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Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

Owner of Primos Populi. As a manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.

On June 21st, 2018, my colleague Marc Roussy and I spoke at the Spark The Change Montreal event. It’s the second year in this event’s history, and it was a great success. It was my 4th time speaking in public, and a first for Marc.

It was a wonderful experience, the audience was incredible and we got a lot of feedback. To my surprise, we were applauded twice during our talk. Quite destabilizing, but I guess it meant we were saying or doing something important!

I would like to leverage this amazing experience by sharing the content we presented. In this post, you will find all the topics we talked about.

Contextual setting

Olivier Fortier

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

Author of this post. Having experienced lots of pain points in my career, I once decided that I wouldn’t be a victim anymore. I’d use my pain points to propel myself. And my biggest pain point was that only in very few companies are people taken care of properly. Fixing this became my vocation.

Today, I’m an empowering manager at Marine Press, and I spend a lot of time and energy on inspiring my network to adopt a more human approach at work. The rest of the time? I cultivate people’s awesomeness.

I write about my adventures, experiments and reflections on this blog, Primos Populi. Which means as you have probably guessed, “People First” in Google Translate language. 🙂

Marc Roussy

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

Marc is a developer specialized in cloud. He’s been working for Marine Press for close to a year, and he was able to witness the transformation of his department. He’s been in the software development for 15 years, was active in 5 different industries, and survived multiple management styles.

For Marc, Marine Press is an environment where he can thrive and work on what he loves. When he was approached by Olivier to speak at Spark the Change, he was delighted to have the opportunity to share the way his department evolved.

Marine Press of Canada

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

Marine Press is a company that develops products that facilitate maritime navigation, from the ship’s deck to the office that manages fleets. Our headquarters are in Montreal, and we also have offices in Singapour, and soon, Japan.

One must know that the maritime world is slightly reluctant to new technologies, which are adopted a bit slower than other transport domains. This reality gives us the opportunity to more than just developing products: we build technological solutions to help introduce the maritime world in the 21st century.

Before: Marine Press, a little over one year ago

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

One big team

At the time, the Products and Technology department of Marine Press had only one big team. I’ll use a quite obvious pun, everyone was in the same boat. The team was composed of developers, quality assurance expert, data and Geographic Information System experts, design

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees
Picture from Wikipedia – Metcalfe’s law

and User Interface / Experience designers, product managers… You can imagine it was quite a challenge.

It was quite hard to coordinate anything and take decisions unanimously. It was also quite difficult to put oneself forward in such a big group, as one’s contribution was quite diluted and hard to measure. The size of the team would make it subject to misunderstandings, as the complexity in communication can be quite exponential.

In a team of two people, there is only one direct connection. In a team of 5 people, there are 10 connection possibilities. In a team of 12, there are 66 connection possibilities. It’s important to understand that all those connection possibilities are open doors to misunderstandings and miscommunications. This is why the easy “2 pizzas” rule is interesting to determine the proper team size. If you can’t feed your team with 2 pizzas, the team might be too big. With 2 large pizzas, you can feed between 5 and 7 people.

I encourage you to read about the Metcalfe law, which explains the concept of network effects more in-depth.

Traditional titles

This big structure was reinforced by traditional titles as well as the hierarchy they go with. We used to have junior, intermediate and senior developers, technical leads, architects, etc. Such a structure was greatly limiting the possibility to innovate. As one could expect, a good idea had to climb the ladder to get an approval, and the decision had to climb down. It wasn’t unusual for an idea to die in the middle of this process.

Since a lot of people had to give their input in the decision-making process, it was heavier and slower and didn’t encourage anyone to make decisions. In fact, this system was optimized so that people would ask for the permission to do their job (which is taking initiatives and making decisions).

The hierarchy in this environment would also create the Gorilla in the room syndrome. Have you ever talked with a team, and asked them a question, only to see all the heads turning towards someone in particular? That’s the Gorilla in the room syndrome. It’s the perception that people aren’t entitled to an opinion when some kind of “lead” is in the place, so they turn to this person immediately rather than use their judgement or initiative.

A traditional management approach

Nothing surprising here: the management approach was quite traditional. The decisions were taken at the top, and the action happened at the bottom, and everything had to go through many hierarchical levels created by the traditional titles.

And employees? They’d wait for someone to give them something to work on, just like nestlings waiting for their mom to feed them (and also, they didn’t know how to fly by themselves either). People were told what to you, why to do it, when to do it and how to do it.

In short, everything relied on people’s attitude of subordination.

Low level of ownership

Of course, by being told what to do and how to do it, people would quickly become disconnected. When no one feels responsible, why would anyone long for taking new responsibilities? For a developer, it’s quite difficult: it’s like being perceived as a coding machine, or a code monkey.

Since initiatives were limited, people’s interest was also limited, as well as their engagement. This environment wasn’t creating many opportunities for ambitious people and go-getters.

The first round of initiatives: The first steps towards an environment of increased ownership

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

Please note that Marc and I arrived at Marine Press during this phase. A series of initiatives were taken to foster an environment where people would be comfortable taking more ownership. Hiring me as a technical manager who is more focused on people rather than technologies was some kind of statement: we want to change to help you grow, not to tell you how to work. Here are these initiatives.

Creation of squads

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees
Image from Wikipedia – Navy Aircraft Carrier Group

If a team is traditionally a group of people of the same expertise, a squad regroups multidisciplinary people of various skills who are working towards a common goal. This concept was made popular by the Spotify Model, that a lot of companies try to reproduce (and I would suggest to find what is it from this model that works for them, and come up with their own formula).

We created one squad per product, and also support squads, that are of service to the product squads. To this day, we have 3 product squads and a total of 8 squads.

The number one quality of a squad is that it’s self-organized and autonomous. Squad members have all the necessary authority to take the necessary decisions. No one tells a squad how to organize their work. It’s their responsibility to create, optimize and maintain these processes. Moreover, product squads are in part owner of their product, meaning that the squad is a stakeholder of its product, in collaboration with other groups in the organization. In sum, they are actors in the life cycle of their products. Not victims.

Contrary to a big team (where everyone is on the same boat), squads have more in common with a navy carrier group. While all ships are going in the same direction, each ship has its own crew, can go at a different speed, use different tools and technologies, and correct their course without putting the entire fleet in jeopardy. Each vessel can have precise objectives that support the fleet goals. It goes without saying that it’s a much more interesting and much less fragile strike force. If for a reason or another, a squad was to disappear, the rest of the fleet could continue their voyage.

Self-organization of squads

It’s worth spending some time discussing the concept of self-organization. First of all, working as small entities leaves much more flexibility for the squads. No need to ask 27 people every time a decision needs to be taken, as there are between 5 and 9 people in squads. There are no one size fits none processes either, as squads are responsible for their own processes. Self-organization also leaves some room to inter-squad negotiations and collaboration.

Self-organization also allows for collaborators to diversify as well as optimize the value they bring to the organization. Squads are 100% responsible for the product they deliver. They are composed of people who have all the necessary skills to deliver the product. The squad members don’t have a fixed role with fixed tasks. Everyone is responsible for the delivery, and we expect that they will do everything that is necessary to deliver. Which means that they will sometimes have to do things outside of their field of expertise.

One of the main benefits of squads is that they are living, breathing organisms that evolve and grow. They can be created organically to answer to a new need. And a squad could also dissolve if obsolete, and be reborn under another format without putting the organization in danger.

A system that leverages ownership

Since a squad is part owner of its product, each squad member has the possibility to put forward their passion when making decisions, while having a real impact on our business domain. As squads participate in making decisions, squad members do the work because they decided what had to be done because they believe in their product, and volunteer to do their work, rather than doing it “because we were told to do so”.

It goes without saying that work that’s done voluntarily and with pleasure as one takes ownership of it is generally done better and is of greater quality.

Titles give way to roles

Rather than using traditional titles, Marine Press started leveraging people’s role. The difference is significant. While a title is static, fixed in time and is very much linked to the infamous job description, a role is much more organic, evolutive and voluntary. Someone’s role is determined by their interest, their capacity to bring unique value. When we say someone does something “because they believe it has to be done”, that’s their role taking shape.

Here’s a concrete example: I manage developers. Nothing in my job description says I need to talk about organizational culture, or that I need to create a work environment that’s psychologically safe. No one asked me to treat others as leaders rather than followers. I do it because this is what I believe in, and it has to be done. It’s the same for all of us: everyone can forge their role in our department, as long as it’s relevant and needed.

We also flattened hierarchy to a certain extent in squads. All squad members are developers, in the sense that they develop a product. It doesn’t matter much if they have the experience of a junior or of a senior. Everyone’s advice is considered equally. It’s the relevance of what is communicated that matter here, not rank.

Leveraging roles also created something rather incredible. Entitled leadership (that’s determined by one’s position of power) made way to people’s natural leadership. Everyone’s leadership started emerging naturally.

We could witness the birth of different styles of leadership that we didn’t know existed among our colleagues. There is some technical leadership, which is expected in our domain. Product-oriented leadership emerged for a few people as well, who happened to have an increased interest towards our products and their evolution. And, finally, we could see social leadership emerge, as a few people started showing how much they care for their squadmates and other colleagues, and now try ensuring we have a more sane and safe work environment. They really do care about people’s happiness.

What we believe: The theories behind what we’re set to accomplish

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

The initiatives above took place before Marc and Olivier started working at Marine Press. For our presentation, we wanted to crystallize the principles behind these initiatives. In short, what do we believe in?

Innovation in management

Have you heard of the Peter Principle? In short, it’s the theory according to which, in a closed system, everyone who gets promoted will eventually end up being incompetent. Meaning, they will all end up in positions in which they won’t be good because these positions require skills they simply don’t have.

And an incompetent person will stay in this position forever, as they won’t be able to get promoted since they are lacking the skills to make it happen.

In a context closer to me, a good developer will certainly be promoted to senior developer, and eventually to tech lead, maybe even director! But oh wait, being a director, you need to take care of people and you don’t know how? “I got here because I’m good at coding, so I’m just going to tell them how to code!” would be a quite popular answer to this equation. And the answer is wrong. That not how you help people grow.

To counteract its Peter Principle, Marine Press decided to hire me since I’m a manager who takes care of people, rather than being one who tells them how to code.

Marc, for example, declared during our speech that for the first time in his life, he was having no technical discussion with his manager. All the time we spend together is entirely focused on Marc, his ambitions, his aspirations and his potential. Last winter, after I asked him “What would you like to improve?”, Marc answered “I’d like to be better at speaking in front of people”. And a few months later, we were speaking at Spark the Change Montreal in front of many dozens of people.

Back to innovation in management now. One must know that I’ve never had any formal training on the topic. I ended up as a manager almost by chance. I always managed people “the way I needed to be managed earlier in my career”, rather than simply reproduce the patterns of traditional management. I like to compare my work with making experiences on human beings, in a safe and sane environment, and with curiosity while keeping the focus on people’s well-being. Something works? Keep doing it. It doesn’t work? Stop it…

Making people awesome

It’s the first guiding principle of Modern Agile, a more recent and refined of Agile that is less centred on technologies. Making people awesome. This not only means investing energy in making employees better employees but also making your boss a better boss, making clients better clients, making candidates in interviews better candidates.

It is simply the idea according to which it is our duty to help people grow, no matter their role. People are the heart and blood of a company. We might as well take care of them.

Making psychological safety a prerequisite

It is the second guiding principle of Modern Agile, which I keep very close to my heart. What do we mean by psychological safety? It’s the possibility to say “I don’t know”, “I need help”, “I screwed up”, “I was wrong” without fearing for our safety or our job. The idea is to put the emphasis on the lessons learned rather than blame for the problem.

How can we make the whole company gain from the mistake we made, or by asking for help?

Please note that we are still careful and try not to make mistakes, but not because we are scared of making them.

Lowering the center of gravity of the decision-making process

That’s a long subtitle, but the words carry a lot of meaning. I adopted this expression after seeing it on some website, and I thought it was so powerful and relevant that I made it my own. Sorry for the person who used it first!

I base this principle on to fundamental beliefs that I have :

  1. People who are the closest to a problem are best suited to resolve it
  2. People who will live with the impacts of a decision should, at best, make the decision, at worst, be included in making the decision.

This makes a huge difference in the work environment. If people don’t end up doing what they said they would do, you can imagine there is a big difference between “Hey, what did you guys decide again? You’re not doing it” and “Hey, what did I tell you again? You’re not doing it”.

What strengthens this belief further is that for people to put their brain together and make a decision for themselves, they actually need to care for their team and the company. By never giving your people the opportunity to make decisions, you give them an excellent reason not to care about their work. And I’m weighing my words here. We can’t underestimate the power of the disengagement that will ensue when someone thinks “Nobody listens to me anyway”, or “They never ask what we think anyway”.

I’ll conclude this topic by quoting the former president or Starbucks :

“The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom”.

– Howard Behar

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Now: What did we do to apply these concepts in which we believe?

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

We had to take a few actions to apply all these concepts in our day-to-day. Here are the initiatives that were taken to concretely put these principles into action.

A squad of managers working for employees

I could write a very very long paragraph here, which would say the same thing as a post I already wrote in the past. It was the post that started it all, and that made us apply as speakers for Spark the Change. I invite you to read this post titled Turning the Tides – A Squad of Managers with Employees as Stakeholders, which covers everything we talked about in this portion of our speech.

Our employee handbook

We were 2-3 managers discussing in a room when one of us asked: “Hey do we need an employee handbook?”. The rest of us cringed. There was an unanimity of prejudices towards employee handbooks. Since we like to challenge our reflexes, we made a list of the prejudices we had :

  • Employee handbooks generally focus on what you’re not allowed to do
  • People read it once, and it ends its life at the bottom of a drawer and people do what they feel like anyway
  • When someone actually takes it out of the drawer, it’ll often to prove someone else wrong. “See? It says you’re not allowed to!”

We didn’t go much further since we were doing pretty much alright without an employee handbook so far. Right after I left the room, the first thing I see is this poster that I put up on the wall a few months back. The poster says this :

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

You have the right to

  • Take a decision you think is the right decision to make.
  • Start something that needs to be started.
  • Ask for help whenever you want it.
  • Help others whenever you can (even if they don’t ask for it).
  • Take time off to do something that inspires, excites and energizes you.

“Here’s our employee handbook right there”.

Only positive things. The incarnation of common sense, coupled with our faith in people’s judgement. We had a few more printed and displayed them for everyone to see in the office. If you’d like to buy one of these posters published by Simon Sinek, you can download it on Gumroad by giving any amount of money you think it is worth.

The Wall of Enlightenment

Non, we didn’t start a sect! Here again, I’ll reduce the length of the present post by referring you to an article where everything has already been explained: Making Psychological Safety a Prerequisite in the Workplace.

It is important to note that even if the environment is safe, not everyone is comfortable sharing on the wall, and we’re good with this. It certainly isn’t mandatory. Also, I knew it was a success when our CEO came here and put his own epic fail on this wall.

Hack-a-thon

A concept that gaining in popularity. It is a gathering of developers where everyone works non-stop for 1 or 2 days on a product or a project of their choice. It is generally an excuse to lock yourself in a dark room with your headset on and eat a lot of pizza.

Marine Press had its own hack-a-thon, and the only directive was that the project or product had to be related to the maritime industry. Almost everyone was interested in participating, and it created an amazing opportunity to work with colleagues we didn’t work with before. For the organizations, this has an interesting potential as people could create innovative products that the company could eventually sell.

Innovation Fridays

Inspired by Google’s approach, people can invest their Friday afternoons on anything they want, as long as it brings business value to the company.

This could be, for instance, fixing non-prioritized bugs, learning new technologies, optimizing code. The results are pretty interesting, because those improvements are pretty insignificant individually, but taken as a whole, they have a much more interesting impact.

Hiring process

When the time came to find new colleagues, we elected to renew our approach. In the past, we were selecting developers mostly based on their technical skills, and we neglected way too often other soft skills. Not taking attitude into account cause us some problems. This time, we decided to meet the challenge and hire for both attitude and expertise. We simply adopted the following mindset: we are looking for people we’d like to work with, not code monkeys.

To that end, we had to decentralize the hiring process. Our colleague in HR is very often overwhelmed with work, so she was happy to delegate. Since developers will spend 40h/week with this new colleague, it only makes sense that they choose who to hire. So, we agreed that developers should sort the candidates, tell me who to contact, and would run the interviews. I would only have a role in the first contact with candidates, just to measure their interest and understand their aspirations and see if our paths are meant to cross. Other than that, I would simply book the interviews.

Candidates had to do a technical exercise at home, in their own environment where they are comfortable and relaxed. They would decide when to send us the solution. Simply the opposite of those stressful tests made in an office you don’t know with hardware and software that you didn’t configure yourself. We are trying to reproduce what really happens when we work. Yes, it includes having access to Google. The idea is to understand how the candidate thinks, not if they are able to come up with the right results.

Having suffered from interview processes that are less and less human, I was categorical: our hiring process must be more human than most hiring processes, and I think we were able to do a pretty good job. It gave an interesting push to our employer brand as well. Some candidates what were not selected liked the hiring process so much that they referred some of their friends to us. We created ambassadors for Marine Press just by interviewing people. I’m still impressed by this unexpected consequence.

You can still an example of the job opportunities we are using on the Marine Press website.

What can you do?

Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees

This part is meant for managers, directors, decision makers, leaders. What can you do to concretely create an environment of ownership in your department or organization? The Roman poet Ennius said: “The good is mostly in the absence of bad“. Rather than changing all your organization at once and risking everything to try and find the best solution, start by changing a few bad habits that harm or reduce ownership. You will see that it is much easier, less risky, and it pays off more quickly. Here are a few tips and tricks.

Learn to let go of control

There are people who really love control. Not only controlling people, but also information. Knowing everything at all times. Putting in place processes for control. Some companies even hire people to control other people. How much do you think this costs? Control is much more expensive in terms of money and morale than trust.

Trust doesn’t cost a penny. On the other hand, control can cost you your people’s trust. Control creates limitations. Trust removes them and allows people to go further. Just like leadership, painting or athletics, trust isn’t something you learn in one day. It needs to be practiced every day. Start today!

Try to be less and less useful

I know, scary, right? Managers very often end up being silos, and at the same time, indispensable. I wrote a quite detailed post on this topic: Being Indispensable is Dangerous; Make Yourself Essential. But start with your immediate environment. You’re a manager and everything has to go through you? You are a risk to your team and to your company!

If it’s the case, your value is determined by how much it would cost if you left. Is it really the value you want to have? Don’t you want to be recognized by the value you actually bring to the organization?

By working on your team’s autonomy, you will be less useful to them. You will be able to work on tasks that bring more value while your team is in action. You will even be able to take your vacations without stressing out. And let’s be honest: as a manager, if the members of your team can make decisions by themselves, without you, it means they are autonomous. It also means that you succeeded.

Remove limitations

I wasn’t the only one to say it at Spark the Change: 100% of rules exist because of 4-5% of dissidents. Are you ready to penalize 100% of your colleagues for 4-5% of dissidents who will probably end-up removing themselves from the equation? I’m not.

Rather than using the old ball and chain on your colleagues, give them a springboard! Opportunities to innovate, to be creative and bring unmatched value to the organization are very often blocked by limitations. It is a very common antipattern to see organizations brag about innovation and creativity, only to adopt limitations that will kill any hope of innovation way before it can emerge.

If you want to learn to let go of control, as I suggested above, it also means letting go of limitations. Companies hire people who have extraordinary skills, and the first thing they do it restrict them. Let’s trust people’s judgement. And don’t forget: people focus on what we talk about. If you only talk about what’s possible, it will stick in their imagination. If you only talk about what’s not allowed, that’s the only thing they will think of.

Do not treat your employees like children

This may sound obvious when I say it. But I can swear to you, it’s not that obvious. When someone is treated in a certain way, they are encouraged to follow this pattern and act accordingly. Do you want to work with leaders? Treat people like leaders. You will see a difference very quickly. A leader who treats people like followers will get followers. For my part, I prefer to treat people like leaders. One thing is certain: every person you hire is an adult. Treat them like responsible adults.

While I was speaking, I had a quick trip down the memory lane, and I remembered a very good example of this. In 2006, I worked for a company that was treating us like kids. It was a real kindergarten. When the day was over and it was time to go, we had to line up next to the door, and at 4 PM sharp (and not one second before) we would receive the permission to leave. What do you think was happening? Every day, people were acting like children: they’d find ways to flee earlier. They would pretend to go to the bathroom 5 minutes before the end of the day to leave earlier. This company was reaping exactly what they kept sowing. I don’t have to tell you that I didn’t stay in that place for very long…

3 key takeaways

If you had to remember 3 things from our speech, we would like them to be this :

  1. People are the heart and blood of organizations. What would your company do without its people? Keep your heart healthy: take care of your people!
  2. Trusting our colleagues costs much less and is much more fruitful than control
  3. Don’t give your people a reason not to care about their job

And now, please imagine how it would be if ALL your colleagues, from the janitor to the CEO, profoundly loved their job and really wanted to be there every day. Can you visualize it? It’s up to you now!

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Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees
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Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees
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The full written version of the speech "Fostering Ownership by Working for Your Employees" given by Marc Roussy and Olivier Fortier at the Spark the Change Montreal event, on June 21st, 2018.
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Primos Populi
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