Sunday, February 4, 2018

Strengthening the Relational Infrastructure to Build High-Performing Teams

By Jody Gold with Mario Moreira

Teams, not individuals, are the essential building blocks of sense-making and action-taking in organizations.  Research, theory, and experience tell us that great teams depend as much on the relationships between the people, as the people themselves.

When I was younger, I spent years practicing leadership development the way most consultants do. We focused on strengthening the skills of individuals and hoped that teams would automatically improve as a result. We probably knew that relationships are the connective tissues that hold teams together, but we didn’t provide the mindsets, maps, or tools for people on teams to take care of the entire network of relationships themselves. Improving the skills of individuals is like lifting weights without strengthening and stretching the ligaments and tendons that connect them.

Matrix Leadership provides the practices needed to build the capacities teams need to perform as interconnected, coordinated, adaptive systems—MatrixLeadership Networks™. It’s the ‘how’ of how we think and act like we’re in it together.  This is true whether the ‘it’ is diversity and inclusion, building resilient communities, or succeeding in complex and chaotic business environments. 

The heartbeat of our approach is building the relational infrastructure™ that is the most important contributor to and predictor of a high-performing team.  Economic activity and value creation can only happen when working infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels; power grids; telecommunication; the Internet, etc.) support them. Might relational infrastructure be equally important?

Research from MIT[i] and Google[ii] show that the pattern and quality of interactions within teams contributes more significantly to high-performance than the personalities, experience, skills, and individual intelligence of team members combined. In the image above, a blue line between two people represents a relationship, the first-class entities that Mario Moreira writes about in his recent article. Wider lines illustrate more interactions, more capacity, and deeper relationships.  The entire network of connections within a team comprises the relational infrastructure. 

Developing the capacity for team members to speak to each other—in the open—is an indicator of a healthy relational infrastructure.  It replaces the common norms of talking offline, not engaging, or scapegoating.  We call this speaking “in the eyes and ears of the whole”—a capacity that creates the foundation for many other high-functioning behaviors, including delivering effective feedback.

Agile uses early and iterative feedback about products so developers can generate more valuable and higher quality products faster. Matrix Leadership uses early and iterative feedback to optimize the relationships that high-performing teams depend on.  Feedback about relationships is the most direct way to build trust, psychological safety, and resilience so teams can turn their energy into results instead of friction. 

Both agile and Matrix Leadership bring feedback into the open where it can do the most good.  When entire teams understand their shared challenges, they are better able to collectively solve them.  In addition to improved feedback, a healthy relational infrastructure supports other behaviors including increased ownership and accountability; collaboration and innovation; engagement and satisfaction; and leadership that is distributed, flexible, and emergent.

Relationships are first class entities, real things that can be built, maintained, and repaired.  Yet it’s the entire web of relationships, the relational infrastructure, within the best teams that enable them to out-think, out-perform, and out-happy the others. 

Thanks Mario for inviting me to expand these concepts with you. 

[i] Pentland, Alex S. (2012, April). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Retrieved from
[ii] Duhigg, Charles. (2016, Feb. 25). What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.  Retrieved from

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Importance of treating Relationships as First Class Entities

I have been helping companies implement agile for over a dozen years.  I love agile because it aligns with the evolutionary and incremental manner in which change occurs in nature.  As in nature, people’s needs change continuously and it is best when an incremental and evolutionary system is used to support this continuous change. In my early years, I focused more on communications via television, photography, and film, as it was fascinating to capture the importance of character development and the relationships being built. As I moved into mindset and methods, I realized how Agile values and principles and the practices that support them focus on not just the changing needs of customers but the importance of the relationship between team members and customers and amongst team members themselves. 

During one of my engagements, I was introduced to a fascinating model called Matrix Leadership by Amina Knowlan and Jody Gold.  During the education they were delivering that was focused on giving and receiving feedback, I realized that the thing between two people, a.k.a., relationship, is a first class entity.  In other words, it is a real thing that must be built and nurtured.  In a programming world, a first-class entity is a data type you can freely assign to variables such as Scalars, Arrays, and Hashes to help build out the language. 
In the human world, relationships should be thought of as first-class-entity with variables such as respect, honesty, trust, commitment, forgiveness, expectations, and empathy that can define, strengthen, and build out the relationship. There are elements that impact the way a relationship works such as experience together (aka, past) and dynamics of your relationship to those around you (e.g., influences).  These variables structurally represent various channels (or strings) that live within a relationship between two people that can either strengthen or weaken a relationship.  If one does not exercise the relationship or speak honesty, the channels of a relationship can become brittle and break when tested.   

I used to think relationships were the by-product of personalities applied to goals and are often thought of as invisible and nebulous entities.  But relationships are more like channels through which information, energy, and resources can move between people.  The strength and capacity of these relationship channels enable or inhibit the creation of value on teams as surely as the width, depth, and condition of canals enable or inhibit the movement of goods by ship.  

In an Agile world, to fulfill our goal to get our best ideas to customers faster, we have to learn faster and implement better together.  Most organizations experience meaningful gains during their first two or three years of agile implementation.   The early and iterative feedback achieved by delivering value to customers faster lets us build feature sets and user interfaces that align with current needs, instead of adhering to imperfect plans made long ago.  But after we’ve followed the agile model for a while, we run into the same people problems that bedevil collective understanding, intelligence, and action everywhere.  Eventually, there are fewer process problems, and more relationship problems.

Understanding that relationships are first class entities has allowed my teams to take early, incremental, and iterative actions on ourselves as a system so that we can work together as effectively as possible.  Because we offer feedback not only about our tasks, but also about the impact that our behaviors have on one another, there is more trust, psychological safety, commitment to outcomes and each other, than I’ve ever known.  Next time you look at your friend, attempt to visualize the relationship entity.  What do you see in the space between you?


Note: Learn more about Matrix Leadership at:

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Adapting your Agile Enterprise for a better Year ahead!

A New Year is upon us!  What is in store for 2018?  Better yet, what changes might you apply for a better Agile transformation and better business outcomes?  Here are a few to consider.
Focus more (much more) on the Agile mindset and the Agile values and principles.  Without this, people aren’t quite sure whey they are implementing the Agile mechanics (practices and tools).  Ask your employees if they know why they are applying the Agile methods and practices.  If they don’t really know, more strongly relate them to the Agile values and principles. 
Place Coaches high enough in to make a difference.  Placing them too low in an organization will give them little or no influence to change anything that matters.  Gauge your current placement of Agile Coaches and determine if they have the right access and influence to leadership.
Ensure leaders in your organization are educated in Agile.  Provide a combination of the Agile values and principles and Agile concepts, mindset, and practices that will help them support and lead an Agile transformation.  This includes understanding and establishing a high performing Agile workplace.
Focus on the employee side of Agile and what it takes to build a high performing team.  This includes establishing psychological safety, demonstrating servant leadership, creating a culture of self-organizing teams and even self-management, introducing continuous peer-to-peer feedback loops, and more. 

Become totally customer-value driven. Stop doing Agile for Agile’s sake and focus on the customer benefits.  Bring a customer mindset to Agile.  This means more closely identify with your customers (e.g., personas) and capture and apply more customer feedback along the way.  
I will go so far to say if you don't do anything else this year but these, you will have a stronger Agile enterprise that brings you more aligned with building high value products and services.  Give them a try!

Learn more by reading The Agile Enterprise.   

Sunday, December 10, 2017

In your Business, what are you Optimizing for?

Do you optimize for your customers or for the ease of following a plan or process? Many companies like to say that they optimize for their customers.  However, upon a closer look, you catch the scent that some companies optimize for their own internal processes or plan instead.  When you change the plan, it can disrupt schedules and make it less clear on what will be built for the release, as things tend to evolve.  It will also force re-planning, which can impact dependencies and staffing of the work. One of the Agile values states “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” In other words, Agile advocates the importance of interactions with customer.   

One example of optimizing for a plan or process (instead of the customer) is purposefully avoiding customer feedback because it can force you to adjust the plan which can be messy. Another example that I’ve witnessed several times is when actual customer feedback is captured that indicates a change to customer needs, yet the feedback is ignored since sticking the plan is an easier path.  This is a sign that the organization may be optimizing for their internal processes or the comfort of sticking to the initial plan. When paired with management objectives of sticking to a schedule, this often leads to a mindset of avoiding any change. Does this sound familiar?  Be careful not to fall into this trap.  It can be very easy to do.  It can lead to losing touch with the customer and poor business results.
When you optimize for the customer (external), it will often lead to change.  One of the Agile principles states that you should “Welcome changing requirements”.  The more you interact with your customers (which you should be doing), the more they will provide thoughts or feedback on what they really want. This, in turn, leads to adapting the plan to the great benefit of building something the customer wants.  The net result is an increase in better business results. 

There are several ways to gauge if you are optimizing for the customer or for your internal plan or processes.  A first way is to identify how often you actually engage with customers (and how many) in ceremonies like demos and sprint reviews. Engaging with many customers indicates you are optimizing for the customer while none or few indicates a leaning toward the internal plan.  A second way is to capture how often you actually incorporate customer feedback.  Methodically incorporating feedback indicates that you are optimizing for the customer while incorporating little feedback may indicate a leaning toward following the plan.  As you look around your project, product, or company, ask yourself, who are you optimizing for?  Who should you be optimizing for?       

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Embracing Agile in Tunisia

In October, I had the honor of being the keynote at the first Agile conference in Tunis in the past 4 years (generously sponsored by Vistaprint).  While I was grateful for the opportunity, seeing the number of the attendees from different fields highlighted the attention that Agile was getting in this growing Tunisian economy.  I was impressed by the quality of the professionals and students that attended, coming from a range of companies, government agencies, and universities.
My keynote was entitled the “Foundations and Future of Agile”.  You can watch the session here. I started my session by asking the question, “Who do you want to be.”  The intent was to get the audience to consider if they can be more than who they are today and make a commitment to Agile as they approach the future.  I followed this up with, “Who do we want Tunisia to be”?  I provided a vision on how Tunisia can be the pride of Africa. I challenged the participants to become the leaders in Agile and the customer value drive mindset.
To begin the “foundation” portion of my session, I focused on the Agile Values and Principles.  I find that too many companies lead with mechanics and forget the mindset of embracing the values and principles.  Leading with the mindset will remind people why they are doing agile in the first place.  As I shared each principle, one at a time, using a roman voting technique I asked attendees if they believed in each principle. I was pleased to see that there was a strong belief in embracing the principles.  This bodes well for their ability to apply Agile methods and practices and the future of Tunisia. 

As I moved into the “future” portion, I shared the importance of becoming customer value-driven.  I suggest that Agile shouldn’t be done for agile’s sake but instead the goal should be to build a customer value-driven engine. It is the customer who we are serving and who we want to make successful.  As they succeed, so will our business.  I shared the modern concepts of the enterprise kanban, customer value canvas, cost of delay, story mapping, and customer feedback loops.  I wove in the discovery mindset including incremental thinking, psychological safety, and, self-organizing teams.
I ended the session by asking again, “Who do you want to be? What is your role in building a greater Tunisia?”  With such potential in the audience from everyone I met, I can understand why some companies are already setting up development centers in Tunis such as Vistaprint.  I ended with asking all of the participants to make a commitment to explore in more detail one of the Agile concepts or mindset elements they learned today.  Almost everyone’s hand went up.  This will help make for a better future in Tunisia. I’m looking forward to it!

In addition to my session, the conference included a session by Antonio Gonzalez on “The Role of an Agile Leader” and by JP Beaudry on “The Vistaprint Agile Journey”. Special thanks to Nawel Lengliz and Rahma Arfa for coordinating such a great event and to Walid Abdelaziz for sponsoring the event!  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Outcomes Matter in an Agile World

The primary outcome of Agile is achieving better business results. This is why outcome based measures are much more aligned with Agile then output measures. Output measures focuses on how much you delivered, while outcome measures focus on the results of what you deliver.  It is the results (aka, the outcomes) that matter. 

Outcome based measures are drivers to help you understand business success.  You may still need some output measures to help you on your way.  Just ensure that they are relevant to help you determine if you are reaching the outcomes you are looking for.  The output could be the delivery of a release or the number of releases.  The outcome is how many customers either bought or used the product release.  Often times people focus on outputs because they tend to be easier to measure or are a carry-over from a more traditional mindset.  
The danger of focusing on outputs is that you may have a high number of outputs with a low number of outcomes.  Outcomes are what drive business success. As illustrated in the chart, it appears that the output of the 4th quarter is best.  However, if you look at the outcomes chart, the 3rd quarter is better with revenues of $80,000 instead of only $20,000 from the 4th quarter. While the output of four releases sounds good, $20,000 is not favorable to good business results. Outcomes  ask you to measure different things, with a particular focus on customer value.

In addition, an outcome focus changes our perspective from internal to a customer or external focus.  This helps us better understand what we are aiming for in the customer value-driven world we need to establish. So next time you are considering measures of success, just remember that outcomes matter!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Agile Games to Accelerate your Agile Transformation

Games are essential to humans to learn and grow. In many cultures, children use games to simulate and gain the skills that they will need as adults.  As an adult, a game can be a quick way to understand a new concept or practice. In the Agile world, Agile games can be used to grasp Agile related concepts. 
As Agile is typically implemented within organizations as they embark on an Agile transformation, games can be key to help them adapt toward an Agile mindset and accelerate the learning.  They can be used to grasp many of the Agile values and principles and the concepts of customer value, flow, and feedback. 
What is an Agile Game
An Agile game is an activity focused on teaching, demonstrating, and applying the Agile mindset through using game theory. An Agile game has a learning objective in mind.  The objective is to teach the player an Agile concept, practice, or technique that supports the Agile values and principles.  Games without objectives are meaningful to learning. 
For example, in order to learn about customer value, a game may be introduced that asks team members to differentiate between different types of currency.  You may learn that it isn’t always easy yet feedback may be used to better understand the value of the currency.  This simulates what it takes to understand customer value in the real world. 
Why use Agile Games
Games can jump-start the learning of concepts that can lead to an accelerated transformation. This can be useful in an Agile transformation. Games can also be used to model complex concepts or give you insight into processes.  They can give the participants the ability to assess why they work or don't work.
Games insert energy and excitement into learning. Games are often hands-on and get you out of your seats.  They get the blood going in your body and more importantly into your brains. 
Typically Agile games teach basic and mid-level concepts.  More complex and deep concepts should be accompanied by deeper studying, experimenting, and applying of the concepts and practices in real-world environments.   
Getting started with Agile Games
The first step in getting started with Agile games is to identify your specific learning objective.  An objective is often focused on exercising a specific Agile concepts, practice or technique.  Once you have identified your learning objective, you may search the internet for games that may support your objective.  A good place to find a variety of Agile games is at