In this second post about applying agile principles at FutureLearn (see the first) Tessa Cooper, Director of People and Culture at FutureLearn, talks about why hiding behind email and tools makes companies less efficient and how putting time into interactions with individuals can make a company more effective.
“Individuals and interactions, over processes and tools” is the first line of the agile manifesto. The sentiment is something I’ve believed since I was a small child — my mum loves to remind me of how I once told my primary school teacher that they should spend more time getting to know individuals in the class rather than putting us all through handwriting practice each morning (I wrote a note to her which said something like ‘can you read this? If so let’s stop wasting two hours a week on practicing fancy handwriting’).
I believe the ultimate reason for developing company culture is to help people work together effectively and feel motivated to achieve the company goals, and in order to do this you must put individuals first. Processes have their purposes: they can help a company to scale its culture, or are useful in companies where there is a need for more control. But if people don’t understand your company culture, or there are conflicting ideas about the company culture, processes won’t help you. Tools should be the last thing you consider, the only role they should be playing is just to speed stuff up or make things that little bit easier. For this reason I always prioritise activities that involve interactions with individuals like 1–2–1 conversations, answering peoples’ questions or facilitating workshops, over and above documentation of processes or exploring new tools. Anyone in a leadership role or people role should focus first on building relationships with colleagues in order to better understand their company and then work on developing the behaviours which support the type of culture your company is trying to achieve.
So how do you ensure you’re putting people first? Here’s a few things that have helped me.
Make yourself available
A lot of companies implement processes or tools because people can’t or don’t want to make themselves available to interact with others. I’ve seen many companies implement lengthy sign-off processes because they think it will be faster and more productive than simply trusting people to make decisions for themselves or making themselves available for ad hoc chats because people need more information/guidance before making a decision.
It can be really easy to hide behind emails or tools in the belief that these things are more efficient, but 9 times out of 10 things happen much faster if you just speak to your colleagues about the idea or suggestion you have, or by listening to them and understanding their needs or motivations.
So why is it so difficult just talking to people? Well time is one factor, but another big one is fear. So many of us fear interaction with other humans at some level. My job involves helping people to navigate their work relationships and it’s made me realise that from a young age we should be taught about emotional literacy and empathy. We do so much unhealthy second guessing of our colleagues before we’ve actually spoken to them, and most of this is based around our own self-esteem or what we think our own reactions would be. I have been a culprit of this and still find myself saying things like ‘I can’t go tell this idea to my CEO because they are bound to hate it or feel it’s a waste of time’, or ‘I can’t tell this person that I think their presentation needs improving because they will be really upset’. I’ve found that when you have these gut reactions it often helps to run it by someone else you work with who will challenge your perceptions and help you to work out what might be driving your fears of interacting with someone. Most of the time your fears about what might happen are often unfounded.
Improve how you give and receive feedback
One example of where valuing individuals over processes is vital is when you’re encouraging staff to give more regular and constructive feedback to one another. Companies that face this challenge often start by focussing on purchasing a new appraisal tool or creating a company-wide process for collecting 360 feedback. Instead they should help people to understand why giving and receiving feedback is important, empower them to practice giving feedback on a regular basis without the need for a tool and develop a culture where people take time to reflect on feedback they are receiving and adapt their behaviour because of it.
I think feedback is an area that’s important to champion in all companies. In order to do this at FutureLearn I set an example of the type of feedback culture I’d like to see by giving my colleagues feedback as and when I have interactions with them. I make time to work with individuals and teams to support them to practice feedback giving. And myself and our learning developer recently created a very short course on Giving and Receiving Feedback. The course is structured around colleagues sharing their past experiences, plus advice on how to create an environment of positive, constructive feedback. This provides the basis for learning by discussion. Those taking the course retain access for on-demand reflection, whenever needed.
Learn more about yourself and others
We’ve done a lot of work over the past few months at FutureLearn to learn more about ourselves as individuals and about our team mates, and how best to interact with one another. Some people have shared their own user manuals with their teams, other teams have developed principles to help guide their interactions with one another, and some individuals have engaged in more self-reflection to improve their interactions with others (here’s an interesting article on how to be introspective). Personally I’ve found that simply asking a questions like ‘what do you like most about your work?’ or ‘what’s been your favourite team to work in and why?’ or ‘what do you expect from a manager?’ can give you huge insight into colleague’s motivations at work, enable you see where you might differ in you preferences and help improve your interactions with them.
In comparison to the complexity of humans and the way we interact, tools and processes are relatively easy, so it does mean that taking this approach needs more time and emotional labour invested up front but I believe it’s worth it in order to ensure people achieve their full potential.
If you’d like to hear more about how agile practices can help you and your company keep an eye out for the next post on the agile value ‘customer collaboration over contract negotiation’. If you have questions or comments feel free to leave them below.
Tessa Cooper is the Director of People and Culture at FutureLearn (an online training platform teaching courses in everything from coding, to languages, to Shakespeare, to genetics).