company.
Tip 3: “Do we have enough options?”
After about a year, the portfolio team was down to just eight projects. No project required more than one team, which meant several teams were available for new kinds of work. Now, Dan was finally ready to ask the next question. He asked, “Do we have enough product options?”
The managers asked more questions, and Dan explained his concerns about needing more revenue streams and rethinking their business model.
Dan's organization continues to experiment with new ideas and new products. He's still concerned the organization doesn't have enough products for the future. However, the feature teams feel more energized. And the portfolio team only asks for the data they need. Dan feels their experiments are working to help see where they can go next.
Dan nurtured the change from certainty to more openness over a year. Some of the managers are still concerned that they don't have enough information to make good decisions. However, even those concerned managers use experiments and other questions to support more openness.
When you change your questions, you can change how people work. Especially when it comes to certainty and openness. (This article is based on Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization.)
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© 2021 Johanna Rothman