In his latest article, CTO of Seven Senders, Steffen Heilmann, presents three agile leadership strategies to make the most of your 'first 90 days' in a new executive role.
As a new CTO or CIO, you will need to understand the organization quickly. What are the main initiatives, and where are the constraints? How well does the technology organization fulfill the requirements and expectations of other functions?
Your role as an agile leader is to set an inspiring vision for the organization, define the guidelines, and get out of the way to enable cross-functional and independent teams to deliver great products. But how do you quickly reach the point where you can start implementing changes and creating value?
Here are three concepts to keep in mind during your first 90 days that will enable you to get up to speed and start delivering early results.
1. Establish Feedback Loops
A key feature of agile leadership is establishing feedback loops at different levels of the organization. Having fast and reliable feedback loops enables the organization to learn and iterate towards a goal quickly. As a new leader, you want to empower the organization to address perceived shortcomings and grab additional opportunities.
To understand the impact of these changes as a new leader, you need to make sure you get feedback, and promptly, on how these changes are perceived in the organization. This is where your feedback loops come into play at different levels. Start with soliciting feedback from your direct team while also establishing feedback loops from your whole organization. For example, employee satisfaction surveys can quickly show whether your changes are effective or not. In addition, you will also need less formal feedback loops from the organization's senior leadership. In the beginning, you can use these feedback loops to understand the organization and its requirements better.
Another important topic is to schedule regular private retrospectives after 30, 60, and 90 days. Block out at least half a day of uninterrupted time for yourself and use the time to reflect on the things you have learned. Write down your observations, current hypotheses, and the things you need to understand better. Revisit this document 30 days later, and refine it. In this way, you establish documentation about your current view and how it evolves, and it helps you not to lose focus on strategic topics when overwhelmed with operational tasks.
2. Establish KPIs
Tracking progress over time and using information radiators is another very important part of agility. Establishing KPIs early on will enable you to see whether the changes have an impact. Additionally, reviewing existing KPIs allows you to quickly grasp what topics the organization is focusing on. As the saying goes, “what gets measured gets managed.” Asking each team about their relevant KPIs provides insight into whether the teams are looking into business-relevant KPIs, how strong the tech KPIs are, and whether the right cross-team KPIs are in place to understand impediments and bottlenecks.
Good examples of tech KPIs are the DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) metrics — deployment frequency, lead time for changes, mean time to recovery, change failure rate — as well as team velocity and sprint goal completion rate. Good examples of business KPIs are service revenue growth, customer engagement and conversion rates.
3. Establish a Backlog
When you arrive at a new organization, you probably will find several things that could be changed and improved. Since an organization is a complex entity, it might not be clear what the indirect effects are if you were to change some part of it. In addition, there might be a long list of changes, both big and small. Organizations have a limited capacity to adjust to change, so there is an inherent Work in Progress (WIP) limit.
As a leader, you, too, have limited capacity to direct and push change in the organization. Therefore, you should establish a backlog of topics you want to address. Documenting and sharing these topics will help you prioritize them. What can you implement fast for early quick wins? What are the bigger topics that will take a longer time to have an impact? And what are the overarching themes that are emerging?
Use this backlog when communicating with your team and (perhaps more importantly) your peers. Solicit their feedback on your priorities to make sure that you address topics that are not only relevant to your division but the whole company. Leverage this opportunity to clearly define the topics to be worked on and which to postpone. This overview gets you buy-in from other critical stakeholders and helps you to align across the entire organization.
In summary, as a new leader, you should start establishing feedback loops early on to quickly identify if the changes you have implemented positively impacted the organization and to be informed about any unintended consequences. In addition, start establishing and collecting key performance indicators to quantify the changes and impact you have made on the organization. Finally, document and share your change backlog to get buy-in from stakeholders and ensure a focus on implementing changes that can generate the fastest results.