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Toxic work environments - killing creativityI’ve worked in IT for over a decade in different global or Indian organizations across multiple domains and tech platforms. I’ve followed the stereotypical IT career path; starting as programmer, progressing to Team Lead, then Project Manager for small teams, large teams, then multiple teams and I’m currently a Senior Scrum Master for Digital Teams. All the time, I’ve been rushing to deliver according to whatever the company’s current business mandate might be.

I’ve come to realize that the only constant is change; technology changes daily, as do execution methodologies and market needs. The cause of all this constant change? An instinct to improve and enhance human life. This can only be achieved in an environment where creativity, innovation and experimentation are encouraged, and a fear of failure is banished. Every success contributes to the global pool of human knowledge, yet people still seem to be searching for a magic, secret formula for success.

I believe success can be put down to 2 factors; the right environment and a growth mindset. Innovation doesn’t happen by following defined steps or so-called prescriptions. Routine is the enemy of creativity. It stops it dead in its tracks. That’s why Scrum, the most successful Agile framework, is becoming less prescriptive and starting to encourage organizations to adopt empiricism so people at all levels get the opportunity to experiment and apply what they’ve learned to help them plan and execute in ways that are sustainable and ongoing.

I believe success can be put down to 2 factors; the right environment and a growth mindset. Innovation doesn’t happen by following defined steps or so-called prescriptions. Routine is the enemy of creativity. It stops it dead in its tracks. That’s why Scrum, the most successful Agile framework, is becoming less prescriptive and starting to encourage organizations to adopt empiricism so people at all levels get the opportunity to experiment and apply what they’ve learned to help them plan and execute in ways that are sustainable and ongoing.

It’s important for leaders to believe in the value of developing every individual in the organization, as nobody can tell where new ideas will come from and where new talent will emerge. It’s important to create a collaborative atmosphere where people can thrive, their ideas are appreciated, and they’re allowed to learn from their mistakes. Everyone should get an opportunity to develop their abilities to their best possible potential. This not only fosters innovation; it also helps with attraction and intention. In other words, the bottom line.

In reality, very few organizations in the world truly foster a growth mindset within a supportive environment. Some have realized the benefits, are in a transformational journey towards building this culture. The majority still don’t seem ready to accept this truth, which can lead to a toxic environment. They proudly claim in company values slogans and business reports that they have this culture, but this is rarely validated at ground level.

Based on my journey and understanding to date, the following ground level factors signal a fixed mindset and unhealthy work environment:

IT’S OH SO QUIET… SHH…

When team members working on a project spend most of the time sat at their desks working on individual assigned tasks. Teams prefer to do daily stand-ups via desk phones than actually standing up. There’s a disciplined, quiet atmosphere on the floor. Even during the ongoing pandemic situation, teams demonstrate little interaction using collaboration tools and have limited connectivity outside of mandatory meetings like scrum calls, etc. Team members hardly ever call for help or volunteer to offer help to others. This type of behaviour signals a lack of collaboration within a team, and most likely an absence of trust.

TOP-DOWN LEADERSHIP EXTINGUISHES ACCOUNTABILITY

A senior team member (typically the manager) assumes accountability on behalf of an entire team that’s responsible for a common project. This person provides estimates, makes commitments to stakeholders, takes care of task breakdown and assigns tasks to each team member based on their capability and levels of understanding. The team members then all follow the plan as directed. The manager than tracks progress very closely on a regular basis. While there is nothing bad about this model per se, team members are not involved in any conflicts or discussions. They just follow what they’ve been told to do, which means they have no real sense of ownership or commitment and lack any sense of accountability over what they’re delivering. The manager then complains about teams lacking a sense of ownership and accountability. There’s also limited scope for innovation and improvement.

A FOCUS ON DATES DELIVERS A TOXIC ENVIRONMENT

A date-driven delivery approach is very common and popular in organizational leadership. In most cases, there’s a misperception that dates motivate teams to focus and deliver. In fact, driving a team to a date has the opposite effect and often leads to sub-par solutions, unhappy users, and unhappy teams. The date-driven behaviour anti-pattern also results in significant waste and works against an Agile mindset. We believe if we plan better, design better, and think more thoroughly, we can predict when we will be done. This results in enormous front planning and design to outline all activities and timelines. This is usually designed to predict the date to the day and time of delivery. The date forecast occurs at the beginning of the effort before any work has started. This is a time around which the least amount of information exists, and learning has not started. To make it worse, this date becomes the ‘baseline’. Any movement away from the baseline becomes a failure indicator. So, the team is always working in the shadow of a sense of fear that should be seen as a symptom of a toxic environment, but is accepted as normal.

FEEDBACK FAILURES

Another fallacy is to evaluate the performance of individual team members based on the story points they have completed or number of user stories they have merged in each time period. Another mistake is to conduct this assessment annually or bi-annually to reward people instead of having frequent, constant feedback loops. These evaluation systems fail to promote a culture of collaboration in the team and organization.

Another fallacy is to evaluate the performance of individual team members based on the story points they have completed or number of user stories they have merged in each time period. Another mistake is to conduct this assessment annually or bi-annually to reward people instead of having frequent, constant feedback loops. These evaluation systems fail to promote a culture of collaboration in the team and organization.

INTERROGATION CULTURE & JUSTIFICATION TRIALS

Often, it appears that teams aren’t open about discovered risks or issues during their execution journey. They seem to lack the courage to highlight their limitations. Such behaviour is the consequence of an interrogation culture in organizations where the team and/or team members have to go through ‘justification trials’ at multiple levels in the organizational hierarchy.

Organizational environments reflect a culture which has evolved over a period and manifests as a common set of behaviours and an aggregated mindset, usually driven from top to bottom. It is also the accumulation of lessons learned and wisdom passed from generation to generation. Covid has forced people and organizations to reassess everything. Many organizations and industries are currently going through such transitions and I believe they should use this time to really focus on what their ‘desired state’ is regarding the work environments they create in a post-Covid world. I know from myself, and my colleagues, that there’s a lot that needs to be fixed. We need brave senior leaders who can define and bring to life inspirational work environments where creativity flourishes and fear fades. In reality, this means a bold departure from the current norm. Agile evangelists, Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are the change agents who will support and accelerate this transformation going forward.

 

STB (27/05/2021)

 

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