Bias for Action

… or the Anti-“Somebody else’s problem field

At one point I worked at a company where I would waste 5 minutes every time I wrote an email, thinking about the recipients of that mail. Not about who needed the information, but about who would be pissed – for vanity or political reasons -, if I didn’t include them. Besides time it wasted a lot of my energy because I disliked these games so much. A “cover your own ass” environment like that is toxic for initiative. It leads to a “not my job” attitude, if even slight deviation yields repercussions.

How much could we have achieved if us lower level employees could have run with our ideas? If we had been encouraged to show initiative and implement improvements right away?
Fortunately I work in the promised land right now: People running with their ideas and taking responsibility happen all the time at my employer and it’s awesome!

Example: Demo time

It was demo day. For us that means that all teams present what they launched in the previous 2 weeks. All in all 30-50 people. Usually we do this in the big conference room, but it was closed that week due to water damage.

10 minutes prior to the demo my colleague looked up from his screen and asked “Huh, where are we going to demo with the conf room out of order?”

In pre-agile 2010 times that would have been it. End of story. We would have assumed that “somebody”, e.g. the scrum masters, took care of it. All teams would have congregated somewhere and spend 10+ minutes watching someone set up a projector and screen and laptop and … 40 people looking on for 10 minutes? That’s a whole work day we would have collectively wasted.

Not nowadays, though. We were aware of the problem and we were capable of solving it. So we did.We used 10 minutes of 4 team members to get the equipment, set it up and gather everyone in the new location. Everything was set up and running at demo time. Nobody bored. Nobody annoyed. No time wasted.

How did we get here?

What happened between pre-agile 2010 and today? Do we just have more initiative? Though we do hire differently now, I think that only a small part of it boils down to how much drive individual employees have.

Here’s what’s IMO more important: Knowing that #1 you are permitted – heck, encouraged! – to improve whatever needs improving and #2 you have the time to do so. Your time and the time of other people that you need to make it happen. (Money is less important, but it helps that even bigger amounts are just one question away.)

#1 is a cultural thing that seeps in over time through seeing examples. I’ve always had initiative with smaller things but it took me at least a year to internalize that even bigger changes are possible and I should try them.

Coming back to the demo day example, it was clear to us that it was undesirable for 30+ people to wait for everything to be set up. That it would be a wise use of our development time to save a lot of time for everyone else.

Self-organizing at its best.

That demo day is one small, very specific example. On a much wider scale we have embedded #2 = time into our process. Every other Friday (“Open Friday”) we are free to work on whatever we think is important for the company. We combine this 10% slack time with an Open Space and the results are pretty spectacular. This agile-y clichee of leadership being fluid and everyone leading in some regard or other? It’s possible and magic happens when it does.

I’ve only realized how much Open Friday enables our pro-action attitude while writing my paper for Agile 2015 LINK on “Thank God it’s Open Friday!”. I’ll write more on this topic once I’ve given the talk on August 3rd. If you’re attending Agile 2015 I’d love to meet you there!

Published by Corinna Baldauf

Corinna Baldauf has filled every Scrum role there is and then some. Currently she spends most of her days writing and occasionally facilitating retrospectives. She's interested in lean, agile, coaching, leadership & UX. You can follow her on Twitter, subscribe to her (Retromat) newsletter and buy her books.