Agile – a leaner, stronger, faster, smarter way to work (for everyone)

Setting up an Agile based environment for any work group or business


An agile environment organizes the resources of an organization in a more adaptive and disciplined way. Short-term adaptability and rapid response strengthen long-term planning. Using the concept of controlled chaos it is possible to increase efficiency and innovation. Through new roles and a few rules any organization or group can become more agile.


Although agile is originally a methodology developed by software programmers. It is  at heart a new philosophical approach to project management. Consider this statement of values from the original authors of the agile manifesto (Beedle, et al; 2001):

I. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

II. Working software over comprehensive documentation

III. Customer collaboration over contract negotiations

IV. Responding to change over following a plan

The philosophy of agile has a number of important ideas, such as: self-organizing groups, knowledge sharing cultures, participatory environments, individual empowerment, responsible stewardship, collaboration and open communications.

In this sense, agile is more a way to create a new culture than simply a way to write software or manage a project. For this reason, it is adaptable to almost any workflow or operational situation. In essence, agile blends the simple credo: “act – analyze – adjust” with the life affirming principle of “people first”. The result is a more effective organization. This is why agile is such an important part of management 3.0.


The psychological importance of the agile method

Before we get into the practice of agile management let’s take a quick look at the generative grammar behind it. This gives us a sense of the purpose and underlying dynamics of the agile components. (We will learn more about these concepts in the next section.)

Agile Concept Generative Grammar (an underlying dynamic)
User stories We think clearly and adapt quickly to customer/market needs (aka reality)
Estimates We collaborate realistically to project time and difficulty of projects
Sprints We work in more meaningful and adaptive units of time
Standups We share our status quickly, usefully, and stay focused and aware of where others are at
Velocity We have a realistic view of our capabilities
Iterative Pivots and Releases We adapt quickly and effectively to changes in the market


Putting the pieces of agile to work in your organization

Getting started in agile takes planning and discussion. You start with your organizational vision (see: How to create a vision log). Once you have a dynamic approach to your future, you begin looking at the specific experiences that your potential customers are after; these are your User Stories. An example might be, “ As a business owner I want a to-do list that follows me on all my digital devices and is easy to use.” And so on…

You then prioritize your user stories and estimate the difficulty of completing them using story points. This is important because it involves all the core members responsible for bringing your project to life. Estimating has significant psychological value because it improves communication, knowledge sharing, and over time establishes realistic production capacities.

You then plan your first release. This will be a four-month interval that aims at completing a deployable or demonstrable version of your product or service that you will test in the marketplace. Inside of this release period will be a series of sprints, possibly 4 four-week work sessions. These sprints will be iterative in nature, meaning you produce results that you test and evaluate in some way. The result of the testing or evaluating then influences the next sprint.

Here are some of the roles and rules to consider in developing an agile culture…


A Scrum Master (aka: show runner, team leader/captain, director, general contractor) is familiar with the dynamics and process of an agile environment and will act as the mentor and team wrangler. The SM helps support workflow balance, removes obstacles and helps make sure everyone is implementing all the agile practices. The group agrees to view the Scrum Master as team captain, responsible for morale and discipline. (You can find more info on this role here and here.)

A Product Owner (aka: producer, general manager, architect…) represents the interests of the principle stakeholders, i.e., the business, the customers or the end users. The PO guides the team towards building the product or in lean business modeling parlance, continually proves or disproves the current business hypothesis. The product owner is also responsible for understanding and communicating the company’s Vision Log – the evolving but long-term vision or road map for the organization

Product owners do this in part through the product backlog, which is a prioritized features list for the product or service.

The product owner is commonly someone with a solid understanding of users, the market place, the competition, and of future trends for the product, service, or type of system being developed.

Small groups of say 2 or 3 members, not part of a larger operation, can share and/or rotate the roles of Scrum Master and Product Owner.

Core Team Members are everyone else directly responsible for bringing the project to life; or, in a going concern, meeting the quarterly release objectives. They work collaboratively and develop themselves in an interdisciplinary way. This means simultaneously mentoring and learning from other members of the group. They will also  take part in the organization’s knowledge sharing system. And of course they must participate in the daily stand ups.


The Product Backlog is the laundry list of all the things you need to do to bring your product or service to life. For a software or internet company it can include things like product features, bugs to resolve, technical work to complete, etc… For a service organization it could be a list of client issues, research projects, analysis, client calls, etc… For a marketing department it could be sales calls, market analysis, SEO, SMM, vendor meetings, write copy, etc… (Here is a good article on agile marketing.)

The rule to creating a product backlog is not to list outcomes. Outcomes are the results of actions and not directly under any individual’s control. This includes sales volume, client acquisition, or basically any “goals” that are not made up of concrete action steps. A product backlog is a list of actions or activities waiting for your team members.

User Stories are an effective way to build your product backlog. To write user stories, simply state your product or service requirements from the perspective of an end-user. For example, the goal of creating a video promotion for your service would be: “as a potential customer I want to see a video of what your product does and how it will help me.”  The basic framework for a user story is, “As a <user>, I want <a goal> so that <a reason>.”  A story that is too broad or general gets broken down into sub-stories. Examples of sub-stories could be, “As the director and editor of the video I want storyboards to work from”.  And another would be, “ as the storyboard artist I need a script to work from.”

Writing organizational or operational goals as user stories has a psychological benefit. It helps give everyone involved in the development process, adopt a customer-focused perspective. User stories also help develop empathy, which can increase innovation. Additionally, stating requirements as end-user-needs can help reduce certain cognitive biases.

As the list of user stories grows, the stories or product backlog are sometimes logged in specially designed software (e.g., Agilo for Scrum, XPlanner, and perhaps Mingle).  We are currently testing out AgileWrap. [I’ll update with our team’s opinion over time]. You can also keep it real and use index cards or sticky notes. They use of analog cards allows you to place them on the wall and use a kanban system of lean workflow (more on that later). If you stick with the wall system, you will still need to input the stories, estimates, and completion rate into a spread sheet to track your velocity.

To make user stories, or anything on your product backlog list more effective, it is important to include all the team members and stakeholders that will influence the product or service. For example, if you are building an iPhone application or new website, the user experience is as important (sometimes more important) than the capabilities. Therefore, it is important to involve your UX/AI person when you develop your product backlog.

Whatever your product or service is, it is a good idea to bring your design and user experience team in from the beginning. Thinking about how end-users will see and experience your service or product will force potential problems and issues out earlier and not later. Including the designer(s) in the early stages can help bridge the gap between end-user and the development team.

A Sprint is a predetermined length of time (one week to four weeks) during which the team will work to complete the tasks agreed upon in the sprint-planning meeting.

A Sprint-Planning Meeting will include the product owner, Scrum Master, and the rest of the team. Unlike the product backlog development process, which can involve multiple stakeholders/clients, end users, etc…-sprint planning is usually restricted to the core team in charge of building or creating the product or business.

The goals of the sprint-planning meeting are:

  • Describe the highest priority actions or user stories
  • Analyze and question the more general user stories and requirements and turn them into the detailed tasks of the sprint backlog (different from the product backlog.)
  • Estimate the amount of time each story or requirement will take to complete. This is a crucial piece of the agile-sprint methodology. In the early stages it is difficult but as the sprints progress you will get better and better at it. Part of the secret to good estimates is to predict the effort, not the calendar time that a project will take. One trick is to convert tasks into points rather than time. Points can take into account more than just time such as complexity or simplicity.
  • As you complete sprints, you can track the percentage of actual tasks completed and chart that number as your sprint Velocity. To predict your next iteration’s velocity, add the estimates of the stories completed in the previous iteration.
  • Define the basic goal of the sprint based on the sprint backlog. This is a short sentence or phrase that sums up the purpose of the sprint.

Daily Standups are meetings attended by the entire team (everyone committed to the project’s completion). These meetings are strictly limited to 15 minutes and no sitting. Ideally they occur at the same time and place everyday. Team members that are working from other locations can meet through Skype or Google hangouts.

Limit standup meetings to the following three questions: (answered by each member)

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. What obstacles are you facing?

If you have the meeting at the end of the day the first two questions become: “What did you do today?” and “What will you do tomorrow?”

The daily stand up is not the age-old status report meeting where management collects info on who is falling behind. Instead it is a session where members make commitments to each other about what they will complete.

If impediments surface, the Scrum Master (as well as other team members)  can help to resolve them as quickly as possible. If the obstacle cannot be handled in the meeting it is the Scrum Master’s responsibility to resolve it as soon after the meeting as possible.

It can also be useful to hold your daily meeting in front of the board showing the sprint backlog; aka the sprint or scrum task board.

Celebrate the Milestones – it is important to take time out to chill and reward the team at the end of each sprint with a celebration of work done.

Post Mortems are conducted at the end of each campaign to review and record what you learned as a team; sort of like a retrospective of all that occurred from beginning to end.

A Quick Reference Glossary of Key Agile Concepts

Vision Log – The vision log is a monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual revisit and revision of your organization’s objectives. Here instead of a static mission statement you will create a shifting growing journal, chronicling the purpose of your entity’s existence.

Project – Usually a project is a specific product or perhaps a big event. If no specific finished product is the goal either because it is complete, and you are in sales mode or because that is not the nature of the business (like a service business), then make each quarter a project. Note that your quarterly objectives or user stories will come from your Organizational Vision Log.

Product Backlog – a list of all the user stories (objectives/requirement) required for your project. You will use story points to estimate the difficulty of each user story.

Story points – these are estimating values that show the difficulty of each story when compared to other stories on your list (backlog). The members of the core team estimate the point value of a story by taking into account the time, complexity, and potential pitfalls. Points begin with best guess value such as an ideal workday. Stories are then evaluated in comparison to other stories in the project. So if a story that is fairly easy to complete is a 1, then something that is twice as difficult is a 2. If the next story is twice as difficult as the 2 was, then make it a 4 and not just a 3. Do this to help avoid cognitive biases.

It is better not to use a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, sequence for estimating. This tends to lead to bad estimates. It is a better idea to use a logarithmic sequence like (1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13,) or a tetranacci sequence like (1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 29).  Also, don’t overthink it when you are first starting out. Over time your organization will get better and better at estimating user stories.

User Stories – begin with a description: “As a <user>, I want <a goal> so that <a reason/benefit>.”

From there it expands into three elements:

  1. A description of how it brings value to the end-user.
  2. Discussion of details as well as the understanding and expectations of the people affected by the story (from developers, to clients, to end users).
  3. Clear criteria are used for determining if a user story is complete and acceptable.

A useful acronym to check user stories is INVEST.
I – Independent: is it a thing in itself? Or does it depend on many other factors to work?
N – Negotiable: Is there room for improvement, flexibility, adaptability?
V – Valuable: does it give value to the end-user
E – Estimable: can your team come up with a ball park estimate?
S – Simple: is it small enough to fit in a sprint? If not, can it be broken down and stay independent?
T – Testable: develop a means of testing or assessing any user story.
(Thanks to Bill Wake for this well received idea.)

Releases – these are milestones and usually the product of multiple sprints (but not always). They represent a working version or component of a project. It could be an event or a presentation in a sales and marketing context. It could be a demo or prototype of design work. In a service context it could be a monthly report. Basically, a release is the demonstrable or deployable results of multiple sprints. Sometimes, a sprint and a release coincide. For example the last sprint of a release could be known as the release sprint. It is also possible for a release to only require one sprint.

Sprints – A sprint is a fixed amount of time a team uses to complete an agreed upon set of user stories. Larger user stories (aka epics) get taken apart and become smaller stories (aka child user stories). These are user stories  that you and your team estimate will be possible to complete within a specific time; say,1 day to 6 weeks (though 1 to 4 weeks is most common.)

Tasks are the discrete actions generated by the user stories in any given sprint. Estimate tasks  in hours.

Defects – when you get feed back from users or testers that something in your product, service, or process isn’t working and the solution is not a quick fix then you can list the problem as a defect. It will be in the backlog ready for scheduling (i.e. attached to a sprint or a release.

The Sprint Task Board is a visual display of how stories or requirements are progressing through the sprint. This can help alert the team to bottlenecks or mis-estimating.

Here is an example of a task board mocked up by Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software:

Figure 1 – mocked up task board; credit:

A Sprint Review Meeting is held at the end of each sprint. This is both a concise presentation of everything accomplished during the sprint and a review of the team’s velocity, i.e what the team accomplished versus what they estimated.

Sprint reviews are informal, simple, and need limited amount of preparation time, so as to not distract from productivity. Participants may include the sprint team as well as clients, consultants, and end users.

Sprint Retrospectives are held after the sprint and are also short and limited to the sprint team. They focus on what they learned from the completed sprint and give valuable insights for the next sprint-planning meeting. I like agile coach Mike Cohn’s recommendation of focusing on three issues: What should we:

  1. Start doing?
  2. Stop doing?
  3. Continue doing?

Burndown Charts are how the Scrum Master or Product Owner keep track of the team progress by graphing the amount of estimated work remaining over the course of the sprints. The sprint burndown chart gives the team a visual record of their progress.

Figure 2 – Sample burn down chart –

The chart typically presents 2 lines going from the top left section of the chart towards the bottom right.  While the first line presents an estimate of work delivered over time, the second line shows the real values. As such, the Burn Down Chart helps predict  when work scheduled for the current release or sprint will finish. The Y axis is units of time or story points estimated and the X axis represents units of calendar time or the number of sprints.

Velocity is the distance covered in each sprint as measured by story points. This is a relative number; you are comparing output from sprint to sprint based on your teams estimates. If your team guessed you they would finish 20 story points worth of work but only completed 18 then their velocity is 18. Over time keeping track of velocity will help make better estimations.  Velocity is not a tool for measuring productivity; it is just a tool to improve estimates. Here is a good article on velocity by Michael Lant.

Graphical Overview – the different levels of an agile environment

Figure 3 – Agile levels by Atma  – licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. [click on image to enlarge]

Graphical Review – the agile process in action

Figure 4 the agile process in action  – Original image source unknown – if you know, please tell me and I will amend. [click on image to enlarge]

 Please post your comments and feedback. I would love to hear from you. 

(credit for the team in a circle illustration at the top of the article goes to Bob Commander)

How to Create Remarkable Teams PART 2 – Collaboration

Great teams are forged by collaboration and self-managementIf You Want Remarkable Teams…  Build for Collaboration

If you want a great race car, you build it for speed. If you want great teams, you build them for collaboration. To get you started I will expand on the list that MIT research scientist Peter Gloor calls the “genetic code” of collaboration: learning networks, ethical principles, trust and self-organization, knowledge sharing, and transparency. All of what I describe here applies to building remarkable teams as well as building a remarkable culture in your organization.

The 5 building blocks of collaboration

1) Create a Learning Environment 

This is quite challenging as it either never feels like there is enough time to dedicate to learning or it feels like an unproductive use of available resources. But, do not underestimate the value of continued individual and team learning. When human learning slows down, people tend to lose creative and problem solving capacity. In team development, research has shown that individual learning works best when accompanied by team learning.[1]

Some examples of shared team learning are:

Regular seminars and guest lecturers: Bring in experts and professors on various topics related to the history, science, or culture of your industry as well as sociologists, anthropologists, and technologists who work in peripherally related fields.

Cross-disciplinary training: On a regular basis have members of different departments lead instructional discussions on their particular specialty. So the designer teaches everyone about UX/AI, the coders teach about their development methodology, the project managers teach about agile protocols, and the sales people describe what it is like in the field.

Cross-cultural stimulus: Whatever field you are in, once-a-month take your team on an educational/cultural outing to do or see something that has nothing to do with thier work. E.g. take a team of developers to tour an abattoir, take the human resource team to a museum exhibit on ancient Egypt, or take legal on an outing to a flower show. It is important to make it a regular outing, and to really explore intriguing, albeit unrelated subjects as a group. The benefit of this kind of team activity, is the opening of one’s mind, and shared creative stimulus, which fosters innovation.

Show and tell: one morning a week, have team members or co-workers bring in an example of counter-culture that they have unearthed. Examples could come from art, comics, film, music, architecture, economics (weird black markets), music, media, etc… Creating opportunities for team members to communicate and share both creatively and intellectually improves team communications and fosters innovation.

These are just a few examples. You can explore and experiment with many other ways to create a learning environment. The key is to develop determination and commitment for the process.

2) Make Virtue an Organizing Principle –

It is essential to build in a framework of virtuous and ethical principles. My work and research has identified two categories of virtuous principles: 1) emotional capacity and 2) interactive capacity:

Emotional Capacity involves:

  • Empathy – the ability to feel what others feel
  • Openness – willingness to explore and to change
  • Emotional availability – capacity to share and express
  • Fortitude – tolerance for stress, uncertainty, or chaos
  • Emotional control – successful anger and/or frustration management
  • Humility – acceptance of criticism and/or direction
  • Consideration – social awareness, compunction, compassion, inclination for kindness
  • Curiosity – inclination to learn
  • Zest – enthusiasm for life, work, learning…

Interactive capacity includes:

  • Mutualism – ability to see your success in the success of others
  • Perspective – ability to see or sense the big picture, long-term thinking
  • Self-sacrificing – willingness to give personal gain for the gain of others
  • Rational capacity – ability to set aside emotional agendas
  • Cooperation – willingness to collaborate
  • Systems intelligence – sensing the big picture and how things connect
  • Benevolence – depth of commitment to not cause pain or suffering
  • Integrity – ability to inspire/engender trust and loyalty

Similar to creating a learning environment, building an organization that not only supports virtuous principles but also causes them, requires you to invest heavily in leadership. Your  dedication to creating a remarkable environment is crucial.

One of the most obvious steps toward creating a virtue-inducing environment is to look at your own level of emotional and interactive capacity. You (and your co-founders) should evaluate yourself using the above list of seventeen principles. Obviously, your behavior is one of the most important influences on your teams and your culture. An honest self-evaluation will tell you where you have to increase your emotional and interactive skills.

Beyond your own comportment, much can be done to induce virtuous behaviors. You begin with a sincere and explicit commitment to the betterment of all stakeholders. This means partners, investors, employees, customers and the greater community. You must have an attitude of, “Everybody wins or the game’s not worth playing.” Even competitors can win in this scenario, because, you set the standards. One way this will affect the competition for the better, is that you will attract the better employees who can bring you better and more customers. The competition then has to come up to your standards or drop out. (This is a bit simplified and is not always the case, but is a pattern we can expect to see increase in the future).

3 steps to building virtue into your organization:

Introducing and executing this commitment to virtue requires you to adopt a consistent, three-stage process of, 1) establishing standards, 2) reviewing standards, and 3) making adjustments accordingly. Here is how it could look:

i. Establish clear descriptions of the type of behavior you expect from everyone. Avoid vague or general expression, such as, “politeness or “integrity”. You should list specific behavior such as:

  • Listening attentively,
  • Asking questions that show curiosity and attention,
  • Being grateful for each chance to explain and clarify your expectations,
  • Expressing a willingness to learn,
  • Discussing persons who are not present as if they were,
  • Looking for opportunities to advance the interests of others-through support, acknowledgement, training, etc…

These are just suggestions to help you to generate your own list of desired behaviors.

ii. Review how well your organization lives up to the established principles. Do reviews:

  • Regularly (once a month),
  • Collectively (involving everyone), and
  • Rigorously (with honesty and diligence).

You may find it necessary to bring in professional facilitation if you are running into excessive resistance or acrimony. But, when you succeed at this step, you will have created a significant shift in your organization’s psychology.  You will have created a culture conducive to collaboration, greater employee engagement and enhanced productivity.

iii. Adjust the established principles as insights from the review process indicated. This is  a responsive process and not about setting hard and fast rules. Establish objectives and use these to assess and improve individual and group behavior in a continuous way.

3) Build On a Foundation of Trust and Self-Organization –

I will be discussing self-organization more explicitly in part 3. So, here, let’s focus on the importance of trust, which is a direct result of yours and your organization’s integrity. If you fail to create an atmosphere of trust you will fail to instill self-organization. Poor organizational trust is also an indicator of lower cooperation, productivity, and sales (Davis, Mayer, & Schoorman, 1995; Davis et al., 2000).

Trust has received attention from social scientists for decades. Like wise men exploring the elephant, each different scientific field describes a different aspect of the animal. Sociologists  (Luhman, Gambetta, Barber, Giddens, Sztompka, et al) are concerned with the position and role of trust in social systems and this sociological perspective has brought important insight into the nature of trust within a system and the differing ways to measure trust among the participants in the system. A quick summary might be: trust is the strengthening and weakening glue of an organization.

Psychologists (Erikson, Deutsch, Worchel et al) focus on trust as an interpersonal experience. In general, psychology explores a range of trust issues: starting from child development studies and continuing to the effect of organizational justice (DeConick, J. B., 2010), and even looking into the impact of facial features (DeBruine, Lisa, 2002). Think of the psychology of trust as: the individual and organizational factors that foster or diminish trust.

Economics and game theory also provide valuable insight into the study of trust (cf. Nash Equilibrium, Pareto Principle). In economics, trust is a mechanism of efficiency. The more trust that exists between players, the more efficiently the system, market, or organization will work. Basically, trust produces efficiency.

My own work brings together all these disciplines together in a management 3.0 model based on:

  • The importance of trust as a precipitator of self-organization
  • The importance of your own emotional state (which affects how others perceive you)[2] for encouraging trust
  • The importance of your organization’s rules and culture in fostering trust

A brief road map for increasing trust in your organization might include:

  1. Analyzing and adjusting your own attitudes and emotions towards others; if you don’t already have it, you must develop a deeply respectful and caring concern for the welfare of others (this applies to all partners and organizational leaders who must also adopt this position).
  2. Finding the right balance between bureaucratic controls (agency) and laissez-faire or staff-latitude (stewardship). To create trust you must give trust. This means you are willing to make allowances for mistakes. You must provide both the boundaries and the support for this.
  3. As the CEO or manager, demonstrate through your questions, actions, and policies, that you understand the interests of your staff and/or team members and that their interests are reflected in the way you make decisions.
  4. Model sincere patience, kindness, and understanding when you are hearing about errors and mistakes, or when investigating a problem. This will encourage organizational members to speak freely even if they are at fault.
  5. It is important to encourage and support even when the creative efforts of others fail. One part of fostering creativity and innovation is to accept the inevitable failures.
  6. Promote the importance of vulnerability by both modeling it and encouraging it through constructive contact. This means being willing to hear and consider the criticism of others. And always be conscious of the way you deliver criticism. Constructive criticism comes from a personal desire on your part to help people do their best.
  7. Involve stakeholders in a participatory way. This means allowing people to influence decisions to the extent that the outcome of a decision will influence them. The more the people you are interacting with feel they have influence over the outcomes of the decisions and actions in your organization that affect them, the more trust they will feel.

All of these directives require a fairly radical reassessment of organizational priorities, as well a will to change. So you must demonstrate very strong leadership.

As for trust building exercises and outdoor adventure weekends, they will provide limited or cost-ineffective value. Only a long-term commitment to maintaining a culture that fosters trust will pay off. In the context of the road map I have described above, it is possible to use “team-building” retreats as a tool in your culture of collaboration.

4) Knowledge Sharing –

In recreating your organization, the way you manage knowledge is crucial. In the past, knowledge management was given scant attention and was basically a default process that arose from other management and sales objectives. Scientific study in the last decade has made knowledge sharing a discipline in its own right.[3]

Some of the more obvious benefits of knowledge management are:

  • Sharing of valuable organizational information throughout organizational hierarchy.
  • Can avoid re-inventing the wheel, reducing redundant work.
  • Reduced training time for new employees
  • Retention of Intellectual Property after the employee leaves if such knowledge can be codified

Additionally, you can improve the overall talent of your teams and improve more abstract capabilities such as innovative thinking and problem solving. Studies have shown that fusing talent management with knowledge management practices can help:

  • Identify key knowledge workers,
  • Improve knowledge creation, as well as,
  • Information sharing,
  • The development of knowledge competencies, and
  • Knowledge retention.[4]

For startups and smaller organizations, the importance of instituting knowledge sharing from the beginning is paramount. It is much harder to install a structurally deep process like a knowledge sharing system once an organization has ballooned in size. The time to start is now or ideally from day one.

A simple way to conceptualize an enhanced knowledge management system is to simply focus on prioritizing knowledge sharing over the knowledge itself. This does not mean that you discount the importance of acquiring knowledge in its various forms. It just means that you value the sharing of knowledge more.

The very act of constructing mechanisms and processes as well as investing time into new knowledge sharing behaviors, changes the underlying dynamics of an organization. If you mange  organizational structure, technology, and expectations with conscious attention to the sharing of knowledge, a knowledge sharing environment will emerge easily. Additionally, the further you press the urgency of sharing knowledge, the more likely that a feedback loop will result. In this situation the collective awareness of the organization fuels an increasing attachment to knowledge sharing.

5) Operational Transparency 

Transparency is organizational honesty. However, because of the way it challenges the egos of founders, CEOs, and upper management, it is difficult to carry out. It takes personal courage to commit to radical transparency. I like to use the word radical because it means, going to the root of something. The value of radical transparency to your organization is manifold:

  • Transparency and organizational honesty fosters trust[5]
  • Improves participation and the quality of decision making
  • Fosters humility in upper management
  • Improves productivity by improving morale
  • Engages workers more constructively when the organization faces challenges.

Radical transparency is a management approach in which, (ideally) all decision-making occurs publicly. Daniel Goleman used the term in his book Ecological Intelligence. Radical transparency goes further than standard accountability. It requires transparent decision-making from the beginning. Accountability, on the other hand, is a process of verifying the quality of decisions or actions after the fact.

Side note: Exceptions to full transparency typically include data related to personal privacy, security, and passwords or keys necessary for access required to carry out publicly negotiated decisions. Additionally, sharing big plans prematurely is not transparency and is potentially counter-productive.

Here are some steps you can take to increase transparency in your organization and in your teams:

  • Make your decisions and the reasons for such decisions available to examination and evaluation by the people influenced by those decisions. The more your decision will influence them, the more access they should have to your reasoning and background surrounding the issue.
  • “Institutionalized self-critique engenders trustworthiness” (Fort, 1996). Do not be afraid to evaluate yourself and your organization publicly. For example, you could keep an edited corporate blog that stakeholders contribute to, logging your victories and your missteps. Everybody knows nothing goes perfectly. Having the humility and the honesty to share your foibles and failures will gain public goodwill and trust. It will also make your successes more meaningful when you publish them.
  • Avoid hyperbole at all costs. Speak in a matter-of-fact or even in a deprecating tone. The more realistic you are, the more trust others will have in you and your organization or team.
  • Ann Florini (1998), of the Brookings Institute, states, “Secrecy means deliberately hiding your actions; transparency means deliberately revealing them”, do not approach transparency as an abstract or general concept. Have a deliberate plan about how you will reveal your actions. This can include: weekly statements, monthly state of the union addresses and published logs as just a few options. Use your imagination and be deliberate.
  • Create a process to check in regularly with yourself and with other partners and team leaders. This is so you can review regularly and with rigorous honesty how you are doing individually and organizationally against the big four issues of transparency (Rawlins 2006):

1. Substantive information – is the information relevant, clear, complete, correct, reliable and verifiable?

2. Participatory environment – do stakeholders feel involved? Are there efficient mechanisms for feedback? Is substantive information easily accessible?  Does your knowledge management help members identify what information they will need?

3. Accountability – are you sharing information that covers more than one side of controversial issues? Do you practice full disclosure even if it might be damaging to the organization? Are you willing to admit mistakes?  Are you holding your organization and your teams to standards well above industry standards?

4. Secrecy – are you allowing yourself or organizational leaders to fall into counter-productive secrecy practices? These can include: behaviors that reflect a lack of openness, lowering the bar for secrecy, sharing only part of the story, using language that obfuscates meaning, and only disclosing when required.

Overall transparency requires that leadership models it. You must exhibit the behavior you hope to inspire in others. Doing so is sometimes uncomfortable but it will make you a better, stronger, more respected leader

Summary of why transparency is so important:

In the new world of management 3.0 inspired business, the best way to achieve transparency is not to do or say anything you are not willing to share with the world. If your business intent is ethical and virtuous, then choose to live in a fishbowl. You will attract better people and keep them longer. You will always be in a better position to handle the inevitable mishaps. And, if you trust yourself to be an open book, your customers will trust you. Living out in the open may take getting use to, but once you do, you’ll wonder why you ever thought the fog of business was the way to go.

In part 3 of this article I will discuss self-organization and what we can learn from insects and cliques.

Stay tuned, comment and share!

Hirst, Giles; Van Knippenberg, Daan; Zhou, Jing; A cross-level perspective on employee creativity: Goal orientation, team learning behavior, and individual creativity, Academy of Management Journal, Vol 52(2), Apr 2009, 280-293.

“Just as perceptions about an individual’s ability, benevolence, and integrity will have an impact on how much trust the individual can garner, these perceptions also affect the extent to which an organization will be trusted” From an Integrative Model of Organizational Trust; Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman; The Academy of Management Review; Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1995).

 Morey, Daryl; Maybury, Mark; Thuraisingham, Bhavani (2002). Knowledge Management: Classic and Contemporary Works. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 451. ISBN 0262133849.

 Eoin Whelan, Marian Carcary, (2011) “Integrating talent and knowledge management: where are the benefits?”, Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 15 Iss: 4, pp.675 – 687

Brad L. Rawlins; Measuring the relationship between organizational transparency and employee trust; Public Relations Journal Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2008

How to Create Remarkable Teams – Part 1

Atma figured out how to build remarkable teamsRemarkable teams – the Hallmark of Management 3.0

You are making plans for the success of your business. But is building remarkable teams at the top of your agenda? They way you build teams represents an enormous opportunity to set yourself apart from competitors and increase the likelihood of your success.

Over the last twenty years, social scientists have unearthed a mountain of valuable data and insight about team building. This two-part article will introduce you to what I consider the most important and essential ideas. To begin taking advantage of this knowledge, you will need to know two things about remarkable teams: what they look like (this week’s article) and how you create them (next week’s article).

What remarkable teams look like – part one: culture

Remarkable teams are a product of culture and change management. Let’s talk about culture first. Culture represents the environment, ecology, and underlying intentions of an organization. This is why it is such an important topic to organizational psychologists. Simply put, culture is both the cause and effect of an organization’s greatness or its dysfunction.

When it comes to building remarkable teams, culture is the cause on four different levels:

1) Materially, culture is the fabric of the relations between members.

2) Formally, culture represents the mostly unspoken rules that drive the organization, which influence the nature of team building.

3) Culture is also the efficient cause of an organization’s psychology. One way this happens, is when the cofounders, either knowingly or (usually) unknowingly bring in the dynamics that create the company’s overall nature and mood (i.e. the degree of function and dysfunction present). This in turn determines the kind of teams that develop.

4) Culture represents the aims and purposes of the organization. Goals shape the organization by pulling it into existence. This is similar to the way the direction you choose, determines the type of journey you experience.  And so, the way you first think about and start a project or business is of seminal importance. Decisions made early have an exponential impact on later efforts, including team building. The way an organization’s purpose influences its culture is known as the final cause.

Now that I have stated the importance of culture (maybe even overstated 😉 ) what does a functional, team-supportive culture look like?

Inspirational and engaging

Scientists have developed studies[i] around two important characteristics that contribute to functional teams:

  1. Psychological Empowerment- the way the culture supports and inspires the individual team members. [Optimal state: “My company culture makes me feel like I can do this.”]
  2. Affective Commitment – the way individual team members feel about their involvement and the other team members. [Optimal state: “I like my team and feel like a valuable part of it.”]

You can assess your team culture in two ways: first, by the degree to which your staff feels inspired to take part and their confidence for accomplishing their tasks. Secondly, by looking at the way they feel about their role in the team and how their interaction with the group makes them feel.  This means that you need to become very sensitive to your staff’s emotional state. You do this by momentarily setting aside your own emotions and tuning into what those around you are feeling. The information about their emotional state is in their faces, their voices, their body language, and the way they treat each other. With practice you can become better and better at noticing and analyzing this rich stream of data.

What remarkable teams look like – part two: change management

Fixing a less than ideal culture is known as change management. The name stems from the challenge of establishing new protocols and changing an organization’s psychology. As you know, humans tend to resist change. Your job as the leader, is to make change easier.

How to start: assess your ability to meet the following three goals of change management:

  1. Empowering leadership – how well do you encourage autonomy, self-management, collaboration, creativity and group problem solving?
  2. Relationship conflict – how good are you at diffusing and redirecting group tension, conflicts, animosity, and non-productivity?
  3. Personality development – do you personally inspire individual team members to practice functional behaviors such as open-mindedness, humility, patience, etc…? And equally or more importantly  – does your company culture foster these traits?

Taking an honest look at how well you empower teams, manage conflict, and inspire others will give you a sense of where you stand in the pursuit of building great teams.

So far, I have discussed contributing factors to recognizing remarkable teams. So, now the question is, how do you create remarkable teams? The answer is, first you build them to be remarkable, and then you manage them to stay remarkable. And that is the topic of PART 2 of How to Create Remarkable Teams… where I will cover the five building blocks of collaboration and describe how to manage through self-organization.

Stay tuned, subscribe, and share!

[i] Gilad Chen, Payal Nangia Sharma,Suzanne K. Edinger, and Debra L. Shapiro -University of Maryland; Jiing-Lih Farh -Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Motivating and Demotivating Forces in Teams: Cross-Level Influences of Empowering Leadership and Relationship Conflict, Journal of Applied Psychology 2011, Vol. 96, No. 3, 541–557

Facial Analytics: a management 3.0 secret weapon (part 2)

Part two: The Origins of Facial Analytics (part one is here)

Descriptions of  a pseudo science known as face reading exist in the ancient literature of Greece, China, and Europe. While those ideas have been largely discredited by science, a new practice of facial analytics is emerging as a progressive science for psychological assessment.  Here is a brief introduction into its modern origins and potential applications:

In the 1960’s western psychologists considered the face a meager source of mostly inaccurate, culture-specific, stereotypical information (Bruner & Tagiuri, 1954). But things were about to change and new research on this subject of facial emotions would have a dramatic impact in developing the science of facial analytics.  Silvan Tomkins, a well-known American clinical psychologist and personality theorist was instrumental in convincing two of his mentees, Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard to pursue research independently of each other on non-verbal communication of facial emotions. They discovered that humans, across varied cultures, both literate and preliterate, shared agreement between emotions and the corresponding facial expressions (Ekman & Friesen, 1971 and Izard 1971). In other words,  an innate grammar of emotional expression links all humans.  This research has had many implications in developing the practice of facial analytics and taking it out of the realm of the mystical and into the empirical. For example, this evidence of universality both required and justified nearly a decade of work to develop methods for measuring the movements of the face. Ekman and his partner Wallace Friesen developed the Facial Action Coding System, which was the first and most comprehensive technique for scoring all visually distinctive, observable facial movements.  A few years later, in 1979, Izard published his own technique for selectively measuring those facial movements that he thought were relevant to emotion.

Universality of emotions is the key

According to Ekman a universal emotion requires a distinctive expression so another human from any culture can know instantly from a glance how a person is feeling. By that measure one would only have to look at the evidence on how many emotions have distinctive expressions to determine the number of universal emotions. Originally distinctive universal expressions were identified for anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. Overtime Ekman added:  contempt, surprise, amusement, embarrassment, guilt, pride, contentment, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure and shame.  So far, this brings the list of emotions that have a universal facial expression to fifteen.

Fifteen universal emotions may not seem like a very complete system for describing the richness of human emotions. If you remember, however, that there are anywhere from 40 to as many 196 muscles in the face(depending on how you enumerate them) and each muscle can take from two to nine different positions; you end up with an astronomical number of possible muscle movements or nuances of emotional expression. If you add to these to the potential permutations and combinations of emotions such as a happy configuration followed by a sadness configuration, which is very different from a sadness configuration followed by a happy configuration-you can see how the possibilities approach infinity.

Given the complexity of possibilities, the fifteen fundamental emotions serve as templates and organizing principles for interpreting an otherwise overwhelming amount of data.  Fifteen universal emotions give a meaningful and sufficiently discrete set while at the same time allowing a range of expressiveness so vast it gives weight to the idea that the face the most sophisticated information system on planet Earth.

FOX TV jumps on the bandwagon

Famed film and television producer Brian Grazer created a show based largely on Dr. Ekman’s work. The show “Lie to Me” has been running on the Fox network for several seasons. The show however tends to focus on facial analytics as system for deception detection, which is only a small part of face reading’s potential.

Dr. Ekman studied the changes in human emotional expression in the moment. Consequently Dr. Ekman only presented part of facial analytic’s bigger picture.  What were missing were the long-term implications of persistent emotional states and the ability to see the face as an index to the mind.

A breakthrough uncovers a new science

While Ekman focused on the easier to quantify facial data called micro-expressions, it was the work of Dr. Michael Lincoln that led to the psychologically holistic applications of facial analytics.

Michael J. Lincoln was born in Berkley, California in 1933. He earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Oregon, where he spent several years teaching, research assisting and working at mental hospitals. He was one of the first psychologists successful in the integration of behavioral and psychoanalytic approaches. Along with all this clinical work, he served as a professor of psychology at the University for several years, where he trained students in professional clinical psychology, conducted research, and taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

In the late 1960’s and early 70’s in the midst of this extraordinarily intense career work and the accompanying high case loads Dr. Lincoln uncovered the holistic face-reading process based upon modern psychological assessment approaches. The unimaginably massive amounts of data from Dr. Lincoln’s case load may have contributed to the realization after a time that he was able to predictively complete the patient’s case file with nearly 100% accuracy, without having done the interview.  Naturally, he found this fascinating and unusual.  So he began systematically studying the phenomenon. Over time he unearthed literature from the East and the West about the process and integrated that which could be empirically tested and added to his understanding of facial analytics.

What makes it possible (the face as index of the mind)

Let’s take a closer look at the potential for facial analytics. Consider the intersection of face reading and human emotional and psychological development from birth.

As each human child develops, many factors will shape and influence their personalities, perceptions and experience of life. How the growing human interacts with her or his environment definitely registers on their face.  Infant studies have all built a case for the impact of maternal facial expression on the child (Stein et al, 2009, Klinnert, 1983). For example adult behaviors such as being withdrawn or people avoidant are sometimes traced back to sensing as a child a contradiction between words and facial expressions. (Lincoln, 1989)  According to Dr. Lincoln, the developmental process is like an inverted pyramid. In this respect, seemingly small and insignificant events can have a cascading effect on the child’s development well beyond the proportion of the original interaction.  For instance if the kid gets the message from the mother’s face, “I wish you weren’t here,” that is tantamount to getting a message from the in loco deity that “I don’t belong here, God says so!”  From here one can see patterns of shame, guilt, frustration and a host of accompanying scripts, especially in the area of self esteem. The child translates the original facial expression-exchange as, “I am not worthy of love.” This in turn initiates thought patterns and behaviors that reinforce the feeling of not being worthy.

To complicate and place even more importance on the developmental years is the intensity and speed at which human interactions occur.  Import research and discovery on this subject was done by William Condon in the 60’s. Using motion picture film Condon noticed blurs in the single frames of film shot at the normal 24 frames per second.  By speeding up the rate of filming (which slows everything down during playback) he was able to prove that human behavior can occur at rate of 64 pulses per second. Each pulse involves a different pattern of subtle moving in muscles and body parts. In addition to this Condon was able to demonstrate that humans interact as fast as 16 times per second. This means an unimaginably rapid and potentially dense amount of information is being shared from person to person. (Edward T. Hall Beyond Culture Anchor Books, 1977)  This subtle and high speed interaction had been given the name, Kinesic Dance, by Ray Birdwhistle.

In addition, research has shown an extraordinarily high amount of shifting influence of the mother over the child In respect of punishments that are particularly effective in socializing guilt (which leverages fear). According to Kemper in his 1987 paper on the number of emotions, “Sears, Maccoby, and Levin (1957) found that the most important was withdrawal of love. Hence, the most potent fear aroused in the punishment situation may be fear of loss of love. Where there is no love to lose, the fear would ordinarily be considerably less; the likelihood is then much reduced of linking the several elements of fear, forbidden act, punishment, and label.

Hoffman noted that the “available evidence suggests that in the 2- 4 year-old range children experience pressures from mothers to change their behavior on the average of every six to eight minutes throughout their waking hours, and in the main they end up complying” (Hoffman, 1977, p. 93). Demos (1982) also observed a change over time in the pattern of mothers’ evaluations, comments, and voice tones. When their infants were 9-15 months old, the mothers’ vocal productions were mainly positive. By the 21-month period, mothers had shifted to a more irritated, perfunctory, and didactic tone, oriented, as in the materials reported by Hoffman, toward obtaining behavior change. Certainly, the high rate of behavior change parents require of their children by the second year is not achieved in most cases without punishment of which the child ordinarily develops some fear. Indeed, before gaining the ability to reason through the grounds for a behavior change, children must necessarily control their conduct largely through fear of the aversive consequences learned through previous punishment.”

Because every emotion experienced ends up being repeatedly expressed on the child’s face a history of the dynamics, and character of the these interactions is trace into each human face.

A graphic anecdote about child rearing

The most graphic example of this phenomenon was the film footage of a mother holding twins (Condon, 196?). In the five-minute film one twin start to fuss and cry while the other remains calm. When they ran the film in slow motion it came out that the mother and her preferred twin were involved in a mutual validation experience sixteen times a second while she and the other twin were involved in a mutual rejection pattern sixteen times a second. By the end of five minutes he had received 4800 rejections. When seen in slow motion, the impact is overwhelming and the implications staggering (Michael Lincoln, 2007).

This type of interaction should give you a sense of how the face is able to record these patterns of behavior, like grooves cut into a record; emotions become behavioral traces which become part of a permanent index of the mind. As muscular reactions to the environment repeat over and over they even begin to mold the bone and cartilaginous structures of the face.  This constructed legacy becomes a part of what a face reader identifies when reading a person’s history as it has been recorded on their face.

Conclusion (and caution)

Learning facial analytics sets you apart from others. Knowing more than the person you are dealing with knows about you is power, and with power comes responsibility.  You become part of an élite sect with a clear advantage over others. It is up to you to use this advantage for good and humanitarian purposes and not selfish ends.