This post is about my recent experience on coaching a team of mid-level engineering managers, responsible for functional areas of quality engineering / assurance (software testing, automation tools, user acceptance testing & field trials, quality assurance process). The engagement lasted just over two months. I was called in to mentor, guide and coach a group of four managers, working with them to create their group strategies such that they aligned with the overall company goals, divisional objectives, ultimately working through each line manager and team member. The result was an aligned strategy for each group, measurable and specific, simple and uncomplicated, that each manager could prove traceability back to overall divisional objectives and company goals.
This particular group of managers had just been through a big divisional restructure, fairly new in the management position, working with new people, new reporting managers as well. The team sizes these managers were responsible for ranged from 20-to-80 people. The challenge was not only in setting up the technical strategy, but also figuring out how to effectively manage the people challenges. My clients (General Manager GM & Head of Department HOD) were keen on getting the strategies drafted so they could carry through with the rest of the implementation planning, motivate for future budgets, as well as feedback to the business on the overall progress (and success thereof) of the recent restructure.
So the engagement was kept brief, short and somewhat fast-paced. We didn't have the luxury of time to spend days experimenting with tools & techniques. At first I was quite interested in adopting the Business Model Canvas as the template for each group manager. I didn't have much experience with using the canvas specifically for department strategies, but was keen to try it out. Whilst I've read the book and experimented with some models in my head, I was sure I could adapt the canvas for business strategies. But time was limiting, I did not want to confuse people, and after bouncing the idea with some peers, I figured this was going to be too much trouble, would need a lot of training and facilitation, mindsets would change as well -- something I didn't have time for.
Note to self: Still pursue the business model canvas as a template for management strategies!
I also considered maybe taking Google's Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) process and applying similar principles. Again, I decided rather not, because I didn't want to come across as shoving down some other company's ideology onto this new team. OKRs would require a few roadshows and experiments to get right, and time wasn't on my side.
So I decided to use KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid - common-sense approach. Also remembering Chip n Dan Heaths SUCCESs criteria from their work on Made to Stick - Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional Story, and of course throw in the classic management technique of SMART - Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Time-Bound -- we would be on our way to having a tangible strategy that management would approve.
With roughly just over 100 hours committed for this engagement, spread over a period of two months, the approach I took was the following:
- Get agreement that when it comes to management strategy, it's all about being aligned to business goals. So my aim was to provide traceability top-down-up from Company Goals <<<>>> Business Unit Objectives <<<>>> Divisional Objectives <<<>>> Department Objectives <<<>>> Group Objectives <<<>>> Individual Objectives.
- Agree that any activity that does not have a direct link back to a goal, is considered waste and should be canned.
- Seek out senior management's expectations - what were they after really, via simple survey feedback mechanism.
- Get the line managers to start thinking strategically by asking some thought-provoking questions - another survey.
- Meet with each manager one-on-one. Walk through survey results, compare manager's results with senior managers. Talk about alignment issues. Touch on topics for further thinking.
- Teach the concepts around measurement, visualisation, story-telling, envisioning the future, taking ownership, how to deal with bottlenecks, and HR/people challenges.
- For each manager, iterate a few rounds of draft strategies
- Get all managers to review jointly in a room, feedback and alignment from colleagues important.
- Present and walk through strategies with senior management - get approval on priorities and overall acceptance.
- Close the engagement & get feedback
Both GM & HOD shared positive feedback - they were impressed by the level of detail, analysis & thought that their new managers applied. The GM's asked me to extend my coaching to the rest of his groups on this journey, the next one he has in mind is his Project Management Office :-)
Here's some feedback directly from the manager's I coached:
Here's some feedback directly from the manager's I coached:
Muhammad was really helpful and a pleasure to work with. His insight and knowledge was amazing. Also, being on a Programme level gives him visibility from above end to end which mean that he can relate back the experiences and pain points of the different business units etc. What was great, was that he had the ability to ask all the right questions and in a simple form. The way in which he articulates the stuff that we are all thinking about but have no idea how to put together and say it or put it into simple words just leaves me in awe. I looked forward to every one my sessions with him. Without his input and guidance, I now feel, that my department's strategy would have been quite off the mark of where it actually should of and needed to be.
Muhammad's ability to convey his ideas and visualize something that's on his mind always amazes me. The coaching sessions were hugely beneficial and helped me think out the box. He has great insight and I believe a few sessions with him will greatly benefit your career.
I have enjoyed working with Muhammad because he knows how to get the best out of you, he ask questions, he challenges your way of thinking, he makes you believe in yourself, above everything else, he knows what he's doing and he's definitely a complete Coach.
Template for Strategies
Each manager crafted their strategy around the following:
- Who are we and what do we stand for? Your one-line mantra.
- What is the goal of [YOUR DEPARTMENT] & hence impact on [YOUR GROUP]'s goals?
- Envisioning the future - i.e. Tell a story of the end-result "Imagine if..."
- Table that shows your Aspirations, Expectations & Reality
- Targets to achieve: Short Term (Dec '15), Medium Term (Mar '16), Long term (Mid-16)
- For each target, top 3 measurements - i.e. How are you going to measure progress?
- Summarise your main obstacles and challenges (where senior management could assist).
Here is the initial starting questions (aimed at the head of department & general manager) that helped frame my implementation approach:
- In order of priority, which are the top three objectives of [THE COMPANY] that [THE BUSINESS UNIT] must meet & deliver on?
- Related to the above, which are the associated top 3 objectives of [THE DIVISION] that [YOUR DEPARTMENT] must deliver on? Please specify additional focus areas if applicable.
- In terms of expectations, how would you set a target in terms of time horizon to reach these objectives? Use Short Term (end of calendar year ’15), Medium Term (end of Financial year Apr ’16), Long term (mid 2016)?
- What values, in order of priority would you like to see instilled in the [YOUR DEPARTMENT] lines (Limit to 3 most important values)?
- How would you describe the success criteria for a strategy that ends up meeting your expectations (that is, what would make you happy)?
20 Questions to Stimulate Manager's Thinking Processes
Here's the questions that got the managers along the path:
- In order of priority, which are the top three objectives of [YOUR PARENT COMPANY] that [YOUR DIVISION] must meet & deliver on?
- Related to the above, which are the associated top 3 objectives of [DIVISION] that [YOUR DEPARTMENT] must deliver on?
- Apart from business objectives, what's your understanding of [YOUR BUSINESS UNIT]'s expectation on what [YOUR DEPARTMENT] needs to achieve?
- What would you say, in no more than ONE sentence, as the GOAL for [YOUR BUSINESS UNIT]?
- What have you setup for your own group's objectives - and how does each objective map back to [YOUR DEPARTMENT] objectives, [YOUR DIVISION], [YOUR BUSINESS UNIT] Objectives, and ultimately map back to [YOUR COMPANY] business objectives?
- Do you believe your objectives align clearly with the goal in question 4?
- What would you say are you main focus areas for each of these time horizons: Short Term - by Dec '15, Medium Term - by Apr '16, Long Term - by Mid-'16
- What values, in order of priority would you like to see instilled in [YOUR DEPARTMENT] lines (Limit to 3 most important values)?
- Who would you say are your group's primary internal customers?
- Who would you say are your group's primary external customers?
- What are your group's aspirations? (That is, what is the ultimate wish you have?)
- What is your group's expectations? (That is, what do you expect is achievable?)
- What is the current reality of your group's situation? (That is, what's the current status - where are you and how far do you think you need to go?)
- Do you have a clear understanding of the expectations from [YOUR DEPARTMENT] Senior Management Team?
- As a manager, are you clear about how your performance will be measured?
- If you were meeting someone who has never heard of [YOUR COMPANY] or seen a [YOUR PRODUCT] before, how would you describe your group's role and reason for existence?
- Please share what ever targets you have set your group to achieve this financial year.
- For each of the above targets, please describe how you will measure and track progress against the targets.
- What are the obstacles you see in your path that will prevent, or challenge you from meeting your group's objectives?
- Regarding the above obstacles, do you have ideas on solving these challenges? Please share them briefly.