From Good to Great: Radical Transparency

I started the series From Good to Great by advising you to find your own way of being Agile. The next blog focuses on radical transparency. Let’s be truthful for a moment, how many organizations you worked for have real transparency, and how many are hiding information behind the teams or department walls, encourage by processes and claimed necessity of being compliant. Lack of transparency is a strong weapon which eventually can kill any Agile transformation as it makes collaboration and self-organization almost impossible. Lack of transparency is a great friend of hierarchical structures supported by fear and politics. “If I’m the only one who has the information, no one can jeopardize my position, and I’m safe being manager… All I need to do to be promoted is wait and make sure that no big mistake happens.”  Sound familiar?

Once you really mean it with your Agile journey, radical transparency is the key enabler. Together with the empowerment raising from the self-organization, it brings the energy and people start to take over the responsibility and ownership. They don’t wait until someone promote them to any function, they don’t wait for any orders. They take it over and collaborate on the solution.

Radical transparency is the key enabler of agility

Understand the Purpose

To understand the organizational vision and have a clear evolutionary purpose is crucial to successful collaboration and self-organization. In order to take over any initiative, people have to understand where are we heading, who are we, and who we don’t want to be. There is a very simple test. All you need to do is to take a random employee and ask him/her what is the vision/purpose/uniqueness of this organization. For simplicity, you can start with the executive leadership team to see if they didn’t lose the track of why they are there. 🙂 The good news is they usually know exactly what is the vision and can explain it in a very clear and engaging way. But when you do a cross-check across the organization, very likely there is a disconnect (usually several or even too many) which results in a very disruptive chaotic way of working. To fix it, storytelling is your best friend. Nothing can set up the stage better. Using serious of collaborative workshops like worldcafe, openspace, etc. involve people in co-creating the vision and help them to be part of it. Storytelling will set the directions. They need to own it, they need to believe it, they need to feel a need to be part of it. That’s the energy you need to begin. It brings innovative thinking, creativity, and empowerment, when people start offering help, ideas, and are ready to sacrifice personal goals in exchange for being part of something bigger.

Experiment, Inspect, Adapt

The next step is run experiments. At every level, you need to be transparent and openly share experiments at the early stage, and last but not least be ready to adapt through feedback. The downside is that before you learn how to collaborate and pass a test that you have the same understanding of the vision, it’s going to be very inefficient, and frustrating. “If we can just do it our way”, “they don’t understand it”, and “we know what to do so why shall we ask for feedback” people often say. But if you are strong enough and sustain the need for shortcut pre-baked solutions, very soon you see the results in higher collaboration, better understanding and some kind of harmony, which all over results in a high-performing environment.

Together with that, you need to run regular retrospectives and be transparent about the action steps. Share the backlog internally and externally. Simply there is no or very few information which needs to be hidden. If you believe you find any, try to double-check it by playing the “Five Why” and make sure you have a plan on what needs to be done so you can make it fully transparent.

Be Inclusive

The last necessary step on the radical transparency journey is to be inclusive. There is no such thing as a closed meeting. They shall be publicly visible with an open invitation so people can join if they are interested and have something to say. If there are many people, the facilitator can use some diverge and merge facilitation techniques, but no restriction shall be applied for the sake of efficiency.

It’s not about being fast without alignment, it’s about building alignment so you can be even faster.

Radical transparency is hard. You first need to have the courage to say things how they are, don’t be afraid to hear difficult feedback, have trust people will help you, and be ready to help others because after all, you all have the same vision, the same evolutionary purpose to achieve. It’s not easy but is a great investment and it will pay back in forming a highly adaptive (agile) high-performing organizations – the organizations which are formed to crack the challenges of the nowadays complex world.

Agile Board of Directors

Are you also wondering why you shall be Agile and your board of directors and the executive team is not? I wrote about Agile at the executive team last time, now it’s time to have a look at the board of directors.

There is no real reason why the board of directors should not act as an Agile team. Just the habit as most of the directors of the board are coming from the traditional companies and had never experienced it. The governance is important, but the usual committee structure presenting a report to the board each quarter doesn’t help them to react to challenges. I did this presentation at several different organizations, and I thought it might be useful to summarize the key points here as well.

Let’s start with an overview of what any Agile entity needs: Have Agile values of transparency, trust, respect, collaboration, and a shared understanding of a purpose so people are having the same goals. Simply be a great team, not just a group of individuals. But applying radical transparency, get feedback and collaborate is often very hard at this level. Not that it would not be useful, but it’s not going to be easy. Secondly, the board must be consistent with the organization. If Agile stops at the board level, it creates a gap within the organization and governance inconsistency and the whole organization will struggle. Finally, Agile boards are not just governance bodies, Agile boards of directors create a purpose-driven organizations, the sense of belonging which skyrockets organizations success. Having said so, it’s critical that Agile boards collaborate on the key strategic initiatives with the rest of the organization, which if you think about it is very far from filtering anything in and out of the board through the CEO. There are three principles of the Agile board of directors:

#1 Team over individuals and hierarchy

While traditional organizations are formed by stable departments and individuals, Agile organizations form communities build around the purpose. Internally there is usually a quite liquid structure to keep adaptivity and strategy focus in the nowadays complex world. It embraces the team as the key building unit and forms a collaborative network of teams. Similarly, the board of directors is a team which has one goal, even if internally there is a structure of the committees, each committee is a collaborative team as well where all the committee chairs and the board chair are acting more like facilitators then managers of the group. The board as a team is just a small part of the whole picture. We use the ‘team in the team’ concept in Scrum having a Development team being part of the Scrum team, being part of the product team once you scale, and such product teams being part of the entire organization which acts as a team or collaborative network if you wish, where all those pieces only stay together with a strong purpose which creates a common goal for everyone. The same way the board shall form a collaborative team with CEO, the BoD together with the CEO shall form a team structure with management and eventually the entire organization. Too much hierarchy kills the collaborative mindset and a team spirit. There is always going to be some hierarchy in the organization, but maybe the way of work may not be driven by the hierarchy – but the purpose, collaboration, having the radical transparency as a pre-requisite.

#2 Flexibility over fixed plans and budgets

The more are we responsive to changes through the collaboration, the higher need for adaptiveness is in the organization. Agile organizations are moving from year fixed budgets into the Beyond Budgeting principles. Valuing the purpose driven continuous planning over annual top-down fixed goals and plans.  You will see more voluntary based virtual teams over fixed departments or speaking about the board the committees. People are groping around the common cause instead of the fixed plan while the planning is a continuous inclusive process instead of a top-down annual event. Anyone shall be invited to join when they have something to add to the purpose of the event. Keep it transparent, inclusive, open. All that is an iterative process with regular feedback and an opportunity to inspect and adapt.

#3 Strategy over operational

The good board shall be focused 80% on strategy and significant business issues, 20% reporting. Nothing new, right? It’s the same old 80/20 rule which we often used in the Agile product ownership, organization in general or economy. The Agile boards are going through significant shift refocusing into strategic over operational. Don’t take me wrong, the governance is important. The same as the importance of the processes in the Agile Manifesto: “While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”. The same applies here. Reporting is part of the transparency. It shall almost not be even needed if the transparency is there as everyone can just see it. The board doesn’t have to meet to get a status. They shall meet to discuss, understand each other, have creative conversations, visionary sessions, give feedback. The boards shall meet frequently every 1-2 months (that’s their Sprint time), and focus on a communication and work between meetings. There is no need for reporting, all the documents shall be visible so you save a meeting for conversations about the direction. Similarly to the product environment, the shorter Sprints ends up with better understanding, feedback, and higher delivered value.

Finally, keep in mind that the less fixed is the structure and the plan, there is a higher need for a good facilitation, as without it you might end up in the chaos.

Agile HR

Agile HR or if you want Talent Management as it is called nowadays turn the whole company around. It’s employees centric, delivering value to the whole organization. At a glance, not much had changed. We still need to hire people, take care of people growth, do some evaluations. Just the way we work changed significantly. So let’s go one by one to see the shift.

Hiring

Hiring process focuses not that much on skills, because skills could be learned, and will change depending on the business value priorities, and the team needs, but a person who is a good match to the company culture and the team. In an Agile organization people who can learn fast, are the starts. They can go to any cross-functional team and deliver value. We look for someone who has not a fixed mindset, is ready to change. Having said so, people are often not hired by HR and managers but the teams and the HR are only consulting and coaching teams in that process. The world of the fixed positions is over. All the recruiting agencies need to adapt as well. When we’ve been hiring, we involve team members and give them a strong voice in the process. We stopped looking for C++, Java, or C# experts, we were looking for passionate people who have energy, passionate about anything they did. We want to hear stories about what they love to do. Even if it was just a tiny thing they did over the evenings. We were transparent on how the work is going to look like, stressing the downsides, so they have clear expectations. Transparency is the key, so one of the great ideas is to invite candidates to join a team for a day. It’s like going to the date, getting to know each other better, get a sense on both sides how is it going to be.

One example of a very different interview is to ask the candidate to use a creative set of Lego bricks and visualize how it’s going to be once they joined the organization and have a conversation about the model. It’s something you rarely see in the interviews but it shows a lot about the candidates.

Evaluations

Evaluations and performance reviews changed significantly in Agile space. It’s less about reviewing, performance, and evaluation, more about development and vision of the future and growth. As the Agile organization operates internally in very short cycles, where through radical transparency and instant feedback through retrospectives the organization gets to inspect and adapt and solve any issues right away, we don’t really need classical KPIs as they are not supporting the adaptivity and flexibility Agile organizations need and missing a team aspect as well. As a first step, you can start with setting team goals, instead of individual ones. It will help. However, eventually, you need to redesign the whole concept from the scratch. The key focus is on coaching conversations, transparency, and candid feedback from your peers.

One example of a radical change you can use is the team-oriented feedback. You give each person on a team or organization (yes, it scales) a certain amount of money to give away. Let say $100, and ask them to distribute it to the colleagues. The only rule is you can’t keep it. If you think about it, the message you got by receiving $0 it’s much stronger feedback then anything your manager can ever  say about your performance. Indeed, we need a lot of coaching to help people understand and handle what’s going on, but in general, that’s a good thing. If you scale this to the whole organization it’s even more fun, as the managers get such instant feedback as well as the employees.

Talent management

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article we are speaking more about talent development then HR. What motivates people? How do we grow talents? How do we support them on their journey? How can we help them to be successful? The answer is coaching, support them to create their own development goals, grow their interest, empower them, raise their awareness about themselves. Not surprising, but how many HR are taking such a support role and how many of the companies take it as process and governance role.

Example of such coaching conversation for the people growth could be using a few categories which are strategic for the organization right now to frame the conversation. Firstly, you need to make people aware of how the coaching scale works, that it’s very different from evaluation, it doesn’t have to grow quarter to quarter and that there is always a better way of doing things, and that this tool shall help them to identify their potential and find ways how they can grow to support the organization. As a next step, you let people rate themselves on a relative scale 1..10, where 1 = not good at this area, and 10  = I’m great at this. They need to be able to compare themselves with the other people around in the organization, explain how it would be, when you are 2 points above the level you are currently, what would be different once you get there, what would it mean to the organization, what is currently in their way, etc. All of those are good coaching questions. No magic. It just works like a magic 🙂