Collaboration – The Unconquered Peaks

Philippa Hale of Open Limits Ltd
Philippa Hale of Open Limits Ltd

This article has been contributed by Philippa Hale, Director and Senior Consultant at Open Limits Ltd.

 

Collaboration, across diverse teams and between levels of the hierarchy remain the twin, unconquered peaks for many organisations. This is also true of collaboration internally, within IT functions. Poor collaboration is often revealed to be the fatal flaw in well publicised corporate disasters. Within IT and between IT and the internal functions IT supports, it is a silent, relentless drain on time, cash, productivity, motivation and talent during organisational projects and operational improvements.

The following shows how teams from three very different organisations identified and overcame barriers to collaboration. In one case the teams were specialists within the same large IT function – responsible for different steps in the service delivery process managed in different countries. The other teams were from different functions including: Finance, Legal, Sales, Marketing, HR and IT.

 

Collaboration?

At its simplest: ‘To work with another person or group to achieve something’. Initially the teams thought of collaboration in terms of:

  • The tools: The technology and media for accessing and sharing documents and applications, tracking progress, gathering data for decision-making, following processes
  • The location: In some cases the teams worked remotely, across sites, countries and continents. In others they were on different floors of the same building

However all agreed that the real heart of collaboration was not just working alongside each other to deliver products and services; there was a creative, proactive element and more in-depth on-going knowledge sharing, learning and debate.

Examples of good collaboration included doing interesting, challenging work, discovering a whole new side to people, making a difference and being recognised for it. Poor collaboration led to deep frustrations and anger over what were seen as avoidable blocks by individuals, teams and management. Where these had been left unchecked, the stronger emotions had dulled to cynicism, small barbs of passive-aggressive behaviour such as not turning up to meetings or going against decisions made, indifference to new initiatives and doing the minimum.

 

What Stops Collaboration Happening?

Human beings, it seems from looking at any news media on any given day, are socially and psychologically programmed to stick to and to defend their own. Collaboration is also a natural human behaviour but which requires a degree of maturity, awareness of self and others, positive perseverance in the face of others’ reluctance and an environment where it is safe to explore the new and unfamiliar. Goffee & Jones’ ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?’ (2006) and Kotter’s ‘Accelerate Change’ (2014), show there are inbuilt systemic loops that discourage collaboration. It takes a resilient individual or team to question their own and others’ habits, behaviours and thinking.

The danger, when senior management talk about collaboration, is that they refer to best practice principles and thinking which make perfect sense but do not connect with the day-to-day experienced of team members and managers ‘on the ground’. In each of these three examples, senior management encouraged teams to first get some perspective, then address the details that mattered to them.

Proceeding sensitively was important, as there would clearly be areas of rawness around attitudes and perceptions relating to behaviour and performance. The groups included speakers of English as a 1st and 2nd (or 3rd …) language from all continents.

 

Three Barriers Identified by the Groups + Solutions Explored

Among the many barriers identified, these three were the top priorities because

  1. a) everyone could take action and benefit immediately
  2. b) improving these basic communication areas would enable more in-depth collaboration in other areas

Barrier 1 – Emails

The phenomenon of email ‘flaming’ is commonly recognised. When stepping back and analysing the specific language in their emails, the groups were quite shocked. Both managers and team members commented that they had become immune. Comments included: ‘It’s not nice but they are always like this so we try not to let it get to us’.   Given that email was the only tool available for communication between some teams on a regular basis, this was critical. The language ranged from the unclear, incomplete and insensitive, to the frankly abusive. Plus, there was limited understanding of the damage that a frustrated ‘cc’ escalation could cause, particularly in cultures with more hierarchical relationships.

Solutions Explored

The groups focused initially on factors outside their control. These included frustrations around (perceived or real) poor planning and prioritisation passed down the hierarchy, skills gaps, bottlenecks, misaligned processes, managers using unhelpful language themselves. However, when the focus was directed at what practical steps were possible, the group started to feel less embattled, more positive and more willing to take on some responsibility for finding solutions. E.g.: Asking for a meeting, picking up the phone and asking questions.

Having discussed the 7 areas of waste identified in ‘Lean’ process reviews, one team identified ‘Waiting’ for action from those interdependent teams, as an area to work on. By using the ‘neutral’ vocabulary of the ‘Lean’ thinking, they could name their concerns and offer practical suggestions more comfortably.

Barrier 2 – International English

There were some good examples in all the groups of ‘false friends’ where 2nd/3rd language English speakers had done their best to articulate their needs, and the native speakers, perhaps having never experienced working in a second language, took the words used at face value. Some examples included the use of ‘You should …’ which sounds like a command to a British reader but in German translates as ‘May I suggest that you …’ .

Solutions Explored

Actually discussing these language aspects was extremely helpful in relationship building. All parties were keen to learn how they were perceived and what they could do to help understanding. For native speakers, slowing down – considerably – was key, and not using local expressions. Keeping sentences short. No waffle or ambiguous management jargon.   Plain English actually sounds more professional and authentic, but many people, native and non-native speakers believe otherwise.

Groups created their own ‘meetings from hell’ checklist – as a light-hearted way to highlight better practices for face-to-face meetings and video/audio conferencing.

Barrier 3 – Prejudice

Having never met in some cases, and with nothing but a few words in emails and general media images to inform their judgements, the teams had created surprisingly detailed pictures of the intentions, level of intelligence, technical competence, work ethic and values of the other groups.

Suggestions Explored

One team invited the other party to work with them on highlighting and addressing issues together, one at a time. ‘The whole solution in the room’ was a phrase used. Another turned process mapping into a shared, physical and visual activity, with giant post-its, a wall and marker pens. This filled many gaps in understanding and increased appreciation of each other’s knowledge, context and constraints.

In one team, where intercultural training was not an option, managers asked each team to research one of the countries they were working with and present their findings. This included contacting their local native speaker colleagues and asking for their input. The groups found this fun, fascinating and a great ice breaker.

 

Results?

The changes in mood, attitudes and behaviour in each of the teams, was quicker and more significant than expected. Within 3 months, there were multiple examples of small improvements in collaboration and significant improvements in delivery. Actively spending time reviewing successes and small improvements reinforced the shared sense of achievement. In all three cases, a senior manager got involved, either at the start, or when asked to support and the initiatives being taken.

Six months on, internal and customer relationships and delivery have improved in all cases.

Collaboration breeds more collaboration!

 


Philippa Hale has 25 years of experience in enabling collaboration and communication on international projects and programmes, particularly within and between the IT & Digital functions and colleagues from other business functions. She is Director & Senior Consultant at Open Limits Ltd and an Associate Faculty member at Henley Business School.

Contact Philippa.hale@openlimits.com for more information or join in the debate on 24th March where Philippa will be presenting on this subject at a special itSMF function.

 

 

The Coming Workforce: A Case for IT Service Management

millenial
Welcome to the Millenial generation

With the Boomer generation set to retire en mass, IT organizations are faced with the unprecedented brain drain of institutional knowledge. Generation X and Millennials have decidedly different work styles and career expectations than previous generations.

At the same time, expectations of productivity and customer value generation have never been higher. IT organizations must find ways to deliver increasing levels of service while embracing the next generation workforce.

Forbes.com contributor Jeanne Meister recently wrote that Job Hopping is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials. She cites the staggering finding that 91% of Millennials plan to stay in a job “less than 3 years”, and will have 15 – 20 jobs  in their career. They are also quick to leave a position that is no longer meeting their needs.

While much has been written about organizational cultural changes to engage and retain millennials, I’m going to talk about working on the other side of the equation.

What can IT organizations do to thrive in the reality of the Two Year Employee?

The 2-year Employee

Most agree that it takes around six months for a new employee just to reach the break even point – where they’re producing more than they cost. Beyond that, the complexity of IT environments, and the amount of deep knowledge that takes years to learn makes it very hard for new staff to reach the ‘fully trained point’ even in the space of two years, let alone making a significant contribution. Imagine if your most senior IT staff have been on board less than three years!

And that’s the problem.

If it takes two years to bring Two Year Employees up to speed, something needs to change

And fast.

Rather than fight a losing battle against a culture we can’t change, we need to build an organizational culture around the Two Year reality.

Millennials bring a high level of self-motivation, initiative, and performance. They are eager to make a contribution to an organization that shares their values. If they aren’t allowed to do meaningful work quickly, they will leave for an organization that better meets their needs.

We’re currently burning a lot of that positive energy teaching them ‘how-we-do-it-here’.

A Comparison

Let’s take a brief look at an industry that has already dealt with rapid on-boarding:Construction.

A General Contractor is engaged to build a home. She works with the customer to understand their requirements, and coordinates with a wide assortment of sub-contractors for various parts of construction – foundation, framing, electrical, plumbing, heating, roofing.

The sub-contractors show up with their crews to complete their part of the project, and the General Contractor has a high degree of confidence in a quality result.

Why?

Because there is a body of how-it’s-done in the various trades, guided by:

  • Building codes (governance)
  • Tricks of the trade (best practices)
  • Customer expectations (business outcomes)

I’ll spare you the how-it’s-like-ITIL analogy.

This is the nature of the construction business. The General Contractor has to be able to bring in workers who can immediately produce value. She doesn’t have time to teach them ‘how we do it here’. Whether you’re a framer or electrician, you are expected to know how to apply your knowledge of the codes and tricks of the trade to get the job done here.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying IT is like the construction industry. But the need for immediate value from short-term workers has driven a different model that’s worth exploring.

Time To Value

For the sake of argument, let’s say it takes two years for a new IT employee to be fully contributing. If they stay for 20 years, we’ve invested roughly 10% in their long-term productivity. Not a bad investment.

But the math doesn’t pencil out for a 2-year employee. The same 10% investment means they have to hit max productivity at around 2 months. Minor on-boarding tweaks and new retention efforts won’t get us there.

The solution isn’t to change new people to fit outdated practices, but rather to change our old practices to fit the new workforce!

Tribal Knowledge

Undocumented institutional knowledge makes it difficult and time consuming for new staff to be as productive as long-term staff.  There simply isn’t enough time to transfer 30 years of knowledge to a new employee, and even if it were possible, the person to whom its transferred is likely to leave much sooner than their predecessor.

Millennials are demotivated by the idea that it will take 10 years to contribute fully and earn a respected position.

This is a major liability that can no longer be maintained.

IT Service Management as a Workforce Strategy

For the record, I’m NOT a Human Resources professional, but I am a seasoned IT Manager concerned with the implication of significant numbers of retirements and the impact it’s already having on IT’s ability to deliver consistent quality and cost effectiveness.

The next generation of IT Professionals will be of the Millennial variety, and the common practice of training new hires ‘how we do things here’ poses a significant challenge.

IT Service Management frameworks like ITIL and COBIT are global best-practices framework for Service delivery that offers a standardized approach. These standards are shared across countries, continents, and companies.

Much like the building codes and tricks of the trade I mentioned above for the construction trades, these best practices are the key to not only survive, but to thrive with the Two Year employee.

The extent to which an organization is aligned with widely-adopted external standards directly determines how effective they will be with the coming workforce. Organizations with strong alignment will have a huge advantage in workforce time-to-value.

Standardization for it’s own sake has no real purpose but, as a workforce strategy, it has enormous value. It’s a strategic investment in an organization’s ability to thrive with millennial workers and the culture they bring.

On-Boarding in a Best Practices Organization

Newly hired employees who are trained in ITSM require very little explanation of “how -things are done here”.

Training can go more like:

Hiring Manager: Cheryl Smith is the Change Manager. CAB meets on Thursday at 9:00am.

New Employee: Where do I fill out RFCs?

Hiring Manager: <myorg/ChangeManagement>

New Employee: Does CAB meet in person?

Hiring Manager: Yes, room D713

The point being – they already get it. The know what CAB and RFCs mean, and they know how it’s done. A few minor ‘where’s the restroom’ kind of questions, and they’re good to go.

Services are well documented through the Service Strategy and Service Design phases. There is clarity and consistency in roles and responsibilities. Processes are well defined and have clear owners. Very little happens through undocumented, informal processes.

Service and process knowledge is documented in Knowledge Management. Documentation is kept up to date through Change and Release processes. All staff have access to the accurate information that they need to effectively do their job.

New staff with ITSM experience require very little how-we-do-it training when you’re using standard ITSM processes. Not only do new employees onboard faster, but they also bring valuable experience that’s compatible with best practices.

Hiring in a Best Practices Organization

The hiring process must include selection of candidates who have solid ITSM training and experience. It is no longer optional. Candidates must have both the technical skills and the ITSM process experience to be a good fit.

Colleges are starting to include course work in ITIL and organizations large and small are using ITSM to great success. Qualified millennial candidates with working knowledge of ITSM from college or a prior employer are increasingly common.

Hiring managers must consider the ROI of candidates, and shorter time-to-value is key for the Two Year Employee.

Embrace the Two Year Employee

Ready or not, welcome to the future.

If we can’t change Millennials, and I submit you cannot, then we must change our organizations to maximize value through them. We need to embrace the Two Year Employee as a strategic advantage.

IT Service Management is the key.

ITSM not only helps IT be more customer-aligned and effective, it also greatly reduces time-to-value of new employees.

If the thought of retiring Boomers, brain drain, and Two Year Employees scares you, think ITSM.  IT Service Management is an effective IT workforce strategy!

 Image Credit

Rob England: The People in ITSM

Maori proverb: "He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata." What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.

It’s all about the people.

A service exists to serve people.  It is built and delivered by people.

Even in the most technical domains like IT, the service is about managing information for people to use, and managing the way they use it.

When we change IT, a lot of the time we are ultimately changing the way people behave, the way they do things.

There is an old mantra “People, Process, Technology” to which I always add “…in that order”.  By which I mean prioritise in that order, and start in that order.

People, Practices, Things.

Actually I don’t like that mantra; I prefer “People, Practices, Things” as a broader, more inclusive set.  Either way, it all starts with people.

We’ve been using railways (railroads) as examples for this series of articles.  Ask a railway how important the people are.  Railways are complex and very dynamic: they need to adapt to constantly changing conditions, on a daily basis and across the decades.  We are slowly getting to the point where we can automate the running of railways, but only because the trains run in a tightly designed, constructed and operated environment that relies on people to make it work and keep it safe.  Much like IT.

I’ve never bought into this feel-good stuff about successful companies being dependent on a caring people culture.  Some of the most successful railroads in the ultra-competitive US environment have pretty rough people cultures – they treat their staff like cattle.   And other railroads are good to their people – though most of them are off to what we would consider the tough end of the spectrum.  I don’t think it correlates.  I could say the same about software companies I have worked for:  from second family to sweatshop.

However it is probably true that all successful companies have a strong culture.  Staff know how it works.  They may or may not like the culture but if it is strong they identify with it and align to it, to some extent.  So culture is important.

And cultural change is hard – in fact it is a black art.  The bad news is that changing the way people behave – remember our first paragraph? – is cultural change.  Behaviours only change permanently if the underlying attitudes change.  And people’s attitudes only change if their beliefs move at least a little bit.  Culture change.  Fifty years ago railroads were places where men – all men – died regularly, learned on the job, and fought as hard as they worked.  Now the people are trained professionals and the first priority of most railroads is safety.  Twenty years ago the New Zealand Railways had 56,000 employees, couldn’t move anything without losing it, lost millions, and wouldn’t know what to do with a container.  Now 11,000 move record volumes of freight and do it profitably.

“Just because you can change software in seconds doesn’t mean organisational change happens like that”

You can’t make those transformations in short timeframes.  Just because you can change software in seconds doesn’t mean organisational change happens like that.  You would think railroads take longer to change hardware technology than we do in IT because it is all big chunky stuff, but really our hardware and software platforms change at about the same pace; years and even decades.   Plenty of Windows XP still around.

Technology is the fast changer compared to people and process.  Just because you rolled a flash new technology out doesn’t mean people are going to start using it any differently unless you ensure they change and their processes change.  That human rate of change is slow.  People  will change quickly in response to external pressures like war or threatening managers, but that change won’t stick until their attitudes and beliefs shift.  I bet the safety culture on US railroads took at least one generational cycle to really embed.

In response to a few high-profile crashes, governments in the US, UK and other places have mandated the introduction of higher levels of automation in train control over recent decades (despite the much higher carnage on the roads but that’s another discussion).  Much of this push for automation stems from frustration over driving change in behaviours.  Does any of this remind you of IT initiatives like DevOps?

Culture can change, and sometimes it can change quite quickly, by human standards.  It takes strong and motivational leadership, a concerted programme, and some good cultural change science.  The leading set of ideas are those of John Kotter and his Eight Steps to change, but there are many ideas and models now in this area.  In IT, everyone should read Balanced Diversity by Karen Ferris.  And you will find a multitude of suggestions on my free site He Tangata.

Whatever methods you use for change, pay attention to three aspects:  motivation, communication and development.

Motivate them in these ways:

  1. by getting them involved and consulted;
  2. by showing how they benefit from the change;
  3. by making them accountable and measuring that accountability;
  4. and by incenting them.

Communicate early, communicate often, and be as transparent about decision-making as you can.  Tough decisions are more palatable if people understand why.  Communication is two-way: consult, solicit feedback (including anonymous), run workshops and town-halls.

Development is not just one training course.   Training should be followed up, refreshed, and repeated for new entrants. Training is not enough: practical workshops, on-the-job monitoring, coaching support, local super-users and many other mechanisms all help people learn what they need to make change successful.

One final thought: examine your current and planned IT projects, and work out how much effort and money is being spent on the people aspects of the changes the project wants to achieve.  I’d love to see some comparative research on the proportions of money spent on people aspects of projects in different industries like railroading, because we in IT still seem to suffer the delusion that we work with information and technology.