This is a transcript of episode 304 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

Today on Troubleshooting Agile, we answer a listener’s question on how to get disparate teams co-operating on a shared objective - and how to get them sharing bad news!

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Listener Question

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So I believe we have a listener question this week, which we love and they’re always the most fun. So Jeffrey, do you want to share what our listener wrote us about?

Jeffrey: Absolutely. And this is a question from Richard. And he’s asking about agility across departments. So his question is ‘what advice do you have for an organization that has set an objective that requires coordination across multiple teams? In my case, there’s a shared organizational objective, and it requires effort across about a dozen teams and three departments. None of the teams are 100% allocated to the shared objective, and ways of work vary substantially.’ So I love this question because this is something that I’ve definitely encountered before and have strong opinions about. What’s your thoughts on it, Squirrel?

Squirrel: Well, I certainly do as well, which is why I was glad to see it from Richard. Now I happen to know a little bit about Richard’s situation beyond his question. He’s in my community and I’ve talked to Richard, and I know a little bit about what’s going on there, so I can just add a little color. The situation is that there’s a mechanism for these different teams to get together and discuss what’s happening, and that would have been the first thing I would have said is you got to get some coordination among these folks. If they’re all operating in a vacuum, they never see each other. They’re on different continents, speak different languages, never see each other. Then you’ve got a problem. Richard doesn’t have that problem.

Squirrel: So if listeners do, one of the first things they can certainly do is create what Richard has already done, which is some mechanism, some regular interaction where there’s accountability. And if, for example, I’m building one piece of the puzzle and, Jeffrey, you’re building another piece, I can come along and say, “hey, I’m stuck waiting for piece number number seven here.” And Jeffrey can say, “oh, I didn’t realize that I was working on piece number 12.”

Squirrel: So that kind of high bandwidth, regular accountability is very important. And by accountability, I always mean not someone holding someone to account. “Jeffrey, have you done your thing? Why haven’t you done it? Why don’t you get it done quicker?” But being accountable, Jeffrey says, “I’m working on number 12.” And I say, “wait a minute, I need number seven.” So that kind of being accountable to a group can be enormously helpful. But Richard has done this and he still has the problem. So-

Jeffrey: Yes.

Squirrel: -What do we think we might do, Jeffrey, when you have this kind of situation where you have regular accountability, but you’re still not getting the progress that you’d like?


Listen to this section at 02:53

Jeffrey: Well, I’d say for us, when we have this scenario and we say we’re not getting the progress, what it really means is there’s a prioritization issue. Because there’s one of two cases, if someone is, well, it really comes down to like, what’s the what’s the cause for lack of progress? And if it’s the most common case, there’s lack of progress on things because people aren’t working on it. And it’s amazing how long things take if no one’s working on it.

Jeffrey: And so that’s my experience and what we usually put in place it, actually, because what you laid out here in many ways very much reflects how we do things at Ion Analytics. We have separate engineering, what we call capabilities, and for us then every project that we do is actually going to be cross team. There’s very, very few projects that could be delivered by a single team in isolation from everyone else. If we generate a new product, it’s going to require new people, new things from the data engineering team, new things from the data science team, new things from the front end team, probably new things from a back end data entry team. So you’re going to have several teams collaborating to try to get anything out in our organization.

Squirrel: And that’s just within technology. You’ve got the-

Jeffrey: Yes!

Squirrel: -Marketing people have to tell people it exists. The sales people have to sell it. The customer service people have to answer questions about it. You’ve got a very broad collection of teams. That’s what a modern organization is. It’s lots of groups working together to create common results. But what happens when it breaks down? What do you do to to solve that at Ion?

Jeffrey: Well, for us, the the number one thing I said is prioritization. So we have typically weekly meetings where people get together for that accountability, saying, you know, “here’s our prediction for what we predicted was going to be done in the past week. And here’s what actually happened and here’s why.” And it’s important to say here that these teams do have different ways of working, that they have autonomy over their work.

Jeffrey: And for us, accountability and autonomy go hand in hand. You know, sort of your you’re enabled to work the way you want because you’re accountable for your decisions and what you do. And that’s the time when, when things will come up that maybe something was harder than expected, maybe people need some help or something else came up that happens. You know, there might be higher priority, things come in or there could be a customer incident or something like that. Good reasons to be doing something different. Or sometimes people just got confused and they had a different understanding of the priorities, because there’s multiple projects going on at once for a given team. And so that might be some misalignment.

Jeffrey: And that weekly is where we kind of get people into alignment and also then say, “well, and now what are we going to do next for this coming week? Given where we are today, what are we going to do next?” And that’s true- And that meeting that we have weekly, we have essentially there’s two of them. One that is cross-departmental, that is the one that has the client organization in it, and it has editorial in it, and it has, you know, everyone else, basically everyone involved. And then there’ll be a similar one within engineering to to handle any of the engineering issues. And that makes sure that, for example, if we’re going to go live with a new capability that we have, you know, do we have the marketing campaign to go on? Because it doesn’t do any good to build it and have no one know it exists.

Squirrel: What do you do, Jeffrey, in those sessions, when you have a conflict of priorities where somebody says, “yeah, well, the thing I was supposed to do for for Jeffrey. Yeah, you know, I didn’t do it because there was a crisis over here, or the CEO told me to do something else.” How do you resolve those sorts of conflicts?

The Executive Team Makes Clarity

Listen to this section at 06:28

Jeffrey: That’s a great question. And what will happen is in that meeting, we actually have a fairly senior people in. So it’s a normal thing that we’d have an executive sponsor within the meeting, someone who is able to say definitively what the relative priorities are. So if something’s come up and it does happen, something comes up that, “oh, I was asked by the CEO to do this. And, you know, so there was a change of priority.” We can be like, “yep, that’s right,” or “no, actually while that came from the CEO, it’s actually less important than this other thing.”

Jeffrey: So we try to have that decision maker in the meeting. Now there are times where the executives, they’re busy, they can’t always be there. But if need be, then we can escalate things outside the meeting. But one thing we’re very clear on is it’s important to be able to have to get to clarity on the relative priorities. We don’t want to have dispute about it because the we know who the decision makers are. So rather than leaving it as a question, we go and get that answer, okay. What is the priority between this and that? We don’t leave it open ended.

Squirrel: There we go. And now there’s something that might be scaring some of our listeners because they might have executives or they might themselves be executives who would behave in a way that’s different from what you just described, Jeffrey. And I think there’s an implicit assumption about how the executive functions in that meeting. I predict that that person does not at Ion, and if you’re involved with it, I know this wouldn’t happen, show up and be like, um, my favorite example is James Jamison. Who’s the cigar chewing executive who runs the newspaper that Spider-Man takes pictures for, and he’s always cursing at Spider-Man and yelling at Peter Parker because he doesn’t know that they’re the same person. And he’s always saying, “oh, get it done, you know, go get a picture. I want it right now. Do it faster.”

Squirrel: Because if the executive shows up to do that, you’re going to create very low trust and you’re going to create very low productivity and you’re not going to get very far. So the thing you want that executive to do, and this may require a trust conversation and some adjustment, maybe picking the right executive, is for that person to turn up and say, “I’m very glad you did, X. What we now need you to do is do y. Here’s the reason why, and I’m going to help you.” Rather than shouting at everyone telling them to work harder, being unproductive.

Jeffrey: I think the most important thing, I think that’s normally what happens, that there are times when people are frustrated, they are human. But what’s important, there’s not the case of trying to demand the impossible. I think this is really what’s key in our scenario. It’s not just “well work harder and do all of it.” It’s, you know, the question of like, “okay, fine, I am going to get together and help you focus. What is possible here given you know, what are our options and what are the trade offs? And let’s have that conversation.” But there can be a frustration if there’s an evidence that people weren’t working according to the priorities. You know, “I thought we were clear last week that this was the priority. I’m really surprised that things would have changed and no one would have said anything.”

Squirrel: And that’s productive conflict. That’s like we talk about-

Jeffrey: Exactly.

Squirrel: -you know, we just did a whole series on this. That’s productive conflict. And we do want that. It’s the unproductive, “you’re a lazy bum!” You know, “why don’t you work harder? You’re useless.” I can imagine some of our listeners imagining a boss in the meeting stomping all over everyone like that. We want the opposite of that. And we do want the productive conflict. Like you were just illustrating.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And I want to be clear that that that that it’s not that that to do this role, you need to be some perfectly zen inhuman, unemotional person.

Squirrel: Spock, need not apply. Yes. Good point.

Jeffrey: That’s right. But it is the case that what’s productive is to reinforce the principals, reinforce the priorities and being willing to get in and say, “okay, look, let’s get this clear so we can move on and get this done.”

Squirrel: I’ll phone the CEO and explain why we’re doing his project second.

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. That kind of thing. So willing to jump in and be part of it is absolutely essential. And I think it really comes down to we focus here. We said about this is about prioritization. And that’s what they’re willing to do is to say, “you know, of course I want all five of these things and I would like all of them yesterday. However, I accept that there’s limitations. And so, you know, let me hear what the trade offs are. Let me hear what the options and trade offs are. And I will make a clear decision.” And that’s really the value of that leadership there. I will make a clear decision on what the trade offs are. And you know what, which one we’re choosing so that everyone leaves on the same page. And that is the essential piece, is clarity on priorities.

Give Me the Bad News

Listen to this section at 11:16

Squirrel: There we go. Now there’s another essential piece here, which having that kind of supportive, productive and productive conflict producing executive can help with, and that is making sure people have the psychological safety to share bad news. And what commonly happens in these kinds of accountability discussions when you first have them is everyone shows up and says, “it’s all fine, yeah, no problem. Everything’s right on track,” because they worry they’re going to get fired if they don’t say that.

Squirrel: And of course, there’s some horror happening under the covers and there’s missing documents or missing information or some crisis of some variety happening, which they’re not sharing. And I don’t know if this is happening to Richard or not, but if listeners get into this situation, having not only the more senior decision maker clearly identified participating in the meeting, but also having trust and psychological safety, led by that person, but also led by others who might be in the session making sure that it’s okay to share bad news and that in fact, that’s celebrated. That’s also a very important part of having this kind of accountability across departments.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And definitely that’s something that has been happening very explicitly. And I remember our CTO making it very clear, and the context was in discussing OKRs. The conversation went something like this, it was very strange that we got most of the way through the quarter and all of the, you know, the RAG, the red, amber, green status, the RAG status of all the OKRs was green up until almost the end of the quarter. And suddenly we had a bunch that were red.

Jeffrey: And he says, you know, “this seems like people were afraid to give us bad news early.” And he said, you know, “the problem is when you do that, you’re making it difficult for us to build trust outside of the department. You know, we need to be communicating early about problems to people so that we can make adjustments. And when you prevent us from knowing what’s actually happening, you prevent us from, you know, making trade offs and decisions early.”

Jeffrey: And so this was something he said very explicitly a while ago by our CTO in, in a group setting when people were discussing all the different projects. And so it became very clear that you kind of have an obligation to share bad news early, because that’s the way that we collectively collaborate to then make conscious trade offs, rather than kind of being at the mercy of what tends to of whatever happens. Does that make sense?

Squirrel: It certainly does. And I’ll add just one thing to it, which is that it can be helpful to explicitly solicit opposing views and bad news. So what you want is not only to say, “I’d like bad news,” but then actually to ask for it and to respond positively to it. “So I’m really glad to hear, Jeffrey, that you’re three weeks late. I want to do something about that. I’m not happy that that we are three weeks late, but I sure am glad we know that now and not three weeks from now. So,”

Jeffrey: Yes.

Squirrel: “Now let’s figure out what we do,” and making sure that that’s the response from senior people and colleagues and everyone in the meeting is very important. And that’s a cultural issue and that’s an issue of building trust. So having things like the trust conversation with people in the session, making sure you reinforce repeatedly that bad news is good and asking for it can be very helpful in making sure that you get that bad news at a time when you can act on it, and not two weeks before the end of the quarter.

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly.

Squirrel: All right. Well, that was a wonderful listener question from Richard. Thank you so much for sharing. We would love to hear from more listeners. Of course, the other way to interact with us is to show up again next Wednesday, when we’ll have another edition of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.