The Chief Outcome Officer?

I believe the Chief Operating Officer title should be changed to Chief Outcome Officer. I once worked with a COO (let's call him Ethan). Our organization had well over 52 products and over 1,600 developers. We were trying to become "more agile" which to Ethan meant "doing more with less" and "going faster, always". It wasn't always that way though. The organization I was working with before entering into Ethan's employ, was purchased by Ethan's organization. Ethan was so impressed how agile had been implemented at our organization that he asked me to "transform" the entire company to model what we were doing.

Ethan was prepared to move teams around on a spreadsheet, broke out the seating chart on each of the 5 floors the company owned and said "Let's get to work". "Lance, we have very aggressive sales deadlines to meet for this quarter and we need to ensure we hit them". "I am positive based on what I have seen in your teams that we can use your process across the entire organization and meet these deadlines".

Do you hear those "damning" words in Ethan's tone? Being a coach for an organization and trying to foster a culture of agility is not a quarters worth of work. It sure can't be accomplished across 52 products and 1,600 "developers". Naturally it will take years before we get the organization straightened out from its rigid hierarchy and traditional management beliefs that we have to instruct the people how to do their job and ensure they do it through performance reviews that focus on individual performance.

Needless to say, my work was cut out for me. Fast-forward about 3 years and I'd say about 75% of organization was on the right path of agility, but the culture was still a slow moving change. Realize however, just because it took 3 years of change to get to the 75% (and no, they weren't perfect), it didn't mean we weren't delivering value (in the way of agility culture change) throughout those 3 years. We started with a few teams and experimented with what it would take in the "mother organization" to succeed with agile. The organization that was just purchased had more qualities than our process and people; it had the right culture and mindset to foster agility. More on that in another blog someday...

Let's focus on the Ethan's role; Chief Operations Officer (or Chief Operating Officer). Ethan's job was to mobilize the workforce to deliver on the goals set by Sales, Marketing, and Product. To him, it was about "butts in seats", re-organizing frequently, and holding people "accountable" to their individual goals. It was the classic traditional management dogma that we have seen over the last 150 years. The focus is on output. How much work did the individual do? Did they meet their quota today for hours worked, or lines of code written, or test suites run? Did they get the thing coded so we can then start testing it?

Ethan's focus was more about how much software inventory we were creating rather than how much of that inventory can be in the hands of our customers for real feedback and adapting to the experiments of our assumptions. Agile is about organizing to deliver outcome, not output. Outcome requires teams of people coming together for a collective effort. It takes all of our skills individually to make the components come together that allows the customer to actually use something we have developed. Agile is about hiring motivated people (professionals) and then trusting them to get the job done.

Ethan was far from agile. It doesn't mean we couldn't change him, but it is all too common for the organization to want to transition to agile to go faster. It is not the traditional levers that we can pull to get agility from our teams; it is a culture change. A mindset change. Until that happens, most of the time we will simply focus our efforts on maximizing output. Being a data person, we have a saying in the data science world that sticks with me. Most organizations are data rich, information poor. They lack the skills to take the data and make it meaningful. We have the same problem in traditional management. We lack the skills to create a culture where people want to bring their gifts and talents each and every day to meet the goals of a larger outcome.

We should start by changing Ethan's title from Chief Operations Officer to Chief Outcome Officer. Functional matrices are fine, but they are dangerous to agility as well. Ethan's job should be to focus the effort of the organization to maximize outcome not output. Organize teams and backlogs to minimize dependencies and bottlenecks, trust the people to workout a process of getting work done that works for them. If we haven't hired people that we trust, then that is Ethan's problem (along with all of "management"). We need to build more leaders (or take the leaders everywhere challenge from Gary Hamel).

Agile means "the ability to move quickly and easily". Most of the time we focus too much on "quickly". We really are only faster in agile because we have gotten better and more efficient at our work. Agile is continuous improvement and continuous focus on technical excellence. We make it easier to do our work (more efficiently) and thus become faster, not the other way around (by hurrying). People who pay attention and reflect on the process of how work is accomplished can further tune the process to get more efficient.

According to Forbes:

"Research has shown that when employees spent just 15 minutes per day reflecting on what they learned that day, they began to perform 23% better after just 10 days."

Most "managers" do not see collaboration ("meetings"), reflection ("retrospectives"), or experimenting with new ideas ("self-organizing") as valuable. They feel they know best how to organize teams and hold them accountable to the results. That mindset must change if you truly want to build business agility into your culture.

What are some ways you can help your organization mobilize around outcomes, inspire your developers with a sense of mission, and trust them to get the job done...their way?

Lance Dacy is a Certified Scrum Trainer who’s passionate about applying agile beyond technology to all areas of business and life. If you’d like to become a certified Scrum professional, check out the upcoming class schedule.Lance is also available to help coach your organization to business agility through proven techniques that can help you focus on culture change, unlocking team agility.


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