Like it or not, the hybrid workplace is likely the new normal for companies. Numerous articles have been written on the topic of people and culture management in this operating model, along with their benefits and challenges.
Most of the articles focus on the individual impacts to workers and the larger impacts to business that this shift will make. What I’d like to focus on are the impacts I’ve seen this shift make to teams, particularly the ones responsible for delivering digital products to customers.
The challenge (and subsequent opportunity) to this dynamic revolves around the limited amount of natural human interaction that occurs to collaborate on solving problems. I call this dynamic “water coolers and delivery heroes (WC/DH)”. It’s when your delivery heroes have impromptu interactions with key team members and stakeholders to figure out a way to move forward through problems…it’s why job descriptions include language like: “must be able to work in complex environments and influence/collaborate with key stakeholders across multiple areas”… that’s code for “need people who can figure things out as a team and execute”. These interactions happen regularly and naturally when everyone is under one roof, but these blockers tend to become more problematic when handled in a hybrid model.
There are two types of problems the WC/DH dynamic typically addresses: novel and systemic.
The novel problems are the ones you want your delivery heroes working on. They are the ones they want to work on. They are the interesting, and often high-value, problems where they should focus their time. They will find a way to address these in any work environment.
It’s the systemic problems that need more attention: “It’s not the mountain to climb that exhausts you. It’s the pebble in your shoe.”
The systemic problems are the avoidable, yet all too common, shoe pebbles. You might be surprised how much time your delivery heroes spend on those, as opposed to climbing novel mountains. It’s our job as delivery leaders to improve our systems and processes to proactively remove these nagging blockers to keep our valuable resources working on valuable problems. It was important before, but it’s imperative in a hybrid model.
Here are some common systemic problems to explore:
Delivery heroes are mentors to junior and mid-level teammates. When there’s uncertainty around how to move forward with a technical solution, instead of being paralyzed with how to move forward, they turn to their respected voice of experience for guidance.
I actually often find that delivery heroes enjoy these activities, so the shoe pebble metaphor doesn’t exactly fit. But it is a hindrance to the team’s ability to performance and scale in a hybrid model when the same lessons need to be re-taught over and over.
Mitigating Strategy: Document and govern architecture, design, and solutioning standards. There should be a living repository of standards, patterns, and reference implementations. It should be the first source of information when a delivery resource is blocked. It should be the standard for code quality at scale.
How much times does your delivery team spend chasing down requirements or understanding an unclear backlog? I was on a project with a large financial institution where the team re-wrote features several times over before they were given clarity on the actual intent of the requirements. This would happen repeatedly causing delays in production code and delivery team frustration.
After some time, the delivery hero gained a sense of how to interpret what was being requested versus what the business stakeholders actually wanted. This resulted in a boost in efficiency until this person found a new job that did not require large time investments as a requirements interpreter.
This is a difficult ask when sharing space with the relevant stakeholders. It becomes untenable in a hybrid environment.
Mitigating Strategy: Hold your user story and backlog quality to the highest possible standards and rigor. Get feedback and constantly retro how well the requirements are understood by the delivery team. Your delivery heroes aren’t going to be as accessible as they once were.
How many times have we heard that expression? “We can’t lose X. She knows where the bodies are buried.”It reveals a fragility to the delivery process and development environment. Often, the symptom is the reliance on someone’s institutional knowledge in order for a larger system to operate. There have been a number of times I’ve been asked to come in and evaluate a process because someone was nearing the retirement age. Not a great place for a company to be. This becomes more problematic when the physical proximity isn’t there anymore. There’s too much at risk with people who are no longer enabled because they don’t have physical access to a person who holds the key to a manual process.
This person spends way too much time “pushing buttons”. In a hybrid world, this gets even slower and backs up all of the people dependent on the pushed button to do work.
Mitigating Strategy: Automate where you can. Understand areas that are manual dependencies to driving a process and invest in automation. Rule of thumb: if it needs to be done more than twice, or is a critical dependency for others, invest in automating it.
The global pandemic and resultant cultural shift in workplace dynamics to a hybrid model has introduced challenges to effective digital delivery. Relying on delivery heroes to save the day becomes less tenable without the benefit of physical proximity.
The good news is that once the crutch of these key resources has been removed, it starts to surface process issues that were likely masked by their presence. It’s painful now, but addressing these issues will improve your company’s ability to deliver quality digital products to your customer in a more scaled and dependable fashion.
Document, train, and automate your processes to enable your delivery teams and free your delivery heroes to work on high-value problems that are deserving of their focus.
Ok – I get it. These recommendations require investments in time, money, and effort. The improvements will be slow and costly at first. But if delivering quality digital product value to your customers is important to your business, these investments will pay off in the long-term – but here’s something you can do in the short-term: Create A Virtual Water Cooler.
I’ve seen success where key delivery heroes open up a virtual gathering place or office hours to invite other team members to ask questions of the delivery hero, anyone else in the room, or just hangout to be closer to the group. People can come and go as they please, but the idea is that it is a virtual collaboration space.
It won’t scale or be a long-term solve, but it’s not a bad intermediate best practice to keep the train rolling.