As an Industrial Psychologist/Change Practitioner, I often question the impact that we can really make to people's lives within organisations. People may love or hate their jobs... either way, at the end of an 8-hour day, we go home and leave it all behind, right? At the end of the month, whether we worked to our fullest potential or not, we still get paid. What motivation is there to change? Do people really go home and set up personal Kanban boards or think about how to express vulnerability while improving adherence or watch TED talks? Given my affinity to the discipline of Positive Psychology and believing in the best of the human spirit, my answer would be yes! But it is always humbling and beautiful to see that answer unfold before you.
A forward-thinking client had the vision of implementing a self-managed team (SMT) methodology in their Service Centre, as part of a broader optimisation strategy, with the certainty that it would be able to address the many challenges facing them. The Service Centre was characterised by a command and control environment: hierarchy, micro-management, segregated teams, centralised communication and decision-making. Our goal was to transform this way of working into a client-centric one using an SMT model where teams are integrated and own all aspects of their work including decision-making and problem solving.
The methodology used for the implementation was based on the 5-stage model proposed by Zawacki and Norman (1994) as well as the 7 roles or areas of responsibility of Self-Managed teams (Silverman and Propst, 1996). Overlaid with these, we developed a Maturity Model (see picture below) with defined milestones for each stage and each area of impact (example: structure, leadership, consultant and team transitioning, technical skills development, culture, ceremonies, performance management, QA etc.) providing clarity and tangibility to the teams which we realised was missing a few months into the implementation, prompting us to change course.
However, beyond the 5 stages lies the heart of the model, the hidden treasure - empowerment. What we are really asking people to do is self-lead and we do that by empowering them with authority, resources, information and accountability as well as by inspiring them with possibility.
With this premise, we started off by asking the teams for their thoughts on why they needed to be told what to do in a workplace when in fact they 'successfully adult' in all other spheres of their lives. We raise children, we hold inter-personal relationships, honour commitments, we decide what to eat and wear each day. We navigate conflict whether it's with in-laws, children or friends; there are only so many times we would allow boundaries to be crossed. Surely, a workplace should be no different and merely an extension of our ability to 'successfully adult'?! It is a basic human need for us to be able to control our lives.
We faced many challenges on this journey, no different to any other change initiative, however there are some I wish to highlight.
A key success factor for this way of working are role models. People who lead by example in every way and so arguably, the biggest challenge has been transitioning the managers into coaches. I was saddened by some of the initial responses such as "this will never work, not with these people" and "there are too many rotten apples". I knew this was a challenge that required the work of Brene Brown (author and researcher) and Martin Seligman (father of Positive Psychology) to shift the overall perspective of the people in the team. The journey then started with an Appreciative Inquiry stance, cementing the notion that people have personal stories and have potential. The role of leaders is to search for and recognise the best in people, affirming their strengths and having the courage to develop their potential. Believing in someone can change their life.
With the managers, we needed to slowly shift and direct the locus of control internally as everything that was wrong in the environment could not only be because of the poor performing teams. In unpacking the managers' mindsets and beliefs about their employees, we started to look at the stories that were no longer serving us and which we needed to be let go of, for example, "they must be spoon fed" and "they don't take accountability or go the extra mile". Perhaps the scarier reflection was looking at the managers' own behaviour and what they were doing which contributed to the current environment. Risking our own vulnerability, we introduced concepts such as daring leadership (a philosophy that advocates leading from ones authentic and unarmoured self), vulnerability and psychological safety. There were silent stares but no one in the room argued the rationale. We then started to look at what becomes possible when we believe in possibility, when we don't have to carry the armour, when we can express vulnerability and humanity. Starting from the language we use, practicing SMT principles such as curiosity, gratitude and relating to people as people, we started to break the self-fulfilling cycle and saw shifts in behaviour and culture.
Agile on agile
Implementing a way of work that draws on agile practices and ceremonies in an extremely rigid environment (due to the nature of the work as well as a workforce management system that leaves one feeling choked) necessitated extreme creativity. In a service centre, any meeting or team event automatically excludes half the team for operations to continue. Time has been an absolute luxury and we went through phases where a stand-up was the maximum we could achieve and only with representatives from each team. We therefore had to find ways of embedding the principles by altering or using different ceremonies.
Seemingly moving backwards to move forwards
A few months into the project, the new leadership made clear there was no room for empowering our way to improved SLA's. Most initiatives were put on hold until the service centre stabilised through a process of reinforcing business requirements: availability of agents, adherence and SLA's. Many people, including myself thought we were moving backwards from empowerment to micro-management, but this approach proved to work by reinforcing the message that the basics of the work were not up for negotiation. However, the way this was emphasised was different. The broader goal and strategy of the department, the importance of customer service, and the impact of non-availability was all communicated in a manner aligned to SMT principles, reiterating the key message of self-leadership.
In addition to these we also had to find solutions to: how do we make time for fun; how do we practice behaviours we take for granted such, as holding someone accountable, giving someone feedback, or trusting another person? How do we find our brave?
While the journey has been challenging, the reward has been rich. The magic existed in everyday situations. Seeing an individual eventually facilitate a stand-up after they have confessed that speaking in front of others induces cold sweats. Seeing an individual share knowledge after confessing that, as a female, it's something she finds difficult to do. Hearing "I was wrong, this is working" or simply having the courage to say, "I need help", "thank you". Coaches have started to truly enjoy team activities and have seen that investing in people is powerful and have even owned some of their vulnerabilities. Executives have personally delivered the message that the perception of the service desk has turned 180 degrees and that they receive more notes of excellence from customers than escalations. We are far from reaching stage 5 on our maturity model, where continuous improvement is the norm, customer excellence is in our DNA, and the teams are making all their own decisions and working with little supervision. But, where we are at is where the heart of the change lies, empowering and inspiring individuals.
Personally, this journey validated a truth I hold resolute, that we bring about change through our relationships, through meaning and connection. While this project has been about self-managed teams, the core is truly about self-leadership, a topic so personal and one requiring us to look in the mirror, face our fears and show up anyway. As a change practitioner, we must hold a safe space to allow for this. We must show up unarmoured and hold ourselves accountable to living what we teach. This journey showed again, that we can make a personal difference to the lives of people in organisations.
"Choose courage over comfort,
Choose whole hearts over armour,
Choose the great adventure of being brave and afraid at the exact same time"
Brown, B, "Dare to Lead." Penguin House, 2018.
Fisher, K, "Leading Self-Directed Work Teams." McGraw-Hill, New York, 2000.
Positive Psychology Program, 2019, accessed 25 May 2019, https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/appreciative-inquiry/
Silverman, L. L and A. L Propst, "Ensuring Success: A Model for Self-Managed Teams", 1996.
Zawacki, R. A and C.A Norman in Silverman, L. L and A. L Propst, "Ensuring Success: A Model for Self-Managed Teams", 1996.