Our office is closing! We can do better than just despairing

Jun 02, 2016 by lsmit@wemanity.com in  Blog

 

 

In March 2015 we received the bombshell from our U.S executives that our office in Oxford was to close as part of a long-term global consolidation of sites with some staff being offered relocation and the others made redundant. The products needed to continue, but how could we avoid the remaining time just being miserable?

Staff were asked to complete their current work and assist with knowledge transfer to the remaining development offices in the USA and India. The previous few years had seen good progress with agile and lean software development, customer satisfaction had steadily risen and staff turnover had been extremely low. So the closure announcement was a body blow. The chance of the announcement being taken badly was all too real with the risk of the situation disintegrating into a depressing mess.

The Oxford management team had the difficult task of trying to make the best of the situation and get the best outcomes for both staff and the company. One year on, the results so far have been remarkably positive. We can therefore make some recommendations for anyone else in this situation, some of which are also worth considering for companies during normal operations.

Actions taken

  1.  Long notice period – We managed to agree 18 months’ notice of the final closure.   This was necessary to complete current work and have an effective handover so that the complex medical imaging software products could continue. However, it was a very long time to hope that people would stay so other measures were needed.
  2.  Generous redundancy packages.   These were agreed at a level which impressed staff. With their tax-free nature, this gave people confidence that even if they didn’t find another job immediately, they would not have any financial worries for a few months.
  3.  Relocation support – Real commitment was shown to staff to find them other places within Siemens. This included generous relocation packages, funded exploratory visits for staff and families, advice from locals and flexible move dates. This was not cheap, but the cost was much less than hiring and training somebody new.
  4.  Voluntary end dates – Rather than imposing end dates, staff were asked to openly express whether they wanted to stay 6, 12 or 18 months.   It’s very hard to predict how people will react so it was better to try to align individual’s needs with business needs. Almost 100% of people got they end date they wanted, most opted for the longer duration and the company had adequate cover.
  5.  Keeping a training budget – Staff were given encouragement to still do training and qualifications.  The company would still get some benefit from the training in the short-term, it would help staff with finding a new position, but mostly it helped reassure staff that they could stay and still develop themselves.
  6.  A larger entertainment budget – It was important for people to socialise and support each other so there was an increase in company-funded drinks, lunches and a bigger-than- normal Christmas party.
  7.  Help with job-hunting – Staff were allowed to take some time for interviews and encouraged to have an open discussion on opportunities with support given to try to accommodate people’s wishes where possible.   External consultants were available to advise on interview techniques, CV-writing and job hunting.
  8.  Effective use of employee representatives – Rather than just fulfilling a legal requirement, a real effort was made to engage with the elected employee representatives, create a detailed FAQ for staff and share all information on the intranet.
  9.  Continued staff recognition.   The office was required to operate properly for an extended period so it was only fair that staff should be treated normally and retain the opportunity to still achieve an above-target bonus and the opportunity for promotion.
  10.  Management care – The managers have been very open, honest and helpful to the staff and shown genuine care and empathy for people and their circumstances.  This probably made the biggest difference and enabled so many of the positive results.  A site closure can be viewed by staff as a big breach of trust, so asking staff to believe promises about arrangements during the remaining period is a challenge and requires lots of reinforcement, consistency and ensuring that was is said is done.

Results

  1.  Staff morale – This went through the inevitable rollercoaster of shock, anger, worry then acceptance.   People were annoyed or upset at the decision, but overall viewed the offers as fair and professional.   Staff who had been through a redundancy before thought that the way this was handled was much better. Although losing colleagues is unavoidably sad, people have been positive about making the best of the situation.
  2.  Staff stayed until their agreed date – The long notice period and generous packages meant that most people were fairly relaxed about finding a new position and happy to leave serious job hunting until a few months before their agreed end date.  Whilst, it’s an imposed change for everyone, in some cases, staff have appreciated having the “luxury” of having an extended period with a financial cushion during which to calmly think about what alternative job they would really like to do in future. Staff have been open about their hunting and have discussed mutually agreeable end-dates before accepting offers.
  3.  Results still achieved. Work on products continued at a good level.  Inevitably people weren’t going the extra mile in quite the same way as they used to but were professional and productive.   Staff have been helpful in ramping up new recruits in India and continue to take pride in their products.  There have been no surprise, early, resignations or disciplinary issues.
  4.  A surprising number relocated. 25% of people relocated to the USA which was a lot higher than anyone originally expected since people liked being in Oxford.
  5.  Additional social events – The activity in the office “community” if anything picked up since the news with whisky tasting, a pool tournament, team nights out, a group cycle ride around town etc.
  6.  Peer-to- peer training – Staff have shown a great desire to support each other and proactively run open seminars for others in the office to share their knowledge with others (e.g. Sharepoint, Data Science, Android Programming, Arduino programming, Linux etc)
  7.  More cakes – We’ve always provided cakes on a Friday but the number of spontaneous cakes being brought into the office on other days has gone up.

Overall it has been a much more positive experience it could have been. The office morale is still good and the staff have received outstanding praise for their continued professionalism and dedication.

The results has been good for the company as there is a smooth handover taking place while ensuring that people are taken care of.   The actions above have not been cheap for the company in the short-term, but are ultimately delivering better long-term value than the alternative of instant site closure followed by disorder and a long period of rebuilding a new team from scratch.

Suggestions relevant for companies not closing

Whilst some of the topics are only relevant to a site closure, some things could be beneficial anytime.

  1. Management openness is always a good thing. It’s easy to forget the importance of explaining plans and listening to feedback. Make sure there’s time for group meetings, 1 to 1 sessions and occasional surveys.
  2. Peer-to- peer training is always very cost-effective so time and support should be given for this. Staff have a lot of varied knowledge and it’s motivating for both the trainer and attendees.
  3. Creative entertainment. It can be an easy area to cut, but pays back a lot. If people have a good social relationship with colleagues, they are much more committed to them and hence also the company. The entertainment does not necessarily have to be lavish e.g. a pool table and     tournament, an indoor mini-golf area made out of office accessories and text books, a pancake- tossing event on Shrove Tuesday etc. Something a bit different every few months keeps things fresh. Cakes, are always good.
  4. Look for the best outcome for both staff and the company given the circumstances. Arrangements with staff have to be fair to get the best results in the long-term.

By: Stephen Wells, Siemens Molecular Imaging, Oxford

Your Engineering Team Is Not an Island: Success Demands a Holistic View of the Business

May 23, 2016

I just re-read the awesome post from my friends David Loftesness and Raffi Krikorian, What Does A VP of Engineering Do Again? And while I agree with everything that they say, I think there is one crucial item missing, which has been present in every job I’ve had because all of them were user-facing internet services and a majority of my job has been working with product teams. Collaboration with stakeholders (especially with product) is key, but if you take it one step further, a VP of Engineering is actually measured by execution in a wider context across many teams or departments. You cannot look at engineering in isolation for your successes or failures.

But first a short story about my first months at SoundCloud. The CTO wanted more front-end work done because an important release was nearing. He asked me to hire more engineers to accomplish that goal. I started recruiting, but then I looked at why the velocity of the existing team was not meeting expectations. So, I went to all of the front-end teams (at that time it was Web, iPhone, and Android) and asked a very simple question “What slows you down the most in your day-to-day work?” To my surprise, everyone gave the same answer “We only have one designer.” They went on to say that although the designer was very good, she was completely overloaded so designs, changes, and simple clarifications took forever to get done.

Now that I knew design was actually the cause for delays, the solution to my problem was not to hire more engineers (which might have even made the problem worse with more work for the designer), but to start building a design team.

Engineering leads need to look at the whole product process (together with the responsible stakeholders) and not just at engineering in isolation. What I did was a very simple (but, in this case, effective) form of value stream mapping. Our self-improvement at SoundCloud continued. You can read Phil Calcado’s excellent post about the organizational aspects of microservices at SoundCloud.

The Best Engineering Leads Will Stop and Assess the Situation

Continually assessing situations in a holistic way isn’t just the job of an engineering lead — everybody involved should take responsibility. But, in my experience, the problem usually surfaces in engineering because when things are not moving fast enough (and when do they ever?) management’s first reaction can be to throw more engineers at the problem so more work will get done, but also (and this is the not so nice scenario), management thinks the engineers are not working hard enough. Other common responses from management include reorganizing the teams or adopting new methodologies. However, as an engineering leader, you are a lot like a doctor: you need to diagnose the illness before treating the symptoms.

Engineering leaders need to look at the whole value chain and to sit with the leaders from affected departments to review at the problem. The solution to a problem might not be to hire more people (which a lot of startups do), but to organize product development in a better way. And if you have to hire, it might mean that you have to move headcount around. When everyone has the same goal goal — delivering more business value — shifting headcount from engineering to design or to recruiting shouldn’t be an issue. Afterall, the goal is more business value, not having the biggest department. So, when I realized our problem at SoundCloud wasn’t going to be fixed by adding more engineers, we created a design team. But this was just the first step towards a better setup.

Even after creating a larger design team, it remained isolated from other departments and was not fully integrated with our workflows. The problems of turnaround and wasted resources were exacerbated by the increasing risk of misalignment between product, design, and engineering. Therefore, the next logical step was to improve the organization by creating a delivery team per product.

Shifting Organizational Structures to Deliver Business Value

A delivery team is a team that can deliver the vast majority (95%) of its backlog items to production without dependencies on other teams. Unlike more horizontally-oriented teams (for example, a front-end engineering team that relies on the back-end engineering team for any back-end changes), a delivery team has all the necessary skills inside their team. So, depending on your company and your product, these teams can look very different. In engineering teams that are infrastructure focused, these teams can consist of only engineers; but if you look at a team that delivers a consumer-facing web app, then the team looks more like this:

Traditional and Delivery Team Structure

Creating these delivery teams and then making sure you have the right staffing for them should eliminate a staffing mismatch between the affected departments. Some team members (like support) might just be a pointperson for the team, e.g., the support person only attends the daily standup and reports what is going on.

So, don’t look at engineering in isolation when trying to solve delivery problems. It is critical that each engineering leader (and especially the VP of Engineering, who can really influence the organizational setup) ensures that the overall product development process is set up in a way that reduces waste and delivers value to the customer which is the whole point of product development in the first place!

This post includes material from the upcoming book “Scaling Teams” by myself and David Loftesness, which will be published by O’Reilly in 2016. In this book, we will explain in detail the various scaling challenges of software startups.

Thanks to Laurel Ruma and David Loftessness

By: Alexander Grosse from issuu

https://medium.com/scaling-teams/your-engineering-team-is-not-an-island-success-demands-a-holistic-view-of-the-business-bccd6116094b#.9tbmcbfnw

 

 

Self selection – How to restructure your team for greater autonomy.

May 16, 2016

One of our largest departments within Ocado Technology recently undertook a revolutionary self-selecting restructuring exercise, changing the entire structure of the department whilst allowing all team members to choose which team they would like to work in going forward. The need came about because multiple teams were stretched, working across two major business propositions and context switching between them. The goal was that following the restructure there would be a clear split between teams working on two different business propositions, such that each of those teams could really focus on that product.

ukteamsanonymous-

The overall aim of this restructure was to achieve greater alignment, autonomy and purpose.

Following the principle that a collaborative and distributed approach is often the best way to solve a complex optimisation problem, we decided to take a full day as a whole department to stop work and have a facilitated event to negotiate the moves amongst the five new teams. We did a lot of thinking and preparation prior to this day and the teams used a set of constraints around team size and experience levels to guide their decisions.

The plan going into the event was shared well ahead of time to allow people to get their questions in (and added to a shared FAQ forum) and to be sure the concepts were clear going into the day. Alongside this, we ran multiple “townhall” sessions where people could air their concerns and ask their questions openly. We hoped that at the end of the process we would have well-rounded, committed teams ready to face the new challenge.

There was a certain amount of ad-libbing and practical adjustments on the day, but on the whole it unfolded according to the plan:

– First, a pitch for each team by the Product Owner, covering the vision/roadmap and why the team is super cool and awesome. There was also a set of target criteria for each team as a guide for what we were looking to achieve in each area.

– Next, multiple iterations where we:

1. Assigned or moved ourselves/each other between teams until we’ve addressed any identified issues in         the previous iteration.

2. See if we had met the pre-defined criteria for each team.

3. Repeat until we run out of time or we meet all of the requirements and everybody is happy and                       committed to the team that they are in.

Fuelled by 18 pizzas, we completed three exhausting rounds of moves and peer voting. At the end of each round, we (everyone, including Product Owners and Team Leads) voted on the viability of each team. From this we measured two scores: an intra-team score (the people in that team scoring the viability of the team), and an inter-team score (the rest of the people scoring the viability of that team). This lead to a few interesting dynamics, for example one of the teams gave themselves a high intra-team score, but scored low on the inter-team vote. They then gave a pitch justifying their viability as a team, and were able to dramatically increase their inter-team score in the next round.

The first round was deliberately obviously suboptimal, so that everyone was motivated to suggest changes and improvements and become comfortable with doing so in a very “safe” way. Naturally, this configuration had dramatically lower scores! This encouraged a large amount of movement in the following rounds, as we had hoped.

votingresultsanonymous

Essential to finding a viable solution was an appreciation from all of the ‘greater good’ of Ocado Technology. On the day, some people chose to make some really big compromises in order to serve the greater good and allow us to form balanced teams that are all capable of smashing out quality software.

After the final round of voting we then took a quick anonymous happiness reading by each dropping a green, yellow or red lego piece into a box. Although they were not perfect, we were extremely pleased the results, considering that our original goals was “at least 50% happy”.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 1.23.46 AM

The very next morning we did a big-bang desk move:

image-resizer

We’ve since kept a close eye on the impact of the shuffle-up by measuring the things that matter most to us: throughput and team happiness. There was an expected initial dip in throughput as many people got up to speed on new products they had not worked on before and as new teams gelled and got to know each other. But the throughput three months on has risen higher than before the change and still rising. Improvements in team happiness (measured before and after by Spotify’s “health-checks”) were noteworthy from straight after the restructure.

In terms of the solution itself: we are delighted. Every team has a reasonable level of experience whilst a healthy number of people have chosen to change domain. It is a vastly better result than we could have hoped for had we chosen a top-down approach and the sense of autonomy it has created is invaluable. It seems that teams and individuals have a stronger sense of ownership than ever before and that they are taking quality more seriously than ever before. This did have an up-front cost in terms of short term throughput, but the long term benefits certainly justify it.

James Lohr, Ocado Tech Department Head

Rejecting roles

Mar 29, 2016

Rejecting roles: That’s marketing’s job. You need to talk to IT.

Having roles is considered essential by most organisations. We’ve read dozens of business blogs, HR advice articles and even management training courses that insist clearly defined roles lead to better results, greater productivity and higher motivation. Without clear definition of roles, they warn that tasks get missed, no-one takes responsibility, the office is chaotic and individual motivation drops.

We disagree.

The writers of this advice have grasped the outcomes they want – people taking pride in their work, everyone focusing on delivering value, individuals coordinating and collaborating – but they’ve applied the wrong solution.

They’ve confused roles with responsibilities.

That may not sound like a big deal, but we think it is. Rigid role definition has some major downsides. We believe it hurts companies and individuals, costing them in creativity and happiness.

Most organisations intend their role definitions to be a way of signalling particular specialisations, expertise and responsibilities… but instead, the definitions swiftly harden into barriers, marking out territory which is defended against ‘interference’ from others. Have you ever been told to back off by the marketing manager for commenting on the new advert? Been refused access to the code base by the developers, ‘in case you break something’? Been told to leave presentations to ‘the sales guys’ or forecasts ‘the finance guys’? At the extreme, you may have your opinion rejected with a straight-forward ‘well it’s not your job to worry about x, it’s mine!’.

Individuals may also use their role definition as a way of avoiding unpleasant or boring tasks. This ‘that’s not in my job description’ approach ends up making the company less efficient as well as eroding team motivation. I remember organising a last-minute marketing stunt when I worked at Unilever. I was booking a double-decker bus to turn up and I wanted to check it would actually fit into the office forecourt. The marketing assistant nipped down to Reception to check. An hour later, she returned. The security guard had refused to measure the gateway and if it was beneath the dignity of a security guard, then she reckoned it was beneath the dignity of a marketing assistant as well. So I borrowed the security man’s tape-measure and checked the gateway (you could – quite literally – have fitted a bus through there). Anything wrong with doing my own measuring? Absolutely not. Anything wrong with wasting an hour of time arguing about whose job it was? Plenty.

Roles are comfortable – but bad for us

It’s very human to defend our own work and our own opinion. When we can dress this up with the authority of experience, expertise and organisational separation – all the better. Except it isn’t. Rigid role definition acts as a barrier and can stifle innovation. It can also make things slower and less efficient.

If a customer rings up with a problem, they want a solution, not to be told that only part of their problem can be dealt with by this department, and they must be passed on to billing or whoever to deal with the rest of it.

It’s not great for individuals either. Sticking to just one thing may mean our knowledge gets deeper, but also narrower.  We can get bored or worse, so convinced of our own expertise that we can’t take on other points of view.

Being Radical: Sticking to the start up way

In many start ups, a lack of defined roles is the default position. There is not enough money to hire specialists – instead developers must learn to present to investors, marketing managers must be able to create and manage their own customer data, and everyone must have a grip on the financial assumptions as well as a grasp of the their product (this often means some grasp of the technology).

When entrepreneurs look back on the early stage of their companies, they often comment on wistfully on the diversity of work and of how close to the customer it meant they were.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, recalled being the ‘mailroom grunt’ in the company’s early days, driving books to shipping and courier companies in his 1987 Blazer. But this doesn’t scale, right? Jeff Bezos is not still doing deliveries. Actually, he is. He spends a week every year in the warehouse. It’s not a PR gimmick, because he refuses to set up interviews when doing it. It’s an opportunity to stay connected to his responsibility – leading Amazon – and not the role of CEO. That includes really understanding conditions for employees – something for which Amazon has received a lot of criticism – and staying close to core services like order fulfilment.

Another trick used at Amazon is to have individual employees who have no role at all. Bezos has ‘shadows’, people who simply follow him around. It means there’s always someone free to chase a wild idea or set up an experiment – and it recognises that a responsibility like ‘envision Amazon’s future’ requires several people, not just a single role.

So what should we do?

1. Responsibilities not roles

Some radical companies go for a very broad responsibility ‘provide value to the company’ and say that how this is fulfilled is up to the individual. Others go for more precise responsibilities: ‘help the customer’ or ‘make sure we comply with financial regulations’.

The point is that how you fulfil these needs can require doing tasks which, in other companies, would be seen as belonging to differing roles.

2. Trust people

A lack of roles makes people more responsible, not less. Tasks rarely get missed because everyone knows they have total responsibility for the work – no tester will come pick up the programmer’s bugs; no finance controller will correct over-optimistic projections.

3. Trust people some more

A lack of roles doesn’t mean that everyone will try to do everything. People naturally gravitate towards what they’re interested in and what they’re good at. If someone is convinced she’s a brilliant illustrator and everyone else insists the stick men cartoons are rubbish, she will soon stop.

4. Value dissent not consensus

No roles doesn’t mean you have to design by committee. Heated arguments are common, and that’s fine.  Even if people don’t agree at the end of the debate, the important thing tends to be to air the problem. Opinions can be rejected; a decision can still be made, risks can still be taken…

By: Helen Walton from Gamevy