An important function is often being overlooked or not taken care of in companies and organizations today – someone to take charge of the function of improving efficiency within the organization. Historically, improving efficiency was usually treated as a short-term project: any inefficiency was identified, a consultant (within or external to the organization) was found who could fix it and the problem was solved. But it is clear that in today's conditions of stiff competition, improvement in efficiency is a continuous and never-ending process. This is why every company or ship needs its own mechanic!
The conviction that new ways had to be found for developing more efficient software had already become stronger in the information technology sector in the West in the 1980s. Subsequently, many new methods were developed over the next 20–30 years for ways in which work in teams could be organized (initially in software development). In 2001, these methods were named the Agile approach to work organization, with four universal values (convictions) at their core:
- people and their mutual collaboration are more important than technological tools;
- the end result is more important than detailed instructions;
- regular communication with customers (end-users) is more important than arguing about what the customer wants;
- rapid reaction to change is more important than steely adherence to an initial plan.
The Agile approach to organizing work, with its specific principles and methods, has nowadays become a generally accepted practice, if not the fashion. However, it is important to remember: the conviction that a team’s work must be continually improved is at the basis of the Agile approach – efficiency must be consistently and constantly developed. And, someone actually has to do this and remind others of it.
Who will improve efficiency?
So, in the last 20 years, another role has inescapably snuck into the team – a person who is responsible for the impeccable operation of team processes, so that the team consistently improves its efficiency. The role is quite complex. This person has to be like the head mechanic of a ship, taking care that the ship's engine is in order and working well. At other times, observation of the work of the team must take place, and improvements suggested, based on empirical observations and the collected data. In other cases, this person has to be like a mentor or teacher helping the team to learn new techniques for improving their work efficiency.
It could be said that this role should be taken on by the team manager. But then this person will have less time for their core duties and conflict could arise in the future. A process efficiency person also must be able to sometimes say no to the manager or to defend the team from that person. Another option: a team member takes a part time role as the facilitator of the efficiency process. In such case, the team member really has to be focused on process improvement and devote half of their time to this obligation. A negative aspect – this team member will have a lower capacity for fulfilling their core duties and at times it can be hard to stand up to the team manager, even if this is in the interests of the team.
A person from the outside is in the best position to evaluate a team’s work efficiency. However, this does not have to be an expensive consultant, who at times can be afforded only for a limited time, and who does not undertake responsibility for the introduction of their recommendations. Currently, new roles are appearing at companies – coaches, mentors, process efficiency managers or people who are like ship mechanics, but work with teams rather than with an engine, namely, continually assisting in improving their collaboration, improving work efficiency and the organization’s results in this way.
This is most often a separate role in an organization (even in a team at large companies) which is subordinate to top management. These people continually observe and evaluate team efficiency in an organization and implement various focused activities for improving it. These activities are, for example, the implementation of good practice within teams, mentoring, training, the mediation of internal disputes, the introduction of new processes or tools, individual coaching, the development of organizational level guidelines or recommendations or management consultations.
It may be best to call this role a company's internal coach, which combines within it the role of consultant, project manager, teacher, mentor, leader or many others depending on the need. No, this profession cannot be acquired at university, and it is also very difficult to classify it within a catalogue of professions. But nowadays, a company which is focused on development and the continual improvement of its work cannot get by without this role.
How to improve efficiency?
If there was one answer to this question, it would be worth its weight in gold. Every organization is made-up of people and teams. People have their own specific character – personality, experience, interests, values, principles, ambitions etc. But teams have their life cycle (Tuckman’s curve):
- the formation phase when the team is created;
- the dispute phase, when the team tries to agree on a unified work approach;
- the normalization phase, when the team finally creates unified principles about how it will work;
- the performance phase, when the team finally start work optimally.
An organization’s internal coaches work with people and teams which are in a continual process of change, which is why there is no unified recipe for improving efficiency. Usually, it is first necessary to observe a team’s work and people's behaviour. After this a coach's duty is to find the most suitable way to help particular people and the team. This means that coaches themselves have to continually learn and supplement their knowledge, as well as being very careful observers and balancers of interests. They not only have to take into account the specifics of the team and people, but also be aware of the sensitive nuances which are connected with various areas of interest or influences, with the company’s internal political dynamics and cultural features. Such nuances usually remain unknown to external consultants.
The good news – some universal principles have crystallized in the past 30 years,, which can be used in many teams to improve their efficiency. First of all, it is clear to us who have gone through the painful experience of Covid-19: planning for the long term is, if not pointless, then definitely far too time consuming. That is why Agile teams (those which use various Agile practices for improving their efficiency) devote the most energy and time to short-term planning, putting together everything about what they will do in the next week, or in the coming four weeks at maximum, but no longer, in a very detailed manner.
Teams do not make special plans in the medium term (quarterly). Team leaders think more about this, merely advising hypothetical directions in development which could be important in the medium term. Famous economist John Maynard Keynes once stated that “In the long run we are all dead”. Agile teams don't particularly worry about the long term either, as only astrologists can predict the future. Nowadays the market is changing very quickly. Today's predictions about events six months or a year ahead will definitely be wrong. Therefore, only Agile team leaders take an interest in the long term, but they don't spend too much time on this either. It is important to know what the customer wants today and tomorrow, maybe the day after as well. Nobody knows what they will be thinking of in a year.
Important priorities and self-dependence
Another important feature of the Agile team is the continual determination of work priorities. This means: firstly, that all of the team’s work can be seen (visually) by all the team or even the company. Secondly, tasks are arranged in order of priority. It is important for this to be one list and the main priority must, therefore, be on the top of the list. And only one job can be like that!
One of the most important skills of the Agile team leader is the ability to prioritize the team's work, based on all of the available information (the market, competition, customer reviews, the team’s work, the organization’s goals etc.). This means – work must be continually reviewed and rearranged again correspondingly, in order of importance for the current situation. Even though organizations usually highlight the fact that employees must be flexible and must be able to adapt to changing circumstances, people like stability and predictability. Clarity about what the team will be doing in the next week or two, as well as the determination of clear priorities, provides team members with a feeling of stability.
Does anyone like it when others tell them what to do? It is much more pleasant to work out what to do and how, for oneself, isn’t it? This truth also works in teams. In Agile teams, the “bringing along principle” is important. Namely, the team leader does not get involved in micromanaging tasks but determines a clear vision or goal which the team must achieve, as well as taking care that the list of tasks to be completed is organized in order of priority. The team itself must then take on the initiative and responsibility as to which jobs it will undertake in order of priority to achieve the determined goal.
The “bringing along” is in contrast to the “pushing technique”, where the manager pushes specific jobs onto the team’s shoulders. Agile teams take on responsibility for their work themselves and determine what they will undertake to achieve in a specific timeline. In other words, they are the determiners of their own work and timeline! This type of approach in Agile teams increases not only the assumption of responsibility, but also the team’s maturity and integrity.
Finally, another universal technique which is used by nearly all Agile teams, is the continual review of team collaboration with the goal of improving its work efficiency. Usually, this is done with a specific method which is called team retrospection. Even though retrospection can be achieved in various ways, it has one basic principle: team members discuss what is working well in the team’s internal collaboration, what isn't and what could be done differently to improve it. These types of retrospections are regularly undertaken, most often specifically by organizational coaches. This is the main instrument for improving team efficiency, which requires about 30–45 minutes twice a month for the best result.
How to begin?
Management must first ask itself what is currently being done within the organization to continually improve collaboration within teams and work efficiency. Such initiatives may possibly already exist. The time has come to evaluate how important it is to each organization to survive in the context of tough competition and changing market conditions and how important improvements in efficiency are for becoming a market leader.
Internal organizational and team coaches in the West have been a necessity, rather than anything special for at least 20 years. It is a full-time job, and in large companies they even form a separate coaching team. Most frequently, these are experienced professionals with a variety of previous work experience – having worked in various sectors and roles. It is often the diversity of experience which determines how creatively and precisely a coach is able to act in problem situations.
This function needs to be correctly placed within an organization’s structure for the organization’s internal coaching to be successful. It is best to place it directly under the control of management. The role and obligations of coaches should also be explained to other employees, and also the fact that these coaches are able to help teams, as well as the type of issues that should be addressed to them.
At times, a ship's mechanic has to work behind the scenes and observe, monitor or oil the motor, at other times to put out fires or regulate the settings. This person must also convince management about improvements or capital improvements to the motor. But the ship's crew knows: the ship cannot go to sea without the mechanic. In the same way, every organization nowadays needs their own ship mechanic or internal coach.
Jānis Dirveiks – a certified Agile practitioner and presenter.
Republished from iBizness
Other articles by Jānis Dirveiks can be found here in the section Associated articles.