What would you bring to my team? – Asked the hiring manager during one of the Microsoft interviews.
Agile! – I answered right away.
Few months later -fresh in my role in Microsoft as Azure Cloud Solution Architect- just back from my Microsoft Ready and induction bootcamp in Las Vegas, I talked with some colleagues about introducing an Agile approach to improve our team communication and sales process.
Every internal organisation and unit is organised in different way. The Digital Sales Team for Azure was made of Azure Cloud Solution Architects and Sales Specialists usually divided in two different areas: Apps & Infra and Data & AI. Plus account managers divided by territories and accountable to serve customers for all workloads and products such as Office or Dynamics. About 12 people, the majority of which were not necessarily interested in software or technology, distributed among different countries and timezones. Everyone had different backgrounds, ways of working, values, principles, goals, views on life, work, ethics.
Agile portfolio management and agile sale teams exist and have been proved efficient and high-performing for years but in the Microsoft European Digital Sales HQ as well as in national branches, there was no trace of it when I joined.
No empirical process, transparency, inspectability, adaptability. No common language across the teams. No autonomy or shared purpose. Every role had its own divergent target, every person had their own tool set preference, their own ego-praising ambition to win a red jacket or a bottle of wine. There was no daily sync, no briefings before meeting a customer for the first time, no context, no action plan on how to solve client challenges.
Retrospectively, I have to say, the Inside Sales organisation was established from less than 3 years and some joiners sent from local branches were still following their own country’s way-of-doing or local manager old fashion ideas. Some people were quite defensive about it and didn’t appreciate feedback.
Generally, meeting invitations were sent out without any agenda to email aliases containing hundreds of recipients for most of which invitation was irrelevant. We were even informed when there was a cake in the kitchen, to discover later they were referring to a kitchen thousands of kilometres away in another office!
Employees were all given standards, procedures and guidelines to follow and a handful set of useful sales tools, dashboards, materials, instructions.
Only few people were following the process as per training over the sales pipelines management and responsibilities. Many sellers were just following old habits or their preferences, spreading and duplicating relevant info in emails, One Note pages, Sharepoint, Excels and more; not the best especially given the very high turnover rate in the team and in the overall organisation. The bad thing was that everyone was too busy even to have a meeting over standardising at least 50% of what we were doing at that time.
Activities and initiatives weren’t agreed within the team. No time for action plans meetings.
Twice a year each sub would organise a waterfall-style planning week in its own country. I discovered later it was a dreadful herculean powerpoint marathon of 10-12 hours a day, long one week, more similar to a high school final exam where managers-teachers were giving appraisal to their students. In one of the first meetings I attended, there was an excel file shared on the screen, and over 10 people started arguing over the percentage meaning of a single value for an hour or so. No one, including the owner of the file, had a rational explanation about that value. The file -looking a decade old- was maintained by a manager that year after year was updating it with customers, partners, sponsors, quotas, some forecasts and a dozens of columns manually added without apparent strategic view, surely without common understanding or what in empirical process control is intended as transparency and inspectability. These and other deviations from the standard sales pipeline tracking process were accompanied by lack of trust among competitive peers, by constant micro-management practices and attitude oscillating between over inquisitive and paternalistic.
Given that I have no intention to blame anyone but I just wanted to provide some context, I urge to express my profound gratitude to all the amazing people I met. I will always be proud of my achievements in the company. Microsoft is a great organisation and a great place to work. I was seeing an admirable effort from the corporate to provide induction courses, learning paths, bootcamps, hackathons, product specific knowledge and more. Microsoft was making huge investments in everyone’s education. Leadership constantly inspired and supported us in embracing a growth mindset, in moving from know-it-all to learn-it-all. Everyday we were surrounded by opportunities to improve our company culture. Changing the mindset of over 130.000 people doesn’t happen in a day, but the Microsoft led by Satya Nadella is successfully moving away from the famous Manu Cornet’s organisational charts -mentioned in Satya’s book “Hit refresh”- where each Microsoft internal organisation is pointing guns at each other.
Inspired by many of Satya’s messages on growth mindset, supported by many managers in Dublin, encouraged by other managers I met in the United States and pressed by the above mentioned issues I felt the urgency to take some corrective actions.Leadership is not about titles, status and power over people. Leaders are people who hold themselves accountable for recognising the potential in people and ideas and developing that potential. To support company and team success, I did not need to wait for someone to come and give me formal permission.
I put together a few slides to introduce my proposal to the team: let’s start working together as an Agile Sales Team. Let’s be Agile!
The first meeting had a very positive response. We agreed on some common ground values and principles.We recognised the need of alignment and the importance of driving improvements bottom-up.We appreciated the value of taking autonomous decisions and being considered accountable for it.We committed to have monthly team retrospectives and daily stand-ups among some of us; to assume good faith when miscommunication happens; to communicate openly; to establish a common language; to move towards a 80-20 rate between standardisation and customisation of tools usage and process management; to be team players and put personal ambitions behind customer satisfaction and organisation success; to be inclusive and create a safe environment for anyone -not only the ones that think alike.
Commitment and good intention are often not enough. Some of the initiatives worked better, some other practices were too premature to succeed. We faced some failures and had some learnings to digest and process. Meetings were scheduled according to everyone’s availability but attendees’ last minute agenda always took priority.
The result? Few retrospectives had a quorum of participants. More often we cancelled after rescheduling a couple of times.
Daily or weekly morning sync worked very well to encourage bridging, increase cooperation, establish a common language, create cohesion and better alignment especially between team members that work from different countries and never met in person.
Some members embraced the agile values, understood their importance and positive impact from the very beginning; they kept their commitment, stayed focused, and showed courage. I still thank these members as they were there anytime we tried promoting openness, respect, improvements.
Less than a year after my arrival, I documented this pilot so that it could be replicated in other country branch teams.
I collaborated and connected with other managers and they helped me connect with former Scrum Masters interested in contributing.I was thrilled when they asked me to put together a deck describing what became the “We Are Agile” program, defining a roadmap and call for actions, emphasising the benefits from the cultural and business perspective.
I had a chance to rehearse my presentation to one of many great groups of people that were stimulating the life at One Microsoft Place Dublin Campus: the Toast Masters Club. And it is thanks to their feedback, and suggestions from Pat Caslin that the day after I was comfortably presenting the “We Are Agile” Microsoft program during our recurring Digital Sales EMEA STU Intelligent Cloud All Hands in OMP Dublin, receiving encouragement from the audience on-site and remotely connected ones like Richard Bellet from Github.
Eventually, before leaving Microsoft, I made sure to include in my handover agenda some materials and meetings to let the program and the Agile culture in Microsoft Ireland grow after me.
After over a year from the first retrospective conducted by an EMEA Digital Sales team, I received the news that small teams are following similar initiatives, they autonomously organise retrospectives and try creating safer, collaborative and less defensive, threatening spaces among themselves. The Agile seed that I planted is now sprouting and I take pride for it on behalf of the Agile community
As Brenè Brown says: “When we dare to lead, we don’t pretend to have the right answers. We don’t avoid difficult conversations and situations; we lean into the vulnerability that’s necessary to do good work. But daring leadership in a culture that’s defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty requires building courage skills, which are uniquely human. What can we do better? Empathy, connection and courage, to start.”
If you end up in a great, huge but complex company, don’t be scared to bring your perspective. If you think things aren’t good enough, don’t complain. Look at the bright side but take actions too.
If things around don’t seem to be improving, take the courage to inspire and ignite the change you’d like to see.Daniele Davi’