How to manage sensitive issues in a team – What is the magic recipe?

Have we ever wondered how to handle and deal with a sensitive issue with our teams? How do we bring our observations that certain set of folks always like to dominate the discussions in all teams? How do we talk about the teleconferences always scheduled at the time which is most convenient to the Onsite team or where the management of the team is positioned? How do we mention that the team is caught in the group thinking mode and agreeing to poorly conceived decisions for the sake of team harmony?

In your role as a team member or the leader of the group, there are times when you need to bring up sensitive issues within the team, you should always begin with the self-awareness that something of relevance to the team’s functioning is occurring. You need watch and assess what you noticed and observe its impact on yourself, the other team members and team at large. You need to decide whether you should intervene or not, whether it should be dynamic? Will that be more helpful or harmful or not relevant at all.

Let’s assume you have decided to raise a sensitive, touchy issue in your team. To review how you arrived at this point, you need to pick the functioning of the team, the pattern observed. Your goal should be to get the team to explore the issue for its impact and decide what to do based on this exploration. How can we raise this issue in a way that is most likely to accomplish the goal?

Some interesting fundamentals are necessary for basic human relationship:

First talk about yourself, your feelings, your behavior, Make statements with ”I”: “I am thinking”, “I am feeling” … something on similar lines. Self-disclosing your own reaction to what’s happening is always the safest way to begin wading into potentially troubled waters.

Second, avoid using words that are pejorative, inflammatory terms, judgmental labels and generalizations, such things trigger words or phrases that flare the team members defensiveness and make it hard to respond for them to your comments.

There are 2 strategies, that I have experienced for making a decision on the level of focus and intervention. One is the “Deep end of the pool” approach. Intervene where you think the action is the hottest, if the whole team is caught in the groupthink act – supporting, agreeing and reinforcing with each other at the cost of in-depth investigating the issue on hand – jump into the deep end of the pool and say things like: “I think we are sacrificing the quality of our decisions for the sake of getting along and it makes me uncomfortable”. If you find one person dominating the discussion, it is just fine to say “Ash – it seems to me that we have been hearing mostly about your ideas on this issue, I would like to hear some of the thinking from the rest of the team”. This type of direct approach is likely to get the issue recognized and discussions going but it can’t be carried off comfortably by everyone, nor in every situation by anyone.

A different approach would be to focus where the action is less hot, the “shallow end of the pool”, once you have the team in the waters with you, you can begin to navigate them into the deeper side of the pool. You might like to create an individual focus like “Sam, I have seen you have started to something couple of times, but stopped and I am wondering if you have a different view or perspective on the issue that we are talking about”, Or the approach could be focusing on the team level directly and say “I think we need to revisit our team working agreements about how we handle conflicts between us”

Another factor to consider about raising the sensitive issue is the degree of intensity you want to build into your intervention.

Low intensity usually takes the form of carefully worded statements. This style helps to understand how an issue is dealt by the team and how they respond.

A moderate intensity usually consists of an observation followed up with a question, such intervention declares an issue and press the team to respond to it.

High intensity intervention really put pressure on the team, they usually consist of an observation and interpretation of the cause of the pattern observed. They are high intensity because they label the action with an interpretation of the underlying dynamics, their directness at times can be shocking to the team.

The point is that regardless of the type of intervention you are most comfortable with, you need to be able to effectively use all combinations, so you can match your choices to the contextual demands in the team at the time you are intervening

Advertisements

Reducing Cultural Debt – An Element that Management & Scrum Master needs to understand

What is that we are discussing?

Some of the problems that multi-cultural virtual teams or even co-located teams experience include: time delays in replies, lack of synergy among cross-cultural team members, communications breakdowns, unresolved conflicts among members, limited hours allowed to be worked and different holidays (happens with virtual teams).  All of the above lead to bad productivity and finally a loss to the organization and the customer (eventually to the society at large).

What is a cultural debt?

Cross-cultural teams can have their fair share of problems once the novelty of interacting with new people fades. From simple issues like understanding language idioms to more complex work culture issues, there is scope of a varied set of unique problems. Global organizations are transferring people increasingly to other countries which creates cultural diversity within work teams. Though teams are now an accepted form of planning, strategizing and operation, team based management techniques are still evolving world over and when you introduce the additional element of cultural diversity, it throws a whole new spanner in the works!

Problems are further complicated by the Management

A major problem is the way the scrum team is structured and organized. We have seen in recent past that team members are spread across geographical location across the country / globe. Distributed teams have different needs and requirements, but somehow, all of us believe, think and apply the same approaches as we would do it with the local teams (can we agree that even local teams are badly managed)

Managing the virtual team is a task in itself. Scrum Masters must be aware of particular issues in order to avoid any potential problems / conflicts. In building the virtual teams, Scrum Master must be able to understand the diversity in international cultures so that understanding the trait is a success. If there is trust within a team, communication becomes simpler. Scrum Masters must ensure that all parties in the virtual team can participate and benefit from the interaction. Some individuals need guidance and direction while others are more independent. E.g. part of the development is from Japan (a country who believes in working in teams and don’t seem to mind being directed and pushed). And if the other part of the team is in US , then it will be common to go an extra mile alone and without seeking support from team. This is important to remember when managing virtual teams

Potential Problems Areas in Cross Cultural Teams:

Communication, Language and Expression

The quality of communication is a key concern in cross cultural teams. Everybody could be speaking English, but certain forms of slang or colloquialisms may not be clearly understood leading to misinterpretations. Teamwork is a collective effort and all the players must fully understand the direction that the discussion is taking. Misinterpretations can be kept to a minimum if everybody aims for clarity, otherwise team effectiveness is bound to suffer. To prevent problems associated with miscommunication, team members must be encouraged to check with each other for clarity either through paraphrasing or by asking questions. Paraphrasing basically involves restating a point and then asking – “Is that what you meant?”

Communication problems are particularly significant in cross cultural ‘virtual’ teams. Here is an example of two kinds of problems with virtual teams:

  1. The international virtual team that typically interacts across continents and countries, to collaborate on a common task. This is almost always a cross cultural team.
  2. Virtual teams within the same country or city when a part of the team opts for telecommuting – they use email and other forms of telecommunication technologies to coordinate work.

Both types of teams will work on a project without regular face-to-face interaction, and therefore have to make their written email communication and telephone conversations as clear as possible. They also have to develop a work ethic of prompt response to queries, if this is not forthcoming it can be a little unnerving and there is no chance of you dropping by the office of your team colleague to discuss the issue.

In the global virtual team with its cross cultural mix of people, it should be expected that some amount of ambiguity is bound to creep in. Care has to be taken with wordings especially when there is disagreement on an issue. Even mildly sarcastic comments meant as a joke can be misinterpreted by a team member in another country and cause a conflict.

Information gaps are another problem area for the virtual cross cultural team. Everybody must be on the same wave length as far as information and data goes. These teams can greatly benefit from ‘Groupware’ software, a relatively recent concept in networking using multi-user technology. This kind of software allows access to a shared database, provides email services, allows sharing of work files, allows online chats, scheduling, and tracking of joint projects. Companies are paying a lot of attention to the use of the right technology to make communication and collaboration among virtual teams effective.

The other issue with international virtual teams is decision making. Decision making is a team activity and given the time zone differences, the team has to find a mutually agreeable time band for direct communication through conference calls or video conferencing. If there is a great deal of divergence and disagreement on the right course of action to be adopted, then a stalemate may be reached. The team may need to follow up with lots of explanatory emails and calls before they reach a consensus.

Work Style

Work styles and approaches may also vary when a team has a cross-cultural mix of individuals. Some work cultures foster individual thinking and offer rewards for individual contributions– like the American’s for instance. In some work cultures people are uncomfortable with independence on the job and prefer to be tied to the apron strings of the boss in decision making! When your team has a mix of styles, the individualistic team members may prove to be aggressive team players while the not-so-individualistic ones may merge into the team and outwardly seem to contribute very little to the team process. It is important to draw out and get the best out of all the team members despite the differences in personality types. 

Dominating Influences

There are concerns that a section of the team that has a certain cultural similarity or homogeneity may attempt to dominate the team process and overrule the rest of the team. The dominant group within the team may try to swing decisions towards a direction that they are comfortable with. This can create a frustrating environment for the rest of the team.

Motivators and Expectations from the Job

Motivators are basically the factors that indicate the things that make a person tick in a business and team environment. Team leaders who handle cross-cultural teams usually find that the factors that motivate each team member vary. It is essential to make the effort to gauge individual motivators in order to encourage and motivate each team member to excel at their roles. In the absence of the right stimulus, the individuals may lack the enthusiasm and drive necessary to perform their role within the team

Making it Work

Cross cultural teamwork is going to increase as businesses expand on a more global scale meaning that people from diverse backgrounds interact on a regular basis as a team. Many large corporations have clients with whom they work across multiple countries and these clients look for integrated global solutions. In such a scenario the cross cultural team has a definite advantage in being able to understand the needs of their clients better.

The key to making the multi-cultural team work well, is focusing on the objectives of the team. The objective is the team output that a cross cultural team can potentially deliver. Team output is usually better when there is diversity of experience among the team players. This applies to any team output, whether or not multi-cultural. The chances of drawing out innovative thinking gets amplified when there is diversity. This is the factor that works in favor of cross cultural teams.

The problems and conflicts are certainly going to be there just as one would have conflicts and problems within teams who belong to the same market. Pre-emptive measures in areas like communication, information sharing, motivation drivers, and group dynamics are called for to assist in the cross-cultural team process. The goal should be to try and build on the strengths of such cross-cultural teams, minimize conflicts, and diffuse the occasional miscommunication that diversity creates.

DiSC – An approach to create the right team balance

Use DiSC profiling an approach to select the team and its members, It is an important element to understand that Agile / Scrum would work not on plans, but on “TEAM CHEMISTRY”. Organizations need to invest to reap the benefits.

Not having the right team and members with a right mind-set would not help the cause of the Agile or the organization trying to adopt / implement the new thought process.

DiSC profile is a non-judgmental tool used for discussion of people’s behavioral differences. The DiSC model provides a common language that people can use to better understand themselves and adapt their behaviors with others – within a work team

DiSC profiles help you and your team:

  • Increase one’s self-knowledge: how one responds to conflict, what motivates? what causes stress and how do we solve problems?
  • Improve working relationships by recognizing the communication needs of team members
  • Facilitate better teamwork and minimize team conflict
  • Develop stronger negotiating skills by identifying and responding to customer styles
  • Manage more effectively by understanding the dispositions and priorities of employees and team members
  • Become more self-knowledgeable, well-rounded and effective leaders

What does DiSC stand for? What do the letters mean

Slide1

Last but not the least …. If you want to win a lottery (read as … better agile adoption and transformation), you would have to buy a lottery ticket (read as … invest in team building, getting the right people, good infrastructure, education, awareness and Leadership aligned to the agile thought process)

Stress Management – New Skill that a Scrum Master needs to learn and master

All of us experience stress to some degree regularly, but stress on a leader is comes from unique situations, limitations, demands of the system, environment, the behavior of the stakeholders, lack of control of the environment or just some personal insecurity.

Research has shown the Scrum Master experiences same level of stress from different sources e.g. Product Owner, Stakeholders, Development teams or other Scrum Masters, but reasons for the stress that they feel would differ, as this would typical depend on the source of the stress.

Why Scrum Master Role is full of Stress?

By definition, Scrum Master role requires you to be out in front of the people, rarely there would be a standard path or approach that one could follow. There are no readily available answers to the acute problems as faced by them. Scrum Masters often would be required to make critical decisions based on the limited information and just as often the customers, PO, Development team, sponsors or the management would hold them accountable for those decisions.

Lack of control – By definition the SM role does not have any authority or control on the people issues (meaning all the HR related matters). SM’s often have to negotiate with the stakeholders, directors or sponsors and try to use their own power of influence, all of these are recipes for stress.

Every good news or a achieved success is a source of stress, reason: expectations are set, Bar of performance has risen and the whole universe now expects day-in and day-out that you and your team would be delivering improved results every sprint – A new source for stress.

Building relationship, show the traits of Servant Leadership. Role of the SM requires them to coordinate and collaborate with different stakeholders, each of them brings unique challenges due to their individual characteristics. Managing conflicts takes different forms. No standard approach or technique can be applied. It again depends on the situation right personal disputes to political games (mind you organization have major politics) – All of these are sources of stress.

Scrum Masters must shoulder a high degree of expectations from various elements of the organization. Each of them expects results in the form of success since failure is not an Option (all of management forgets that Agile is all about FAIL FAST and INSPECT & ADAPT). Scrum Masters often feel the pressure of having to know all the answers and make all the right decisions and also be ready to face the consequences of the decisions that they make.

WHEN STRESS IS WHO and NOT WHAT

Scrum Master has to start recognizing that it is not important to define what is stress about, but to identify WHO is the source of stress? If you feel that your boss does not show his support to your decision or respect your authority, then this will contribute towards elevation of stress. So, BOSS could be a source of stress

One of most general source of stress is your peer community. A competitive environment and lack of cooperation from your peers is going to induce new levels of stress (quite different then ones you get from the Boss). Think about your relationships with your peers, do they:

  • Compete rather than collaborate?
  • Focus on their own individual outputs rather than the group’s achievements?
  • Act overly about who gets the credit for getting the job done?
  • Lack of inclusion and Trust

Your team would be the next in line. Think about your relationships with your team, do they:

  • Lack commitment?
  • Resist changes?
  • Expect you to solve all the problems / issues / impediments?
  • Fail to implement plans or complete their own tasks?

It may be worth noting that not all stress is bad. The problems associated with stress arise when demands put on you outweigh the resources and coping strategies you have to meet those demands. The key as Scrum Master is to know which stress is which, how to judge your reaction to situations and how to manage the negative type.

Handling the pressure in the job of Scrum Master is necessary. One needs to know what signs of stress to look for, and have a strategy for increasing your resources so that you can manage the leadership stress that comes your way.

Managing the stress is the new skill that Scrum Master would be required to acquire. Stress is now a part of everyday life, but consequences of stress can be serious. By understanding the nature of stress, once can find ways to adapt and thereby be more effective in their career. Things you can do to better manage your stress include knowing the signs / signals, taking breaks, setting boundaries between work and home, building a support system, organizing and streamlining your work, building in recovery time, exercising and creating positive eating habits.

Finally – Implementing Agile or Scrum or anything new, requires courage, that would require in turn learning to manage the “NEW STRESS”, that comes along with it.

Bye for now.

 

Dispersed Team – Boon or a Bane – The How’s of the world?

A team that has members across different locations, time zones, geographies is typically a dispersed team. The members of dispersed team come from different cultures and can bring with them radically different approaches, perspectives and challenges.

Dispersed team brings together of the phenomena of human- technology interactions, team work, communications among people separated by time, culture and distance. Such elements give rise to challenging the current methods of effective team management, product and project management and inter-personal relationships among the team members

Since last decade the concept of dispersed teams have gained a lot of prominence in the IT industry and now-a-days, it a basic norm to have teams spread across locations and time-zones.

Is there an ROI on having a dispersed team? What are the management cost overheads? Is there a cost-benefit analysis performed before the decision of dispersed team creation is taken? Not sure if the current set of management folks in IT industry are taking this into account. The worst case scenario, we find these days, the Agile teams (which were supposed to be in a single location, co-located) are also getting into the dispersed mode, negating all the values and benefits of adopting agile in the system, we have started performing Waterfall approach in the disguise of Agile / Scrum (rather creating a concept of ScrumFall)

The way organizations conduct business is changing, the landscape of doing business is changing, the world is moving away from regional to global elements. Information is the new currency is the current fast paced world that we operate in. The way technology is moving, it is making the leadership take note and move from relocation to dispersed teams

Again accepting the business realities and the way IT industry is currently operating, May I take the liberty to present a few ideas and thoughts on how to create & manage a product / project using a dispersed team.

How Part of the system?

Before launching the dispersed team, it is important for the organization to gauge its own readiness and the team’s readiness to operate in a dispersed mode. Is the organization ready to support it or its merely a current need so we need to do it.

To succeed, a dispersed team needs thorough planning and adequate support in terms of logistics, budgets, infrastructure, facilities, HW and SW. It should have a defined purpose, a vision, clear and measurable goals and objectives. Roles and authority must be defined carefully, too much of centralized decision making would kill the team, where complete de-centralization of authority would create a wrong environment to deal with (future). The team must have right people with the right size.

If we determine that our organization is ready to launch the dispersed team, the next step is to carefully plan its first meeting, a minimum requirement should be face to face interaction and meeting (which a lot of organization feel is a non-value added costly affair, I always recommend the management the evaluate the cost of doing this activity vs. cost of not doing (see the data and impact in the long run), whichever comes to be cheaper, let’s do that approach) giving an opportunity to the team members to meet each other, develop personal rapport and create a shared understanding of elements, this adequately set the stage of better collaboration & coordination finally help build the TRUST factor (which so much missing in the current way of our working).

When creating / launching a dispersed team, care should be taken to at an individual and team level for how they combine to form a team, see value of certain attributes such as: competence, desire to work in a team, skills sets, working environment and more importantly culture.

I recommend doing a DISC profiling of individual for critical high visibility project, where it can make or break the organization or move the organization in the next sphere of doing business

Once the dispersed team is launched, to make it a success, a few elements would be required to be in place. Three attributed would be required (consider them as pre-requisite): Communication and Information Sharing, decision making and conflict management.

Since good communication is so important to success of the dispersed team, that each team member should understand the capabilities of the various tools and technologies used. Facilitating effective decision making is an equal amount of challenge and leadership should define what decisions can be done and taken at the local level and what would require centralized decision making (Economy of scale is an important consideration in this front). Team must also formalize how decisions would be made, how are we going to internally communicate, how the external world would be engaged, what is method of engagement along with frequency. And finally, since dispersed teams would invariably experience some inter-personal issues and conflict, an agreeable conflict management approach should be adopted (not trying to generalize the idea), the Leader should guide the team in planning a process to manage conflicts as and when they occur and reaching a solution for the same.

Dispersed teams require more direct and careful maintenance than the local teams to reach their full potential. Such teams can be a source of rich innovation than the local teams. A larger and wider perspective helps the team solve the problem much more quickly. Insights from colleagues around the globe bring new dimensions to the work, Members can draw on cultural differences to access and understand different viewpoints and opinions of others.

Project management is also a difficult challenge for leadership of the dispersed team. As the distance grows between the teams it becomes much more difficult to schedule joint meetings and discussions, this element can be mitigated by providing adequate infrastructure and support to the teams.

Take time-zones into account when scheduling a meeting, one location is always going to be at a receiving end of the system, better approach and plan would be to rotate this concept where is the pain of sitting late in offices or coming early is shared across locations, let not one team feel victimized. We need to be honest to ourselves. How many times have our clients sat late in their own offices across the Atlantic or have reached early to have that required meeting or to clarify a few things, from a outsourcing standpoint, the vendor is always the one to take the pain. We have all forgotten a basic principle that projects are successful when customer and the supplier side of the business both collaborate and work towards the achieving the desired vision.

Usage of common tools, having common vocabulary is a minimum requirement, where possible and when possible invest in WebEx / online video meetings (audio based meetings is a thing of past), beware of not investing in the necessary item, could have a larger impact in the system, one should always take decisions in terms of understanding the un-intended consequences (short term) and the intended consequences (long term). Choose simple tools and technology, do remember the purpose of tools and technology is to assist the human’s and not to dominate them. Define a process and the identify a tool, rather than invest in a tool and then because we have purchased it, one would go ahead and define a process to meet the needs of the tool.

Final a few words of wisdom: Dispersed teams would present unique challenges. Organizations need to prepare for and support them properly to realize their full potential.

In the next series of my blogs, would present checklist that can be used as a ready reckoner to launch and support dispersed teams.

Signature Banner