What to Do when Organisational Impediments are Slowing you Down?

Mar 01, 2017  ·  Tony O'Halloran

Picture the scene: Your team is regularly coming together to focus on improving how they work but the same overarching problems seem to be the root cause every time. Worse still, these issues are perceived as being outside the direct control of the team. Your instinct and experience tell you that all teams in the company must be going through the same problem. You know the symptoms: “That’s just the way things are around here” or “Well that’s a pain, but there’s nothing we can do about that”.

How does your company make sure that it’s as effective and as awesome as possible?

PartsTrader is an amazing company filled with some of the most motivated and engaged individuals I’ve met, but when I joined as a Scrum Master I found that there were a few problems all the teams were facing, ones that kept recurring and that were holding us back. Despite having an incredibly active and deliberate management team, many of these issues just did not get the visibility they needed.

There were a few challenges we needed to overcome:

  • There are always more things you could potentially improve than there is time or resources to affect. We needed to make sure we were targeting the things that were really important and holding our teams back!

  • Many of the issues were things that I had diagnosed through experience and intuition. For the scale of the improvements needed, more objective data and visibility was needed to get organisation-wide ownership and buy-in.

We needed a way to develop Continuous Improvement as an organisational habit.

Fortunately, I’m subscribed to Crisp’s awesome blog (as you should be) and stumbled across their description of a process they used at Spotify, the Squad Health Check to achieve exactly what we needed:

  1. Provide a sustainable platform for organisational improvement, driven by what matters to our teams

  2. Provide a window into the health of the teams and organisation for those supporting the teams

We’ve successfully been using this as a platform for improvement - running them every four months for the past two years. During this time we’ve made mistakes, had some wins and learned heaps. Instead of regurgitating exactly what the process is, let’s focus on those wins and learnings!

What we Changed...

CHANGE #1: How We Decided What Factors Actually Determine a Healthy Team

Team buy-in was one of the critical factors for the success of using this as a platform for ongoing improvement. Without it, this would have quickly become a hollow “Satisfaction Survey”. At PartsTrader processes without merit or value quickly get discarded! We wanted to actively create an organisational habit of improvement that was owned by everyone.

Early on, we decided that one way to develop engagement and ownership was to involve the teams from the outset in the design of the process. The first thing we did after explaining our intention was to get consensus from the teams on what are the 10 most important factors to use. We wanted to know:

“What are the ten most important factors of an Awesome PartsTrader team?”

We seeded this initial selection with some of Spotify’s initial criteria, some of our own and some suggested by the teams. For example, from the perspective of those supporting the teams we wanted to assess levels of intrinsic motivation with Mastery, Purpose and Autonomy and also ensure that the teams felt that they had the levels of support they need.

CHANGE #2: How We Decide What to Do

Each time we run the Health Check, we select the three worst performing factors and target those for improvement. Our approach is two-fold. Every two weeks a group made up of representatives from both the teams and management meet up, discuss the comments gathered across all the teams during the Health Check and come up with some initiatives to make a positive impact! These conversations are very action oriented and we make sure to socialise any proposed and taken actions.

Also, there tends to be a lot of information generated that can be directly actioned by the team. Instead of negatively affecting the team’s self-organisation by solving these issues outside of them, all of our teams also reflect on their own comments and see what they can accomplish.

To facilitate this, most of the teams use a technique called “Circles of Influence” to determine what is within their control. Borrowing from Stephen Covey, our teams categorise their own comments by whether they can affect an issue (either directly or indirectly). They then focus on the things that are directly within their control, and come up with action items on how to resolve these issues.

What we Learned Along the Way...

LESSON #1: Don’t Silo Improvement

Initially, much of the improvements were driven by management and Scrum Masters. We quickly found out that despite best intentions this led to a lack of ownership of the process by the teams and a general resistance to change (I know, this is obvious in hindsight!). We learned that forming a group made up of both team representatives (who the teams chose themselves) and members of the management team was a far more sustainable approach, and quickly built up empathy from both sides.

LESSON #2: Honest Feedback is Crucial

Having an impartial / neutral facilitator is extremely important. If there is a perception that the person facilitating will be anything other than neutral and objective, the quality of the information that will emerge will be severely compromised. Respect the anonymity of contributors.

LESSON #3: Take Action

If teams see that the information isn’t used to drive improvements quickly, the value of the process will soon be undermined.

LESSON #4: Get Leadership Engaged

Frequently, the necessary changes that emerge from this process need input and considerable effort from leadership. Unless there is buy-in and ownership of the Health Check from management, the necessary changes will not be able to take place.

LESSON #5: Be Courageous and Kind

Be aware that when you share information, you are frequently the bearer of challenging information. Treat the recipients as they are; good people trying to do the right thing and deliver with empathy :)

LESSON #6: Celebrate wins!

Don’t expect that everything you target will be fully transformed in three months. Organisational change is hard and often slow! Celebrate your wins, and learn from your losses!


Don’t use smiley faces to indicate satisfaction when you visualise your results. It will instantly lead to discussions of “who is the unhappiest team?”, which can be damaging!

Which leads nicely to Lesson #8: don’t forget this piece of feedback when you're designing the posters next time ‘round (sorry folks!!)! 😁

So What?

It’s not been an entirely smooth road, but after numerous iterations and adaptations the Health Checks has become baked into the way we work together. We still continue to learn and improve the process to ensure it stays relevant for us. Numerous improvements have emerged including Coding Dojos, Professional Development spaces (not so successful!), improvements to our release process and targeted support for specific teams going through a hard time! It’s proven to be an invaluable source of information to help us focus our efforts on what counts to the teams.

After three health checks and follow up actions and changes the teams began to own this process and health checks became an important company forum to help drive improvement at PartsTrader. We ran the health checks in the lead up to a restructure and then out the other side of what was a painful process. The health checks were a medium to talk to in hard times and a barometer of improvement on the climb out the other side. FedEx days are also in the mix to show what innovation can do to make life better. The latest health check shows good health and a feeling of good engagement with their market teams. The people and their teams are committed to continuing improving and there’s a feeling the platform and development teams are smashing it out of the park right now. The health checks helped management and the teams to get here.

- Andrew Morrow, General Manager & Group CFO, PartsTrader Markets Limited

Categories: Business Agility.