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STEP 1: STARTING A FLOW CIRCLE

· 12 Steps

FLOW gives you multiple advantages in the way that you innovate. By combining aspects of Agile and Lean and taking it on a stage, it allows you to create a perfect pipeline of innovation activity. No more thinking of stage gates or projects with their stop and start cycles. FLOW is about continuous innovation, multilayered and from the same cut as companies that update their systems, features, services, or prices dozens of times a day.

But how to get started?

Much of the discussion on how to work in new ways centres on Agile or Lean Startup. That preoccupation can create resistance to a new philosophy like Flow.

We say Flow is derived from these other two. It is almost impossible to understand Flow if you have not already had some exposure to Agile or Lean.

However, there are many differences too. Neither Agile nor Lean Startup is well adapted to the realities of medium to large enterprises in today's economy. Yes a decade back they would have been ideal. But today is different. The differences need to be aired in a constructive way, hence Flow Circles.

We’ve adopted this idea from the Work Out Loud movement, who no doubt learned a few things from Lean-In Circles and Lean Startup.

Continuous Innovation and why Agile is now struggling

It is important to get a conversation going about Flow, especially in organisations that have become dependent on Agile.

There are very important reasons why Agile is struggling to sustain the right level of innovation in companies:

1. Microservices is a new software architecture that disaggregates software into smaller packages. it opens up the possibility of large companies innovating more often without those innovations having a disruptive impact on the overall "scheme of things".

2. The trend to small is widespread: more relationships with smaller companies, smaller market niches in the long tail, microservices and micro-apps, smaller units of work. In this environment it becomes essential to do more and do it quickly whilst forever focusing on what is of value. Agile does not have the tools for this type of work.

3. DevOps, the combination of development, testing and operations into a single team allows for continuous delivery and integration. That means the work environment has to adapt to continuous innovation.

4. The competitive environment places more demands on us to ensure customers succeed with our products and services, even if this means constantly creating something new for them.

In Flow we obsess on a small number of issues that are all critically important in creating a culture for digital work:

1. The philosophy of customer-driven value,

2. Thinking outside the project, being expressly anti-project management and collectively dividing work into smaller units where value becomes clear (value, value, value).

3. Therefore cycle-times of two days or less (no hiding away).

4. Making all work highly visible so that, along with two day cycle-times, we get people interacting more often and then have a chance to tap into collective intelligence

5. Minimising the impact of budgeting (we guess, intelligently), scheduling (that's a group kinda thang y'all) and reporting (we take photos).

6. Promoting continuous learning.

Taken together these give you an entirely new approach to work.

And here's what we really believe. Reducing cycle time down to a couple of days, changes everything. The article we linked to there talks about all the gold that flows from it, especially the creative efficiencies.

Getting in the Flow

To begin the process of Flow you could begin with the Walls we outline in the book. These are large scale visualisations of all work processes. Please take a look.

Forging ahead with these Wall visualisations assumes you have a solid agreement internally on prototyping a new way of work; or there is determined, resilient leadership in your group.

If you are some way back from that, getting in the flow can be as simple as getting a few colleagues together to discuss the advantages of an end-to-end system of innovation and co-created work processes - or continuous process model innovation, if you like. We've been keen on that term for a couple of years now.

What types of people should be in the conversation?

The easy answer is everyone but to get things underway in organisations that have poor social communication, it is important:

 

  1. To be transparent - advertise the Circle on a board, in newsletters etc
  2. To invite people with different skill sets - team leaders, new hires, senior leaders, who will all have or aspire to a leadership role; business analysts who have to face the challenge of renewing their work breakdown skills, marketers who needs to rethink customer segmentation; people who have a specific profile: they get the fact that the company has fundamental issues that go beyond digital transformation and really stem from an untrusting culture
  3. To have people in digital transformation roles.

In our first Flow meetings we make it a rule to allow people to stop just being polite and to raise real issues. However, we also set a few ground rules:

1. The discussion is about the issue or the problem not about the person - take personal politics out of every discussion. It's professional, not personal.

2. The meeting has equal share of voice - nobody should expect to sit, listen and absorb, without contributing but equally nobody should dominate; nor should it become a meeting where a coterie of people can claim special insight; we all start from scratch. There are no flow experts because all flow techniques are open to redesign.

3. That means the Circle needs to be led by someone/some people who have the exceptional skill of ensuring everybody gets an equal say. Equal share of voice is critical to the adaptive organisation and to high performance. Leaders need to orchestrate and also to generate belief and here's an opportunity to practice that second critical skill.

4. Meetings really need to drive towards technique - if we have blockers and we have issues of work convergence going wrong or misaligned strategies, which flow techniques will help and how might we trial them?

5. Everybody should openly declare why they are there and if they've been invited a leader should say why - open up about our marvellous array of hidden or not so obvious skills. Emphasise not so much what do people want to get out of meeting but what do they have to contribute? What skill, reading, insight, tools, tricks, workarounds and experiences have they in their personal locker that they've been keen to explore in work but have not been able to. What can the Circle, or flow, liberate for them?

Advantages of Flow

Advantages over what? One conversation that is front and centre with Flow is, what in our culture and practices block progress?

Culture is central and by inference so too is social interaction. If you cannot interact constructively then there will be few benefits of digital work. So what is blocking good social interaction? What is blocking good, appropriate work? Give context to this discussion - it is about driving towards new techniques that take problematic social interaction out of the way.

In the book we are more specific about bringing up blockers in the first Flow team. Blockers can often be things like leadership culture, recurrent unexpected demands on time, scrum masters who are treating sprints like currency, merging the work of different teams and finding they don't quite fit or come out of sync.

Meetings. All the evidence shows that the majority of meetings are unproductive so what can replace them - Wall visualisations! The objective when raising these issues is not to moan or to point the finger. It’s something else.

If you can’t find a forum for being honest about your struggles, what hope is there of moving past them?

A Flow Circle can help get blockers out into the open - chalk them up on your first Flow Wall. Begin the process of transparency and visibility in an area of work where you can invite opinions about how to remove blockers. That's a good issue to debate. What's the best project for experimenting with a new way of working?

Other critical questions you can raise

Flow has a distinct spine leading from customer segmentation to executive decision-making and the executive portfolio to projects in play, project breakdown and work allocation, to continuous delivery.

It also has distinct feedback loops. From external sources and call centres to work in progress; to strategy and to learning walls.

It has specific support walls - public statements of risks and issues, job swaps and cool techniques, thanks and appreciation. So it is important to direct questions at the issues these walls are set up to address.

Do we really have the customer’s success at the heart of what we are doing? Very often organisations are honing in on big data as a way to cross-sell and upsell. There’s nothing wrong in sales expansion but it needs to be off the back of showing customers you can help meet their needs. What small steps can we take towards this real form of customer-centricity?

Is your work really guided by customer concerns, needs or success?

Most companies need some new work on customer segments for this. You are asking what type of project would bring good customer outcomes for a new segment and you are describing all the details of the project within one hour. You might want to use our Go To Market template as a guide to the questions you need to ask.

Do our customer feedback channels flow directly and immediately into work-in-progress? Are they tied into day-to-day improvement? Do they feed back into executive strategy?

Is the executive portfolio rational in the sense of being on target for major strategic shifts but also for a more diverse customer segmentation? Why is this important? - Well most companies are attacked by startups in a segment they are ignoring or treating badly - think foreign exchange and banks being attacked by companies like TransferWise. Segmenting in new ways gives you access to new customer insights and allows you to target innovation.

Is our work breakdown and work allocation causing us integration problems or creating dependencies that slow us down? If so can we try out a wall for better work breakdown?

Could we begin a visible work culture with something communal? Maybe a Jobs' Wall, with job swaps and upcoming opportunities; enabling people to post what they would like to work on and giving over appraisal to teams?

How do we respond to new ideas in our culture? As teams, what’s our first instinctive reaction to a a new idea or suggestion? Do we open up to the possibility or do we close it out? If we close it out then why? What would make us more open to talking about real possibilities rather than dismissing ideas as improbable?

Do projects live or die in reports?? Try a group project breakdown session just to test your skills at a real time project description driven by the principle of supporting customer success.

How do we currently learn? What is the organisational learning model for channelling new tools, skills, tricks, and learning? Would we benefit from a Learning Wall? The Flow Handbook has more on this.

Are we promoting equal share of voice in our conversations? All the evidence points to strong social skills such as listening and respect for the opinions of others as key elements of high performance.

 

These thoughts need shaping into a strategy for where best for you to start with work visualisation and better social interaction. Strategy is perhaps too grand a word. We suggest people jump in and try it out. Still if you go that route you need to make sure you will keep the momentum going and that means, we think, either getting a team leader's buy-in or creating a short document, as visual as possible, that says why you should work differently.

We have some research quoted in the book on the value of visual learning and strong social interaction. It's worth quoting in your pitch to team leaders..

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