People Before Work – Geof Lory

My daughters, Jenna and Erika, were nine and eight when Beth and I were married and she came into our lives as wife and stepmother. We had dated for a couple years, so the family situation was not entirely new to any of us. However, the subtleties and nuances of everyday living together are different than dating. We all had a lot to learn about each other.

The first weekend we were back from our honeymoon I came down to the kitchen to make coffee before anyone else was awake, only to find a list of ToDos, handwritten by Beth, neatly printed with checkboxes next to each item, for each of us. I could see this was going to be a difference for the girls, so I gathered the lists and waited for Beth to smell the coffee and join me.

I waited for her to finish her first few sips of coffee (timing is everything) and then I started the conversation by asking her if she had gotten commitment from me or the girls on the work she had planned our for us. She looked at me like I was from another planet. It’s a look I have become more comfortable with every year of our marriage, mostly because some days it is well deserved.

I suggested to her that if we worked as a team with the girls to get their buy-in on the things she wanted done, they would be more committed to getting it done. Then, we would have to spend less time making sure it got done. Her reply, “Geof, they are kids. We tell them what to do and they should do it. What are you talking about?” After four years of solo Agile Parenting, I could see we were going to have to get everyone on the same page with this.

I’ve written other articles (From Process to Commitment) and Confidence, Motivation & Commitment) about the importance of commitment in teamwork. This is especially true on Agile teams, where work is not planned to the same level. This commitment is as important as it is subtle. Knowing when someone or a team is committed to their work is not always that easy. To set the stage for commitment, I find it important to think first about the people who will do the work before you plan the work itself.

In a traditional approach to managing the work of a project, the first thing you do is define all the work to be done, estimate it, sequence it, and then assign resources to the work, which builds the schedule and budget. This scope-driven, work-centric approach can objectify people and in extremes end up treating them like commoditized interchangeable widgets. Our vernacular even indicates this — they are called resources. In today’s world, projects that hope to create high-value, innovative products cannot be effectively planned and managed this way. It limits and diminishes the talents that can be brought to the table.

Still, for every project, it is the work that delivers the value of the project. So how can we do it differently and more effectively? What if we reversed our approach and focused on the talent, the people who will do the work, rather than focusing on the work? This may sound like just a matter of semantics, but there is more to this subtle change of perspective. Rather than assigning people to work (think traditional waves of generic resources) we assign work to people (think SWAT team). People, and more generally teams, now become the focus.

On our team of 60+ people, our leadership team holds a quarterly face-to-face. The first topic on the agenda is always titled “Talent.” We discuss the entire staff, paying special attention to new team members, required skill development, potential challenges, at-risk team members and open requisitions. We know that if we have the right talent we will have greater flexibility to handle the variety of work that is planned and also be best prepared for the unplanned work. Our agility becomes higher. In an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity, this is a distinguishing element of our high performing team.

Once we have a shared understanding of the current needs and talents of the team, then we are ready to start talking about the work. This only makes sense, since the people that are going to do the work define the capability and capacity to complete the work. People first, work second. Lots of companies talk about how “our people are our greatest asset,” but if they continue to focus on the work first, this is little more than a political promise.

We think of the whole team as a massive performance unit that exists to produce business value. Keep it properly tuned and feed it with appropriate guidance, direction, and the right work, and it will produce higher-quality outcomes faster. From this perspective, we think more about the movement of work through the team. Our job as leaders now becomes making sure the team has the right work and support.

Yes, people still have work assignments and roles and responsibilities; after all, the work doesn’t get magically done without the effort of people. But when you focus on the people, they have a greater sense of ownership and commitment to a level of production that is governed more by their talents and collective capacity than the predefined work. Your commitment to them models their commitment to their work. In this paradigm, almost anything is possible.

So, back to Beth’s ToDo lists. I asked Beth to prioritize each list (the backlog) and we agreed to an expected amount of time they should do chores on a sunny summer morning in June (the sprint). When the girls woke up, she asked for estimates for each work item (story points) and then matched the prioritized work to the capacity (sprint planning). At that point, all she had to do was ask for a personal commitment to complete all the work before going out to play with their friends and then sit back and accept the work as it got completed.

Truth be told, Beth was left a little cheated because she didn’t get everything she wanted from her original list. But the reality is that her original list was unrealistic to begin with. (Is any of this sounding familiar to your project planning process?) What she did get was enthusiastic completion of her high-priority items and two engaged stepdaughters who felt like they had a say in their work and were seen as valued members of the household, and not marginalized laborers.

As for my ToDo list… well, we’ll leave that for another article on negotiation skills.

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