Nothing is as damaging to our mental health and productivity than feeling a lack of control. 2020 proved a difficult environment in which to make informed decisions for economic survival. With no one knowing where this crisis’ finish line lies, it’s hard to budget our time, resources and energy and this can lead to exhaustion and overwhelm.
Sprints are pervasive practice at tech companies for moments when survival is on the line; such as a product launch to beat a competitor to market. A repeated series of timeboxed, focused work for developing, delivering and sustaining complex goals within a short amount of time, there has never been a greater global need for coordinated sprints.
I have been through many formal sprint exercises at both Amazon and Google over the last two decades. They are a key part of what keeps these companies agile, innovative and cutting edge in addition to their long-term strategy planning. This Silicon Valley secret deserves its spotlight.
My five steps for sprint success:
- Define success
- Set the time frame
- Plan for pivots
- Measure the impact
There is a good chance that your organisation has had a major strategy pivot since the beginning of the pandemic. If that’s true, you are in a sprint whether you knew it or not.
Has that pivot been effectively communicated and applied at every level? It is essential that you and everyone who reports to you has the same definition of what success looks like, to help people prioritise how they spend their increasingly limited time and resources. This definition may differ from your long-term plans.
An analogy popularised by Steven Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People illustrates this well. Covey talks about filling a jar with as many rocks, pebbles and sand as possible. It turns out that the order of execution is an essential part of its formula for success. Put the rocks in the jar first, followed by pebbles and finally with sand, which fills in any remaining gaps. The rocks represent your major milestone goals. These are the non-negotiable tasks and deliverables which will keep your company competitive and winning. The pebbles are the tasks surrounding the shorter-term goals and the sand are the minor tasks which don’t individually drive success. If you put the sand in the jar first there is no room for the rocks.
Many employees feel like they are already stretched too thin with family commitments, inefficient setup for working from home and overall stress about the state of the world. In this environment it is very tempting for workers to check off a long list of ‘sand’ tasks in order to feel like they have been productive. They also might think they are working on ‘rock’ tasks based on what was asked of them in the former business model. You need to be clear which tasks are now considered core and which have now been re-categorised as non-essential.
Set the time frame
Help your team see that the current sprint effort will come to an end even when you aren’t yet sure when that will be. You need to give them a controlled finish line for today before you build them up for their next big effort.
Back in pre-Covid life, I attended a spin class. Our usual instructor, Rebecca, consistently gave the class a clear overview of the challenges she had planned. At the beginning of a new track she might tell us that we were going to do three thirty second standing springs with thirty seconds of rest between. That helped me pace myself and push myself harder during the sprints, allowing for recovery time.
Erik took over when she was on holiday. He ran similar workouts but he didn’t have the same habit of telling us in advance what we could expect. I noticed that my calorie burn after Erik’s class was significantly lower even than my average with Rebecca, even with the same activities. Turns out that with Erik’s approach, I was subconsciously conserving energy and not pushing as hard as I was otherwise capable of doing.
The pandemic challenge was strangely similar to Erik’s workouts. Because no one knows when or if things will return to normal, many usually high performing people have found themselves in a state of passivity or productivity paralysis with a subconscious need to ensure self-preservation.
Leaders need to create expectations of short sprints which are essential to basic company survival within the context of the long marathon effort for pivoting to new business models for strength and market security post-crisis. These can be a single week of outreach to your core customers to save existing contracts, or a month-long challenge to create a new product delivery pipeline.
Make sure your message is absolutely clear and that your teams understand what is expected of them and when.
Plan for pivots
Every single one of my global consulting clients found themselves in a huge pivot moment during Covid where they needed to adjust their business strategies, company policies, expenses and work environments just to survive. This remains essential as we attempt to create a new normal. Leaders need to set up systems to not only stay connected and present with their employees while working remotely, but also on how to be seen as a confident leader despite the lingering feeling of making things up on the fly.
Employees need to hear an acknowledgement that things are hard and messy and frustrating. When leaders try to be too perfect or confident amid global uncertainty, it has the opposite effect to that intended. What brings teams together is acknowledging the shared hardship and human side of the situation.
Measure the impact
What you measure and reward is what your team will focus on producing. Once you have directed your team to what they need to focus on, you need to connect that to how they will be rewarded accordingly.
This is where it is vital to commit what is being referred to as random acts of leadership. Reach out to your managers at lower levels and/or set up a free form Office Hours session where anyone in the company can bring their questions, concerns and observations to your attention and quick action. The teams will be grateful for the additional leadership contact and you will benefit from instant response to your strategy vision.
Examine your company goal setting and tracking system. If you don’t already have one, I highly recommend the Objectives and Key Results (or OKRs) which are used by both Amazon and Google for aggressive goal setting and clear, measurable, actionable tasks to accomplish them. Measure your progress consistently and clearly across your organisation and immediately reward those who have contributed effectively. This is not a time to wait for a year-end review.
This will not be a one-and-done process. Even after the pandemic these practices can make the difference between an agile and innovative company and one which becomes distracted and irrelevant. This is what separates the disruptive from the disrupted in competitive industries.
Remember, the best ideas often come from the lower levels of the organisation rather than the senior executives.
Despite all this ambiguity, there are specific things that can help you as a leader regain a sense of control. Establishing clear sprints for your teams will be the key factor to creating a framework for focus, productivity and measurable success for your company now and in the future.
— Jacqueline Reardon
- Article originally published in Ambition