So Leicester City has won the English Premier League!
If you are not an avid soccer or sports fan, this piece of news will probably leave you cold.
But for all the crazy sports fanatics around the Globe, this is a truly astonishing result.
Here is a team that has absolutely no recognized « A » players in its first team, has one of the smallest budgets in the Premier League, that was almost relegated to the lower league last year, has a manager who had never before won anything and that was given 5000/1 odds to win the League at the start of the championship!
Yet, Leicester managed to beat some of the richest teams in Europe, all staffed with high profile “A” players. A victory indeed for the underdog!
So how did the 5000/1 underdogs do it? They undoubtedly had good players at the start of the season but how did they go from Good to Great?
Of course, there are many reasons but one key reason has got to be great teamwork!
And what are some of the success factors that contributed to achieving this great teamwork?
I guess Jeff Sutherland, the father of “Agile Management” and co-creator of the “Scrum Software Development Framework” would probably have some more very interesting ideas on this subject.
This is the question he sets out to answer in
Why do some teams achieve greatness when other teams languish in mediocrity?
Indeed, after some years of working in various senior management positions managing software development projects, Sutherland came to two very simple conclusions:
- The traditional command and control « Waterfall » method of software development where projects were completed in distinct stages and moved step by step towards ultimate release to consumers and software users just didn’t work. Projects were often late, overran on budget and quite often were even abandoned because they no longer corresponded to the customer’s needs.
- Worse, from a people point of view, this traditional “Waterfall” approach was a nightmare for those who had to apply it, made life miserable for all and more or less encouraged mediocrity, poor teamwork and failure.
Inspired by the Toyota Total Quality System (TQM) in automotive manufacturing,
Sutherland gradually came to define an alternative way of managing software development projects, which he called “Scrum” and which has become globally recognized as one of the most effective way of developing software projects.
How does Scrum work?
To simplify, rather than trying to implement the inefficient “Waterfall method”, whenever you start a project, you regularly check in with your team members, see if what you’re doing is going in the right direction and if it’s actually what people want. And at the same time check if there are ways to improve how you are doing what you are doing and if there are any ways of doing it better and faster and what obstacles may be getting in your way. Simple really!
This dynamic process follows a few simple steps:
- Build an initial plan and rough cost estimate good enough to start;
- Gather a small, competent and empowered and cross-functional team to execute;
- Prioritize the work around the initial tasks that will deliver some value very quickly for the customer and use demos to show to all at the end of each work cycle;
- Organize the teamwork around short work cycles of 2 to 4 weeks called Sprints;
- At the end of the Sprint, check what has been done, what remains to be done, what was done well, what can be improved and move on to the next cycle.
But what has Scrum and Software Development to do with the success of our 5000/1 Leicester City sporting underdogs?
For Scrum to work, it involves not only a whole new way of working but more importantly, a whole new mindset to managing projects and teams.
As Jeff Sutherland says, Scrum is a simple idea but executing it requires thought, introspection, honesty and discipline and Leicester City certainly showed all of these qualities throughout the season.
But when we look closer at some of the Success Factors behind Scrum which help teams go from Good to Great, I would highlight at least 7 key success factors I suspect helped Leicester City transform themselves from Good to Great.
1. Great teams have a goal but build the road as they go!
Scrum teaches us that while it is important to have a clear idea of the final objective, great teams build the road as they go and it is better to refine the plan throughout the project rather than do it all up front. You can never plan everything up front. The real world doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that.
Plan in just enough detail to deliver the next increment in value and estimate the rest of the project in large chunks. This of course means having confidence in the team to work closely together as they go so that the plan is constantly adapted to the changing environment and customer needs.
Key takeaway: Promote an agile organization that doesn’t over obsess with Gantt charts and exhaustive planning and accepts that what seems like a bad decision now is better than a decision delayed taken too late. Progress slowly towards the goal, Sprint after Sprint, match after match!
2. Great teams plan and prioritize…just enough!
If Jeff Sutherland reminds us of the trap of trying to plan exhaustively everything that has to be done before acting, he never suggests that we should work in an ad hoc way.
If you want to go fast, you nevertheless need to plan sufficiently to ensure you attack the key challenges that really add value for the customer.
For any software development program, as Jeff Sutherland points out, 80% of the value is delivered by 20% of the functionalities. So Scrum insists on defining that 20% of essential work that needs to be done, prioritizing that work in terms of value for the customer and then attacking those tasks delivering highest value first in the Scrum work cycle called a Sprint, usually of a duration of 2 to 4 weeks.
Sutherland reminds us of some simple quality tools that are very useful for planning and notably, the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle created by Prof. W. Edwards Deming and
adopted by Toyota. This simple tool helps to plan and prioritize work from Sprint to Sprint so that you define what you want to do, you do it, you check what you have done, and you correct what you did not do or did wrong.
A simple but effective way of escaping the ad hoc, day-to-day execution of tasks!
Great teams plan simply and prioritize so that they deliver 80% of the results by doing the key 20% tasks first from cycle to cycle.
Key Takeaway: Train all employees in all functions to use continuous improvement tools such as PDCA and Pareto. It will help teams plan, do, check and act on the key 20% of tasks adding 80% of value. Above all, you will drive improvements everywhere.
3. Great teams focus on Systems! Hire Eagles and teach them to fly in formation!
All companies want to recruit the best person for any job but as Jeff Sutherland points out, modern business has perhaps become too focused on finding “A” players and star individuals when the real exponential value is generated through building effective systems which allow great teams to flourish.
Scrum teaches us to focus above all on the System and not the person because an efficient system will always deliver exponentially more value. It is really a case of 1+1 = 3n rather than 1+1 =2. As Aristotle said more than 2000 years ago:
And Leicester City surely demonstrated this more than 2000 years later by putting the system first!
Key takeaway: Great teams focus on effective systems. Seek to develop and optimize high performance systems that allow great teams to flourish! Hire Eagles and teach them to fly in formation!
4. Great teams promote a no-blame culture!
If improving the system can deliver much more than blaming any one individual, it is important to understand this and promote a no-blame culture that encourages everyone to participate in perfecting the system.
As an example of why this is important, Jeff relates the case of General Motor’s NUMMI automotive plant in Fremont, California that was closed 1982 by GM who considered the workforce the worst in America.
When Toyota wanted to reopen the plant in 1984 with GM in a JV, GM recommended hiring the management but not the workforce!
Toyota did the exact opposite and rehired the workforce but not the management!
Very soon, NUMMI was producing cars with the same precision and as few defects as those made in Japan. As Sutherland says, same people, different system, different management methods, different outcomes!
This is what I like to think happened at Leicester City. They focused on the system just as Toyota did at NUMMI, forgot about the poor results of previous years and set about building a system that would eventually deliver outstanding success.
Key takeaway: rather than blame individuals, always promote a no-blame culture. Team members will be more ready to cooperate, participate proactively and contribute to improving the system. Blame the people and you sap the team spirit and morale, you tackle the wrong problem and you allow a failing system to continue. It’s as simple as that.
5. Great Teams build Trust
Trust is the glue that holds great teams together.
If you have a goal and you work to that goal and fight to continuously improve so that you can accelerate and deliver more, this means focusing on how to improve the process as you go.
This means team members must take responsibility for their own share of the work and how to improve it and they will only do so if they trust their team. Team members have to be able to give honest and straight feedback to one another that helps every one to improve and this will only happen in a climate of trust. If there is no trust, team members may adopt all sorts of deviant behavior such as hoarding information, ignoring errors, silo mentality, blaming others, all the behaviors that inevitably inhibit greatness.
6. Great teams share Purpose, Autonomy & Skills
To achieve team greatness, as Jeff Sutherland points out, all teams must have 3 key characteristics:
- A higher sense of purpose which unites and motivates them to overcome difficulties and achieve success together
- A sense of empowerment to take the decisions they need to take at their level to move fast. The more a team has to defer to an external authority to get things done, the less chance they have of success.
- Finally, each team should have all the skills it needs within the team to deliver the expected results. The more a team has to defer to an external resource to get something done, the less likely it will succeed.
Key takeaway: Instill in the workforce a sense of higher purpose; Build a system that empowers them to act effectively towards that purpose and constantly track and provide the skills needed by that team to become Great.
7. Great teams seek to improve continuously!
At the heart of Scrum and the Toyota Total Quality System is a constant quest for continuous improvement.
Scrum encourages teams not only to ask what they have done but how they can improve on what they have done so that in the next work cycle or Sprint, they can go even faster.
Continuously improving the process accelerates the productivity from Sprint to Sprint so teams can work smarter without having to work harder!
Indeed, at the end of each Sprint, team members perform a ”Sprint Retrospective” where they look at:
- What was done during the Sprint?
- What went right?
- What could have gone better?
- What can be improved during the next Sprint?
These simple questions can be asked everywhere throughout any organization for any project or task.
This continuous improvement mindset must of course be shared by the whole organization, from top to bottom and not only those on any given project. If senior managers don’t believe this, employees lower down won’t either.
As everyone in the organization must not only “talk the talk” but “walk the talk”, this involves the company culture and values and everyone needs to understand and buy into this continuous improvement culture and values.
All employees can be educated to understand and adopt this mindset in many ways: from on boarding, to the annual objective setting process, to rewards and recognition, to work methods and processes, to internal communications, to training and development, to Succession Planning, even to the internal Annual Survey and the types of questions you ask, how you ask them and how you act on employee feedback.
And every function should have its own continuous improvement goals and agenda.
Key takeaway: Actively seek to promote a continuous improvement culture throughout the organization and train and educate employees at all levels to adopt a continuous improvement mindset that seeks not only to “do” but also to improve “how” to do.
To conclude, these 7 key success factors contribute to building Great teams:
- Have a goal but build the road as you go
- Plan and prioritize…just enough
- Focus on effective systems. Hire eagles and teach them to fly in formation!
- Build a no blame culture
- Promote Trust
- Develop Purpose, Autonomy and Skills
- Seek to improve continuously
Great teams of course do much more than this but you will have to read Scrum: The Art of doing Twice the Work in Half the Time to discover more “Success factors” on how to help teams go from Good to truly Great.
And well done to Leicester City who, like real champions, show us how the “Whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts” and that good players can become a Great Team when some Scrum success factors are added into the mix in a disciplined and honest way!
What do you think?
PS: I’m a Munster fan myself. That’s Rugby Scrum and not Soccer Scrum…but that’s another story!!!