There’s a filter I try to use every day to make sure I’m maximizing the effect my work is having on the business. It’s called the 80-20 rule, or the Pareto Principle.
The theory states that
20% of your customers will give you 80% of your revenue
You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time
You use 20% of software features to get 80% of the value of that software
20% of the population control 80% of the wealth
20% of the players in a sports team create 80% of the wins
You spend 20% of your time to produce 80% of your day’s output
And the one we really care about today: 20% of the effort you make produces 80% of the results
It comes down to whether you use your time efficiently or effectively. AKA working smarter, not harder.
You may spend a busy day getting a lot done, ticking off a lot of tasks, having a lot of meetings, and finishing the day thinking, “I used my time efficiently today and got a lot done”. You give yourself a pat on the back and think you did well, but did you actually do anything useful today? Or did you just complete a bunch of stuff that didn’t really matter.
Instead, take some time at the beginning of the day to work out which of the tasks on your plate really matter. Which ones will unblock others and allow them to get more done. Which will have a disproportionate result on the business. Over time you’ll be able to work out a hierarchy of work, allowing you to do it in the right order every time without having to think too hard about it. You may find that you end up getting fewer tasks done in a day, but the ones you did were important, and really made a difference.
This past year has been surprisingly busy for IT professionals. When COVID hit, we all battened down the hatches, expecting a potential business downturn. However, within a month, a wave of new business hit our doors, as companies realized they needed to be able to offer their services online to stay relevant.
This, of course, was also the point that we had sent everyone to work from home, and since our main point of difference from overseas development houses was our locality and communication skills, this was a risk for us. The solution was to make sure our consultants were able to be as effective as possible while working remotely.
If you are facing the same challenge, here are some tips:
Webcam and mic
The experience of speaking to someone on a video call can range from terrible to excellent, depending on a few things.
If the webcam and mic on their laptop is not up to the job, get them an external webcam. Even a simple Microsoft Lifecam for AUD $100 is usually sufficient and has a decent inbuilt microphone.
If you want to one level higher, you can fork out $600 for a full Marantz Turret with a high quality camera, mic, and light. However, be aware that this will not be centered with their screen, so often they will not look like they’re looking at the camera.
Video call background
A good background separates people who look like they were forced to work from home and those who can thrive there. It’s not always possible to do all of these, but in a perfect world you do as many of the following as possible:
Keep it tidy. A messy background can be distracting
Close doors and cupboards
Possibly use a screen behind you – ideally with company colours
Digital background options
Blur – simple and effective
Take a photo from where your webcam usually is at your desk at work and use that as your digital background
We take general office banter and water cooler talk for granted and, although some of us feel like we spend all day on Teams calls, you should remember that there is another extreme for people who do not get to talk to anyone all day.
Make sure everyone you’re managing is part of a team and do at least a Daily Scrum call to check in with each other each day. If you’ve got people who are not part of a larger team, consider having a daily check-in call for those people yourself. No one should be left without any human contact for days at a time as it can be isolating and demotivating.
Think “Remote first”
In the instance you have some people co-located, and 1 or more people remote, it’s best to prioritise the remote people as much as possible. They are missing out on the body language and non-verbal cues that the rest of you will enjoy, and they will not be able to hear any muttered back channels, so whenever someone talks, make sure they talk towards the mic.
Even if you don’t usually use Scrum to manage your staff, Daily Scrums are a very valuable tool to quickly touch base with your team and make sure they’re on track, both with how much they’re getting done each day, and whether their understanding of the project priorities line up with yours (i.e. what order the work is done in).
Ideally you can use something like Azure DevOps to prioritise and track work items, but even a free tool like Trello can work in a pinch.
The world renowned Leadership expert, John Maxwell, has defined 5 levels of leadership, and we’ll go through each one here, to help you understand how to advance through the levels, and also to understand why it’s important to strive to do so.
First of all, it’s important to state that these levels are additive… a level 3 leader still needs everything they learned in levels 1 and 2 to succeed.
Level 1 – Position
People follow because they have to.
At this point, you have been granted a position of leadership (usually via a job title). This is the beginning of everyone’s leadership journey but should not be the end. People at this stage will only follow you because they have to, which means they’ll do just enough for you that they don’t get in trouble, but no more.
You have not yet built the influence to command respect from colleagues but it is a necessary starting point, and allows you to think about what kind of leader you’d like to be.
Don’t push people at this stage, just help them and take an interest in them. Also, don’t expect them to come to you yet.
In order to graduate from this level, you need to believe that your job title isn’t what makes you a good leader. People are your most valuable asset, and good leaders include others. Therefore, you don’t need to have all the answers.
Level 2 – Permission
People follow because they want to.
Leaders on this level make people know that they matter, and as your relationships grow, so does trust. Eventually, people permit you to lead them.
This will all lead to a more enjoyable workplace, and a more engaged team with boosted energy. Also, the 2 way communication will allow for better decision making, both by your team, and you.
To get to this level, focus on people rather than just tasks, and treat others as you’d like to be treated. Give praise and encouragement when appropriate, but balance this with candour as needed.
Careful not to get stuck at this level, however, as you can sometimes seem like a weak leader, or be prone to being taken advantage of.
In order to graduate from this level, you need to recognise that there’s more to leadership than just influence, you have to take people somewhere. You must grow together, and sometimes it’s worth risking a relationship to achieve a vision as a team.
Level 3 – Production
People follow because of what you have done for the organisation.
This level is about delivering results, and really separates true leaders from those who simply hold a position. When you achieve exceptional results, it gives people a reason to follow you, and so your leadership intensifies. Once you reach this level, you really become a change agent and can tackle more difficult or thorny issues.
At this point, you start to get momentum, as your past successes fuel yet more success. You set the standard for your followers, and people will want to be a part of your team.
To get to this level, figure out where your strengths lie and focus on them. Always communicate a clear vision to keep your team aligned towards a common goal. Make sure this vision is focussed on areas with the highest return, and don’t lose sight of the fact that results are your goal.
Some traps to be aware of include thinking you’re a better leader than you are, due to your momentum bringing you success… it’s still important to remember the lessons from level 2, as you don’t want to lose sight of your people.
In order to graduate from this level, you need to value, challenge and develop your followers. Realise that growing leaders is the quickest way to achieve a vision, as it will multiply your output.
Level 4 – People Development
People follow because of what you have done for them.
At this level, the focus shifts from delivering results, to developing people. The idea at this level is to reproduce yourself, but each person’s individual strengths will help raise the whole organisation to a higher level.
Results will start to take care of themselves as your new leaders help to improve everyone else around them. This also frees you up to work on bigger things, and it’s immensely rewarding to see others develop.
To get to this level, start by only recruiting the best, and then place them into the right positions. Once you have your team on the bus and in the right seats, model leadership behaviour yourself as well as coaching others to live and perform well. Lastly, empower others to allow them to succeed.
You must be willing to focus on the long term, as leaders will not develop overnight. Also be aware that you will need to let go of control, and also the ego boost of being the only leader driving success in the organisation.
In order to graduate from this level, you need to fully believe that your biggest goal as a leader is to create more leaders, and start to develop a leadership culture, where everyone can teach, practice, coach, and reward leadership at all levels.
Level 5 – Pinnacle
People follow because of who you are and what you represent.
The aim for a leader at this stage is to have their followers develop into level 4 leaders themselves. This is very hard, but results in a level 5 organisation.
This gives your leadership reach, and creates a legacy within your organisation that may outlive you.
Don’t get complacent though… you will need to be careful not to stop learning, and always be reinforcing everything from the previous levels.
Remain humble and open to learning. Create an inner circle to keep you grounded. Create room for others at the top, and focus on what only you can do.
Lastly, plan your succession, to ensure your legacy.
This is a lifelong, challenging journey that can be immensely rewarding.
Bots are pieces of software that can speak and be spoken to, either in text form, e.g. web chat, or in voice form, e.g. Siri.
A bot could enable you to text a number to order pizza and have it delivered without ever talking to a real human.
A bot could also allow you to ask a question in natural language, and will provide you the answer. It can often do this by digesting a company’s knowledge base, and either linking you to the correct place, or else give you the answer directly.
Another use for a bot is to kick off an automated task. If you’ve ever asked Siri to set an alarm or reminder, read you a message, or even turn on the lights in your smart home, then you know what I mean
Bots During Coronavirus Season
Businesses at the moment are struggling with both a supply and demand problem. The downturn in the economy has reduced demand in many sectors, while also simultaneously making it hard for many people to work due to social distancing concerns.
There are also record numbers of queries on forums such as job boards, requests for information on welfare, and concerned people trying to get the latest information on what changes are being made.
This is a perfect opportunity for Bots to shine:
They are infinitely scalable (i.e. can talk to thousands of people at once)
They work 24-7
They never get sick
The best customer experience generally happens when a bot fields initial queries, and then passes over to a human agent only if it gets stuck. This combats the possible downside of a customer potentially asking questions the bot can’t answer, while still deflecting the majority of tickets with an instant answer that requires no human effort.
Examples of ways Bots have helped during this crisis so far:
Centrelink – the welfare government services have been hammered by applications for the dole as well as requests for information. Bots have been able to deal with a huge proportion of the cut and dry cases.
Remote work support – the sudden shift from people working in offices to at home has caused a big change to people’s requirements for their home internet. Bots have helped telecommunications suppliers to make sure their customers’ requests can be answered or actioned in real time, at any time of day or night.
COVID-19 information – more powerful general purpose bots such as Siri, Cortana, or the Google Assistant can get key information from certain websites to be able to instantly ask common questions such as “How many Coronavirus cases are there in Australia?”
Microsoft Azure and Google DialogFlow are both excellent frameworks for building custom bots, and both provide voice recognition, natural language processing, and workflow tools.
I found a small book at an airport recently called “The Decision Book: Fifty models for strategic thinking”. It’s a nice easy read and a good thought provoker, and one of the models in particular really spoke to me.
The Drexler/Sibbet model covers how to turn a group into a team. It specifies 7 distinct stages that a team will generally go though, and the unique issues that can arise at each stage.
With so many companies now using some flavour of Microsoft Office 365, the question of whether to make use of SharePoint Online to build a company intranet as part of your digital workspace is coming up for more and more people.
So why might your business need an intranet? Here are the top 12 reasons:
Improves internal communication
A good modern intranet, such as SharePoint and/or Teams, allows discussions to occur via chat features, instead of the usual behemoth reply all email chains.
Teams can have open discussions
Individuals can share knowledge
Leadership can stay in touch
Departments can provide updates
Connects your company across locations and time zones
It can be hard for a geographically distributed team to stay up to date and cohesive, and an intranet can help this by becoming the place where conversations take place, company news is shared, and events are planned.
Helps employees find information
A well indexed Search is one of the most useful tools in an intranet, as if this is done well, it can be a huge productivity booster, and stops the old problem of people pulling their hair out while trying to find which folder they saved the proposal document in.
The intranet should also be the 1 stop shop for anyone looking for any other tool they might need to do their job. Even something as simple as an easily accessible repository for quick links can increase discover-ability and expose them for use.
Document version control and collaboration
Once you do find the document you’re looking for. Another very useful tool is document collaboration and version control. Stop your employees sending hundreds of competing “FINAL v3.5 – last one” email attachments, and instead train them to only exchange links to the one single source of truth in your document repository.
You then have full version control to be able to see who made what changes, and roll back to previous versions as needed.
Many companies need to be able to keep certain documents for a period of time (e.g. 7 years for legal documents), and many intranets can automate this for you, and even automatically archive or delete older docs as needed to avoid over-bloating.
Boosts recognition and reward
Employee motivation is a key topic for any business owner, and timely recognition (either public or private) is one of the easiest tools to employ to help with this.
This is also a great way to reinforce and improve your company culture.
Simplifies employee on-boarding
A good intranet makes on-boarding simpler than ever. New hires can use it to find their feet with easy-to-access documents, up-to-date organisation charts, rich bios on their peers, and a vibrant news hub that provides information and insights into the culture of the company.
Provides organisational clarity
Especially in larger organisations, it can sometimes be hard for any employee to easily grasp the full structure, and roles and responsibilities of all their co-workers
Intranets with clear and dynamic organisation charts provide clarity on the shape and set-up of your company. Individual bios or profiles add rich layers to this clarity and help employees understand the roles and responsibilities of individuals throughout your business, as well as contact details if appropriate.
Reinforces your brand and values
Intranets provide many avenues for putting your company values front and centre, such as:
Publicly recognising employees for living out company values
Sharing web articles relevant to your values
Asking employees to share examples of the values they see in daily work life
Reduces emails and meetings
Intranets with a good, integrated chat feature make discussions easy. You’ll be able to ditch the dreaded reply-all email and have productive conversations away from messy inboxes.
With improved internal communication, it’s easier to keep everyone informed and garner feedback. Which means you won’t need as many large group meetings that suck up time from multiple calendars.
Simplified processes and workflows
An intranet is an obvious place for approval workflows to live, whether for content creation, leave forms, purchase requests, or anything else. If you need a predictable, easily find-able, repeatable, audit-able workflow, the intranet is the perfect place for it.
Brings your workplace culture to life
A company is not a company without its people, and modern intranets are about those people. Bringing them together, bringing out the best in them, and enriching your company culture in the process.
Through the actions mentioned above—peer-to-peer recognition, leadership articles, brand messaging, and more—a good intranet becomes a hive of activity that takes on the characteristics of the company itself.
It’s a hotbed of company culture, and this should help to keep your employees engaged.
An intranet can be a powerful tool. It can turn your employee engagement around, clarify internal communication, and streamline processes. But, you have to make sure you build it right, and drive adoption.
The number 1 tool that employers think they have to motivate their team is dollar compensation. A higher pay should equate to higher motivation to perform well at work, but actually this is only true up until a person’s basic needs are met, and to ensure they feel they are being paid fairly.
Dan Pink wrote a book called Drive in 2009 that argues that, past this point, motivation is most affected by these 3 factors:
Self determination is such a strong motivator that it has, in the past, caused civil wars. If you have engaged staff who are on board with your vision and are pulling in the same direction, they will think of things that you couldn’t and can surpass your expectations. If you micro-manage, the best you can ever expect is for them to do what you asked them to… this model of engagement over compliance is discussed further in my blog on Orders vs Enrolment.
People like to think that they are good at their job, and proficient in their careers. If each day at work deepens that self-confidence and belief, then every day is self-motivating. As a team leader or employer, it is therefore important to try to give people work that they feel aligns with how they want their career to progress. Of course every job has some dull or repetitive parts, so just make sure to keep the balance reasonable.
Purpose is the hardest of the 3 to be able to give employees, since most companies are for-profit and the main purpose is to make money and grow, but in some industries this is easy. If you work in any care industry, a charity, a not-for-profit, education, health, or the arts, then purpose is in-built, and all you have to do is keep it front and centre in peoples’ minds while they work. Make sure they can see the impact they make on the world on a regular basis.
In a less intrinsically purpose filled industry, it might be alignment with the company’s mission statement that gives the employees purpose. For instance, at SSW, a custom software company, employees either get lucky and work on a project for one of the above industries, or else they can find purpose in aligning with the mission statement “To identify and use best practices (in technology, DevOps, and Scrum) to navigate the dangers of software development and produce the best possible software solutions.”
If you can structure your team’s work so they are self-directed, improving skills needed to get the job done, and cognisant of the good that their work puts out into the world, they will move heaven and earth to perform well.
Internal employees have context. They have worked inside an organisation for potentially many years and surely know the business better than anyone… so why hire consultants? There are a number of factors that can allow an external consultant to be a bigger agent for change than internal employees, and I’ll go into them here:
Consultants have industry knowledge
Whereas long term employees may think that the way things are done in their company makes sense, they don’t have the wide ranging experience to be able to see the best practices used elsewhere.
Consultants can zoom out
Any internal employee will see their company through the lens of whatever their particular role is within the organisation. Accounts people will have ideas that could help with cash flow, technical people will have technical ideas, etc… but very few of them will be able to look at the big picture and put all of these ideas in context for the maximum possible return on investment.
Consultants can point out the sacred elephant
In any company, you will have things that seem strange to new people, but that everyone else tells them is there for a reason, and so is soon taken for granted as part of the status quo. This might be an antiquated policy or procedure, and may have been the right thing to do when it was 1st conceived of, but may no longer make sense. A new employee will feel pressured to “fit in” and will likely put up with this, but a consultant knows he or she will soon be gone, and only has a limited time-box to make effective change, so is much more likely to challenge this “Sacred Elephant” in the room.
Consultants are new and shiny and their opinions matter
A consultant is only brought in when there is a problem to be solved. They are expensive, and only there for a limited time, and so they are given a lot of power, and anything they recommend is carefully considered, and never discarded lightly. This helps to dispel some of the organisational inertia that often paralyses internal staff from being able to make any meaningful change to an organisation.
Consultants are sometimes brought in to give more weight to an argument that already exists
Change is expensive and energy intensive, and so sometimes a business might already be getting very good advice from internal staff to make a necessary change, but they often are not able to overcome the natural inclination of management to resist changes to the status quo. This is not a dig at managers… if they said yes to every idea their staff had, they’d spend all of their time in churn and pulling the business in countless, often incompatible, directions. However, if a consultant comes in and backs up an idea already proposed, so long as they are able to provide confidence that it makes sense and aligns with the company’s bigger goals, they are often able to push those ideas through.
The larger a Scrum team is, the more opportunity for wastage there is, and so the more difference a good Scrum Master makes.
A team with a bad Scrum master can feel powerless, floundering, isolated, and overwhelmed whereas a team with a good Scrum Master generally feels well informed, connected, directed, powerful, and like they are working at peak effectiveness.
Set a regular cadence for the team.
The daily scrum is always at a predictable time so no time is wasted trying to organise it every day. The larger the team, the more important this is.
This of course also applies to the Review, Retrospective, and Planning meetings too.
Set a strict agenda
Tangent topics will come up regularly during meetings, and although sometimes these can be important discussions, they often take up a lot of time. Make sure that there’s never a time when 2 or 3 people are talking and everyone else is phasing out. If it’s on topic for a Scrum meeting, everyone should be involved, otherwise it should be taken offline (after the meeting with just the relevant people).
Make sure that someone takes a note of these topics as they can sometimes be forgotten otherwise.
Help your team
The people who know best how to make software are the people actually making it. If they raise an impediment, take it seriously and work towards a solution.
Help to motivate the team by showing appreciation for quality work. Doing this publicly often helps motivate other team members to strive towards the same level.
Encourage collaboration amongst team members. If one person is stuck, help them to realise that it’s always ok to ask for help.
Protect the team from excessive scope change. Adding a last minute Product Backlog Item (PBI) to a sprint should only be allowed if the team can drop an equivalently sized one.
Minimise WIP (work in progress) by encouraging the team to finish each PBI before picking up another whenever possible. This helps to minimise multitasking and ensure granular delivery of value to the stakeholders.
Help your Product Owner (PO)
A good Scrum Master should help the PO effectively communicate his requirements and priorities with the team. He should then reinforce those priorities and encourage the team to work in priority order whenever possible.
It’s a good idea to have high level conversations with the PO on occasion to work out what their more abstract goals are so you can help by making micro decisions for the team when appropriate. This way you can occasionally act as a Proxy-Product Owner when needed.
Teams don’t always just hum along. People have personal and professional differences, and sweeping them under the rug is not healthy long term, and could eventually cause a full breakdown. If there is a tiff, managing it correctly can actually reinforce respect and cause a team to function substantially better than it did with the pent up tension still unspoken.
I’m speaking here mostly from the point of view of someone managing 2 people who have had a conflict, but these could also be used to manage a conflict you are having directly with someone, although this is harder, and a facilitator can sometimes still help.
There are 3 main steps to successful conflict resolution:
1. Agree that there is a problem that needs to be solved
If one or more of the parties are not willing to address the issue, it will be substantially harder, if not impossible, to positively resolve it. It’s best to appeal to professional integrity (i.e. a professional would address this, so you should), zoom out to the big picture (i.e. to show the benefits that the project/organisation would have from a harmonious team), and alleviate fears that the process will be too scary or unpleasant. Many people fear conflict resolution because they don’t understand that it can be a very positive experience.
2. Hearing the other’s point of view
In order for each person to both get their say, and effectively hear and understand the other person, it is important that both of them go in to the process with an open mind, and allow the other person to speak without getting defensive (overly defending each point) or righteous (focusing on being seen to be right in the small things instead of having a good outcome).
Remember that any examples given will likely be not that big a deal on their own, and only in the context of the person’s frustration, will they have much weight, so don’t get fixated on any one example.
Each person must be willing to compromise to find a solution that works for both. If there is a power imbalance, such as a conflict between an employee and a manager, beware the solution being the manager just 100% getting their own way, as this will often foster longer term resentment. There’s a great tongue in cheek saying that is “the only good compromise is where neither party is happy”.
Both parties benefit from positive conflict resolution. Discussion may even reveal that what you thought was the cause of the problem is inaccurate, incorrect or misleading. By remaining calm, showing patience and demonstrating respect, you can help resolve problems in a constructive manner. This results in effective long-term relationships and increased productivity. Conflict that results in punishment for one party may result in continued tension, stress and disruption. Focus on positive outcomes and you’ll get better results.