Using agile principles to develop company culture Part 3: Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
In this third post about applying agile principles at FutureLearn, Tessa Cooper, Director of People and Culture, talks about how you should identify, understand and collaborate with your ‘customers’.
Before you read this you might want to read the first couple of posts:
Part 1: Introduction
The second line of the agile manifesto principles is “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation”. This is highly relevant to a lot of disciplines beyond those involved directly in developing products, it’s just that your ‘customer’ is different. When I was a product manager I spent a lot of time thinking about who our ‘users’ were — “What are our users trying to achieve? How could our product help them to achieve that? What barriers do they come up against?”. Our team focussed on getting people using our products early, providing us with feedback and working with them collaboratively on improvements — this was more important than developing a feature checklist for us to ‘to’ and ‘fro’ with a customer before deciding what to build.
Perhaps you work in a HR team, where your customer is your employees. Or perhaps you work in Finance where your customer could be a combination of employees, suppliers or the board. Whatever your job is at some point there is a ‘customer’, because if there wasn’t your job wouldn’t exist. The same questions I asked as a product manager should still be relevant to you: “What are your customers/employees/colleagues/suppliers trying to achieve? How could your work help people reach their goals? What barriers do they face to achieving their goals?”. The most effective and productive teams I’ve seen are those who involve this ‘customer’ in answering these questions and then collaborate with them to develop and iterate on the services they provide.
Understanding the motivations of your ‘customer’
When we are servicing others, particularly if they hold a certain power over us (e.g. they are the ones paying us, they are more senior, they are a team that is well-revered in a company) it can be all to easy to fall into the trap of nodding in agreement to whatever they say and hoping that it can be delivered in time. And it can be equally as easy to say ‘oh they don’t know what they are talking about, they’re not experts’ and quickly forget about their ideas or suggestions.
My role involves serving our whole company: we have 130 people, who form various teams, working towards a variety of goals, in varying ways, all with varying motivations to some extent or another. So I have had to put in quite a lot of work to really understand my ‘customers’. Here are just some of the ways I try to do this:
- I regularly offer teams my help with facilitating their meetings — this is an unobtrusive way of listening to and digesting what people are working towards and why it’s important. It helps me to connect up how my work fits into the wider company picture.
- I set up a “Random Coffees” slack channel where people are randomly paired each week to catch up for coffee. I mostly introduced this to encourage conversations across the invisible or visible divides that exist in all companies. But I partly introduced it for the selfish reason of wanting to meet as many of my ‘customers’ individually and learn more about them.
- I created a staff survey which asked people to talk about what they’d most like to celebrate about FutureLearn and what they’d most like to see change, and explored what their challenges and hopes were for the coming year. This was more than a ‘company pulse’ survey that measures happiness — this was about asking people to reflect more deeply on their motivations for being at FutureLearn. I can use the results to now start prioritising what work I do to service my ‘customers’.
Building with your ‘customers’
In the same way that it would have been impossible for me as a product manager to build a great product without getting real users adopting it and offering feedback, I believe it’s impossible for me to do my current role without getting our employees to provide feedback and experiment with me and my team in how we build our company and our culture.
In any role I’ve done I try to make my work as visible and accessible as I can so that everyone feels able to contribute. In my first week as organisational development lead I stood up at our all staff meeting and said ‘We’re experimenting with how we do things as a company, we’ll try some stuff, we’ll see what works and then we’ll embed it as company practice — here’s how you can help me to make this happen”. Since then, together with a whole variety of people from across the company, we’ve started to transform the way our company operates. We’ve transformed the way we run meetings and workshops through developing a facilitation library & advocates. We’ve transformed our culture to make it more open and to provoke conversation around important issues — the people team now regularly share things like pay gap analysis or staff turnover with all staff and make space for discussion. We’ve started to transform the way we give feedback to one another and how we set and share our individual objectives. But it doesn’t feel transformational. Because the people affected by the changes are the ones driving those changes.
Sharing the journey we’re going on
Part of the reason why companies set out a Vision & Mission is to make this public to their customers. To show them this is where we are heading to, together. If a company is too focussed on ‘contract negotiation’ their thinking is in the now — they’ll say things like “what can I give you right now and what can you give me right now?”. If a company has a mission and works collaboratively with customers they’ll say things like “Hey look, I don’t know all the details of how to get there but this is where we’re going and we want you to come with us!”
Once again I believe this is applicable to everyone in every line of work. If you want the people you service to believe in you and support you, you need to show them what your mission is and offer to take them on that journey with you! I believe every single team in your organisation should have a team mission:
- When I was the Organisational Development Lead at FutureLearn my mission was to “Champion and embed the culture, behaviours and practices that help our people to work together effectively towards achieving our company mission & strategy”.
- Our Data & Insights team mission is to “Gather and share accessible knowledge, proactively improving understanding inside and outside FutureLearn, to enable informed decision making throughout the company”.
- Since stepping up to my new role of Director of People and Culture, my team have recently developed our vision which is to “Build a truly diverse company where individuals are empowered to be the best they can be and work together in an open way to achieve FutureLearn’s mission”.
In addition to sharing our vision the People team have also made all of our objectives, and the work we are doing towards them, open to the entire company through Trello. This approach allows people to collaborate with us by adding their own feedback and ideas to the board, and they can get updates on each of our objectives through keeping an eye on the comments or the key results checklist that we’ve associated with each objective.
The way we collaborate at FutureLearn with our various ‘customers’ is not perfect, but we are experimenting and trying to bring everyone along with us. We’d love to hear more about how you collaborate with your ‘customers’ (users, suppliers, shareholders, employees & anyone else you service) and answer any questions you have about how this agile principle can help you in your day-to-day work.