This podcast covers Chapter 7, “The Agile C-Suite” of “12 Steps to Flow: The New Framework for Business Agility,” by Haydn Shaughnessy and Fin Goulding, developers of the internationally acclaimed workshop, Flow Academy.

If you follow my podcast you’ll know this is one of my favorite chapters because I’m all about whether or not senior management aligns with what it takes for the team to get the work done by practicing servant-leadership with the team, turning power and resources over to the team so they can get the job done. This is critical because in complex situations, which essentially is what Flow is about, the typical organizational pyramid gets turned on its head because it’s the people in the trenches that are actually executing. They are the ones closest to the customer and closest to the work. So in terms of solving problems as effectively and efficiently as possible power needs to be turned over to the team so that they can make on the spot decisions and keep on moving forward with the solution.

The authors referenced a recent study showing that lack of executive accountability was one of the big corporate risk factors. Specifically they list four awful consequences of bad executive decisions:

  1. Wasted resources;
  2. More pressure on people to perform under constraint because resources are being wasted;
  3. People disengaging because they know their work has no value, and;
  4. Trouble innovating because there are too few resources and the feeling that, “Well, we tried new things in the past and they never went anywhere.”

A way to remedy these problems is to have an Executive Portfolio Wall. It’s a wall where the executives use Post-It notes to show their frame of mind, what they are thinking, how they want to move forward, etc.

This has three benefits associated with it:

  1. The team can compare what executives are putting up on the Executive Portfolio Wall with the other walls associated with Flow. They can see how many resources are getting wasted and they can change course. They can put things right and specifically this leads into;
  2. 2. Seeing the imbalance of resource allocation. They can course correct the organization ensuring that work flows into the right goals, and;
  3. 3. As they get close to the teams they get to see emerging areas of activity that are covered by their goals. They can see areas where mavericks have introduced innovation in an attempt to create change. This is referred to as gold dust.

I would tend to agree although I would say you have to be careful because you can get cowboys and cowgirls who just want to do things only because they’re different, which could end up being a distraction. Frankly, there has to be a commitment to some experimentation if innovation is going to occur.

The next section in Chapter 7 is titled Unfreezing Middle-Management, which is a really good term.

In my change management, and program and project management experience middle-management has one of the most difficult positions because they can just get frozen in a position where those above are not releasing sufficient resources and power as well as not listening while those below can take advantage of the disorientation their middle managers are experiencing.

By having the Executive Portfolio Wall middle managers get a chance to comment on the relative importance of the executive goals as well as the adequacy of what they’re willing to allocate in order to achieve those goals. In other words, it allows for a shift in dialogue that makes the conversation between executives and middle managers more robust.

Senior managers also get to see how what they put on the Executive Portfolio Wall is the fountainhead for the beginning of Flow. The entire hierarchy can see the connectivity between what the executive portfolios comprise and how that rolls down to the specific goals that they are addressing.

By having the Executive Portfolio Wall there are five benefits:

  1. Listing the executives’ main enterprise goals;
  2. Listing currently funded projects;
  3. Indication of the the size of the projects;
  4. By showing the backlog they can indicate work that’s waiting to get started. What’s really good about that is by indicating that a project or piece of project is in backlog senior management is implicitly saying, “Okay, we don’t not have resources yet.”
  5. 5. With a “Bury” listing they indicate work that has to be canceled. If you’ve worked in organizations long enough you know that you get what I like to call the zombie projects they just keep on going when they should be canceled. They’re not and they just kind of take on a life of their own.

So with the Executive Portfolio Wall situations like this are looked at very squarely and decisions are made. Again, this high level of visibility and not writing extensive papers with 30 people on a massive email distribution. Just having this information up on the wall has a massive benefit. Anybody can walk by it on break or when they’re doing their work and see how their senior management has shifted its frame of mind as we work to move forward. It promotes healthy interaction across the entire hierarchy. And the better those interactions and the more frequent good decisions are made the better for the organization.

Now the big problem with this (and this is actually one of the things that led me to found center for managing change) is whether or not executives are willing to expose their flaws and let go of the gamesmanship around trying to hide flaws and not really being honest about the situation and mistakes that are made, etc. That’s what really screws with the team and also in the end screws with the customer. Buying in is needed with regards to senior managers being vulnerable and willing to admit to the consequences of changing their mind, the consequences of making mistakes, etc. in order to move forward.

Okay, so why is this important? Well, if an executive is willing to be honest about their flaws then they are giving up their ability to shake their finger be punitive or bossy. Now they’re committing to collaborate with the team which means are going to make connections with the team.

Sometimes people protect themselves by trying to put as much distance as they can between themselves and other people especially subordinates. By risking being vulnerable there’s a chance for better, faster, higher quality communications since there is a willingness to own the consequences associated with taking on the risk. This is why I have an executive coaching course because this can be very difficult to do. It’s this willingness to be vulnerable that’s really the linchpin that makes Flow possible. To the extent senior managers are willing to do it and are disciplined and take on the responsibilities then that’s the extent to which Flow can be successful.

Now another benefit associated with senior managers willing to be vulnerable is they can confront, and I want to use that word neutrally. In other words they can talk directly to the good, the bad, and the ugly that is occurring on the project because if they are honest about their own behaviors then they can be straight up with subordinates regarding the subordinates behaviors. There can be a sustained focus on what it takes to solve the customer’s problem.

Now in the book on page 184 they give a sample Executive Portfolio Wall to start with. It addresses issues associated with IT and how that compares to C-Suite projects. It’s driven by technical debt, work on regulatory and mandatory projects, and projects and propositions that have a direct impact on customer satisfaction.I think it’s worth the time it takes to review since it is a good starting point. Remember the goal here is to get a Flow started and that means we have to have an open discussion.

By hitting the high points and how they’re going to be addressed at the executive level will stimulate conversation where team members can roll in with more detail as is needed. It’s a very natural way to work.

Finn and Hayden point out this typically is the missing link with Agility. the authors believe the reason why is the vulnerability and exposure associated with owning the consequences. But when vulnerabilities and responsibilities are owned things get better because three simple things occur:

  1. Insight can develop across the organization. Remember we have different walls for different themes, beliefs, and components of the project. We get insight by seeing all the information being displayed in different ways.
  2. Conversation. Risking having an Executive Portfolio Wall promotes a conversation.
  3. Common Language. Conversation leads to a common language across the organization with regards to the customers, the customer’s problems, and how those problems are being solved, this is pretty cool!

That’s it for chapter 7. In chapter 8 the authors talk about value, the anti-plan and testing.

Here are the link for:   

episode 0037 of Wrestling with Chaos. the Introduction, The Value Seeking Enterprise, and Chapter 1, Talking About Business Agility:

episode 0042 of Wrestling With Chaos. For Chapter 2, The Customer In The Agile Business.

episode 0043 of Wrestling With Chaos. For Chapter 3, Disrupting The Cadence of Work

episode 0045 of Wrestling With Chaos. For Chapter 4, Taking Advantage of Visible Work

episode 0046 of Wrestling With Chaos, For Chapter 5, Anti-Project Thinking and Business Agility

episode 0047 of Wrestling With Chaos, For Chapter 6, Creating Value-Seeking Behavior

For more on the various “Walls” using Post-Its refer to their excellent book, “Flow.”

In line with Business Agility and dealing with complex situations, you can download CMC’s free e-book MINDSET – 5 SIMPLE WAYS TO LOOK AT COMPLEX PROBLEMS and learn how to find a simple vantage point from which you can resolve challenges.

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