The Advice Process

Last time we looked at some of the problems organisations face around decision making using traditional top down or consensus based techniques. We also introduced the idea of collaborative non consensus as a decision making technique - where everyone can discuss the decision but not everyone has to agree to the decision for it to be ratified. These can range from fairly simple systems where people can say “yes”, “no” or "can live it it" which allows them to raise an objection but not veto the whole decision, right up to fairly involved systems based around the idea of principles and objections - objections based not on just not liking an idea but on violating some fundamental principle that the organisation lives by.

While principled systems work well for organisations that are deeply in touch with their principles, other organisations may need a more structured approach. One such approach is the Advice Process which was developed at an organisation called AES many years ago and was documented in Frederic Laloux's wonderful book Reinventing Organisations. The Advice process is a simple, structured decision making process that involves 4 steps -

  • Deciding who decides

  • The Proposal

  • Seeking Advice

  • The Decision

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Collaborative decision making

Decision making is something a lot of organisations struggle with. Particularly when they decide to adopt a more agile way of doing things. Traditionally, organisations were geared around top down decision making - people asked their boss to make a decision, they would ask their boss and so on until it reached a level in the hierarchy where someone had the right level of authority and a decision was made. Or the request got lost somewhere on the way and nothing happened. Or it got misinterpreted and the wrong thing happened. And if a decision was made, it was generally made in the absence of any real, on the ground information.

This isn't new knowledge. People have known the problems with a top down decision making model for a long time now. Organisations have been trying to move to a more decentralised model but unfortunately, what had replaced top down decisions is consensus decision making. This sounds lovely - we bring everyone together, we discuss the issue and we all agree on what to do. Consensus decision making works really well in small groups - families, villages, small organisations. It doesn't scale well though. Have you ever tried to get a group of more than two or three people to agree on where to go for dinner? Then starved to death for the next few hours while the argument goes round and round in circles? Now imagine that in an organisation of thousands of people. That's how badly consensus decision making doesn't scale.

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Dave MartinComment
Back to our regular schedule

Apologies fo the mini hiatus there folks. I thought I knew how to drive the new blogging platform but given that the last 4 posts got stuck in a review queue instead of being published, clearly not. I have fixed up the queue, pushed though the missing posts and I think I know what I’m doing now so it shouldn't happen again.

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Dave MartinComment
Agile Culture Part 5B - How To Enhance Safety

Last time we started to look at safety and what that could mean for your organisation. We looked at some historic disasters (and there are many more than those BTW, I wasn't short of examples) and how a lack of safety played into those. We also started to look at what we could learn from those disasters about the sorts of safety issues that could be lurking in your organisation. Today we'll continue looking at safety and how we can start to build a culture based on respect and trust. Before I do though, I should show you just how prevalent safety problems are in the workplace, because you may well be thinking "that can't be my organisation". Guess what, it probably is.

In 2018, The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey canvassed 1,176 Australian employees and found that: 

Only 23 per cent of lower income-earning frontline employees felt their workplace was “psychologically safe” to take a risk, compared to 45 per cent of workers on significantly higher incomes.
A “psychologically safe” workplace is characterised by a climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people feel comfortable being themselves to make mistakes or take risks in their work.

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Agile Culture Part 5 - Enhancing Safety

So far we have looked at four of the five aspects of agile culture:

  • Supportive leadership

  • Striving for quality

  • Becoming a Learning Organisation

  • Enabling people

If an organisation can embrace those four they will truly be an agile organisation. So if all they need are those four, why is there a fifth? The fifth aspect, Enhancing Safety, is in the list because without it none of the others can happen. Without a sense of safety, you won't get supportive leadership, you won't get a focus on quality, you won't get learning and you certainly won't get enabled people. What you will get is what you probably have now - people doing exactly what they are told, not asking questions, not challenging, not pushing boundaries, not setting challenging goals and escalating all decisions upwards. You will get an organisation that is risk averse (that's not a good thing BTW... a lot of organisations brag about being risk averse, what they really mean is that they manage risk carefully; being risk averse means being afraid to take any risks at all, like new products, innovation of any kind, process improvements...), ossified and incapable of change.

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Agile Culture Part 4 - Enabling People

Last time we looked at what it means to be a learning organisation. There are obvious benefits to having a learning organisation - better decisions, better products, better processes, better, well, just about everything. There are also some non-obvious benefits that are, in some ways, even more powerful than the obvious stuff - it turns out that learning is extremely motivating for people. Learning organisations tend to have very highly motivated, switched on, dedicated people in them and that gives them a huge advantage. It's not just that these organisations attract those sort of people, but the really amazing thing is that the people already in the organisation become more motivated when the organisation embraces learning.

It turns out that learning - getting better at something - is one of the key things that motivate us. When we talk about motivators in a work context we tend not to think about things like learning. We tend to think more about things like pay and bonuses. Psychologists who work in this field divide up motivators into two types - extrinsic (meaning coming from outside) and intrinsic (coming from inside). Things like pay, bonuses, company cars and the like are extrinsic motivators. Things like learning are intrinsic motivators. Guess which turns out to be more powerful? Yep. Intrinsic motivators win. Extrinsic motivators tend to work in reverse - the lack of pay is a de-motivator, but once you are paid fairly, more pay does not equal more motivation. So, what are intrinsic motivators and how do they work?

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Agile Culture Part 3 - Learning Organisation

Last time, we looked at Striving for Quality and how that means not just ensuring that what you produce isn't simply defect free, but also the right thing, and produced in the right way. To do that, an organisation needs to be able to learn. This is a problem for many organisations. In many organisations, learning is not only not encouraged but is often unofficially discouraged, or worse, it's officially and actively discouraged. I don't mean training budgets getting reduced here. Learning new skills is an important part of organisational learning and people should be given the opportunity to do so, but I'm talking about something different. I'm talking about an organisation learning whether what they are building is the right thing or not. And whether the way they are building it is the right way to build it Or whether the organisational structure they have is the right structure. What I'm really talking about is organisations learning how to become better at everything they do. 

Most organisations are afraid of learning. Why? It seems like such an obvious question - is what we are building, what people want? Organisations will say they are interested. They will quote sales figures and user numbers and so on, but dig a little deeper and they shy away. Did that particular feature meet its goals? Don't want to know. Did that project succeed in the market? Don't want to know. Why? Because if it isn't performing, someone in the organisation was wrong. And they might be important. So it's best not to find out. I have asked about whether a particular feature that a team worked on was meeting its user uptake goals and been told "We don't measure that because that way no-one gets fired for telling the product director that they picked the wrong thing to build". Organisations are afraid of learning because they are afraid of failure.

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Agile Culture Part 2 - Strive For Quality

Last time we looked at supportive leadership and how that can really let people in an organisation become empowered.That feeling of empowerment will vanish pretty quickly if they feel that they just aren't achieving good results. Nothing is more demotivating than feeling that you have worked all day and achieved nothing, or made things worse. This is where quality comes in. People need to feel that they are doing a quality job to be really happy. Pride in your work is one of the biggest motivating factors out there. Quality is also great for an organisation. After all, if it's not producing quality, how likely is it to stay in business long term?

Now, when I mentioned quality, I'm betting a bunch of you immediately thought about things like defects, and testing, That's what most people associate with quality - building the thing right. But that's not all there is to quality. By itself, building the thing right only ensures that what you build is defect free. Is it the right thing? Building the right thing is an even more important aspect of quality. And what about the way we build it? Is it quality if our processes are bad so that what we build is late to market or too expensive? An organisation needs to consider all 3 aspects of quality before they can really say that they are producing a quality product. 

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