We Create The Politics Ourselves

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Back in June 2013 I was asked to facilitate a discussion exploring one of Red Gate’s company values – No Politics. This was the second in a series of open sessions that the company had initiated to preserve and highlight what they have valued for many years and to get to the bottom of what these values mean, their relevance and impact on individuals and teams around the business. The expanded wording for our “No Politics” value is:

No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.

Many of our staff – myself included – were starting to feel that we were no longer being true to this value.

After an hour’s discussion between about 40 of us including concrete examples of where many of us felt we’d seen or been involved in “politics” we established:

Politics are created when “your needs” conflict in some way with “my needs” and where both “you” and “I” fail to openly communicate.

Taking this further – all the examples of politics we’d seen boiled down to a combination of failures in communication of motive and intent and failure to share conflicting needs. Ironically, we’re usually all trying to achieve the same ultimate goal.

Our encouraged altruistic culture tended to exacerbate the situation further and cause us to wade in when we felt a decision had insufficiently involved those impacted – even when the person taking exception felt the decision was right. (You should have seen the angst when a rapid decision was taken “on high” to move to Github for all product development)

Our values and culture have encouraged this “challenge everything” behaviour for years!

Being on the receiving end of a change or decision we don’t fully understand, agree with or have had no involvement in makes us feel bad, we internalize and build that frustration up and start sharing it in passing conversations, at coffee and in corridors – because we’re entitled to share our opinions. But we’re all pretty gentle and fluffy here. We’re a software company, many of us are shy and conflict-averse. This means we share our worries in private and let them radiate out. (This also means any vocal or forceful minority have much stronger voices)

We create the politics ourselves

Since discussing and recognising this fact I started making a concerted effort to tackle issues head-on again and had a deeply humbling moment when a colleague pulled the “grown up” card on me for my own bad behaviour.

It’s amazing how the weight comes off when you realise that everyone is trying to do the right thing within their own context and needs and often have simply not recognised where this butts up against our own. (And that you have failed to empathize with them!)  Gently calling out those disconnects and addressing them has defused even some of the thorniest conflicts I’ve faced.

Oddly, I hadn’t recognised a link until a serendipitous moment yesterday but my friend Clarke talked me through some aspects of this same challenge a few years ago. He’s since written up his thoughts in detail here.

I also see this same expression and sharing of uncommunicated needs as a cornerstone of non-violent communication.

If you’re still reading, as some background here’s the wording of the full set of values as included in the “Book of Red Gate”  (an earlier 2010 Edition is also available) - we’re reviewing whether these are still the right set and the right words even now but they do capture a lot about working here.

  • You will be reasonable with us. We will be reasonable with you

We’re all trying to treat each other as we would like to be treated in the same circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances are difficult, but we will all still be reasonable.

  • Attempt to do the best work of your life

We’d like you to achieve your own greatness and to be all that you can be. We’ll try hard to allow that to happen and we’d like you to try hard too.

  • Motivation isn’t about carrots and sticks

Constant oversight and the threat of punishment are incompatible with great, fulfilling work. We believe in creating appropriate constraints and then giving people the freedom to excel.

  • Our best work is done in teams 

We work in groups and towards a common goal. The company is more important than the team, and the team is more important than the individual.

  • Don’t be an asshole

No matter how smart you are, or how good you are at narrowly defined tasks, there is no room for you here if you’re an asshole.

  • Get the right stuff done

We admire people who get stuff done.  While there’s a place for planning, thinking and process it is better to try – and try well – and fail than not to try at all.

  • Visible mistakes are a sign that we are a healthy organization

What we do is very difficult, the current situation is hard to understand and the future is uncertain. Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of attempting to get the right stuff done. Unless we can make mistakes visible both individually and collectively we will be doomed to mediocrity.

  • No politics

No gossiping, no intrigue, no pussy-footing around problems and no telling people what you think they want to hear whilst privately disagreeing. We will be transparent in our dealings.

  • Do the right things for our customers

We believe that if we do what is right for our customers then we will thrive.

  • Profits are only a way of keeping score, not the game itself

Focusing purely on the numbers is a sure way to kill Red Gate’s culture. We believe that if we focus on the game – building awesome products that people want to buy, and then persuading them to buy them – the success will follow.

  • We will succeed if we build wonderful, useful products

Shipping something amazing is better than creating something average and to budget and on time. We cannot market, sell, manage or account our way to success.

  • We base our decisions on the available evidence

Not on people’s opinions, the volume of their voices or who they are. When the evidence changes, we are prepared to change our minds. We will thank, and never shoot, the messenger.

  • We count contribution, not hours

What you achieve is more important than how long it takes.

A Year of Whiteboard Evolution

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Back in December last year I started supporting Red Gate’s .NET Developer Tools Division. As of this month, we’ve restructured the company and from next week, the old division will be no more (although the team are still in place in their new home).

When I joined the team things were going OK but they had the potential to be so much more so I paired up with Dom their project manager and we set to work.

The ANTS Performance Profiler 8.0 project was well under way already and the team had a basic Scrum-like process in place (without retrospectives), a simple whiteboard and a wall for sharing the “big picture”.

I spent the first week on the team simply getting to know everyone, how things worked and observing the board, the standups and the team activities.

We learned some time ago here at Red Gate that when you ask a team to talk you through their whiteboard, they tell the story of their overall process and how it works. Our whiteboards capture a huge amount about what we do and how we do it.

I attempted to document and capture at least some key parts of the journey we’ve have over the year in which we released over a dozen large product updates across our whole suite of tools. This post is picture heavy with quite limited narrative but I hope you’ll enjoy the process voyeurism :) If there’s any specifics you have questions about, please ask and I’ll expand.

Next time, I think I’ll get a fixed camera and take daily photos!

The end result? Multiple releases of all 5 of our .NET tools including a startup and quality overhaul for our 2 most popular products, support for a bunch of new database platforms, full VS2013 support (before VS2013 was publicly released), Windows 8 and 8.1 compatibility and a huge boost for the morale of the team.  See for yourself if you’re interested!

Of course this is just one aspect of what I’ve been up to. You might notice the time between photos over the summer grew a little. See my last post for more insights into what happens at Red Gate Towers.

Busy Times – Personal Development, Organizational Restructuring and Big Rocks

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I’ve been quiet on here for a few weeks as I’ve been head-down on some pretty major work at Red Gate and publishing what I and the team have been up to on their freshly launched dev.red-gate.com mini-site.

Here’s a roundup of the highlights:

“Slack” – Exploring how we approach “slack time”. Ensuring slack is available to the right people at the right time and trying to keep it guilt-free.

A Manifesto (of sorts) for personal development – what we expect from each other in developing ourselves and our careers. The outcome of 2 months of Genchi Genbutsu (go see at the source) – asking some really direction questions face to face (individually) with every single member of our development teams.

Top Tips for personal development – 12 Tips on personal development from Red Gate’s development team (plus another 12 linked from this one). These are the tips we use as part of our new personal development plans but are equally useful as prompts to simply “get out and do something”.

Skills Maps - An overview of the skills maps we’re developing at Red Gate for our development team roles (it turns out what we’re trying is pretty unique and developed a bit of a buzz.

Personal Development Plans – A distillation of the “Stop trying to fix your weaknesses” articles posted on here over the last couple of months. We’re still rolling these out but the trials from a dozen managers and staff so far have been resoundingly positive.

Fresh off the press yesterday; Organizational Restructuring – An Insider View – Putting Convergence & Divergence into practice. How Red Gate are performing a complete organizational restructuring to their teams without the usual cloak and dagger HR hell.

Finally, Johanna Hunt and I have paired up again on our “Cracking Big Rocks” cards and workshop. After much editing, re-editing and review we published the second edition of the card deck at the end of September and took them out for a first run at Agile Cambridge. The revised deck includes a few new patterns, rewording of many of the old ones, some basic instructions and some lovely artwork on a few of the cards from our good friend Paul Stapleton.

Enjoy the Friday reading.

 

 

 

Stop Trying to Fix Your Weaknesses (Part 3)

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It’s been a month since I last posted about the work I’ve been doing around career development.  Things are moving well and trials of the process described in the first 2 posts in this series have been really successful and way more popular than I expected. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it has been really excited and we’re now doing an expanded second round of trials with another 20 staff before adjusting and rolling out as a tool to all our development teams.

This is just a quick post to highlight a few tweaks and important points for anyone wanting to try this themselves…

Participant feedback

So far everyone that’s tried it has found it really useful. My 2 favorite quotes so far…

“I never would have thought of some of the areas to action without this process”

“I’m better able to prioritize actions because of the process”

This will almost certainly work best for people with quite a strong sense of self-awareness and self-improvement already (as does any development plan) and remember you can’t force this on someone.

There’s bound to be cases where this process doesn’t work but we’ve not found one yet. If you try this yourself, we’d love to hear how it’s worked for you and remember, after trying it out once or twice, it’s worth tailoring to your own needs further.

 Recommended Adjustments 

  • Clarity - In a change to the original recommendation (working blind), we’ve found it’s more useful to share a clear agenda and state where we are in the process and why at each step so people understand what they’re meant to be thinking about and know what’s left to do.
  • Skill Levels - In addition to the “out of 10” ratings, we’re going to try developees/managers discussing where they feel they stand in terms of SLII (Situational Leadership) development level (e.g. D1-D4). This requires a bit more thought in understanding the differences but keeps our teams  aligned with our broader efforts to use SLII when developing each other. We’ve not tried this bit yet (but will be doing so in the next couple of weeks) so it’ll be an experiment within an experiment – we’ll be seeking feedback and thoughts on how this best works.
  • Action Grid - Rather than defining all the actions in the action grid up-front; partially filling the set of actions at the beginning and then pulling more in after each step seems to work better for people. It’s important however that developees have filled something in each space to work from toward the end of the session before transferring things across to their plan grid. The idea with pushing for all these actions is to stretch our thinking a bit and gently encourage people out of their normal comfort zone.
  • Supporting the write-up -  It’s still really important that the developee writes this up for themselves but format can be a bit challenging. Whilst we have a couple of people using Mural.ly and one other gave this a shot with excel, we’ve found keeping the visual management aspect afterward is important.  Here’s a “blank” PowerPoint presentation with heading placeholders and post-it templates to help people along. 

Pitfalls / Caution

  • Skills Categories - The skills category columns (Job/Role, Soft Skills, Domain/Industry) can be a bit tricky. We’re developing a role-based skills map for each role in development that participants can use as a cue (I’m planning to post more about how this is developing over the next month).  Our suggestion here is to select a subset of these skills and traits to talk about in more depth rather than using them all.
  • Flow - As we’re looking at similar things from multiple angles to find patterns, there’s not always a logical progression through activities. This is deliberate but can sometimes feel a bit “bumpy”.
  • Time - This takes a lot of time and effort (a minimum of 2 hours depending on how “chatty” the participant is) you could consider breaking it up into 3 sub-meetings:
    • Current activities/direction
    • Skills session (including one small next step)
    • Actions brainstorm around common themes (using action grid)

(I’d still aim for running one straight-through session first time around as the energy from doing it all in one shot is fantastic)

  • Managing the session - Seriously avoid time-boxing each step. It’s better to reserve more time and let each part play out naturally.
  • Energy - This can be quite an exhausting session for both participants and we know one size won’t fit everyone so it’s worth setting expectations that this is hard work. I’d recommend running this when participants both have a lot of energy (e.g. start at ~10AM)
  • Follow-through - It’s really important that you follow up within the first 2 weeks to ensure the write-up is done and first actions are planned, (Momentum tails off really fast for development plans) and then remember to follow up regularly – e.g. on a monthly basis after that.
  • Longer-term - We expect people to want to return to this session in future but not to need to spend quite the same level of effort again unless they’re radically altering their role and direction. At the moment, my thinking is an in-depth refresh after about a year however you may feel like 6 months is more useful.

 

 

What Are My Needs as a Hiring Manager?

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Inspired by a twitter conversation with Bob Marshall, Marc Johnson and Nicole Rauch.

What really are my needs when I’m looking to hire someone onto my team or organization?

This article is a great start on interviewing and the goals of doing so. (whether or not you agree or disagree with the content)

In particular, understanding :

  • Can they do the job?
  • Will they be motivated?
  • Would they get along with the team?

I have to admit that’s a good summary of my needs – I’d add “Will they fit with the way we do things as a company?” as well.

What about the needs of the person applying?

Well there’s the whole safety, security Maslow’s hierarchy of needs type stuff for starters. There’s also Dan Pink’s work on Drive
“. Mastery, Autonomy,  Purpose. Jurgen Appelo is doing some amazing stuff around this at the moment too but…

At the end of the day, this is a 2 way relationship. If neither of us will find our needs fulfilled, it’s just not going to work.

Incidentally we’ve found from talking to all of our teams recently that trust, respect, peer recognition, support and self-fulfillment are pretty key.

Chapter 1 of “Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em” has some great research on what makes people want to stay in a company that’s worth a read.

Before we even get to this point there’s a bunch of work to do though.

At the moment I see hiring as a funnel type of workflow with iterative filtering:

  • Attract Candidates (Advertising, headhunting etc.)
  • Perform an initial filter (CV sifting) to develop a shortlist to invest in further
  • Filter again (Telephone Screen) to get beyond the introduction and get a “feel” for capability, personality and salary/role expectations (both ways)
  • Filter again (1st interview) to check capability
  • Filter a final time (2nd interview) to check motivation & team fit (both ways)
  • Make a decision – offer or reject
  • Nurture to start date
  • On-board with team & company
  • Review progress/probation – is the relationship working out (both ways)

Note, this is just one example – I generally see the hiring process continuing through to being a successful, happy team member with a happy team.

I’m writing this post quite hastily but if we look at that flow, there’s a value stream in terms of effort and cycle time per candidate and also a funnel at which points candidates “drop out”. There’s a lot of effort, a lot of waiting and a lot of waste. I truly think there could be something better but I’ve not tackled the problem yet (and perhaps that’s part of my problem!)

Here’s the first challenge I face…

As a hiring manager, my time is at a premium. I’m usually trying to do at least one other job at the same time as hiring (usually running  a project and team) and often working on other “hidden projects” such as improving the way parts of the organization work (including adjusting and learning from feedback on the hiring process itself and the types of candidates we’re getting through).

On top of that, it’s really hard to attract the “right” people – back to skills, motivation, team & company fit.

Our first port of call in most cases is a covering letter and CV. Sometimes we start with an introduction or conversation but eventually we usually go back to a CV.

We’ve hired most of the people we already know are good that want to work here (location and company-wise), that we can honestly afford and are available. (Being based within an hour’s easy commute of London means competition for good people is tough). So most remaining applications come from strangers.

If someone’s a stranger, how are they able to catch our attention (in a positive way) to make it clear to us they’re worth engaging with, spending our limited time getting to know and developing a positive relationship with? Particularly when there may be dozens (or in my last company, hundreds) of others competing for that same attention. This works both ways – how do I get your attention too?

For my current job, I developed an early relationship through reputation first but at the point we decided to formalize things, I was still happy to present my CV. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and earlier conversations could have missed things that were relevant and valuable. In my case this was particularly true. I worked on CRM and order management systems early in my career and the conversations I’d been having so far weren’t around this area but it turned out this experience was really valuable to them. We wouldn’t have made that connection without my CV.

If someone approached us without a CV as a total stranger we’d have no idea what to expect it’s a gamble as to whether we’re dealing with someone we really want to know or not and realistically the little time I have for hiring isn’t an area I choose to gamble blind. That initial “Yes/Maybe/No” that I can get from reading a CV is a lot quicker that talking to every single person that applies to figure out what they can offer that’s relevant or valuable.

Similarly, job specs are like CVs – would you apply for a job with no spec? How do you know what’s expected of you and whether you’re a good match?

So, my needs – assuming you’re a stranger…

  • (Without being a stalker) Seek me out, get in touch, say hi, invite me to stuff, find a way to get to know me and start building an interesting professional relationship.

OR

  • Make it easy for me to get you through that first sift of candidates with useful, relevant stuff.
  • Make it clear what your motivations and skills are, how you work and what sort of person you are.  I don’t hire assholes and I’m pretty wary of “Alphas“.
  • Link up what’s on your CV to what I’ve said I’m looking for but please do share the other cool stuff you’ve done – you might have useful experience I’ve not even considered.
  • If you’ve done cool things that are publicly visible and don’t need me to do a mountain of digging, point me at them. If the rest of the CV is interesting, I’ll go and look.
  • I won’t have time to read your twitter stream, blog, Stack Overflow activity, Github check-ins and Linkedin profile unless I’m already interested in you. (I don’t do Facebook) But if you’re interesting, I assure you I’ll look for you on all of these.
  • Don’t over-inflate or lie. It might get you through the CV screen but when I find out you can’t back it up later you’ll just piss me off.
  • Show me real evidence of what you’ve achieved and how. I can’t stand all theory and no results. But if you have a love of the theory, show me how you’ve applied it and made a difference by putting it into action!

I’m sure there’s more but this is plenty for now.

What are your needs when you look for a new job and how do I get your attention?