This article is less about agile techniques and more about the people related challenges of today’s agile projects. As work switches from industrial work to knowledge work, companies face a perfect storm of employee engagement and retention issues. On the one hand the time taken to learn a job is increasing as domains become more complex and new tools add layers of abstraction and integration problems. On the other hand the average time spent in a job is decreasing. Frequent job changes are now the norm and long term workers are a rarity. Two years is the new five years average tenure and six months is the new two years of young worker average placement. It may seem just as people become productive they leave and the training process has to repeat.
An additional problem is that it is often the best people who move on, since they are sought after by more organizations and there is now less stigma with short work assignments. Companies not paying attention to their workforce or offering appealing work environments find themselves subject to an involuntary Sedimentation-Effect as the best float to the top and depart leaving less capable people behind. The process has been accelerated by social media and online job sites that make finding good places to work and connecting strong candidates to great companies easier than ever.
Things are not going to get better any time soon either, as Baby Boomers and Gen X workers leave the workforce Generation Y and Millennial workers are entering the market place in increasing numbers and with new expectations. Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire professor says that Gen Y and Millennial workers “…have unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback" and "an inflated view of oneself."
It is not all doom and gloom though; fortunately agile projects provide ample opportunities for tuning the workplace for better motivation and retention. Bill Pelster, principal of Deloitte Consulting, suggests that “Organizations need to understand that the world of work is changing. What millennials want — innovation, opportunities to grow and develop, mentors — aren’t overly demanding. They’re what every organization needs to succeed. All generations generally want what the millennials want, but what is different is the priority placed by millennials on development and core values versus, for example, a safe and secure job. Millennials are more inclined to take risks and change jobs much more quickly than other generations.”
In fact there are a number of things companies and managers can do to attract and retain the best talent.
Leaders, not managers - Forget trying to manage people, that’s too command-and-control and reactionary to cope with today’s speed of business changes, nor is it engaging. Today’s teams want leading. This involves communicating a vision of the desired end state, clearing the path of obstacles or bureaucracy, and providing mentorship with support.
There is a useful paradox that helps remind us of the leader role “We lead people by standing behind them” i.e. we back them up, provide support, encouragement, training and mentorship. Let them take any praise or glory and be a close, but in the background, supporting player.
Problems, not tasks – humans are hard wired to get a buzz from problem solving, that’s why many people play video games and do Sudoku puzzles in their spare time. Tap into this motivator and present the project’s goals as problems, don’t try to manage them away into tasks. Let the team see all the complexity then ask or challenge them to solve the project problems.
Engaged, self-organizing teams are incredibly resourceful and creative. The traditional model has solutions being designed by a small group of specialists and then selling the selected approach to the team for implementation. Agile leaders instead invert the model and engage the team in solutioning and have them “sell” their approach back to the project managers and business champions for approval.
This higher level of engagement builds a much stronger commitment to deliver and remove obstacles encountered along the way. It also taps into people’s reward mechanism of problem solving and helps build everyone’s sense of achievement rather than drudgery. Obviously some work will always be dull and we just have to grind it out, but that should be the exception not the norm.
Say “Yes” to time off requests – “kids school play”, “camping trip”, “whatever”, if someone has enough of a reason to not want to be at work, especially contract staff who do not get paid when taking time off, why make them feel bad about asking or turn them down? The good-will and appreciation for having a flexible working environment ranks high among high achievers. Most people recognize when they have good working conditions and the small cost of reduced capacity is more than made up for by the benefits of retaining the best workers, reduced recruiting and training, etc.
Obviously if anyone abuses this goodwill guide and finds reasons not to work on a regular basis then there needs to be a separate discussion. Failing that I have only seen upsides from providing a very flexible work environment.
Leverage improv comedy’s “Yes, and…” – Responding to someone’s plan or suggestion with reasons why that won’t work here, or the famous “OK, but what about …” is demoralizing. “OK, but“ is often a thinly disguised “No” and after a series of these, people just stop suggesting ideas, shortly followed by stopping caring. The first rule of improve comedy is build on ideas, not shut them down; it is the same with team work and co-creation in the work place.
So, if someone suggests an open house to demo the new system to customers, we can reply “Yes, and if we do a dry run with our business group first, we can iron out any kinks”. “Yes, and” promotes ideas and involvement rather than stifling them. We can always edit and improve plans later, but if the best suggestions never get made for fear of ridicule, no refinement can ever wish them into being.
Since collaboration and teamwork are so critical on knowledge worker projects, many forward thinking companies are looking to Improv training to help their employees. See these Forbes and FastCompany articles for more information.
Keep perspective and stay calm - remember our project issues are definitely first-world problems, a broken promise, buggy release, missed demo, or poor estimate are not worth getting truly upset about. Save the drama for where it is warranted, work compassionately and objectively.
Create projects, not roles – drawing from Deloitte’s Bill Pelster again: “It is important that organizations realize that millennials are looking to constantly gain new experiences and push their development. This means that organizations need to think through the velocity of developmental opportunities and the potential need to “re-recruit” millennials on a regular basis. Failure to do this will potentially lead to higher than expected turnover and more pressure on your recruiting organization to constantly source and on-board new talent.”
We can frequently re-recruit staff through exposing them to new projects with new problems to solve. Align people with key projects and mentors so that they are challenged and have an accelerated growth experience. This is good for the organization and their employees.
HippySh*t or Solid Sense?
To some people these recommendations may seem like indulgent panderings to a soppy workforce of over-entitled layabouts. They may seem to be overly generous, but the world is so connected now it is easier than ever for the best people to find good work. If your company undertakes industrial work involving the repetition of established process, you likely do not need the best and most talent workforce; instead reliable and cost effective staff are the way to go.
However if you are in the knowledge work space of solving novel problems then attracting and retaining the best staff you can is not a company differentiator, but the minimum required to stay in business. The suggestions outlined above, and others besides, do not replace standard work. Instead they get woven into our normal behaviour for leading teams, hopefully to effect subtle shifts towards a more desirable work place that retains the best talent and attracts more of the same.
The economics of compassion and empowerment might not sit easily with everyone from my generation. Like many people, I worked in junior, menial roles for decades before being given any opportunity to influence. But as the saying goes “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”. So, the question becomes what can we learn to stay up with the wave of change if we want to succeed?