Harnessing the power of collaborative learning
by Gene Bounds, PMP
ACCELERATING CHANGE IS the single most significant attribute of today's cultural environment. Consider the rapid expansion of the Internet, the knowledge explosion that has followed, the transformation of organizations, the merger and acquisition craze, and the customer's increasingly sophisticated expectations.
Gone are the days when corporate change could be driven simply by “too little, too late” downsizing or rapid, organic growth. Strategic change in an organizational setting must be anticipated, planned, resourced, and efficiently implemented and managed. Otherwise, it will fail, and the organization's very survival may be at stake.
Anyone at the helm of an organization in these dynamic times must find ways to take advantage of the multitude of new opportunities, but to do so requires quick action and the ability to reinvent outdated and stagnant facets of the organization. Executive management must have the vision to steer the organization on the right course and the discipline to implement that vision. Exhibit 1 shows the forces driving today's business initiatives.
Process improvement has landed on the business scene heralded as the solution to the troubles that often plague businesses. Many times, process change is met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from staff, for a variety of personal and cultural reasons. “Change fatigue” fostered by frequent exposure to reengineering efforts that have led to little real improvement, directly increases the likelihood that an organization will reject major and substantive changes, leading in turn to reduced-quality performance and deteriorating customer satisfaction.
Gene Bounds, PMP, vice president of corporate development, Robbins-Gioia Inc., has 20 years of systems engineering, software management and development experience. He joined Robbins-Gioia after a 22-year career with the U.S. Air Force.
Today's Organizational Realities
Exhibit 1. This illustration shows the competing forces driving business to develop initiatives for sustainability and growth. [Exhibit ©1999, Gad J. Selig]
Hierarchy of Projects, Programs, and Initiatives
Exhibit 2. Organizations must recognize and adopt the right management strategies for the various classes or projects—ranging in scope from those related to the organization's vision to individual projects. [Exhibit ©1999, Gad J. Selig]
In 1986, Robbins-Gioia Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm specializing in program management and process control, undertook a series of projects to enhance the quality performance of software engineering teams in the software development community. Over the course of multiple engagements, Robbins-Gioia staff developed a team-focused process improvement program that quickly and effectively overcomes change resistance and through collaborative learning opens the door to ready acceptance of quality processes, tools, and objectives even when established standards are not defined.
Collaborative learning is a team-based approach to the implementation of quality initiatives. Some of the advantages of collaborative learning include:
Works with any size team
Can be applied in any industry
Deliverables can be tailored to meet specific needs
Can be replicated
Delivers predictable results
Establishes a quality infrastructure.
A mentor trained in troubleshooting and diagnosing organizational “malfunctions” facilitates this method. To maximize success, the engagement follows a precisely defined life cycle that includes the stages discussed below.
Measurable Quality Objectives for Each Strategic Intitiative. The program mentor leads this task during the negotiation stage of the initiative, conducting interviews with the team leader responsible for team performance. The learning objective of this activity is to assist the team lead or supervisor in articulating the activities performed by the team and in the development of a strategic vision about how the team could operate optimally. Exhibit 2 shows the structure from strategy to project.
Formal Assessment. A survey is administered that is tailored to the processes and goals of and the products and services provided by the team. At the option of team management, the preliminary survey may be administered only to core team members and subject matter experts within the team. The survey provides the basis of the following feedback:
The range of activities currently performed for each initiative, including best and worst practices
Articulation and candid evaluation of the team members’ understanding of end-to-end business processes across the entire range of team activities
Team member's view of team performance against best practices or known benchmarks
What the team knowledge is in order to establish future priorities.
Management Mentoring. Because continual buy-in from the supervisor is crucial to the success of the program, the process requires at least one hour per week dedicated to mentoring the team lead. Key lessons learned are shared in these status meetings, allowing the mentor and the team lead to jointly steer the program. During leadership mentoring, team priorities are assessed, shortfalls in the program are identified, and the vision of the team leader is gradually shifted from tactical to strategic issues.
Collaborative Development of Process Improvement Infrastructure. Core members of the team responsible for the initiative work collaboratively to understand and define reasonable and measurable quality objectives for each initiative. The team also identifies processes required to assure team delivery of quality objectives and team standards, which may be tailored from industry or corporate standards to the specific needs of the team. In addition, team leads and subject matter experts make recommendations for tools and metrics to assure the delivery of quality goods and services, enhanced customer satisfaction, and measurable process improvement over time.
Governance and Escalation
Exhibit 3. Governance and escalation processes utilized throughout the engagement are critical to success. This illustration outlines a potential structure for communicating within the project team and also for issue escalation, as well as a structure and frequency for communicating status.
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Team Socialization of Work in Progress. During the engagement period, the entire team is apprised of work in process through periodic “all hands” meetings. During these sessions, team members at every level are encouraged to provide formal or informal feedback. Upon completion of all deliverables, the end-to-end process is reviewed with the core team. Test results are reviewed and suggested modifications to deliverables are discussed and approved. Exhibit 3 demonstrates where players fit into the project scheme.
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Training and Final Assessment. When the core team and team management agree upon all processes, tools, and standards, all team members and selected customers are trained in the tailored initiative processes, tools, and metrics. At the end of the training sessions, the original survey is readministered. Survey results are compared to those of the preliminary survey.
Sustaining the Infrastructure. In a typical program, team effort begins as the training phase comes to a close. Tools, processes, and standards must be tested in real time. The following requirements are critical for success:
An infrastructure owner from within the team must be assigned to take responsibility for program sustainability upon departure of the program mentor.
Open feedback channels (informal and formal) between the infrastructure owner and members of the team must be defined to assure continuous process improvement.
New employee training and ongoing team coaching must be planned and provided to assure a consistent level of team understanding and acceptance of changing processes, tools, metrics, and standards.
Change control must be implemented to assure that all modifications of processes, tools, and metrics are evaluated for applicability and baselined prior to implementation.
A sustained effort of 2-5 percent of total team effort per week is required to develop a quality program. A 50-person team that collectively works a total of 2,000 hours per week will necessitate a committed effort of 80 hours per week distributed evenly across the core team. This time is usually spent in facilitated initiative sessions and the review of program deliverables.
Let's examine a 16-week process infrastructure engagement with a 57-member software development team. The purpose of the engagement was to develop software development processes, tools, and standards for a highly matrixed multivendor work group. The team lead recently assigned to the work group was deeply concerned that the team employed no single set of processes or tools. High turnover among contract resources had resulted in poor team performance and eroding customer satisfaction with team deliverables. Software release estimates and delivery schedules were unreliable. Ongoing funding for team projects was questionable, further deteriorating team morale.
Results from the initial team survey of senior team members indicated poor understanding of quality objectives and the end-to-end software development processes. They rated 85 percent of all team processes as being of poor or inconsistent quality. Of the 14 key initiative processes assessed, performance of five (35.7 percent) was believed to be poor, two (14.2 percent) were rated slightly above average, and the balance (50.1 percent) were considered slightly below average. There was no clear understanding among senior team members of how six processes (42.8 percent) were, or should be, performed by the team.
Under the guidance of a mentor, a core team composed of eight senior team members met weekly for 12 weeks to define new business processes, tools, and standards. Deliverables were developed by the mentor and reviewed against actual operating needs by the core team and, when appropriate, by subordinate staff members. As soon as practical—often within days of initial review—processes and tools were implemented by the team in a test mode. The mentor modified deliverables based on team feedback on applicability to and performance in the actual software development environment. The entire team met monthly to review and refine high-level processes.
At the end of 12 weeks, all deliverables defined by the team were developed and a training plan was implemented. Prototype training of selected team members was conducted, resulting in further fine-tuning of processes and increased flexibility in tools. Prior to the completion of the infrastructure development program, all members of the software engineering team went through eight hours of training. Results of the final survey administered to the entire team indicated major improvement in both understanding of key business processes related as well as the quality objectives of the team.
Although program momentum lagged over the holidays when core team members were not consistently available to devote energy to the program, positive results were immediate. Estimates and schedules for deliverables gained in accuracy within the first month. As a result of new processes, customer confidence improved over the initial 12 weeks of the engagement. By the end of the engagement, client-funding commitments, which were in doubt at the beginning of the program, were secured. After staff training, many team members became actively involved in providing feedback to the process improvement effort, further refining processes, tools and performance metrics, and team satisfaction gradually improved.
‘A LIVING THING is distinguished from a dead thing by the multiplicity of the changes at any moment taking place in it,” said the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Being willing to regularly update your methods will keep your projects alive and well.
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October 1999 PM Network
PMI research shows project teams that draw from an array of perspectives and skillsets deliver powerful outcomes.