Practice Pays Off in COVID Crisis

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/covid-19-work-from-home-quarantine-4938932/

As Temple University has transitioned to being fully online, the IT team has responded to the challenge with innovation, collaboration and grace. As the leader of the team, I have been awed and very proud. And it is not just the IT team that has risen to the occasion. The entire Temple community has come together.

Within days, our IT team significantly expanded our remote secure access services to our systems and specialized software. We gathered and distributed laptops to students, faculty, and staff who didn’t have their own equipment to move to the online world as we closed the physical campus. We partnered with colleagues across campus and our vendors to rapidly provide training to the campus. We shifted to a virtual help desk over a weekend without any interruption in service to the campus. We have done all of this while improving our satisfaction rate as measured by a post-service survey to over 97%.

Why were we able to make this transition in such a smooth way?

The answer is clear from the feedback that I have been given from the team and across campus. We had already moved our primary learning platforms to modern cloud solutions that made the transition much easier. And we have been practicing for this kind of emergency for years as we have formed a creative and collaborative culture in ITS. 

Specifically, we already had flexible work guidelines that encouraged everyone to work with their managers, teams and customers to identify how they could provide seamless service when they worked remotely. 

Our help desk had moved to a software call center last November to enhance our support and give that team the ability to participate more fully in the flexible work guidelines. This meant that our help desk had practiced and tested working completely virtual before they had to to comply with the shelter in place order.

Our teams had practiced being innovative and thinking out of the box in our weekly Wonderful Wednesday/Whenever time. Many of the ideas that we implemented in response to the pandemic crises came from the research and exploration individuals had already been doing.

Because our team had practiced, we were prepared and have been able to respond to requests quickly and creatively. Instead of scrambling to figure out how they would be able to do their job from home, the ITS team members were able to focus on helping the rest of campus move to the new paradigm.

As you reflect on the unprecedented changes that the pandemic has caused, what had you practiced that helped you and your teams make the transition? What can you start practicing now?

 

 

Supporting team members who have ideas for improvement

“Dreaming and Doing” by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the foundational practices in DevOps and Agile is to support team members who have ideas for improvement. This is difficult to do because we have a lot of work to get done and trying out new ideas creates more work. When the idea crosses organizational lines and normal job duties, it is even more difficult to take action. We have implemented Wonderful Wednesdays as a way to give time to explore ideas and practice creating self-organizing teams. A recent example reaffirmed to me why this practice is so important, especially when you are trying to transform the way that your team works.

Like most organizations, we have a help desk with software that we use to track all of the requests for support. This software is managed by the help desk team. One of our new help desk team members, Dominic (Dom) Malfara, was looking for ways to be more efficient in updating the software. He wanted to be able to upgrade the software in the middle of the day and be able to quickly recover if any part of the system went down. He reached out to our infrastructure engineering team, who were investigating how to use Kubernetes containers to automate and modernize our server environment.

That team embraced Dom, recognizing that if they could containerize our Remedy environment, which consisted of many servers with a vendor that didn’t support containers, it would be an ideal environment to learn for the entire team. The team leader invited Dom to the team’s daily stand-ups, Trello board, and Teams channel. Throughout the project the entire team was inclusive and accommodating. Despite org chart lines, Dom felt like he was part of their team and it was exciting working towards a goal with them. The infrastructure team reprioritized their work and helped Dom identify all of the layers of systems and management tools needed to fully automate and containerize the Remedy servers. 

This took several months and required full support from the leaders on the help desk and the infrastructure engineering team. Doing this required more time and more people than a traditional upgrade of the Remedy servers. It required making the time to experiment. 

Dom was successful in containerizing the Remedy environment. It did not go perfectly.  We had a bit of user interruption throughout the day as we made the transition. Through the problems, the help desk leadership team didn’t yell or blame anyone, but instead asked what they could do to help. Various team members posted screenshots or descriptions of things that were broken, allowing Dom space to focus on calmly fixing things so they would not happen again.

The results have been everything that we hoped for and worth the investment of time. We halved the needed hardware. Upgrades are now done by building parallel environments which mean we can fully test the new production environment and roll over and back between the old and new environments in seconds. All the hard work now occurs up front, and not during a maintenance window where people are prone to rush/make mistakes. Because the work is now automated and reproducible, bringing up a new test environment takes minutes instead of days. We can monitor the system load and scale instantly when needed. 

A couple of weeks after the transition was done, Dom did a presentation during Wonderful Wednesday teaching others across ITS. I went to the presentation and was in awe of the amount of learning and technical knowledge that was required to make the transition. It was one of the highlights of my year.

Thanks to Dom raising his hand and the infrastructure team fully supporting him, we have a roadmap on how to make the rest of our infrastructure more efficient, modern, and scalable. As a leader, it reinforced to me how important it is to support those individuals and teams who raise their hand and give them the time and resources to learn and make your organization better.

Here are my questions for you this week.

  • How do you support individuals who raise their hands with an idea? 
  • How do you treat others who come to you with an idea that requires you to change what you are doing? 
  • Is there a project you are working on currently that someone could collaborate with you for mutual benefits if they only had some way of knowing about it?

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Epilogue: As part of the process of writing these blogs, I always ask for feedback from the people who are mentioned in the blog. I wanted to include this email from Dominic to me about his view of the experience.

Hello Cindy,

Thanks for sharing, I just wanted to share some quick notes on the overall experience because it was really special to me. Our self-formed team was definitely influenced by all of the changes made to the culture and how ITS members are reacting to that: 

  • Wonderful Wednesday allowed me the freedom and time to invest in pursuing something innovative instead of doing things how we always have, WW got me quick buy-in from Jim and Paul because instead of battling with scheduling time to prove value in something and how it prioritized with our other work, I was able to use that reserved WW time to learn skills and proof of concept this project. I was excited to work on new technologies and make life better for us and that energy didn’t go to waste having to meet and debate and formalize things. Natural experimentation took its course and we got to follow an informal guideline of what we wanted to accomplish and how we were going to do it
  • Slack/Teams promotes open communication across the organization so it is now commonplace to talk to others in ITS, I get to interact with members of IT that I might not even meet otherwise. Help or knowledge with something is a message away, and with group chats I get visibility into what people are working on, instead of knowledge being hidden in email chains that I wasn’t CCed on or meetings I wasn’t a part of (the all-staff meetings, summits, and What’s New newsletter all influence this as well). I heard that Infrastructure Engineering was already exploring Kubernetes and we got to learn that together.
  • Leaders like Jorj, who doesn’t have a reporting relationship with me, but acted as a strong mentor and helped break down any barriers I faced along the way anyway. People like him that are genuinely interested in the technology and making Temple a better place are really inspiring and I hope I can pay that forward and influence those around me

Thanks again to Jorj for all his help and mentorship, and to you for the culture you are creating in Temple ITS! This project wouldn’t have been possible without it. I have learned a lot of valuable career skills and the failures/mishaps along the way that gave me real world lessons and I honestly had fun doing it! 😄

Thanks again, 

Dominic Malfara

Reframing Frustrations to Facilitate Difficult Conversations 

Last week at our planning retreat, I wanted to make sure that the leadership team was able to talk openly and constructively about some chronic problems across the teams. I found an exercise from Mark Gorkin that helped do this in an amazingly effective way.

Before we started the exercise, I wanted to shift the way that people thought about frustration. In The Enemy of Engagement, Mark Royal and Tom Agnew assert, “The more loyal and engaged employees are, the deeper their frustration will run in the face of obstacles.” So instead of labeling frustration as bad, we labeled it as a sign of the most engaged and loyal team members. That made it okay to express the frustrations because it meant that you cared deeply and wanted to make things better.

With that framing, each person took a few minutes to identify sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and creative team coordination. At each table, we spent ten minutes sharing our frustrations. Then came the creative and team building part of the exercise. We asked each table to draw their frustrations. They could make as many posters as they wanted in ten minutes.

Everyone jumped in with both feet. The teams were working together intently around their posters and there was a lot of positive energy as the teams brainstormed about how to communicate their frustrations in a visual way.

After everyone was done, we created a gallery and everyone looked at all of the posters. Then each group got a chance to explain their drawings. After the explanations, we took some time together to dive into the problem and talk about possible ways to make it better. 

It was intense and uncomfortable.

And very productive and necessary. 

We had conversations about frustrations that spanned years. Information and background was provided that gave the individuals and teams perspective and insight they didn’t have before coming into the room. 

After talking with several different participants immediately after the exercise ended, I discovered that several people thought that getting into the specifics in a group setting felt like blame and was inappropriate. After discovering this, I immediately facilitated a discussion with the entire group about how we could have these difficult conversations with details without blame. Many people indicated that without specifics, the problem was theoretical and not clear. Through the exercise and discussion, we established norms about how we would talk about difficulties that allowed us to get to the specifics.

We still have room for improvement, but this exercise was a good way to prompt and practice having difficult conversations.

What have you done in your teams to hold difficult conversations that are healing and helpful?

Best books about creating transformational organizational change

“Inspire Change” by Brian Solis by The Brian Solis is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I love to read and am always looking for an engaging book. One of the ways that I deal with my daily commute is to listen to audiobooks, which has augmented and somewhat replaced reading physical books, which is my first preference, or ebooks, which I do for convenience, especially when traveling. My friends and colleagues know about my insatiable appetite for good books and so regularly send me recommendations. 

At work, I have been on a quest to create a high performing culture and have used books to help make that transition. Recently, Primed to Perform was recommended to me and it is my new favorite organizational change book. I have been recommending it to anyone who will listen and even gave it as a birthday gift last week. 

The premise of the book is that you need to promote both tactical and adaptive performance to excel. Most organizations focus almost exclusively on tactical performance. What I love about this book is that it combines a whole bunch of research about personal and organizational change management, and puts it into an easy-to-understand and measurable model. 

The model is called Total Motivation (ToMO) which assigns weights to the reasons why people do their work. Higher ToMo scores are directly correlated with the success of an organization. It is an elegant theory that incorporates many of the positive business principles and gives a way to measure how your organization is doing in creating a culture that is high-performing and fun. There is a great talk by the authors at Microsoft Research that you can view here.

We will be using this book this year as we continue our change in the Temple Information Technology Services team. We have already taken the group ToMo test as a baseline so that we can measure whether we are making progress in creating a more higher performing group.

Here is a list of some other books that have been very impactful as I have studied how to make deep change in organizations and myself.

I would love to hear your recommendations to add to my reading list. What books have been impactful to you on your leadership and organizational change journey?

Yikes! When Rewards Undermine Your Intended Outcome

Over the last several months, I have been working with a passionate group of team members to design a recognition program to reward  staff who exemplified the Wiser Way principles of curiosity, collaboration, positivity, execution and integrity. We wanted the program to enhance the positive and other-focused culture that we have been actively working on.

The team was incredibly creative. We named the program “Feather in your Cap” and designed feather bookmarks and pins that people would get when they received recognition from a number of peers for each principle. We had visions of electronic badges and gamification that would encourage people to participate in the program.

Our first hint that something was wrong was when we reached out to a small group of team members to help us collect feedback on the idea. We showed them the program and asked them to lead the discussion at their tables at the all staff meeting where we rolled out the program. The feedback was clear. The staff was  concerned about how the rewards would be distributed and whether people would feel demotivated by not being recognized. The biggest concern was fairness. People thought it was going to be a popularity contest. Some suggested committees to make sure the nominations were evaluated consistently. Many people said they just wanted monetary rewards.

The design team was discouraged. We made a few tweaks and thought hard about how we could address staff concerns and make the program be more positive. The leader of the group found a video about rewards that go bad. As we met to discuss the feedback, I had a moment of insight. We were rewarding the wrong behavior and instead of promoting, we were undermining the culture we had been so intentionally creating. The rewards were promoting self-focus and competition instead of the Wiser Way principles of curiosity, collaboration, positivity, execution and integrity.

So we did a pivot.

We shifted to entire focus to appreciating others.

We named the new program “Cheers for Peers” and removed all physical rewards. In the new program:

  • Everybody has the opportunity to give appreciation to everyone
  • Each person controls how engaged he/she want to be
  • Focus is on giving, not getting and on others, not self
  • There is opportunity to foster a positive environment

We created a channel on our portal to allow anyone to submit a cheer anytime they want for anything big or small. There is a public gratitude board that shows all of the cheers. There is also a tab that privately shows each individual how many times they have recognized others, the badge they have earned for cheering others, who they have recognized the most and who has recognized them the most. The most important rewards are the feelings you get from recognizing others and being recognized.

After we had developed the new program, we brought the same small group together to see their reaction. The response was incredibly positive with none of the concerns from the previous iteration of the program.  

The day after we showed the small group, we opened up the channel quietly on our portal and immediately they started sending cheers across the organization. We will be rolling out the program across the organization this week and it feels so much better than the original program we designed.

I have learned how easy it is to get the incentives and rewards wrong. And how important it is to test ideas before putting them into practice.

Have you ever had a similar experience when the incentives you implemented undermine the intended outcome? How did you know and how did you adjust?

The Cost of Complaining

It seems so normal to sit around the office complaining about others. While it might feel great to blow off steam and get others to sympathize, few of us consider the incredible cost to ourselves, our colleagues and our organizations of indulging in this behavior. This week, I have been acutely aware of the impact of complaining as I indulged in complaining myself and witnessed the impact of other’s complaints on my team.

The cost in terms of time is enormous. While many of us may justify a rant about another department or colleague as troubleshooting or clearing the air, the truth is that most of the time we repeat our complaint to whoever will listen and far past the time when the offense occurred.

In addition to sapping time, complaining also saps energy and potential.

The more we complain, the less hopeful we feel about being able to change a situation. How often do we just shrug and say, that is just the way that Sam or Sally or that department is and there is nothing we can do to change the situation. As a leader, the repercussions of complaining are amplified based on the position you hold. But, independent of position of authority, chronic complaining can destroy teams and make work miserable for you and everyone around you.

The effect on the recipients of the complaining is even more deflating. When they inevitably hear about the complaints or feel the animosity from others, they lose energy, focus, and motivation. The tragedy is that many people don’t feel that their efforts are wanted or appreciated at work and so they invest their energy and passion where it will be appreciated. When we focus on the things we don’t like about someone, our animosity and frustration grow. We discount their strengths and talent and are not able to see their potential.

The following advice about complaining from Robert Biswas-Diener in “The Three Types of Complaining” is invaluable.

  • Avoid dampening your mood by complaining only rarely
  • Complain only in instances where you believe it will effect real and positive change
  • Consider whether affirmation or some other strategy will work instead of complaining
  • Limit your exposure to complaining by limiting your exposure to complainers

Energy is the most important asset that we have as individuals and organizations. How does complaining impact your energy? What strategies have you found that reduce complaining in yourself and your teams? A great article to read for ideas is “The Next Time You Want to Complain at Work, Do This Instead.”

Creating Momentum for Organizational Transformation

The IT world has been shifting drastically. Everyone knows about cloud computing, but most people do not understand that the way software needs to be developed to be truly cloud-based, is substantially different than how software has been built for decades. Quick development cycles and continuous updates to software are now required. To make this shift, some organizations are transferring the LEAN operational principles that propelled Toyota to produce high quality and reliable cars to software delivery. In software development, the LEAN principles are referred to as Agile Development or DevOps.

LEAN principles can be effectively applied to almost any process to make it better. The main idea is that for work to happen in the fastest possible way, it needs to flow through the system continuously without stopping and not come back into the flow of work because of poor quality.  To integrate these principles requires a transformation in how an organization acquires and builds software and the infrastructure to support it.

The challenge is how to create enough energy and momentum within your organization for this transformation.

To introduce Agile and DevOps practices within ITS at Temple, we have done several things to increase the awareness, understanding, and support for this transformation.

We looked for experts. My leadership team went to visit Pivotal, a company that trains organizations on how to make this shift. After that visit, we sent several team members from different parts of the organization to the SpringOne conference, where Fortune 25 companies who have adopted the Pivotal methodology and tools converged. The team came back energized and awed by what they saw and excited about what we could do. The conference also helped them understand that this shift is not about technology, but about people.

We spread the word. After these evangelists started talking to their teams about what a difference DevOps could make at Temple, we sent 27 attendees to a local one-day DevOps conference. The participants came back with a better understanding of the principles of DevOps. They were also encouraged that other organizations were struggling with how to apply these changes as well, understanding that we weren’t as far behind as we feared.

We started experimenting with the principles. My leadership team made a Kanban board of our work across the organization to try to get an understanding of our work in progress. The visual display of our work traffic jam was powerful. Although I have been studying these principles for years, this exercise drove home to me that I had not done my job of focusing our teams on the most impactful work for our organization.

We invited everyone to participate. We announced a retreat to develop the strategic vision for how ITS could adopt Agile/DevOps principles. Everyone was invited. The only requirement to attend was to read “The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win.” Several people commented that although it was fiction, it accurately described how we feel overwhelmed as we juggle the unending stream of requests and the unplanned work that happens when things break.

Over eighty people came to the retreat and it was an energizing and productive day. We created a shared vision for Agile and DevOps at Temple, learned about the principles together and brainstormed ideas about how to move the culture and operational change along. This is the shared vision for Temple ITS that the attendees created at our retreat.

Culture
We are educators, who support an inclusive environment that is respectful, people-focused, and fun!

We encourage learning and recognize people’s positive intent. With trust, we grow from our mistakes by continually supporting a quality improvement mindset (LEAN principles).

Innovation
We strive to be innovative in technology, cost efficiency and creativity. We advance our mission by creating opportunities to explore improvements and expand our personal development. We lead by supporting a rapid development environment.

Optimization
We optimize our time by identifying and automating repeatable processes to efficiently utilize our technical resources. We seek to minimize redundancies, rework, and defects to strengthen our resolve to follow LEAN principles. We use agile processes and choice architecture to present different alternatives in process and user experience to our customers.

Collaboration and Communication
We operate everyday with clear communication, collaboration and information sharing. We build and foster all of our relationships by inviting internal/external stakeholders to be a member of our team and encouraging feedback with authenticity in our discussions.

We have already instituted changes with daily leadership stand-ups, created Wonderful Wednesdays to encourage innovation and experimentation and started to visually track our work. As we head into a new year, we have so much energy about the possibilities, and the really wonderful thing is that the transformation is being championed by the group and not just me.

I can’t wait to see what the new year brings!

Playing together builds teams


Annual Temple Tech Olympics – Photograph by Michele Schinzel

We just held our second annual Olympics for Temple Tech. It is a time for our team to step away from normal work and play with each other in a relaxed setting. The day is organized by volunteers and is funded by my office. What a great investment in building our team. It was such a fun day!

This year we had better weather and more people came out to spend time playing games, eating, and socializing. Last year was our first time holding the event and many people did not attend because they said they did not have time. The fact that more people came was an indicator to me that it was more acceptable to attend this kind of event and step away from our normal work.

I spent the entire day at the event signally how important I believe playing together is in building relationships and teams. It was wonderful! I personally participated in the cornhole tournament and played volleyball, scrabble, and bananagrams. I was able to catch up with team members from across the organization and heard about family vacations and adventures outside of work.

The relaxed setting allowed several people to personally thank me for the impact that my style has had on the group, which I appreciated.

My favorite encounter was with Jay Holt, who shared his incredible experience skydiving, which he credited to the Wiser Way training that we did as a group last year. He talked about wanting to make stepping outside of his comfort zone a regular habit and that skydiving was his first big step toward doing that.

Our jobs in IT are stressful much of the time because we help people who are experiencing technical problems, have an inexhaustible demand for our services, and run the systems for the entire university that need to be available all of the time. We work in teams solving problems and getting projects done all of the time, so we are used to working together and enjoy solving problems and building solutions that serve our students, faculty and staff.

Playing together is such a delightful break from the normal interactions that will strengthen our ability to work together under stressful situations. It builds connections and stronger relationships, gives everyone a needed break, and promotes having fun at work. As we wrapped up the day, the planning group was already talking about what they will do next year to make it better and my leadership team was talking about how to encourage more team members to take a break and join us.

 

Waking Up to the Power of Intention and Contribution

It has been over a year since I became the CIO at Temple University and it has been an incredible year of self-growth as well as positive change in the organization. The Wiser Way program that we created has a been a big part of the culture change to empower and develop leaders at all levels.

Subash Reddy Karra just finished the Wiser Way program and described the personal effect that the program has had on him in this way, “Before I was always focused on what kept me up at night. Now I am focused on what gets me up in the morning.” He also described how the first exercise of crafting a mission statement initially felt like a joke. That mission statement is now guiding his daily habits and improving  his life as he lives more intentionally.

I have had several meaningful interactions with Subash recently as he reached out to me to express gratitude for the effect that I have had on him personally. One of the new habits he has established as a result of the program was sending a personal gratitude letter at the end of each month. I was the lucky recipient of his letter this month. On Thanksgiving morning, he sent a beautiful letter that lifted me up so much. Here is an excerpt:

“Thank you for putting in place changes that are always empowering employees like me (professionally/personally) and stretching me to dream bigger things to accomplish that I could never have thought of in the past.

The work you do not only impacts CS employees but also Temple University and we can only hope that the impact you make creates a chain reaction in others to do the same. Thank you so much for letting me be part of that experience with you. If you ever need an example of people coming around to the power of intention and contribution, please count me as one more example.”

We continued the conversation during the final Wiser Way session. Subash talked about several changes that he made in his personal life as a result of the program. He returned to regular yoga practice and instituted planning rituals to establish personal and professional goals. He indicated how the flexible work policies that we established allowed him to make these foundational changes in his life. He described himself as moving from a zombie state to waking up.

As I listened to Subash relate his gratitude and the extent of his personal change, I was astonished. Subash has always been a valuable and productive leader on our team. The culture we are creating is unleashing more of his incredible potential and he is feeling so much more joy and energy.

Subash’s journey is inspiring to me and gives me the courage to continue my work of developing positive leaders and organizations. That is what gets me out of bed every morning!

I would love to hear your personal transformation stories. How have you applied the tools and concepts from the Wiser Way training?

 

Changing Culture through Democratizing Data

Photo by john mcsporran — Creative Commons 2.0

Earlier this year, I met the President and the CIO from Coppin State University at a national CIO conference. The few minutes that I talked with these two positive leaders was incredibly valuable, illuminating, and hopeful.

Maria Thompson became the president of Coppin State two years ago. She had the vision that Coppin State would be a learning organization and that their decisions would be data driven. Under her direction and in partnership with the CIO, every single employee now has access to the most current data on a campus dashboard that shows five years of student success data.

Her leadership team looks at the data in every meeting and makes decisions based on the latest information. The same dashboard that the leadership team looks at is available to every employee from professors to janitors. This allows distributed decision making that is based on the same set of of information.

Ahmed M. El-Haggan, the CIO, provides training across campus that is focused on what the data means so that people can use it to make good decisions. His team purposefully selected a very user-friendly tool so that the technology was not a barrier to using the data.

This democratization of data is helping individual students.

Professors can see whether their students are enrolled and reach out to individuals who may be at risk. This is happening dynamically because the information is easily available. Before the data was democratized, if a professor wanted to get this type of information, a formal request needed to be made with several security signoffs that took weeks.

This effort has helped shift the culture across the campus to one that promotes empowerment, shared leadership, and deep learning. The president said that her job is a lot more fun now that the data is democratized.

I loved this story because it is such a concrete example of the power of transparency, trust, and training in creating a positive culture. So this week, think about how you can democratize data to shift the conversation and culture in your organization.