Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What’s breaking collaboration at the workplace and Strategies for Effective Collaboration

Despite the unprecedented growth in the capabilities of communication tools in recent years to connect to and bring together a lot of people very quickly (something that is both found useful and at the same time feared by even big governments and large corporations) and despite the big changes they (social networking tools) are already bringing to our personal and social lives, effective workplace collaboration remains a challenge.
Being able to communicate faster with more people doesn't necessarily mean that we can now collaborate better. 
These tools may even be adding to our distraction at work.
So why is collaboration difficult at the workplace? What makes collaboration ineffective at the workplace? And what can we do to make collaboration effective?
'In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.'
~ Charles Darwin
Any human enterprise is a story of collaboration.
But the story we are more often told is that of competing, of having to out running others to succeed in school, on the playground, in life, in love, and at work.
So then we arrive at our place of work all trained to compete. But to get anything meaningful done we must collaborate. It's a paradox.
Yes, we need to compete for ideas and initiatives at the workplace, or the best wouldn't come forth, but often effective collaboration becomes victim to competing ideas and self-interests at the work place.
The paradox must be resolved for effective collaboration. To do things better.
Throwing incentives, motivational lectures, mandates, processes and programs at the problem, more often than not fail to get the desired results. Mostly because they fail to clarify the Why? What? How? Who? When? or create the necessary motivation for collaboration to work effectively.
But how do we bring about this clarity at the workplace?
Here are some methods we've discovered from people most successful in bringing effective collaboration to work.

The Big Idea

“…First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of  landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth…
…This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization, and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful [inter-agency] rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel…”
~May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy
Everyone wants to part of a big idea. It is something that gives much meaning to their work. People lend themselves more willingly to a big idea. When we define our work not just in terms of the content and immediate rewards for us, but in terms the big difference our work can make, it creates the pull that stretches the team beyond ordinary efforts and differences. 
One of the big ideas that drive us a team is - To support the pursuit of excellence in every enterprise. Because we believe it can be a force for a lot of good.

Shared Vision

“The key venue for freewheeling discourse was the Monday morning executive team gathering, which started at 9 and went for three or four hours. The focus was always on the future: What should each product do next? What new things should be developed? Jobs used the meeting to enforce a sense of shared mission at Apple. This served to centralize control, which made the company seem as tightly integrated as a good Apple product, and prevented the struggles between divisions that plagued decentralized companies.” 
~ Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
It's easy to get lost in details of getting things done. Changes in the business environment, customer expectations and technology landscape, brings in new challenges nearly every day. The exigencies of today can undermine what we plan to build for tomorrow.
Examining the vision we have for the future regularly in order to take in the new learning and ensuring alignment with the daily work, makes it easier for the team to pull together.

Defining the Aim

“It is management's job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system. The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. Everyone must understand the damage and loss to the whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit center.”
“People need to know how their job contributes.”
“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without the aim, there is no system.”
~ W. Edward. Deming, Out of Crisis
One of most effective thing we've found here is to plot the flow of how work will get done. End to end. As soon as we have this plot, the choices for methods, people, tools etc. begin to show up, making it easier to organize and manage the work. 
Knowing how the work flows, makes the interdependencies of the team members clear to all and therefore elicits a more collaborative response from them.


“What’s the best way to make progress toward your goal? In our experience, it’s to build a prototype, an early working model that has become a key tool of design thinkers….”
“The reason for prototyping is experimentation, the act of creating forces you to ask questions and make choices. It also gives you something you can show to and talk about with other people.”
“Besides speeding up that process of experimentation, prototypes are easy to throw away when they fail. Creativity requires cycling lots of ideas.”
~ Tom Kelly & David Kelly, Creative Confidence, IDEO.
When it comes to building thing we know little about (and that's how it is when we're working on innovating things or on a new piece of technology) prototyping helps us figure things out faster. Everybody involved in building the prototype and working with it quickly picks up the limits, possibilities, and pitfalls. 
Prototyping is an antidote to wasteful arguments and costly mistakes that can bring the whole team down.

Creating Checklists

"'s not because we have bad doctors or bad nurses. We have great people, great drugs. But making all of the steps come together in such a way that nothing falls between the cracks, we're not great at that." 
~Dr. Atul Gawande, Surgeon, On the need for Checklists.
The simple checklist has turned out to be amongst the most important developments in medicine. Especially in an emergency care situation where a missed step could be fatal, the checklists helps ensures that nothing is missed. It helps coordinate the actions and decisions of the whole team working on the emergency.
The checklist is one of our favorite tools when it comes to pulling together a lot of big and small pieces together to get something done. We have checklists for nearly everything we do. The ticks on the checklist are a simple way to know how things are progressing, who and what is dragging things down and if we have gotten all that needs to be done. It's simple yet powerful.
I will explore some more methods in follow-up blogs. Meanwhile, please do share your ideas & learning on collaboration at the workplace. We're eager to learn.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

How to kill what kills innovation before it kills your business

Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. ” ~ Peter Drucker,

I want to briefly write about what we’ve learnt about what kills Innovation in an enterprise and the antidote to it. I’ll touch upon just a few things and try to back my arguments with few examples from our company.
So what do we need for Innovation?
Of course there are many answers to this question, depending on your perspective, situation and experience. But I want to talk about something fundamental - Space.
Space is fundamental to any creation. It can be as simple as a clean sheet of paper or it can be more complicated like having time and resource to work on new ideas and initiatives.
I want to deal with the later here. For businesses large and small (so also for individuals) creating space is fundamental to renewal and sustainability, especially so for tech and tech driven industries (which incidentally encompasses nearly everything today).
And how do we create Space? What constrains it?
There are many ways here and one of them certainly is to create extra resources. But then it’s not a choice automatically and easily available to a lot of business. Especially the ones that desperately need it.
I’ll leave out the individuals at the moment and focus on organisations and businesses, touching upon a few Operational choices first, that we need to make to create the space for innovation.
So what fills up the space and kills innovation?
First, Complexity.
Complexity fills up space very quickly, eating up time and resource and management bandwidth, killing Innovation and eventually the business.
Let me illustrate this by an example from our company. Prior to moving to the cloud, we were running an enterprise software business i.e. we were installing our software on the customers servers. What that meant was that we were dealing with a lot of variations with a virtual responsibility for nearly every layer of the IT infrastructure. If the email malfunctioned for any reason at all, it was our problem. The resources, team capacities, equipment’s, policies, cultures, all changed from one location to the other. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that for 90%+ of our time we were dealing with repetitive maintenance work. It was tough very very tough. Add to this, the reluctance of the IT teams to permit quick upgrades, and us having many versions of the software floating around, further multiplying the complexity. It was nearly impossible to deliver a uniform good experience to the customer no matter how hard we worked. It was tough Physically and Psychologically. There was little space left to take up innovation & new initiatives.
Moving to the cloud as a delivery platform for our software, changed all that. We now had to deal with a single site, with a uniform and scalable infrastructure. That hugely cut down operational complexities, freeing up a lot of space for us to work on innovation.
What is making your business complex? What are the variations that are adding complexity and eating up the resources without adding much value in return? Those are the questions that a business must ask routinely to free up the space for innovation
Second, Lack of Flexibility
Lack of flexibility in your operations leaves no room for experimentation and in turn kills innovation.
Again, because the of the limitations of the enterprise software model, it was hard to find and set-up resources for experimentation. And because it was such a painful exercise, it was taken up infrequently, reducing the room for experimentation.
Lack of resources is a common problem for all start-ups and being able to tap into resources on demand (as on the cloud, with its infrastructure and services model) creates room for undertaking experiments without high capital costs and high set-up and maintenance effort.
Fortunately, a number of on-demand services are being available to start-ups and small businesses today enabling them to experiment at relatively low rental costs. Such mechanisms can create considerable room for experimentation and fuel innovation.
Third, Lack of Automation
Lack of automation, keeps you busy with the mundane.
Automation can free up a lot of space from repetitive service, maintenance and management tasks. This is critical because automated systems are a lot more scalable and reliable than people driven systems & processes. It’s hard and wasteful work to keep people motivated in running repetitive tasks. Most people are not good at running disciplined processes and neither is it the best use of human intelligence. Using people to run processes takes away the space for them to be creative.
Besides, automation can take away much of what is considered as managerial tasks of monitoring processes run by people. And that can then free up management bandwidth (a very precious resource, especially if the top management is involved in it) for innovation and growth initiatives.
Lets look at things from another perspective, Culture.
What about the culture creates or limits the space for innovation?
First, something from our Statement of Values.
One of our statement of values says - Live in Possibilities, Pursue Excellence, Practice Sincerity. You have to believe in possibilities for innovation to happen. The stronger your belief in it is, the more space it creates for trying things out, for innovation. Nothing kills innovation like Cynicism.
Second, Lets look at the Rules an enterprise runs by.
One of the rules we live by is - The Customer Comes First - This may sound like a cliche and not as cool as saying Employees First, but then we’re not talking about running a people effort based service business here, where keeping a motivated staff is key to delivering great service to customers. We’re talking about innovation here. If we keep the Customers in focus, their needs through their life cycle, their life choices, their pains, it becomes a source of a lot of insights and therefore a source of many innovation opportunities.
The rules you follow can create the space or constrict it. Choose them carefully.
Third, Let’s look at company Vision as a source for creating space for innovation.
E.g. our vision statement states - Bringing the 'Collaboration Advantage' to Every Enterprise.
One of the problems with the tech business is the pace of change. It is brutal. It is why people work long hours, to catch that window of opportunity before it goes away. But if you can frame your work in a way that offers you a long continuous opportunity space, you create a much wider window of opportunity for yourself. E.g. we believe that just like the 20th century was about transportation and industrialization, the 21st century is going to be about Collaboration and Sustainability. Hundreds of new forms of collaboration are already being built, delivering big advantages and savings in effort and resources. It’s a large and continuing opportunity space. Now, collaboration and sustainability are not the only spaces available to us, like transportation and industrialization were not the only available spaces in the last century. If you can define the area of your work in the context of a large continuous and growing space, it creates the space for you to invent and reinvent yourself to tap into the opportunity offered by it.
What’s more, it may even help you stress and fret a little less about missing out on a window of opportunity.
So much for now. Hope to write more on this soon. Do let me know what you think.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The more things change the more they remain the same

We programmed first for the PLCs (programmable logic controllers) then for Microprocessors then DOS, then Windows, then Java, then the Browser, then iOS and Android and now the Cloud. 
The more things change the more they remain the same. 
Each higher level platform, opens up new possibilities (and closes some). Each new platform brings in new levels of efficiencies. Each improvement in the platform, makes it easier to adopt technology, creating a wider market. Each improvement in platform puts a greater challenge to deliver to newer (higher) levels of convenience. Each change shifts the domain of work. Each change reorganises the markets. 
Each change also brings in new challenges - e.g. today, the ability to harness collective compute power, connected (networked devices), mobile devices, centralised data stores magnifies and complicates the data security threats and the need for build stronger counter measures.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Getting around the ‘Under-funded’ problem

Your capital requirement can be pretty large if you plan to run a 24x7 critical business IT system or want to build highly scalable software applications or want to target large consumer markets, than e.g. if you want to run a boutique digital marketing business. 
When your business is underfunded, everything is compromised, the team, quality, distribution, marketing, sales system, speed…nearly everything. That slows you down. Stretching out the time it takes to reach product maturity. For a tech company this is dangerous. It is eating into your window of opportunity. The tech landscape changes fast. Also if you get in with your product at a later stage, gaining customers becomes that much harder. Much opportunity can be lost. Worse still you may miss the window of opportunity altogether.
How do you break out from this? Better still how do you avoid getting trapped in a situation like this? 
Being well funded is the obvious answer but getting funded itself is a low probability event for most start-ups. Getting well funded can be even harder, especially so in places where risk capital ecosystems are not so well developed. It might be easier to find initial capital (angel fund) than follow-up capital in such underdeveloped ecosystems. Leaving you stuck in the middle of no where at a later stage in the start-up lifecycle.
You can adjust to the low capital availability or lack of it. The real answer lies in the design of the business model. 
By innovating on the business model, you may be able to scale down your funding requirement or at least postpone it to a later stage in the business life cycle, giving you more time to work on it.
Business Models are a very effective way of getting around the shortage of funding. Its an option filled with many possibilities.
But what about the business model can you change? The simple answer lies in examining the number of parts that go into creating the engine that would generate revenues for you. The more parts there are to the business, the more is the complexity of the business and therefore, higher the cost and capital required to put it in place and run it. Simplifying the business model by reducing the number of parts that go into creating your business engine is a very effective way to bring down the capital requirement. Yes it may mean using other peoples services, sharing revenues etc. which could reduce the size of your pie, but, it may also be a surer way to gain control and find success.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mutual Respect and Growth

One of the best things I’ve learnt from Dr Adizes is the importance of Mutual Respect within the team for it to perform well. He says that the lack of Mutual Respect causes conflict, the lack of synergy within the team. It is a drain on the teams energy that it could otherwise use in overcoming obstacles to growing the enterprise. Lack of Mutual Respect at the top (between founders, owners, top mangers) can be completely destructive. Now Mutual Respect is not something that can be feigned nor can you psych yourself up for it. It is not something that can be developed in a few off sites or Mutual Appreciation camps. It can only be developed by spending a good amount of time understanding each others points of view and building out a shared understanding and vision. Of course the pre condition is honesty, sincerity and integrity on the part of the team members. And Prejudice here is poison.