Epiphanies for Everybody

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When technical problems aren’t technical problems

December 07, 20223 min read

When technical problems aren’t technical problems

The issue that underpins your organisational conflicts or issues is often difficult to see.

For example, I have worked with multiple organisations where the technical teams were unable to deliver in any sort of reasonable time, with any sort of reasonable quality.

When we took a look, we found that the teams were overloaded with WIP. There was too much demand in the system at once.

When we dug deeper, it became clear that work priorities were unclear. That resulted in teams being unable to make a decision about which things to work on, so they tried to please everybody by working on everything… and completing nothing.

Digging deeper, we learned that the same team was often a critical piece of multiple priorities.

Deeper than that, and we found that the different priorities came from different business units. Which reported to different executives.

Even deeper, when we spoke with the executives, it became clear that they were pursuing their own incentives. Their bonuses were based on incentives that were agreed and set with their peers. Sadly, those incentives were in conflict.

Deepest of all — the thing that underpinned poor speed and delivery — was the beliefs of the CEO. The team had collectively agreed the strategy and direction for the next 12+ months. Once that was agreed, the CEO broke the work down and allocated pieces of it to each executive, and set incentives and metrics up to measure whether they had achieved the expected outcomes, and therefore could get their bonuses. In some cases, the incentives that were set were in direct conflict — achieving one meant not achieving another. In other cases, incentives were in indirect conflict — superficially achievable, but ultimately dependent on the same team to do the work, and there wasn’t enough time for that team to do both.

The CEO’s belief that individualised goals could be combined to optimise delivery of the system’s goals was the incorrect assumption that ultimately created an environment where poor quality and inability to deliver was the norm. By working with the CEO, and exposing both the assumption and the problems it was causing, we were able to shift the beliefs, then behaviour, and then culture, of the entire organisation. The end result was significant improvement in metrics across the board.

It doesn’t always work out so well.

I had another very similar instance where the problematic assumption of the CEO was that having their subordinates competing with each other would be good for the business. It created such toxicity that nobody enjoyed working there. In this instance, one of the additional symptoms was low engagement during group meetings, but high eNPS scores. It turns out people didn’t feel safe enough to say they were unhappy; they just left. I couldn’t figure out what to say or do, at the time, to make the CEO aware of their problematic assumptions, which meant I wasn’t able to help the organisation change. Ultimately, the CEO pointed fingers everywhere else, didn’t take responsibility, and people paid their dues and left as quickly as possible.

When trying to figure out where responsibility lies for team and individual behaviour, always start by looking at leadership’s behaviours and beliefs. Odds are good the issues originate there, even if it’s not obvious how or why. Surfacing unspoken assumptions is key.

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