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Unlocking the Armoury

There’s another fight coming.  Are you ready?

It might be in the form of a new competitor, the loss of a client, the need for a new technology or a delivery disaster to recover from.

It could be all of those and more, but there IS another fight coming – that’s guaranteed.

And we know that success for teams and businesses often follow our triumph over these challenges, our continued growth because of them and our readiness for what comes next.

So, are you ready?

Perhaps you might be thinking “I can’t be ready for something I don’t know anything about!” or “It’s a waste preparing for every eventuality”, and I’d agree with you.  It is waste to plan in detail for unpredictable and complex futures.

What I’m checking instead is that, given unpredictability and complexity, you are positioned to give your teams and organisation their best chance. 

But the armoury is locked!

Imagine a medieval castle set on a hill above a village.  The castle is surrounded by houses, working buildings and fields of crops extend beyond.  It’s late summer, and a warm, hazy sunshine bathes the busy activity of blacksmiths, people tending crops, young children playing and others going about their lives.  Everything looks to be in harmony.

Suddenly, the calm is broken by an alarm being raised.  A lookout has seen the sign of some barbarous enemy force on the horizon and alerted the castle.  What would you think happens next? 

For me, I think of a flurry of self-organised, practiced activity.  I see archers lining the walls, doors being barred, the drawbridge lifted, fires being lit, soldiers and able, trained villagers taking up arms.  They don’t quite know what is coming, but they make use of the resources they have, and you know they’re in it together.

What didn’t come to mind was a fumble where the lookout didn’t recognise the danger.  Nor that when he did, he needed to persuade someone that the situation warranted action before warning anyone.  I didn’t think of people trying to track down ‘the guy who was last seen with the keys to the armoury – I think it was Greg?’.  And I didn’t imagine that the only people trained to wield the weapons were busy doing something else anyway, notably two experienced swordsmen being pilloried in the stocks.

Perhaps the second version did happen somewhere in history, but I suspect those communities are since lost.  If you haven’t already seen the parallel that I’m trying to draw, allow me to be more explicit with a second example.

That sinking feeling

It’s Wednesday, and Keith, a manager in the Service Desk starts to see a spike in Customer calls.  The calls relate to existing services with some Customers reporting crippling slow performance and others unable to access any services at all.  Some of the Customers are angry, complaining about ‘yet more outages’ and impact to them.  It isn’t looking like a good day for anyone.

Keith calls the monitoring team to find out what they can see but discovers that half of them are at lunch, or simply ‘away’.  The few analysts that aren’t at lunch report that they don’t have access to the system but have texted their manager, Sam.

Keith isn’t happy about this, so he gets up to find out what’s happening.  It seems that quite a few people are out for lunch like the monitoring team, but he manages to find the networking team in a meeting.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I think we’ve got a thing going on.”

Alan the team manager, not trying to hide his annoyance at being interrupted answers.  “We haven’t had an escalation from the monitoring guys – you sure?  We’re in an important session here – the CFO needs this forecast”

“I’m not certain, no.  But Monitoring are at lunch and we’ve got a stack of calls from angry users”

“Have you messaged Sam?”

“Yes, but no reply.  Can one of you take a quick look, please?”

“We don’t have access from this room even if…”

And before Alan finishes, Keith’s phone rings – and this time, it’s their angry CEO wanting to know why his lunch with the investors has just been interrupted by a ‘flapping Customer’.

“Aren’t you on top of this?  Just tell those engineers to roll back their changes, restart their f-ing system and phone this guy back!”

“But…  we don’t actually know… and…”

“Just get it done – I don’t want to be interrupted again.  Customer flapping about service equals a Service Desk problem. Get it solved.”

Back in the room, the networking team are finishing up and a couple of the team manage to squeeze past Keith and disappear.  Keith relays the message from the CEO.

“So that’s what he said, and I need to call this Customer – what can I say?”

“Fine.  I’ll look, but this isn’t the process and I’ll point the CFO at you when she doesn’t get her numbers”

Soon, Keith is back at his desk with his team still taking a pounding from the volume of calls.  To the anxious faces of the engineers, Keith shares that Alan’s team are looking into it and that they should hear something soon.

A fraught 15 minutes later, a message pops up on Keith’s screen.

“We’re rolling back the changes as instructed”

“Ok.  Do you know what’s causing this?”

No reply comes until 20 minutes later when a ‘should be fine now’ message pops up from Alan.  Keith updates the team so they can call their contacts back, and he begins the now inevitable evening of calming apologies and promises of follow up. 

Keith is feeling sick.

“So, what was the cause?”

“Something to do with the perimeter changes but we rolled them all back so don’t know for sure.  We’ve lost some logs. One of the team is going to stay around tonight and see if they can work it out.”

By 8pm, Keith has covered what he had to do and gets in the car to go home, tired, hungry and long after the kids have gone to bed.  Just as he pulls up to his house, one of his team calls him.

“You won’t believe it, Keith.  It’s the same issue again – just had some more calls come in”

“Ok, thanks.  I’ll get logged in.  Speak soon.”

And Keith didn’t just feel sick any longer.

Unlocking the armoury

Many people have been through situations like this, including me – I’ve been Keith. Customer anguish, delicate political negotiations for help and finally ineffective, lacklustre solutions that don’t break the loop.  It’s no fun for anyone and it certainly doesn’t unlock the potential of an organisation.  It does the opposite.

Assuming we’d prefer our team or organisation to be more like the first castle – we can see that the rewards could be huge – what could we do differently?   

The truth is that there isn’t a silver bullet or wonder process that’s going to answer that question.  We can’t just ‘go agile’, launch our company values or pay bigger bonuses to get this, and no external consultant can tell you exactly how to do it either.  Instead, it takes work, patience and trust.  It takes honesty, humility and courage. 

Don’t lose heart, however.  Based on the experience of the first castle, we can focus our attention on the five things that stand out:

  1. Everyone understood their purpose
  2. People could act without explicit permission or fear of reprisal
  3. People had skills that enabled them to adapt
  4. Practices that continued to be successful were embedded
  5. People acted together as part of one system

If you’re someone who is leading teams and you’re facing uncertainty, high change and complexity, I urge you to prioritise these facets in your team.  Start at the top and keep working through all of them as you continue to improve.

Ask yourself honestly, does everyone understand their purpose?  Can people act without fear of reprisal in pursuit of that purpose?  Do people have the skills they need to act?  Do we keep what works and stop what doesn’t?  Do we act as a system, working together to achieve our purpose?

You might not win all the fights but opening the armoury to provide environments, tools and information will prepare your teams better than anything else.

Getting help

Sometimes we all need some help, and we specialise in these challenges:  We develop open leaders who make their teams rock

If you ever find yourself trying to find that person with the keys or wonder how you could just make it different next time, get in touch to book a free, zero obligation discovery call. 

On the call, we’ll talk about your unique situation, ask some questions and if we can point you to some next steps you might take.

I look forward to speaking to you, Stephen

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