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Remote Enterprise

Ross Chapman
Ross Chapman
Head of Etch Sprints 29 Apr 202017 minutes read

In our latest podcast, we consider how to transition a massive enterprise to remote by sharing a story of a large organisation that has actually done it.

This episode, we speak with Lee Duncan, Enterprise Design Sprint Leader at IBM Transformation. Lee has the responsibility of scaling the design sprint methodology across the enterprise and lead thought leadership through experiments and inclusive organizational and external collaboration.

Here’s the condensed transcript from the interview*:

Ross Chapman: We’ve got Lee Duncan from IBM Transformation and today we’re going to talk about the remote enterprise. As we’re finding ourselves coming to this new normal and for the first time, some enterprise companies are not in the office. They are remote, so how best they can overcome the challenges. What could they bear in mind in terms of principles, tips and tricks to enable leaders to manage large enterprise sessions? Lee -welcome. How are you today?

Lee Duncan: Thank you. I’m doing well.

Ross Chapman: Great. And tell me, how are things with you at home? You’re in North Carolina.

Lee Duncan: I am, yes, North Carolina, to be specific. Research Triangle Park.

Ross Chapman: Great. And how’s it looking at the park.

Lee Duncan: It’s looking empty. A lot of people are home and businesses have started working in a remote way. So I think the park is largely empty and people are fully virtual.

Ross Chapman: Fantastic. Lee, for anyone who doesn’t know you could you just give us a quick intro about what you’re all about what’s your passion and how you’ve been employing that in recent times at IBM transformation.

Lee Duncan: Sure. So once again, my name is Lee Duncan. I’ve been with IBM a really long, long time. Most people don’t realize this, but I’ve actually been with IBM for 20 years. I’ve had probably between 10 and 15 different jobs, I started around 10 years ago when we started getting into Agile and I was invited to participate in the transformation space, transforming the way we do work and the way we do business. IBM is has been around for a while, as everyone knows. It’s an over 100-year-old company.

And so the only way to be around for that long is to constantly question defaults. You need to transform yourself and be able to let go and learn as much as possible, so around 10 years ago we started getting into Agile as a lot of companies were. And I was asked to participate in an area which we called Model Office. The Model Office was where I was invited to come into the transformation space and basically examine everything we do and how we do it. What the ceremonies were and what were the tools. How do we deliver and actually work well? My first assignment was in the security area and then I was able to work in acquisitions, etc. 

It was successful and what can happen when things work out well is that you get asked back, you get asked to do more of it! I started getting a reputation for a person that could come in and transform things.

Ross Chapman: Fantastic. And I liked how you said that it’s about learning and questioning everything. I think that’s a superpower. People have to do that within the enterprise and within any organization that they are in. Don’t just accept things for what they are, or accept the role that you’ve signed up to. Challenge and ask and ask again. Employ the five whys and be a student. I’m still a student and I’m hitting mid-30s!

I still am learning. I’m still making mistakes, and that is what I think has kept me motivated. but passionate about what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with.

How, how do you take an entire enterprise team and teams of people and when they’re in the challenge of immediately turning it on to remote, what do you think are the common misdemeanours? The things that they think are going to work and ultimately you find through the work that you do, actually, it’s not a quick tip or tactic. It’s not just starting to use a new tool. Are there longer form approaches to how people are in the right roles? Is there a wider context to just going to remote and sometimes exposing some of the problems that may be teams or in the design work that they’re doing before?

Lee Duncan: Yes, I think compassionate leadership having true empathy for people is key. What is their true work environment like? What are some of the issues that are going on outside of work? I think to understand that knowing that people have a family, they’re connected to family and friends and right now in this current situation that we’re in I think companies and organizations and enterprises need to think about the human factor. It’s that X factor which is very difficult to anticipate. The best plans can go wrong, very quickly when we don’t account for that. I would say that probably no one on this Earth was realistically fully and completely prepared on what is happening right now. It’s one thing to have documentation, but really what separates good companies from maybe not so good companies is when leaders are able to clearly articulate what is happening, and being able to express that authentically that they have concern for their employees. Empathy for other people, I think, is what separates companies. I heard once that leaders make people feel safe. That’s a huge thing.

I would say that it is something IBM brings, is that when our leaders speak, we have confidence that they’re in control and that these strategies and actions are really well thought out. They’re not perfect and no one’s really ready, but overall, it is the X-Factor of things that are happening. With family situations and with children being home, to supply chains being disrupted etc., to some degree.

It’s difficult to go into a grocery store and get exactly what you want. There’s a lot of things happening. And I think there are concerns about daily life. Those are the elements that are very difficult to anticipate, certainly at scale.

Ross Chapman: Yes. How do you prioritise that piece of work? What’s the roadmap look like?

Lee Duncan: Yeah, there’s a quote that I heard not too long ago, which said, the more you know, the less you fear.

So there are multiple ways, I think, to manage an enterprise, a company and organization with clarity of information, showing calmness, showing authenticity being transparent, being human, being empathetic. I think that’s the recipe.

Ross Chapman: How can an entire enterprise start to enable those teams to collaborate and work remotely? What, what have you found in transformation and some of the work that you’ve been doing In enabling work to happen?

Lee Duncan: Yeah, I would say first, it’s quite a slight psychological shock. Because we are a company that has been around a long time, we have a lot of individuals that have been an employee of IBM for 20, 30, even 40 years. So as far as ways of working, going from face to face, which I believe is preferred, (because most of IBM is co-located together), and for some individuals, that has been the way for almost their entire career.

I think it’s more difficult and challenging to communicate. We know that when we’re virtual we’re not able to pick up on social cues. We don’t know what people are thinking. When I will see body language and sometimes with voice quality, it’s difficult to perceive the tone that they have, and how they’re feeling, so it’s more challenging. 

I think that that’s a lot of it, but the onboarding of this experience was instantaneous. We went from one week, Washington, to the next week fully remote. Anything that happens that quick is is disrupted. There are emotional challenges with moving that fast, there are cultural challenges moving that fast. There are technical challenges too, but we have learned a lot.

Jonathan Courtney calls it ‘panic learning’. Through quick learning and the necessity to deliver we’ve learned a lot. We now have some tips that we think will be helpful.

Ross Chapman: Right. Did you find that it’s not just the tooling or the principles or the ceremonies? Did you feel like the team actually need to start failing fast so they experience the learnings that they need to iterate and improve on or do you feel like, no, it’s actually a very prepared set of workshops — we’re going to avoid failure?

Lee Duncan: Yeah, so what people have not been doing as much and they’re doing more is the visual thinking. I love the quote “no prototype, no meeting”.

There’s more of a focus on working visually and I think that’s helpful and very intuitive. You’re able to see visually what someone is thinking.

I’ve always been really focused on delivering tangible things and I’m guessing that’s probably what has been one of the most interesting things about Design Sprint’s that you and I share — we love delivering something tangible, tested and with immediate feedback. You accelerate that loop and I believe we are all pragmatic in that way. 

I would love it if someone could come up with a clock that could measure the cost of the meeting, by adding everyone's salary in the room. 

It’s about forcing people to think using a different part of their brain for visual thinking and to be a little more expressive and creative. It’s raising their meeting IQ, and they’re having to be more expressive and clear and articulate with their words. I think they’re being more tangible and it’s helping me push the idea that everything they do should have intent.

Ross Chapman: Absolutely. You can actually disable notifications. You can quit Slack. You can start reclaiming some of that time that you and everyone has and still get the work done that you need to do.

Lee Duncan: People have suddenly received a 20-30% time bonus, because of the non-commuting right now. 

Ross Chapman: Have you found tips and tricks to get you better at pushing for intent and manage those workshops?

Lee Duncan: Yeah, it has been hard. Very hard. Very difficult. We’ve we’re approaching it from multiple angles. One is through communication. We’re trying to over-communicate to people. We’re developing a content strategy for sending the best methods that we believe, to our group

I think we’ve gotten some reps in on what the content should look like, how long should it be, how can you best convey a message, what is the frequency of it, how do you develop a credible brand internally etc. That would otherwise take us forever to learn if we were just entirely inward and just doing our heads-down work.

We’re not just remote meetings. We are a real enterprise. Those big meetings still need to exist and are because we are an enterprise. A lot of our events are 50 to 70 people at once. Highly experienced individuals with a strong point of view, highly technical and we’re often talking about some of the most technical topics.

Ross Chapman: Do you find them questioning the process or challenging it? So if you’re talking about performance will they say we’ll have to spin up a report or a PowerPoint? 

Lee Duncan: Definitely all the time, especially when we’re walking into their domain where they are the expert. They are credibly questioning what we do and what has helped us is this tangible thinking right away.

The lightning talks are a great opportunity to do that. You give them their moment to own that space to declare that they are experts and to share for our benefit what they know and that having the opportunity to confirm their expertise with the room is calming. 

And that becomes even more critical virtually because you have to listen for it. You have to see evidence for behaviours. And then you have to quickly disseminate roles that will optimize those behaviours to get the most out of that session.

Ross Chapman: Absolutely. I often get questions about how you know people are engaged. Are there any particular facilitation methods or activities that you employ to get a measure of the engagement?  

Lee Duncan: Yeah, there’s a lot. So I’ll talk about one crude measure and that is to take a look at cursor activity on MURAL. That’s our tool. I look for cursor activity and if there’s a cursor that’s asleep, I think we’ll try to nudge them back to the group. We typically try to engage individuals that we don’t feel are responding or not creating content or we know that they’re able to contribute more than they are. We use a number of different methods to bring them back, but usually, it’s playful. We don’t want to embarrass anybody. And we also want to create an experience where they feel open, to tell the truth. So when we see that people are not engaged, we internalize that as a clue that we need to change things.

There was an interesting dialogue recently from InVision and they talked about making use of second screen protocols to get people engaged, such as chat. That’s another thing we use. We will ask questions that will prompt dialogue in a chat and we’ll see what the response is like. If there are just two or three people that are responding back, we know there’s an issue.

Ross Chapman: A final question on this thread: Do you use that activity within a board and that workshop as the documentation or do you get challenged on your process that you have to do after-work, digest what’s happened and do a write-up?

Lee Duncan: Depends on the initiative on what follow up is required. I do see that a handover ceremony is important. 

You have to be able to speak the language of business. So the more we’re able to do that, the better. We run a lot of experiments on what will that handover document look like, what is the language we need to use and we’re still working on it. 

Companies need to be thinking about their collaboration stack, what are the technologies and tools that allow that to happen. There are choices to be made when companies reflect on what is their culture and how do they like to work? How can we be future proof and position for the future? Having a collaborative technology toolset and having an understanding of how our culture works best is important.

Ross Chapman: Incredible. Thank you Lee. Thank you for sharing some of your worlds and especially when everyone is distance. Thanks. Lee, thank you so much and I really appreciate having you on the podcast.

Lee Duncan: Absolutely enjoyed it.

*Lee Duncan’s opinions are his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.