Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Follow up 2: Personal retrospective and strategy


This is the second of two follow ups replying to some comments on the blog. What’s interesting about this one is that its from someone who I don’t know, or rather has chosen to hide their name. Still they have a great memory because they’ve linked something I said a few days ago with something I said last year. Now there’s paying attention! And its good for me because it helps me improve my own understanding.

Anyway this comment asked how I reconciled my comments in the personal retrospective entry where I said I should have done more quicker, with my comment last year (last thing your people need is a strategy) where I suggested managers should spend time observing before acting. Good catch who ever you are.

So, at the risk of sounding like a politician trying to wiggle out a difficult question I’ll try and explain and perhaps I’ll shift my position a little. There is no simple answer so please bear with me...

To some degree it is a question of context. One size does not fit all, and it is important to look at the problems facing an organization before acting. The trouble in the ‘solutions’ oriented world is that you risk applying the wrong solution if you are not careful. Just as it is wrong to apply a predetermined solution before looking at the problem it is wrong to use a predetermined time frame before acting.

Which leads to the question: how do you know what the context is? Well you have to look around, observe what is happening and talk to people. I still believe the people on the ground want to do the best job possible and most likely know what needs doing. So I think its more important to talk to the people doing the tasks than it is to those who nominally control what is going on.

If the people doing the tasks, and those in leadership positions, aren’t seeing the same problems, and aren’t trying to go in the same direction then they positions need to be reconciled. That might mean explaining to the leadership why their model of the world is wrong. Or it might mean explaining to the workers that the company doesn’t want that.

The key point both ways round is not to assume you know all the answers, keep an open mind yourself. Collectively the team will know the answers, and one person may know more than most. I see a manager’s role as unlocking those ideas.

Going back to my personal retrospective post, one thing I didn’t mention was that during my first week at the client I held a reverse retrospective with the development team. This was a little like a project retrospective but since there was no single project to review, and others on the team were also new we had nothing to retrospect about. I call it a “future-spective.”

I gathered the team together for an afternoon and we talked about problems we faced and the problems the management saw. We also talked about improvements we could make and created a long list of things we could do. We then collectively prioritised them and worked out what actions were needed.

One way I would go faster in future is to implement the top priorities on that list faster. I realised when I did my personal retrospective that it took us months to implement some of our ideas, and as a result it took longer to see the benefit and prevented us from moving onto other initiatives.

In future I’ll probably use the future-spective technique but I’ll implement the suggestions sooner. And I’ll go further, I allowed myself to get caught in the ‘no time to improve’ trap in places and after 3 or 4 future-spectives stopped doing them.

As my anonymous commenter pointed out there was quite a gap in the three-month period I talked about last year and the one-week period I talked about recently. To be honest that gap surprises me, I’m not sure why I said 3 months last year, it does seem quite long given what I learned in my personal retrospective. However, I’m also surprised that it only took me a week to diagnose so many issues. So perhaps one week is a minimum and 3 months a maximum, ask me again after I have some more data points.

Again its a matter of context, I’d like to think it is always less than 3 months but I’ll be surprised if its as short as 1 week. In general its is better to delay making decisions until you are sure of the situation but once those decisions are made it is better to act quickly.

One way to ensure that decisions are acted on quickly is to involve more people in making the decision. Although having more people involved may delay the decision when one is made these people share the decision and share the responsibility for acting.

I still stand by my comment that when you are new the last thing your people need is your strategy (actually stole that idea from Lou Gerstner in Who Says Elephant Can’t Dance). However, you do need your own personal strategy. You need to know what you are doing and what you are aiming for.

That personal strategy needs to have a short term element (meet, watch and listen), a medium term element (find problems and opportunities, get peoples ideas, get agreement) and a long term element (do whatever it is you were asked to). And your personal strategy needs to tell you when to wait, watch and learn - something my friend Klaus Marquardt refers to as Proactive waiting.