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

Give Yourself Permission

https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-eoltg

One of the nicest things about the holiday break is that you can take time off and not have emails and work pile up while you are out of the office. So many of my colleagues talk about how much they appreciate having this pause at the end of the year.

All of my kids and their significant others were able to come to our house for Christmas this year. My husband and I decided that our gift to our family was a shared experience. We did a quick road trip to New York City where we watched the Harry Potter plays, walked all over the city, and ate some amazing food. Then we settled in at home, playing board games, solving puzzles and enjoying being with each other. We had so much fun. 

For me, it was an exercise in being in the moment and really relaxing into the joy of having my family around me. I noticed that a few times during the break, I started to get upset as I worried about a specific concern about one of our kids. Each time that happened, I was able to catch myself and stop. I knew that my ability to stay out of worry and cherish the person in front of me was key to making the vacation positive for our entire family.

Our time together was everything that I hoped it would be. It was wonderful.

My return to work has been hard. Since starting back at work, falling asleep has been difficult, which is unusual for me. I have been lying in bed, ruminating about a number of things and feeling anxious that I am not able to sleep. This means that it is difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I find myself choosing to turn off my alarm instead of getting up to head to the gym. The combination of lack of sleep and exercise has left me feeling exhausted and unfocused.

As I was lying in bed this morning, after ignoring my alarm for the second time, I found myself mentally berating myself for my lack of discipline.

When I realized what I was doing, I was able to stop. 

I chose to enjoy that moment, instead of trying to figure out what was wrong with me for not wanting to get up. I reveled in my warm bed, knowing it was my work from home day and I could use my commute time to sleep in. This was my gift to myself. 

I felt so much better after that small shift in mindset. 

One of the most transformational lessons that I have learned in my leadership journey is the power of our own stories. The question I always ask is “What story am I telling myself?” When I take the time to do this and investigate, I find that most of my stories are not true. I fundamentally believe that everyone is doing the best that they can and my job as a leader is to create an environment where everyone thrives. This means that I need to stay out of judgement and blame in order to look for ways to improve the situation. Extending that philosophy to myself is what I have been working on for many years.

I know that my ability to stay out of worry and cherish myself and the person in front of me is key to making the positive transformation happen. Doing this requires stamina, energy, focus and consistency. Sometimes I get tired and need to give myself permission to rest.

How do you rest physically, socially and mentally? How do you find respite from your recurring worries?

Be kinder than necessary

Picture of sad girl with Plato quote, "Be kind to everyone you meet for everyone is fighting a hard fight."n
Original image by Axel here, www.flickr.com/photos/zaxl4/99863335

I caught a nasty cold that laid me out for the entire weekend and continues to linger as I head into the week. The cold has sapped my energy and left me too much time for rumination and limited ability to do the things that bring me joy, like exercising and connecting with friends and family.

In my leadership class last week, we talked about the optimal positivity ratio where most people, relationships and teams thrive. It turns out that in order to thrive, you need to experience between 3-6 positive emotions for every negative emotion. Being ill has reinforced to me how critical it is to have that same level of positivity personally and how easily it can be lost.

When I am feeling well, my days start with exercise at the Y with supportive workout buddies and meditation with my husband before I head to work. As I drive, I listen to an engrossing novel or uplifting business audio book, or just sing along to some of my favorite songs. Those habits before I get to work help me to arrive filled with positive energy.

This has not been possible in the past week and the absence of these positive rituals combined with my illness has left me tired and down. 

Whenever I get ill, I am reminded of my mother. Multiple sclerosis (MS) took my mother’s energy, mobility, and personality. The cost on the rest of our family was high, especially for my father and youngest brother and sister who cared for her for 15 years while she was bed-ridden. For many years, I was really angry with my mother for not fighting her disease. My compassion for my mother has grown over the years as I have faced my own challenges. But when I am knocked down by a simple cold, I am reminded that I have not really gone through anything close to what she experienced with her MS.

Most of what another person is dealing with is hidden and unknowable to us. So when we are dealing with others at work or home, the mantra, “Be kinder than necessary” is wise. It will help to increase the positivity ratio for both you and the person receiving your kindness. 

Today happens to be World Kindness Day. My challenge to you this week is to increase the positivity ratio in your life and workplace with small acts of kindness.

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?

Creating a safe learning community

“What does respect mean to you?” by retrokatz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I am teaching a leadership class at Temple for the first time. Since I agreed to teach the class, I have been vacillating between anxiety and excitement. It is definitely outside of my comfort zone and I have been worried about whether I am good enough. Since overcoming feelings of inadequacy and stretching has been at the heart of my leadership journey, I realize that I am not only the teacher, but this is an incredible opportunity for me to learn how to be a better leader.

The first class was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After a quick summary of the structure of the class, I asked the entire class how we could create a safe learning community. Using the 1-2-4-All Liberating Structures, we established as a group how we would act and support each other on our growth journey. The list that the class created together was more comprehensive and better than the list that I would have created. They wanted to be able to be open and vulnerable and know that others would listen without judgment, as we practiced living the leadership principles that we would be learning.

Then we spent the rest of the class getting to know each other by telling our core stories. We arranged our chairs in a circle and each of us shared three core stories from our life and what we had learned from those experiences. 

Several people in the group got emotional, including me. We were sharing deeply about our struggles and our ability to overcome those struggles. We talked about health challenges, close relationships, death of loved ones, physical injuries and having to give up our identities of who we thought we were when unexpected challenges arrived. 

It was one of the most powerful experiences that I have ever had. There was so much wisdom and leadership in that room that had already been developed. I was reminded again that leadership is not about telling others what to do, but about creating an environment where the best ideas can surface and be shared.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about how differently we felt about the people in the room and the implications for leadership and life. As I was leaving the room, I realized that I don’t necessarily know the core stories of the people that I work with on a daily basis, and I am not sure how to do that in a safe and non-invasive way. 

I would love to hear about how you have created safe learning communities.

 

Encouraging Words

“creative-writing-prompts-high-school Atlanta GA” by agilemktg1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the last several months, I have found it difficult to write my blog. There were a number of reasons for this. It started when I spent quite a bit of time on a blog that I decided was not appropriate to publish. This led to me to being discouraged and putting pressure on myself to come up with ‘better’ ideas that were worth publishing. So writing the blog became an obligation rather than a joyful expression of my learning journey. 

The inspiration to restart the blog came from a completely unexpected place. When I was riding with the Temple Police in their annual biking fundraiser, the head of the department, Charlie Leone, told me that he really enjoyed reading my blogs and noticed that I wasn’t publishing them very often. My explanation to him and my excuse to myself was that I had gotten out of the habit. That was part of it, but I was also worried that my ideas were not worth publishing.

That small interaction was enough to push me out of my head and into action. I knew that I wanted to start writing again because it helps me clarify and organize my thoughts. So, I needed to figure out how to reestablish the habit, but do it in a way that increased my joy and decreased the pressure on myself at the same time.

So I have started to experiment with what will do that for me. 

First, I decided that I would designate the time in the morning between when I get into my office and our daily standup as my writing time. This could mean that I have as little as 10 minutes or up to 45 minutes depending on what happens with my commute.

Second, I decided to allow myself to write about whatever was on my mind each morning. This meant that this writing is not devoted to publishing a blog, but to learning. Last week, one morning I wrote about my impressions from my recent trip to China. Another morning, I wrote about a high stress interaction with a colleague that will never be published, but helped me understand my reaction and formulate a strategy moving forward. To reinforce this idea, I created a private folder that holds my musings and is a safe holding place for all of my writing. If I decide a piece might work as a blog, I will move it to the blogs folder for further editing and sharing.

Third, I published a blog about books that I love that felt very safe and easy to write. As I passed Charlie a few days after it was published, he let me know that he saw and appreciated my blog. That small bit of encouragement meant so much to me and makes me emotional as I write about it. This reinforces to me how much positive interactions matter.

These small steps have made me look forward to writing again. 

Is there something in your life that you used to love and now dread? Is so, take some time this week to examine some small steps you can take to make it joyful again for you. 

 

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?

Education as a gateway

Photo by Regina CC2.0 license. https://ccsearch.creativecommons.org/photos/b174d3cd-0949-4e43-8e96-2fa9535d8dbd

Recently, I was able to watch a live interview with Tara Westover, the author of Educated: A Memoir. Educated is a mesmerizing autobiography of Tara’s journey from childhood in Idaho, where she never had any formal schooling, to obtaining her PhD from Cambridge. The first time Tara went to school was when she started college at Brigham Young University. She got in by self-studying for the ACT and lying on her application saying that she had been given a rigorous home schooling education.

At one point Tara said, “Education can be viewed as either a gate or a gateway.” She said that she would not have ever been able to study at Cambridge or Harvard without the gateway experience she had at BYU. She also pointed to specific people who saw her as an individual and took time and had patience to take interest and provide guidance to her through her journey. That mirrors my experience. It takes both an opportunity and others taking a personalized interest for education to be a gateway.

Like Tara, I went to Brigham Young University for my undergraduate degree and found it to be an incredible gateway. I grew up in a large family and my dad was a steel worker. However, unlike Tara, my parents were very pro-education and actively encouraged me to excel in school, read and develop my talents. With a full academic scholarship and working part-time at the university, I was able to earn my degree without going into debt or getting financial support from my parents, who did not have the resources to help.

It was also a gateway to very different ideas that opened my worldview in so many ways. My freshman year, I took a colloquium that spanned science, literature, history, psychology, and philosophy. It was my first glimpse at how much there was to learn and it exhilarated and humbled me at the same time.

As my graduation neared and I was desperately searching for a job, I applied and got an offer to be an administrative assistant at the university. But I had also interviewed for a job that I really wanted with Novell in their quality department. As I was mulling over what I should do before one of my final classes, the professor stopped to talk with me and I mentioned my dilemma. He admonished me to not take the job as an administrative assistant and to take a risk and actively pursue the job at Novell. That advice, given in a hallway before class, changed the trajectory of my life.

As I have taken the time to reflect on these experiences, I have been reminded that as we strive to educate others, how important it is to see others as individuals and take time to connect. One of the reasons that I love working at a university is being part of these types of interactions with students and colleagues. At the core, education is about encouraging growth and that takes focused attention, patience and care.

At the Temple graduation last week, Provost JoAnne Epps asked each person in attendance to take a moment to think of someone who made a difference for them and then challenged each of the graduates to go and be that person for someone else. This week, I will extend her challenge to you. If we can each do that, we can create gateways for others and change the world for the better, one interaction at a time.

Constructively Dealing with Doubt

Photo by Oleg Magni

The CIO conference, that I attended last week, was filled with memorable speakers and people. One of the themes that weaved its way through the conference was how to deal with doubt, both from others and from yourself.

My first day at the conference was not pleasant. To be fair, it had more to do with me than the event or the other attendees. I felt out of place, an introvert at an extroverted event. I was not alone. It was a technology conference with many other introverts. After striking up a very interesting conversation with another CIO in the lounge about the challenges and rewards of running a global business, he thanked me for starting the conversation, admitting that he was an introvert and not comfortable starting a conversation. That made me smile, considering how I had been feeling most of the day.

The next morning, I woke up and through meditation and yoga was able to reground myself in my purpose. I was attending to become a better leader and to help develop other positive leaders as well. That purpose and focus transformed the rest of the conference.

My renewed outlook was rewarded when Fletcher Previn, the IBM CIO, spoke at lunch. As he described the scale of what he was responsible for and how he revamped the organization of 12,000 IT professionals after being named the global CIO, I was impressed and inspired. He also looked incredibly young and the first question from the audience was how old he was, reflecting what most of us were wondering. He handled it with incredible ease, flipping the question and asking the man how old he thought Fletcher was. When the man replied under 30, he just said he was older than that and then joked, “I am surprised as you are that I am the CIO of IBM!” I was intrigued that his immediate reaction was that the person who asked the question doubted his capability and competence. My reaction, which grew as I heard him speak about his approach to the organization and people, was awe mixed with a bit of jealousy.

The final day was an exclusive day for Women CIOs and I was glad that I decided to stay. I met some incredible women and the highlight of the conference was listening to Nicole Malachowski talk about her journey as an Air Force pilot. She was the first woman Thunderbird pilot. She described several times when her self-doubt almost stopped her as she experienced both doubt and encouragement from her peers. She also talked about how it would make her feel bad when people put the qualifier of “woman” in front of her job title when introducing her. That changed when she joined the Thunderbirds and understood that being a woman in that role opened up possibilities for the girls and boys who lined up to get her autograph. Before one of her airshows, she was talking with four girls when an angry young man approached her and told her that she shouldn’t be talking to the girls and that he hoped she crashed. Remarkably, she was able to recognize that she was there for the girls, so was able to control her anger and focus on the girls. If you get a chance to hear Nicole speak, take the opportunity because she is a great story teller.

These experiences reaffirmed that doubt is universal and each of us often deals with doubts imposed by others or ourself. How we decide to act when that happens is a choice. So my challenge this week is to notice when you hear doubt from yourself or others so that you can consciously choose how you will act when it happens.

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.”