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Inspiring Agility .. intent.. purpose and the way ahead

Let’s always ensure to make people around us happy.

— Sumit.

As we live an era where the need of agility is every growing, I felt on the recommendation of people to have a blog where I can share my views, share the agility changes around me and what I feel about them. The intent and purpose of this website is only to share, and hope it help few. The knowledge I’ve gained over the time is from help of many teachers and I respect them a lot for what I’m today.

We all live in times when the meaning of Agility is not confined to just Development teams, but go beyond to Org, HR, Finance, Sales and where not. I felt the Agility is like Oxygen as I did my last workshop with some local kids.

All this said, let me say that in my life if I consider my greatest discovery has been that in the end it’s about Happiness. How we can be happy is important right from an individual to a team to an organization to a country to the world. The people and their interactions are very critical and no process in the world is above that. So, let’s always ensure to make people around us happy.

Coming together in the times of a Pandemic

Recently, while wading through the uncertain waters of the pandemic, I got an opportunity to go back to the Healthcare Domain where I had previously spent 6 years in GE. I had many reasons to plunge myself in, but most of all, I was excited to be part of the symplr family. And so, I did it.

The first few days were spent getting to know the wonderful people and getting familiar with the workings of the Provider Management I was going to be engaging with. Before I realized how time had passed, I was deep into the program execution and spending my days joining heads with the team.

After some more days, we had a chance to bring all the managers to office again, and while it felt strange in light of way these past few months have been, we were all very excited: the idea of being in the office—which used to trouble us alongside Bangalore’s traffic in the time before—now felt like bliss. There were some other changes too: it was only 7 people now in an office with a potential for 12, but we still had a great time being safe; and most importantly; together.

While planning for the visit, I thought about how delightful it would be to hold some sessions with the team, make our day more interesting, and drive meaningful conversations.

All of us in office meeting room

We started our day with Personal Maps (a management 3.0 practice), where I had people walk up to the board and making their own personal maps, which is something like drawing yourself and your journey on paper. It took everyone a while to figure out the best way to do this while maintaining social distancing, but it was great to see everyone expressing themselves and drawing things about themselves so heartily.

The Personal Map is a simple activity: you write your name in the middle, and then draw circles around it depicting details about your life and aspects of your personality. However, in effect it was much more than that, for people ended up expressing things they wouldn’t normally discuss at work—their love for Marvel, their attachment towards family—all of which ultimately helped us to bond and bring the team closer together.

But that is not all! The fun part came next, when I told people to go ahead and introduce another person using the map they had drawn. It’s always interesting to see how different people read each other’s maps: often, they emphasize things they believe to be most important about the person they’re describing, and in this process some people realize that they forgot to write those things. It happened here too, but I told them it was alright. For after finishing all introductions, we went back to our own maps and traced our connections to things that we had previously forgotten or later recognized. This part was even more fun: you see all these adults drawing big lines from the left side to the right and enjoy themselves, and it’s amazing to see how we all connect with each other—how very human we are; how much we have in common; how we are so diverse and yet so alike. In the end, we all looked at the big picture, and realized that there were more ways in which we connect than what we had known.

How it looked when we started
How it was worked upon
How it ended

The maps not only made us smile, they also unleashed our creativity in ways we rarely get to do any more. I have done this activity many times in so many different ways, but it never ceases to make me feel good.

With our smiles still plastered to our faces, we jumped into the next thing: A Value Mapping activity using Lego. As a Lego Serious 1.0 facilitator, I introduced the team to Lego and its usage in this session. We started with a fun foundation built of a tower, where we built the tallest tower possible. Some people were new to the concept of Lego; while others had fun as SMEs helping others—after all, a tall tower is always, always exciting!

After this warm-up, the team started the main activity. It made me immensely happy to see how clearly and confidently everyone had memorized the company values, and how quickly they could recall them—this is one of the things that exhibits how well the company ensures and prioritizes value-training their employees: whereas I usually see people having trouble remembering at least a couple of values, in this session people got everything right. We often talk about using our values in everyday life, and it made me feel great to see how his activity reinforced and reminded us of that.

As part of Lego formation build, I asked everyone to come up with a build which also exhibit how one or more values can be employed by their teams during real-life programs. This is where the teammates’ passion came out, and some were so engrossed in it that they put in extra time to ensure the perfect build. Now came the time for storytelling, which is something I personally always look forward to.

Usually, when people tell stories, they make them up as they speak, and find things to add from their memory. However, the 40 minutes we spent on storytelling on this day were the definite highlight of the day for me. Listening to people, I realized how we really connect those values to our products, to our teams, to our families, and to all aspects of our life and work. It was positively mind-boggling to see how as a boss, as a buddy colleague or even a close friend, we may have never thought of the ways in which people end up using company values in real life. Something about this felt so powerful and real; I could feel that each story had its message, each formation its colors and pieces which represented something unique and important. It was pleasing to see how most people had woven at least 2 or 3 values in their stories, and the passion with which they told them was truly gratifying to witness as a facilitator. It moved me, in the end, to do my own formation and tell a story as well. This was one of the best activities of the day and seeing the team’s passion and energy made me feel humbled and energized as well.

People working on the Lego Build
The winning foundation build
One of the value based Lego Build
Yet another Value based Lego build

The final activity we participated before breaking for lunch was the Moving Motivators piece, which is a management 3.0 practice. This piece involves a set of 10 cards which we give to each person, and ask them to arrange them in order of what motivates them the most (C = Curiosity, H=Honor, A=Acceptance, M=Master, P=Power, F=Freedom, R=Relatedness, O=Order , G =Goal , S=Status). I have facilitated this activity with over 60 people so far and usually arrange people by their motivators to get out the real stories. And yet, with this group, I saw a genuine outpouring of stories that described their motivations as people connected how their motivators and demotivators shape their work. We even proceeded with a storytelling session, where I asked the team members to talk about their motivating factors in terms of real-life experiences they have had, there were some AHA moments. Our boss, too, was extremely happy with the whole thing, and spoke about how she received some truly valuable insights from this activity.

Moving Motivators in Action

All in all, it was a day spent well—not only because we were finally back in office and accomplished so many things, but also because we were finally together as a team. Although we could only meet for one day, we will remember that day most fondly and more than often. There was also some novelty to this experience in following social distancing while working closely together, and I can assure you we only took our masks off while taking pics!

As for me, the biggest takeaway as a facilitator was the value-building exercise. It made me incredibly happy to witness how our values are not merely written, but also remembered and followed in real, normal life—something that makes everything we do worth the while. It was so refreshing to take part in these activities and talks, and to catch-up with friends and colleagues at the end of it all.
Although the pandemic has made our lives uncertain, I am glad we had such a wholesome day in the middle of it, for I will treasure and cherish this day for all the times to come.

Mental Health is for Real

While the world tries to battle the Pandemic, most of us are at home working for our companies. Some of us are trying to learn how to work effectively remotely, while some others are also looking for jobs.

Irrespective of what we are doing at home, we all are at home, and while you’d think that being with your loved ones is something which is best, I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve brought up the topic of Mental health and its importance recently.

Now often when people talk about this topic, I see a lot of people assuming mental health to be mental illness and then often it’s about shame which sometimes defeats the whole purpose of the talk.

Human has been used to family time, office time and then as many recognize it as the “me time”. These past few months, we were away from office, but even at some levels the “me time” has reduced or vanished for many. The feeling of touch (sometimes just telling a friend to come for tea) is somewhere missing, and while it might feel very small, it used to be a big stressbuster. The sense of being together with office folks and then the team lunch, maybe just a evening samosa, seems to be missing.

With all this, the mental health of people has become more important, because we all are used to being more social. I know so many introverts who can barely talk to people in public, but even they feel this. And while some talk about it, some don’t. The first thing I usually tell people who I feel are confused, sad or having any such emotion is that “It’s Ok not to be Ok”. That’s usually the first step, where you accept that things are not going fine, you get emotional because of something there, or something missing. This step is the toughest for most of the people.

Many of us face this situation, while working remotely, we forget to see the time, and we just keep working and working. We don’t realize that the body needs some peace, the mind needs some time with family and some with peace, we just keep working. And this all adds up in long run, in the short run, we might be working amazing and giving great results, but in long run, this adds up to stress.

And sometimes the mental health comes up in forms of these incidents where you feel uncomfortable, confused and troubled. At times you question yourself whether really, it’s a thing. And that’s where you need to tell yourself – that it’s Ok. And then discuss. Find a person who you feel comfortable discussing with. At times if you don’t find those people, go to a senior, go to a loved one, go to anyone and talk. Talking helps big time.

There is another version of this where I’ve often heard that some people try this and fail, because some people just say to Chill the eff. They just don’t want to hear. And that’s where it gets very difficult. We should always try to listen to people who want to speak. While growing up I realized Listening skills is not a leadership skill, it’s a life skill. If you listen, sometimes that does wonders for the other person. So, if some person comes to you looking to talk, please listen. Because maybe that’s the best medicine that they can ever get, and you might be the one to give.

I will not go to extremes here, but it’s often no one to talk, where it all starts from. I’ve heard a friend say, that at 2am once he messaged 28 people, no one replied, and he couldn’t sleep. And when he could talk, he could feel the calm.

Life will change, the world will keep changing, the pandemic is a surprise, and let’s face it we might get more as we live. The only thing goes back is Survival of the fittest, and while we all focus on running in the gym, mental health is a big strength. Me writing this blog doesn’t mean Its my strength.

I keep telling teams to take breaks in evening, spend time with family, probably go for a walk with a mask when you see not much people downstairs. And talk to people. Have the coffee sessions, engage and interact!

Not sure how long we will work remotely, but I’m sure the mental health is important at every aspect of life. So, let’s believe it, accept it, and see mental health as a journey and ensure we take care of ourselves and the people around us.

Happiness Door – How we doin?

Often when we meet people, we ask the common question of How are you; and while many don’t care about the answer, sometimes the answer defines the following conversation. Like if someone says that I’m doing not good, terrible headache. You might then ask, was last night drinks night?

Same way we often want to know the other person mood before we start a conversation. How many of us have been the victim of a bad mood; where we have gone to a person thinking of negotiation and based on the other person mood, we’ve returned thinking; now’s not the right time.

The Happiness Door is another practice I use at times to sense the mood of the room either during start or beginning of an activity/event or both at start and end.

I’ve used this many time, and I get surprised every time hearing people, but makes it so useful for me because I know where I am starting from, or how my event/activity went and where I’m ending at.

I start this activity with giving each person a Post-it (could be a normal 3*3 post-it, or a shape post it, or a cloud post-it (like you see in the image) ) and a Pen ( again could be colors/sketch pen/normal ball pen). I then tell them to either draw a face / figure / cartoon which tells their current mood.

Sometimes I define the three states (putting post-in of a happy smiley, a average smiley and a sad smiley), or in some cases I don’t define any state and leave the door empty(mostly I do this).

People are confused at first generally, if they are doing this for the first time, so with groups who are doing this the first time, I usually start with myself.

Using the smiley face drawn I describe how I’m feeling. For example, a person might say “I have a curious smiley because I am curious what Sumit is going to do in this event”. If it’s a new team I ask them to tell their names as well, and then tell about mood. Some people like to choose just some words like I’m curious or I’m happy, whereas some people like to tell stories like they were feeling hungry and the event is stopping them to have an early lunch.

The insights coming from doing this is valuable. If you see the image, this is from a big leadership meeting I had. I was introducing 4 major changes in the way we function, and I knew that people will be looking to oppose/challenge me. This activity in the start gave me a good idea, who was excited, who was not, who was willing to commit, who had confusions, who needed the push. At times getting this in the starting is so good as a facilitator as it tells you the mood, and often it makes us feel that the change we are about to bring is easy or tough for audience to accept; or does it need a little more explanation for some area.

While doing a culture-based event, from Happiness Door I came to know how people were really interested in the session because they saw the Lego boxes on their seats. In one of the Retro, I came to know how people Hated the session because last 2 Retro action items were not honored. You also come to know when people were forced to come to a session using the happiness door.

Now let’s switch gears on using this practice towards the end of the event/activity. At the end of the activity/event, it is more useful. It tells me how the people brought the idea. It tells me how people perceived the ideas that were shared. Often more than the smiley their body language tells me that they got excited or bored. As a facilitator it’s the perfect way to get instant feedback, it’s literally live feedback from audience.

I’ve seen people say that the culture Lego piece they build made them emotional, I’ve heard people say that they got very involved in the activity. Often people tell that they came thinking a very different thing, and they are leaving with something else. I’ve got people speak their mind like what they thought was their aha moment.

Again, just re-iterating the fact that feedback for any session/change is critical, and the Happiness Door not only gives the feedback, it gives the emotion, the mood, the change the event brought, the emotions people came with and much more, making it super effective and very useful.

I recommend any Change Agent to effectively use this and they will surely see amazing results!

If you want If you want to learn more about Happiness Door, you can look at the management 3.0 page here on the same.

Update: So, one of my friends reminded me of another implementation of happiness door I had done some time back. A Lego Human consists of 4 pieces (head, legs, body, head gear (could be just hair or a cap or helmet). I kept these at different places in the room. So, like 1 bunch of all legs at one place, and so on. I told people coming to the meeting to pick 1 piece from each pile and make a human. People were surprised/amazed, but Lego is interesting for all ages (trust me on this one). Now once they assembled their human, I told them to move the hands of the human or legs and tell what’s their mood while starting the session. I got people to make the Lego sit down and say we are relaxed and looking forward, someone made the person curious (again Lego can’t do that action, you need to speak). But with Lego in their hands I could see the excitement, and the legs and hands were used a lot. We did the same during checkout which was so awesome. The little experiment worked nice and I could see people interpret so much just by using the hands and legs of Lego. I remember one checkout Lego was walking person, where the person said, “We got a lot of inputs, time to walk and act”. Super interesting.

Competency Matrix and How we make teams grow on Competency

When we start working in our career, I think one of the first questions which comes to every person is what he knows or what we can work on. The answer could be technical competency like .net/Azure or could be a soft skill like public speaking or could be a subject matter thing like working on a system. All this can be called as the competencies.

Learning was always a passion for me as I grew in my career, and while we grow up, we feel we might have to learn less, we get challenged more, and the learning never stops. As I heard from one of my co-speakers in a conference Rich, we live in a VUCA world, so what we hear today might not be relevant 3 years down the line, which Is unbelievable but true.

I remember in my second company, one of the managers tried to collect competency levels (not the competency; that he defined himself, but just the levels) and it got a very negative feedback. People complained his boss that he was trying to shame people, and the whole exercise of collection was told to be never done in public. The manager had to apologize to some folks who felt bad and then the whole activity was done in 1-1’s. Traditionally competency management was always done, but it was a private thing, and then it wasn’t even shared with the team, because I heard once that Competitor might get it and pull people from company based on their competency levels. And we being developers back then used to think less of it.

Now when I did my management 3.0 workshop with Sarika, I heard about the Competency matrix, and I surely thought it’s very useful. But I remember her saying the team needs to have Psychological safety to do this. And I thought that it should not be that tough. Believe me, I never thought what all could I face, and no training prepares you for that. The people we get in real life while doing a practice are different than what you imagine, and that’s part of the game.

Now I remember preparing my first competency exercise, and kind of doing a role play. I knew at once, that it had to be gamified. No way a person will tell competency on where he/she is and go away, this needs more fun, this needs more intent clarification, this needs more purpose. I don’t remember it was a suggestion, but I got the aspect of growth inside the activity where people would tell where they want to grow. Also, I thought just doing on a board with marker might make it boring, so I ordered 3M flags. I also ordered some 4*4 for people to write names.

With gamification I didn’t want to lose the intent but have people more involved with what they are doing and be present in the room and the activity. In the end what I noticed was that the gamification helped them be more attentive.

So the activity started with a 15 minutes talk on what are competencies, what kind of competencies could exist ( like domain, technology, tools, process, soft skills ), and then make them realize the activity meant to collect this in a way where we as a team can reflect on where we are, and then individually we identify 3 competency where we want to grow. I took a color of blue for marking where we want to grow. I explained them the intent couple of times, because I don’t want the safety aspect out of picture.

This first 15 minutes was my testing period where I got questions of very high intensity. “Will we be fired based on this”, “Will our team change post this”, “What happens if I am bad at everything”, “I’m not sure where I am”, and many more questions which tested my maturity and knowledge. I was strong and was able to answer them in a way that the audience felt safe but said that I knew I had to grow stronger for coming sessions (I’ve done 9 till date).

The activity was done in a way where they first drew their face in a 4*4 post-it (yes you read that right, they drew), I thought name is too straight forward, why not draw. And I got people showing their creative side. Some drawings were so amazing that when they were stuck on the board on the columns, it made that board attractive (See images below for my favorite 3 drawings). Then as a team everyone came and identified competencies. This was a team defining the competency which made them think on what next is coming in market, what they know, where they want to grow. In my first 15 minutes I told them “We win as a team, there are no individual wins”, that’s the feeling I wanted to see here, and I was happy the team was good in this.

So, while getting approval from management, management had a fear what if I hired the person for Java, and the team didn’t put that, which I know sounds funny, but trust me could be true when the team is having some fun. So as part of the activity, I made a pact, that when team is done with competency, I’ll call manager for 5 minutes to check if the defined competency has the core competency or not. If not, we’ll add it.

Now when the team was done with competency and manager verification of competency. I asked them to roll 2 dices. Get 1 Six on either dice to get a turn, and the first two people who get turn go on the board. Again, now people mark their competency level with the team discussion, and as a team they define themselves to be an apprentice, journeyman and master (I did give them details on what all 3 means during the starting 15 minutes). Once they are done putting the right color flag against competency, they take 3 blue flag and put it against the things they want to learn or grow on. This was taken very positive, it was like telling the management, we want to grow here. Trust me it amazes me how much everyone was happy about it.

In my first session I was out of flags, so we ended up using marker, but later I ordered more flags. The more I did this activity, I felt psychological safety is such a big deal. Employees need to feel safe in order to do anything like this. Thankfully at least I felt I gave them that environment (the reality lies with the people who were in the session)

Looking at the whole activity, I feel it makes a team come together in a good way. They feel like 1 team delivering quality output and they self-organize on competency which is a great thing to see live.

I feel this tested me as a facilitator to the core and I felt that only if you are confident you should do this, else I would role play and try to answer all possible question.  I felt super happy about the gamification and how it engaged the crowd. In the end, it’s all about where we are, where we want to grow and how we are fine with standing in front of the team and accepting it.

Below are 3 boards I felt which might give a good idea of the end result. Obviously I digitize this and then we get the manager need on each and then finish the activity.

I once even took the challenge of doing this for 2 teams together which was tough on me as a facilitator, but still the session went fine. Thank god I could do it in 1 single room. See below for the picture during the same:

If you want to learn more about Competency Matrix, you can look at the management 3.0 page here on the same.

Update (6thAug2020) : Living in the VUCA world, we all are in middle of a pandemic, so I as a facilitator was forced to create a template to do this activity online. And I feel we all should share, and with that spirit sharing my template I created for the same : https://app.mural.co/template/5319b025-999b-41f1-a0c7-1021dbabf766/96ca6dd1-aca0-4b88-a84a-be8a3f485e17

Hope this help! 🙂

Niko-Niko – The Emotional Calendar

When I saw Niko-Niko recently in the management 3.0 practices, it reminded me of the emotional seismograph I do during release retrospective. I will explain more on the emotional seismograph later, but the Niko-Niko looked like an amazing way to constantly capture the mood of the people.

The practice is very simple where a person while leaving office tells the mood he/she is leaving with. Either the whole teams do it together describing the mood in few words if possible, or worse case you just mark it in the public visible calendar. Some people use colors, others just update the box with smiley. This time I gave them the choice to choose colors.

The intent is very clear; we want to know the emotional sentiment of the team as they work. Scrum Teams work as a team which rallies around work or in a typical sprint around the goal, and a team having team members unhappy some days in a row is alarming. While I often tell managers not to challenge people on why they are happy, I tell them to look at trends or the patterns.

While introducing the technique 1 challenge I faced was some people telling to remove the names. I’ve removed the names in the image for Confidentiality, but if you see on the left names are written for each person inside the scrum team (I do it scrum team wise, but actually can be done at any level). The thing I explain people is that if I feel that people telling how their day went can’t be public, there is another issue which needs to be solved. It means people are not safe. Safety is a bigger issue to address. If my teams are not safe to reveal this, I’ll have that issue resolved first, because psychological safety is priority for me. So I’m always able to convince people that let there be names, because people feel safe, and if they are not, then that team needs attention from a different perspective.

One day before sprint end, probably everyone is busy, and expecting a good day is tough, and same way the second day of the sprint is probably good for everyone. Again, these observations might be wrong generalizations and I believe data should speak for itself. Again, this data is so unique with each team, and with everyone. You don’t get to hear a story or a reason, but then the objective data is enough to identify if the team is in stress, or if an employee is feeling too bad.

The patterns are often useful in 1-1 conversations or even tea conversations. I’ve even seen team mates talk to each other, what happened dude, you are having bad days every day. And it’s good because as human beings it’s good that we try to be happy, but it also makes sense for us to show empathy if someone else is not.

I take the monthly data and try to get patterns and share that with leadership. A Team recently was stretching a lot, and I could see constant full team bad moods, and while talking to some folks, I could easily figure it out. I gave the feedback to them to slow down. Again, the idea is to get inference and do something on inference. It should have some intent and purpose attached.

Often a blank sheet gives more noise.

In same way the emotional seismograph Is what I do at every release retrospective, where I make a line graph, plotting a sad and happy smiley on y axis, and then on x axis either keeping sprints or months (depending on size of release). I start the release retrospective using this, where I tell people to draw points and hence connect points to get a line showing how their release went from a team perspective. It solves multiple purpose, firstly I tell them that while you are drawing your line, think about all the sprints, kind of self-reflect because it is a release retro and they need to think about the entire release. It also shows the emotional quotient of the team. If you see in middle of the release the line going to sad for majority, something happened. If the ending of the release was ending for everyone at a low, something bad happened in the end. And intent is for people to get these points in their mind for the next activities. Again, I’ve done this at least 40 times, and every time it teaches me things.

The Human sentiments is a powerful thing not because humans are sensitive, but because the sensitivity drives the passion, the behaviors and they tell how we will work. A happy employee is what everyone wants, but we need to know if they are unhappy and act accordingly.

Happiness is a big thing.

If you want to learn more about Niko-Niko calendar, you can look at the management 3.0 page here on the same.