Building a Centre Of Excellence – How Do You Know When You Are Done?

Building a Centre Of Excellence – How Do You Know When You Are Done?

4 minutes

I find I have written far more posts than I originally intended for this mini-series about building a centre of excellence!  There remains 1 last topic that I need to cover.

How do you know when you are done?

For anyone who has worked in an agile way before, this will be a familiar concept.

Why does having an idea of ‘done’ matter?

If you don’t know your destination, you can’t correct your course.  You can’t correct, because you have no idea where you are going! (You can’t even know when you get there).

It is very common for work with out a definition of done, to continually drift. Requirements change subtly and continuously, leaving the team always just out of reach of finishing.  (In the software industry, this is often referred to as ‘scope creep’).

The idea you may want to move past your original goal, and aim for a more adventurous destination is not the problem here. Instead it is the demoralisation that occurs when the team perceive they are never getting any close to their goal.  This can turn feelings of moving forward, into an illusion of stagnation.  This perception can break a team’s morale and progress gets ever slower.

It is far better to be able to blast through a clear, fixed, target and immediately build the new one to aim at.  It is this reason that CEO’s and other leaders who hold (and can articulate) clear visions, so magnetic and motivating to work with.

When Is A Centre of Excellence ‘Done’?

Rather inconveniently this is a ridiculous idea!  You will never be ‘done’ since your team will continue improving for ever more.
I appreciate this is unhelpful here, and this is not what I set out to do. So instead, I will give you some helpful way-points to team maturity.  Before I do, I should mention one other unhelpful thing here: maturity is likely to look different for each team, and be very dependant on domain.
There are some indicators that are common, and which every team can work at improving no matter where they are in their maturity.   I will come to these in a moment.  Right now I want to ask you to think about a different question.

What is it that you think of when you think of your team being excellent?

  • What behaviours are you expecting team members to exhibit?
  • How do you imagine the team dealing with advancing their learning and skills?
  • Under what circumstances, (and how often) do you want the team to defer to you, versus making a decision themselves?
  • What type and what amount of interaction do you hope to see with other teams & departments?

These are just a sample set of questions to get you thinking about some ‘done’ criteria.  Come up with as many answers (and more questions) as you like.  I am a woman who loves simplicity so my personal preference would be around 6, and no more than 10 .

One great tip for setting your criteria is to make sure they can only have binary outcomes.  For example, this statement:

The team identify their own learning topics and source their own teaching material (Youtube, podcasts, external speakers etc).

The answer to this needs to be either ‘YES’ or ‘NO’.  Don’t set criteria that can be ‘sort-of’ completed!    A rule of thumb here is more constraints in the statement, mean its more likely to have a binary answer!

For example, you could constrain that last statement like this:

The team identify their own learning topics and source their own teaching material (Youtube, podcasts, external speakers etc), which they consume at their monthly ‘Ideas Jam’ sessions.

This adds the monthly cadence into the mix, which in turn makes it easier to say ‘Yes, they do this’ or ‘No, they only do this learning every quarter’.  In the latter case, you end up with a handy idea to move you closer to success for that criteria.  Time is one of the easiest constraints to add in this way.

Way-Points to Team Maturity

As I mentioned earlier, here are some good topics around which you could hang your criteria for team maturity (‘done).

  1. Learning – choosing topics, arranging discussions around learning
  2. Self-direction – how much involvement do you need to steer them?  Do you need to ‘sign-off’ on ideas they have?
  3. Progression – learning is one thing, trying out / applying an idea they have learned about is another.
  4. Not everything the team try to do will work, how do they deal with that?
  5. Specialism – Over time, you will see people having favourite topics, and they will want to dive deeper into those than others.  How will that manifest? How will you see this  manifest/ know it is happening? (Try looking at Cultivated Manager‘s blog for great ideas on how to manage team members in a mature team environment).

Don’t be afraid to change your mind!

There are 2 main reasons you may deviate from the original path you set for yourself and your team.

Knowing all the things, from the outset.

Its…unlikely you will know the ‘right’ thing to do from the very beginning, having never done it before.   It would be surprising if you knew everything from the start.  It would also imply that you are not learning.  If you find yourself in this position ask yourself carefully: did you set your target too low? Was it not challenging enough to be interesting? Could you /should you have been more ambitious?

If you find the answer to be ‘yes’, then keep this in mind when you set you next set of goals, and make them just a tiny bit scary.  (It is so common to set our selves benchmarks that are too low, and uninspiring when we start out.  It is a balance, but I can not urge you enough to take a leap of faith – almost all of us can achieve much more than we imagine!)

Learning as you go.

Pushing ahead with your original plan, regardless of evidence that it is not optimal, is far more common than you might imagine. Perhaps, (because you committed to something, and you consider yourself someone who delivers), you must press on, to avoid ‘failure’.

This is not a useful mindset.

On a few occasions I have found pressing on was more important than changing course to accommodate new learning.  But this is rare, and I really do mean ‘a few’ occasions.  You might also feel a little demoralised to find you are doing something you once thought was right, but which you no longer believe in.

Part of your leadership style needs to include making mistakes and correcting them. If your team see this is not something to be afraid of, they will feel confident to try new things.  If you, as their leader, can get it wrong and remain unfazed, then it must be ok for them too.

On the other hand, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and treating your (and your team’s) journey as a series of stepping stones to a greater goal is important.  Ratchet up slowly, but be consistent and relentless in your quest for progress.

Good luck with your team-building endeavours, where ever you are on that journey.  May you learn everything you need to continuously improve 🙂


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