I recall sitting in the front row at a conference in 2019 when the speaker (Rich) informed us, the content he is talking about now may not be relevant in 3 years, because it’s a VUCA world. Little did we know we were all going to be facing big uncertainty in the next year itself.
While we always knew that the virus was serious, we were not sure how a country with such as India, with a big population could have a lockdown, and until the last moment everyone was in disbelief. I remember that evening going out in search of milk at 8pm and realizing everything was shut down. 8pm felt like 12.30am with all the darkness.
You always hear that a true leader is shown when faced with stressful situations, but here we were as humans, challenged as leaders. While some made it easy for employees for work remotely, others would not decide until the government had to enforce office shutdowns. Empathy is a big word, but business runs on money and sometimes while the world tries to hide it, it becomes more evident.
The uncertainty hit a new high with cases rising and no clear picture on how and where things were leading. Leadership around the world was waking up wondering what to do. Some companies laid off people, others stopped hiring, while some continued the way it was needed.
I have a good friend circle across many companies, and I heard stories from people working up to 15 hour days and being asked to work more; to companies asking employees to buy home office equipment which the company would support to pay. There were leaders who were troubled because they preferred people working in the office, while others did not mind as long as the work was done. For companies in Bangalore, working remotely was not really a new concept, but to have no office to walk into was.
Leadership was challenged to an extent whether to consider a possible U/W Recession, or to consider no spending. One thing I feel a lot of people sadly forgot was the fact that we were in midst of a pandemic. Everywhere was told that work should continue, productivity (the big word) should be maintained, and you’d have been surprised, in many companies, work doubled and productivity improved.
We teach a lot of things in Leadership right from Psychological Safety to Emotional Quotient, but I feel the world leadership needs a lesson of mental health. A pandemic is a big mental health issue. While you might feel that most people don’t have the virus, a billion still live in the fear and sit at home the whole day looking outside. The stable minds among us said we’ll take precautions and go out for a walk, and while they might be right, we all know we were not living normally.
Leadership needs to ensure that the people we work with are mentally healthy.
Are they spending time with family? Are they in the right state of mind? Are they just working or doing something else? Are we using work as a distraction to cover sadness and burn out? Are we sleeping well? Are we smiling, or are we crying?
Acceptance is another thing we need to understand. I feel humanity grew to an extent where sometimes people are not ready to accept that this will take time to settle down. Every news report of vaccine was taken as if it would be delivered like a pizza in 30 minutes. I feel the world needs to draw a new meaning of empathy, and accept that we need to assume this will be there for the time it takes it to be. We need to see the people around us and understand that empathy involves understanding mental health and assuming that people are a little troubled in mind, and we need to accept that.
While some sectors are doing fine because of digitization, others are suffering. While we may be eating food properly, others might not be, and sometimes even looking at other people suffer makes you feel sad.
As a leader we need to ensure we ask our teams to stay happy, try to give them time to rest, time to breathe. It’s good to have virtual coffee and virtual hangout sessions.
“Human is a Social Animal” is what we read in our books, and that mere fact is a challenge right now. Some people feel the need of touch, and it’s a big thing for some.
I remember 6 months ago doing an activity of Personal Maps ( one of the practice of Management 3.0), telling the team that Individuals and their Interactions are so important, and so we need to ensure that we know each other well, and we need to find common ground to interact and ensure that we all communicate well as a team to ensure we win as a team. These words were important then, but now they are much more meaningful as we all are at home, and so the right leadership needs to ensure that individuals are in the right mindset to work as a team, get the right time for their family, ensure they smile while working, and still talk to colleagues about things apart from work.
While we say VUCA world, ideally, it’s everything VUCA, so we need to keep learning and adopting and so does leadership. Let’s ensure we keep our teams happy 😊
It was during a class in school that I came to know how a human comes to life. Some would grin and smile, whilst others were surprised. All humans are born the same way, we are sent through this world taking birth from our mother. It feels as if mothers have this special gift (not taking away the pain they must bear through), and while many go into different professions and areas of interest, that process is similar for everyone.
I remember sitting at a lunch table in GE, and one of my close friends Abhishek was sitting with me, and we were talking about some soldiers getting killed and how a country was so radical. He said these words, “Where there is a nation, there is no peace”. Those words really stuck with me on the deepest level. We were born in the same way, but we drew those lines, we marked the boundaries, and we now fight wars to protect them. At the border, a person can die anytime not knowing a sniper might be taking her/him out. I have huge respect for soldiers and the way they dedicate their lives to the country. Huge respect. But it all comes down to building a nation and how we protect those boundaries. I’m not going good or bad with this, it is what it is.
Years later I saw the first death in my family, and I asked my father how they knew that uncle had died, and he tried to explain it to me in some words, but mostly said that the person stops breathing. It could be due to many reasons, such as disease, but life form comes to an end when a person doesn’t breathe anymore and the way that happens could be unique. Again, something which makes us so common as human beings.
Labels – How we give them and how they build us
Coming back to the first part, when we are born, we start giving labels of caste/religion/race/color – trust me there might be 100’s of things. It could be your state/country, the way you dress, or your sexual preference – we just keep labeling humans. These labels then form emotions of love/hate/afraid/anxiety, and we form biases. God is smiling from above because we all were born the same way.
I remember the first time I was introduced to the word “Gay” – I was told that it’s something a person chooses to be and gets converted to it. Yes, I know it’s surprising, but a few friends explained it to me in that way. And I feel they believed in it. Every Label we make is based on a bias, it could be a social bias, logical, or otherwise. But there is a bias. Years after, I came to know that it’s from birth and not a choice, and it was sad to see how people abuse others based on this.
Labels are the opposite of understanding. This is a line I heard recently in the sense8 Netflix series, and it sounds so true. When you label someone, you set your mind to a checkpoint, one which you already have a judgement about, something which you’ve already concluded on, and your actions/reactions are based on those. You don’t think, you just behave accordingly.
Sometimes labels might unite us, like a common religion – people sitting in a temple praying together and finding that common ground. That makes them happy, feel safe, and protected, I can relate this to the certification/leadership knowledge of how people with the same vision feel satisfied.
Sometimes labels might set us apart, I remember walking in a city market in a foreign country, it was a busy Saturday afternoon, with a lot of people around and they were walking/laughing. 5 guys came and poured 2 bottles of 2-litre coca cola inside my t-shirt, calling me by my country label and laughed at me. I stood still not realizing how I should react to 5 young men and if any fighting would help. They left within 10 mins, and I stood there for another 10, and then came back home and cleaned myself. After the event, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I wasn’t happy that no one around helped, on the other hand, I was thinking if my label justified them doing this. I also thought they must be bad people. But overall, I was upset, angry, embarrassed, and sad.
Your personal biases are often made up by your experiences in life and when, for example, a company defines it as a rule, it doesn’t help. We need to ensure people understand this. I am a manager, and some time ago a female employee was going on maternity leave, she set a meeting with me and in a scared voice, she asked me if she would get promoted (she had her promotion due in 3 months). I did promise that she would eventually be promoted, but her asking me this made me think that the social bias is that females going on maternity leave will not receive a promotion. I hate the fact that someone might think that I did something good/great by promoting her when her work speaks for itself, and she deserves it.
I was in a management position in another company and witnessed another manager withhold a promotion because he was not confident if the person would come back after maternity leave.
Every company has sexual harassment training, to prevent discriminating against people based on their gender, but I feel that reality may be far away. Some companies do it for compliance, some do it as a checkmark.
Even after writing all of this, I am not exempt from placing labels on others – I’m not a saint. Occasionally, I do assume things based on labels and it’s not something I’m proud of. When you do this for a long time, it gets in your unconscious bias, and then you need to work on it to improve. Again – labels are the exact opposite of understanding. When a label comes to your mind next time, try moving away from it and to understand more than the label. For many people in our society that should be the way forward. At the end of the day, if this world only remembers us as human beings, you’ll have millions of people to connect to, all of us want to talk, we all have ears, a nose, and many things in common.
Working in the industry, and having spoken to over a 100 people, we know Agile is used a lot. Every person knows what Agile is in one way or another. People keep talking about it, and the more we hear, the more it feels like a structure rather than a mindset. Everyone is so used to following conventions and rules that now we love building them and following them.
I remember joining a company some years back, and my first conversation with my agile coach was something like this. While the industry has adopted agility with open arms, we still lack people with an agile mindset, and that’s where companies should invest more and see how they can improve. Because often the Why part is more important than the what part.
In a true world scenario, I’ve seen a lot of Dev’s/QE’s being included in a project following scrum. They might be trained on Scrum/SAFe/Kanban or other framework’s – but a basic mistake is made where they are NOT being introduced to Agile Mindset first, which is where the problem starts. The same problem often occurs in many companies, even at the leadership level, where they often ask, “What needs to be done,” then the Why it needs to be done part, and so we have the company following a set of rules without knowing anything about the true agile mindset.
I remember being in a sprint retrospective once, and a scrum master was asked “Why is the retrospective needed,” and instead of answering the question to the team, they were just told that it’s part of the process. Losing such opportunities is what makes causes failure.
My memory takes me back to 2008 when I was in Bournemouth, UK, and I remember we were using Agile. I think that was the best introduction to Agile, where my Project Manager, Wayne Palmer, helped me understand the why part so much, as opposed to the what. He used to say, ‘you’ll understand the process and how it works because you’ll do it daily, but why we do it is more important.’ I saw one of the best implementations of Kanban back in 2008 which ran very successfully.
We used to go out to a bar where the whole team used to play planning poker. I used to see the real sense of each person there, with discussions on why something is bigger or smaller in a very respectful way. The first time I attended this, I was happy to see the most junior guys asking questions to architects and vice-versa, and it really felt like a family talking to each other. I used to see people thinking about the “we” more than the “I” and I could see mutual respect.
We had a board where we used to pick up stories and write their current state on cards. It had details like who was working, the start date, along with story points we had decided in the bar. It became a flow board, where people used to pick things, work, and really keep things moving. The items were broken as small as possible giving value to customers. And so, we could easily do frequent releases. The best part was that our project manager never used to ask us the status, he used to go to the board to see what’s happening, and used to draw charts as to how we were going, and they were literally hand drawn and put up next to the board.
Our stand-ups were very different from anything I’ve seen to date. We used to do a focused 1-2 lines on what’s needed in a stand-up, followed by improvements done if any, followed by something funny which happened in your life in the last day. Not everyone had a joke, but even one or two were enough to make people laugh. The focus on how to improve things was excellent, as that used to make people believe that change is good and welcome, and if you can talk to the group and everyone agrees, let’s just do it. Once the standup was done, we used to spend time discussing about some problems and who can help solve those problems too, which was great collaboration model.
I’ve seen a lot of teams following Agile in life, and many were good, but the story above was a team which I’ll never forget, as the trust, collaboration, binding between team members was at it’s best.
The above, in a way also touches upon the four pillars of the mindset: Respect for all team members, optimized and sustainable flow, encourage team innovation, and focus on relentless improvement.
Coming back to where we started, it’s more important to understand why you want to follow agile, rather than just following it. Sometimes the why part makes you understand things which the what part may not make you realize. I’ve seen enough certification classes where people ask questions a lot on the framework and how they function, but rarely on the mindset behind these frameworks, which needs to change.
I remember while doing my CAL-1,2 (certified Agile leadership) there was a section which was covered on Why Agile workshop (https://shift314.com/agile-is-not-the-goal-workshop/). I felt this is really needed in every organization, especially at the leadership level. Sometimes Agile starts from the bottom up, and we all know that it’s the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s opinion) which counts. So, the Why Agile workshop is good as it starts from the top, and get’s the questions answered like “Why Agile”.
Sometimes the process around agility might look strict in frameworks. Some people get uncomfortable with WIP limits, some with introducing scope inside sprints in scrum, some with bringing a new feature inside a PI in SAFe, but ideally all these tie back again to the why part. And that’s where we need to get our minds.
Sometimes we also tend to think of purist vs practicality in agile, and it’s tough sometimes to make a call on such things. I remember a coach and SM fighting over having retro every alternate sprint, rather than every sprint, and again it goes back to – what’s more important? Getting feedback regularly or having a meeting. I’m not replying to what’s right here 😊, all I’m trying to say is that we need to open our brains to why and think what aligns to the mindset. At the end of the day that’s what matters.
It was 2008, and I had taken a train to Bournemouth, on the South coast of the UK. I had worked only in Reading before, so it was my first visit to Bournemouth. At the interview I had scheduled there, I met Robert. I loved the way he asked me questions – he was looking for what I knew, and I felt very comfortable explaining myself and my professional experience to him. I could be myself, because someone wanted to really know what I knew, whereas sadly, most of my interviews before that had focused a lot on what I didn’t know.
To be able to be yourself is something which might sound very simple, but in reality, not many people are able to do that. It’s almost like people wear this mask in front of others, and I’ve seen many colleagues of mine wear that mask for a very long time, feeling like the more fake they are, the better they look. In reality, the more you act against your true self, the more you need to work on it.
Sometimes I feel many organisations have this pressure to have people behave in a certain way. The employees don’t understand the need or the culture of the company, they just prefer wearing the mask, and behaving in a way which the company likes, and they become fine doing that for years and years. Some even feel as long as they are getting promoted gradually and get a good financial hike, they are fine with the mask.
I remember moving into a house back in Bournemouth with 2 amazing housemates to share with. It was a great place, but I was scared of being new to the place, and not knowing the culture of the place, so my first reaction to everything was defensive. The UK taught me to say thank you and sorry for anything and everything. Don’t get me wrong, I used to do that before too, but they do it for every small thing, and this habit made me apologise even if I wasn’t doing something wrong. Comparing this to a company, many people feel that being their true self is risky, they feel if they get their true self out, people might not like them, or people might feel they don’t need to respect them. I’ve heard this from many friends, that often they fear the real them coming out and spoiling the whole relationship status in office.
How often have you seen a meeting room with 8-10 people talking about emotions? You’ll see people talking about something good or bad from electronics to politics, but they don’t talk about emotions, because people feel scared of showing them to their office. I remember a guy once told me he wanted to cry, but can’t because people will think he’s a girl (kind of a sick convention that only girls cry – hate this), He was really upset with the way his manager behaved with him, but was reluctant to either tell him or go to HR. He finally quit the company after suffering for about 2 years. On his last day, I was shocked to see him say thanks to his boss, and when I asked him, he told it’s a small world and they could meet again.
Some people I worked with were very different, they would crack the odd joke, really feel their true self in office, speak what they want to – and really do what they believed in. I feel at times, these people really are very passionate about what they do, and often are very successful. Sometimes to be scared is good, but ensuring you bring your true self to the picture often helps.
It took me a long, long time to realise that we are not meant to be perfect; WE’RE MEANT TO BE WHOLE – Jane Fonda
I was in GE for 7 years, and often when leaders came to speak, I saw a lot of storytelling. Those stories were not only about ones about success and superheroes. They believed in sharing a lot of failures, and the way they told it, it really made you connect well to the story. Yes, they were very senior in their roles (VP, Director, CXO’s) – but even at that level, being your true self is a big thing. How often have you heard a VP come to a stage and say well I failed in xyz? You don’t, or it’s rare, and that’s what made me happy to hear stories in GE. I felt those people really had learnt the lesson of wholeness and were very vulnerable in front of people. It was not always failure stories, there were good/great ones too, but sometimes we all need to face the big fact of life – we all learn the most when we fail.
In a similar manner, I also saw people bringing personal items to their workspaces. Some people having family photos at their desk makes them feel good and ensures they don’t have to keep that mask on. I was big Friends fan, so I had a photo with my friends in a coffee shop, and often people talking about it made me open and happy.
I think this whole thing also ties to the psychological safety of a team. If people don’t feel safe, they can never speak up or be open or true to themselves. It’s the duty of team members to ensure everyone feels safe to speak up and point out anything and everything.
Another aspect which ties in is being vulnerable when speaking to your team. I’ve always seen that we as leaders are often telling success stories where we were amazing, but fewer people like to accept and share their failures in public. They might have learned the most during those failures in life, but they don’t take pride in speaking about them. Being vulnerable for a leader is a very important attribute where people start seeing them as normal human beings, and not superheroes, and then the team feels safe to speak up and share their own opinions, even if they are the wrong ideas. Often the wrong ideas lead to the right ones, and every thought should be taken as an opportunity to learn and grow from there.
I will end this by telling people to think how easy it would be for you to work if you have the real you out front, and you realise you might have strength and also some weakness, but you learn to live with it, but always make sure you don’t wear a mask, and get your true self to your workplace. Because at the end of the day, YOU ARE SPECIAL.
I remember there was a time in my life when I began every day at the office by turning to youtube.com and watching funny videos for a few minutes. I used to love it. As someone who likes to start early, I really enjoyed this quick, happy ritual before diving into work and getting on with my day.
We all like to be happy, to laugh occasionally—and yet, most people don’t think about how we become happy at all. I will not venture into the science of it, but I do know that sometimes when you are in a good mood, things start to fall into place, the right words start flowing and before you know it, you’re having a good day.
When we work with teams, we always ensure they like working with each other. We want people to feel connected as a team, and so we like to give them some time to bond with each other by playing some fun games. In the team I currently work with we have a designated game time: whenever we reach it, everyone turns their work mode off for a while and we immerse ourselves in play. This short break not only helps to de-stress but also facilitates bonding between colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, the gamification is my favourite part when organising workshops and events. Sure, you may drive meaningful conversations through formal tools and procedure, but if people don’t enjoy being there, such an exercise is not worth it. On some level, this depends on the concept of psychological safety and how people participating in a meeting or discussion like to be themselves. If you employ a tool or process during these discussions that makes them walk the way you want them to, they will still follow, but eventually they might stop bringing out their true self. This is the reason I advise people designing such workshops to ensure they include icebreakers and other activities which let people enjoy along the way.
For a long time, I used to begin release retros by having 2-3 people stand together and draw an emotional seismograph on the whiteboard. Although I told them this graph is merely a tool for self-reflection—which it is—I feel there’s something compelling about the activity that made them stand up with their teams and draw their lines across the board, bumping into each other and having fun. At times we had 20-30 people making their seismographs—we always joked how much it looked like modern art at the end, and everyone admired this artistic streak.
Turning to look back a few years to when I was living in the UK, I remember my project manager Wayne who had a unique way of holding daily standup. He used to invite everyone to talk about one funny thing that happened to them or which they witnessed in their daily lives—the results, trust me, were often hilarious, and we would all be laughing out loud within minutes. Occasionally people would pass if they had nothing to say, but even getting one or two real time stories made for a very jolly morning. We all used to return from these standups with the widest of smiles on our faces.
I’ve had similar experiences when using Rory’s Story Cubes to run retros: people are incredibly enthusiastic; the whole experience of rolling dices and making up stories energises them and makes them feel like kids all over again. This technique involves participants rolling 9 dices and using the symbols on the faces of the dice—4 or more symbols—to construct a story related to their life in the sprint. Thanks to the symbols, the storytelling depersonalises the story and gives it the shape of fiction, which makes this technique a real winner. Running such a session, it is impossible not to see smiles all around—it is true that storytelling is an art, but what we often don’t realise is that most of us can be really good at it if we try.
These examples are only a drop in the ocean of ways in which we can connect with people. As everyone becomes comfortable, they will bring out their real selves. We can ensure this by making them talk about their thoughts, by engaging them (confession: up to this point, I was avoiding this word!), and making them feel human and in the company of friends.
The simplest human action is laughter—after all, at the end of the day, who doesn’t like to smile; who doesn’t like to laugh while working? Some of the most successful teams I’ve seen are also the ones which are the happiest and most comfortable around each other. In one team I remember working with, we used to set Friday evenings aside for team dinners. I know this is not uncommon, but the reason why I remember these dinners so fondly is the quality of time it allowed us to spend together. Team dinners for us were always a fun occasion, full of jokes and chatter, with us often shouting to make conversation in noisy places and just generally enjoying ourselves. Friday evening always ended happily and full of merriment, and it was smiling faces again when we all met on Monday morning.
We all use metrics to drive behaviours, and even look at the organisational culture using behaviours at play, but in my opinion, ensuring people are happy while working is as important as anything else—if people are happy, they will remember that work is not a one-person job, it’s about the team, about the organisation, and also about the little joys in life.
Right now, happiness takes on an added importance of a kind we could never have imagined. After all, humans haven’t seen a pandemic in a century, and everything has changed dramatically over these last months. For most of this year, we were caged inside our homes for months in either a government-mandated lockdown or in a mental lockdown that made us avoid stepping out. Even as we begin to venture out in the world again, being happy is taking on an immensity we simply cannot ignore.
Since March, I have attended many sessions emphasising the effect of the pandemic on our mental health and how critical it is, and trust me—the touch, the care, the sense of still being connected to the world; all of it seems to be in a good place if you’re happy doing what you’re doing. Sometimes, you may even feel happy doing the worst of things—long as you have a reason to smile, it’s all worth it.
Yesterday, I was scrolling through LinkedIn when I saw a post that drew lines across my heart. It said that Work from Home is good because of two reasons: a, you have work; b, you have a home. In the course of this pandemic, many have lost jobs, many may no longer have homes, and yet some of us crib about working remotely. Don’t get me wrong—I too would like nothing more than going back to working from the office—but I certainly think we can learn to appreciate and be content with what we currently have, to seek the best we can do, and to then move along that.
I have thought about this often while growing up, but only during the pandemic have I realised the true weight of the fact that contentment with what we have and what we do is was ultimately makes us grow and learn beyond the obvious. This is somewhat like taking money off the table while hiring someone—we sometimes need to get the obvious things out of the picture so that we can focus on the more important ones. In the end, I believe, it is all about being happy, and if this year has taught us anything, it is that we only need little to feel that way.
For instance, I often conduct Lego sessions with people at the office. During these sessions, I have witnessed adults become cheerful and carefree like kids as they play with the Lego and use storytelling to weave together deep and meaningful tales. This, again, is a very powerful form of facilitation that takes very little and makes people very happy.
Personally, I see a lot of happiness in food, too—as a foodie, I consider relishing various cuisines and enjoying food as integral to my joy. I have also noticed how well people connect over food—be it post-work drinks in the evening or team lunches; people eating together and chatting away always lends a lot of positivity. The more we interact with being ourselves, the happier we get.
It is only after this pandemic that I’ve realised how much of the things and people in our lives we used to take for granted—especially the people. For instance, I have always loved to meet my maternal uncle and aunt because of how much laughter they bring into my life. Even if I sit with them for 15 minutes, I would hear at least 3 different jokes out of which 2 would make me roll over because of how good they are. I admit, it runs in my family to keep laughing once we start—but isn’t that human? I believe that the most human of all things is the happiness that comes from a single smile or a laugh. No wonder everyone wants that—whether we get it or not is a different thing.
So, the next time you see your team, your colleagues, your friends, and your family, try to make it a fount for your happiness and that of everyone around you—maybe with a smile, an icebreaking session with the team, a fun game on Mural or Miro, a joke you heard the other day or even a YouTube video of a standup comic you love, and see how these simple acts and activities takes everyone to the next level of happiness, and from happiness to more productivity and success. After all, we only live once, and we need to make sure there are enough things to smile and be happy about.