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Enterprise Empathy: Coping with Stress in Business Transformation

Gautham Pallapa VMWare, Inc.

Business transformations are daunting tasks and introduce tremendous stress to the organization at multiple levels. This stress can lead to reduced productivity, bureaucratic processes, and reduced accountability, in addition to reducing the psychological safety of team members. In this session, Dr. Gautham Pallapa talks about his personal transformative journey, focusing on the necessity and benefits of empathy in business transformations. He shares his experience with stress, and how he has combated stress in various workforce settings. Pallapa also shares approaches and experiments that he conducted to increase empathy in enterprises and with partners that he is helping on their transformation journeys.

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Gautham Pallapa

Dr. Gautham Pallapa is a Field CTO for Pivotal, where he works with enterprise customers to transform their strategy, processes, technologies, and culture to achieve their business outcomes. He was previously VP of Engineering at a 35,000 people organization and drove the cultural, agile, and IT transformation of 5 business units and this hands-on knowledge has given him an appreciation for the stress, pain, hard work, and tenacity required to endure these transformational events. Dr. Pallapa is a Safe Agilist, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, an Agile Coach, and evangelizes business transformations with empathy and generative culture through his articles and presentations.

(upbeat music) - The global pandemic that we're all suffering right now has really exposed to us how fragile we are as humanity. And this is because the pandemic has impacted us in many ways. If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, what this pandemic has done is it has hit us at the site of physiological needs. It has impacted the way we breathe, the way that we suspect the quality of the air, the fear of an unknown pathogen, the way that we are afraid of having food and water, thanks to the supply chain logistics that we are facing. And then as we had shelter in place and more of the social distancing aspect of things, we started feeling much more unsafe, security of our personal lives, of our employment, of reaching out to people has also been impacted. And then with the restrictions around congregation and meeting people, what it has impacted is the love and belonging that we really crave for as a human race has also been impacted. We're not able to be free enough to meet our friends and family or our intimate connections. And so it has shaken the foundation of our hierarchy of needs. And as a result of that, our self esteem has been eroded, and then we have lost our purpose because we have lost moving and staying in a physical location that we can relate to other than our homes. And then afterwards it has also shaken our self-actualization. So it's been really stressful for people who are undergoing all these various changes and it has impacted us at different levels. 

Now let's consider a segment of our tech community and our industries that have actually been undergoing more stress before the pandemic even came about. Let's talk about enterprise transformations and business transformations. As I interact with a lot of customers in my current role as a global CTO at VMware, what I've found is that a lot of organizations had started or were planning to go on their journey of transformation before this pandemic hit.So, as we all know, an enterprise transformation is glorious. There are so many good things that people aspire out of a transformation. They want to make the company bigger, better, stronger, and they want to future-proof them, and there's going to be puppies and unicorns and kittens and everything's going to be awesome. If you look at the traditional way that we've already always planned it, the transformational journey has started with identifying the right technology to make us more cloud native, and then to add processes and modernize them and optimize them and lean them, and then investing in people, upscaling them and making them utilize these processes and technologies in order to get better. And that, miraculously, is supposed to cause a transformation, or so they taught us. And while all this is going, the collective thought process is that we're going to introduce agile, and we're going to become more agile and faster, and we're going to suddenly transform the organization and make it much better. And then we're going to accelerate and get more value out of it by using this newfangled concept called DevOps. And that's how a lot of organizations have planned their transformation journeys that they have tried to execute or have been embarking on that particular journey. And this was even before the pandemic started. But what I've observed and what a lot of other people have observed is that this does not always convert into success. And my theory is that while there are ingredients for the recipe for success, it's not complete because the way that we're approaching it is slightly different, and it's not very optimal. 

The most predominant reason why a lot of transformations fail is because companies focus on change. They don't, they focus on incremental growth and incremental improvement in order to improve the past. They want to hold on to the past and try to make incremental changes to reach their promised goals and aspirations, and that doesn't really work.A transformation is very different from change. It aims to create a better and a stronger and a newer future. In many cases, it fundamentally changes the model that the company has been operating in for a long time. And this is the reason why there are so many transformations that haven't really undertaken the change. 

Now, when we think about all these, there are three primary drivers that help. First is lean experimentation, where we use concept like build, measure, learn, and feedback loops in order to help improve and experiment, and then quickly add value. We then have agile software development with concepts like pair programming, test driven development, and cloud native approaches in order to get that value quicker, and also to have much more reusable and shareable components. And then you add on top of it in a harmonious way, DevOps, which brings in the operational efficiency, the CI/CD concepts, the automation aspects of things in order to make things go quicker. In the past, all these three drivers have operated upon one fundamental assumption for most of the organizations, and that fundamental assumption is that teams were co-locating. And most of the business transformations that have been undergone so far have been assuming that fact that people are going to be co-located, or the amount of distribution of the workforce is going to be limited. That has completely changed with COVID-19, and we need to start looking at ways to improve our businesses and transform them in a post-COVID-19 world with almost a 100% remote workforce. 

I've identified four areas of focus that we can work on and improve upon and evolve in order to make this successful. The first one is execution. We want to look at newer ways of execution in a remote world. The second one is collaboration. We want to collaborate and we want to figure out how we can have the teams work together. The third one is communication. We want to communicate and talk to people in a remote manner, but at the same time, increase the signal to noise level. That is, we want to have much more value coming out of the communication. And then the fourth one is enablement. We want to identify and evolve the ways that we have created enablement procedures and processes and upscaling people. But all these four can only operate if we have a core tenet of empathy. So why empathy? Why is it so important right now? We all believe, as humans, that we are very empathetic and we are sympathetic to people, and we relate to them well, and we are able to connect to people at a physical and a psychological level. But if you really think about it, the amount of stress that people are undergoing right now as part of the pandemic adds additional complexities. And this is why empathy,. I feel, is so important. 

 So let's take a look at why and break it down. So pre-COVID, let's say, the previous norm, as a lot of people have been calling it, we all knew what we were doing. Things were much more simpler. They were not that complex, and we were in that comfort zone, we were not really stressed. And then in March, things really picked up and COVID-19 became a very viable threat to everyone. And so we started getting slightly stressed. And so we entered what I call us the discomfort zone. And then after that we introduced shelter in place, the social distancing, and all the things with the lockdown, and that's when people started becoming completely stressed and entering what I call as the panic zone. Now, when people enter the panic zone, they become more unproductive. And while we can say that everyone is working from home and they're in a safe place, my theory is that what we're undergoing is not working from home, but it's actually existence from home. We have life going on all around us. We have loved ones, we have children, we have pets, all within the same location. We are locked within this location. We cannot really move or change. We don't have the physical movement of going from one conference room to another if we were in an office, and all these various complexities have introduced additional stress upon us and people have started to be panicky. And therefore it is really important for us as leaders and for us as team members to introduce a psychological safety for our people and help them reduce their stress level. 

So stress also increases cortisol, and cortisol is a hormone that increases paranoia, it increases fear, it erodes the trust between people and empathy, and it also makes the team environments unhappy. And this has been a problem, even with co-located locations, or teams within the same physical area. It becomes much more amplified and problematic when you're talking about remote work. It also increases adrenaline, so your fight or flight mechanism. And so this is kind of a toxic environment within your body that is causing so much stress, and then it makes you fear things in a really bad way. Add to that the concept of you not having a breather and moving from one video conference to another, it's probably going to add more stress. So nature, thankfully, has given us a way to combat this. And this is what I call as a dose, these are the happy chemicals that we can leverage upon in order to reduce the stress. The first one is dopamine. Dopamine is that incentive for progress. It's that happiness or pleasure that you feel whenever you achieve something. You hit a milestone, you see that you have hit a weight loss on your bathroom scales and you feel extremely happy about it. Those are dopamine hits, and those are really important for us to be happy. The next one is oxytocin, and this is called the love chemical. This creates intimacy, it creates trust, and it builds healthy relationships. Predominantly, this is introduced into the system through some kind of a physical reaction, but there are actual ways to introduce this even remotely. Those high fives that you have within the hallways, the fist bumps that you have, or celebrations when you achieve something also releases not only dopamine, but it also releases oxytocin. Then you have serotonin, which is the leadership chemical. This is that feeling of pride and importance when you're receiving an award, that feeling that you get in front of people while they're taking a picture and you're shaking your hand and the hand of your president, of your. CEO, that's serotonin. And then finally is endorphins. This is the runner's high. This is your second breath. This is the hormone that makes you push faster and harder and tries to reduce your perception of pain. So in order to reduce the stress, what we want to do is give a happy dose of these chemicals. So let's look at how we can do all of these. But before we go there, let's talk about providing empathy and then the value that we can get out of it. The first one is, and we all know this, it creates a better interaction between business and IT. The next one is to create safe environments and safe environments transform into productive environments. It increases transparency and trust, which is really important for us, especially being remote. It creates more innovation, which is necessary, especially in this time when we have to push features out as quickly as possible, and then it creates a learning culture. And this is why empathy is so important for it. 

So let's start with execution. With remote execution, the first thing we want to understand is we need to lower the velocity. We need to acknowledge the fact that people have life going on and there are going to be distractions. So we want to make them less stressed out by acknowledging that they have lives and that we empathize with them, and so we are lowering the velocity or the expectation of producing value. What we can do is we can also increase the test coverage which increases quality, and therefore the amount of time that you could have spent trying to go back and forth between a dev test cycle would actually reduce. The next one is stand-ups and spindowns. And almost everyone of you are familiar about the stand-ups. But in a remote world, let's try to switch it a little bit. When you share your board, whether it's a Kanban board or whether it's an agile board, whatever the mechanism is that you're sharing, the focus is already upon the board. We don't have to go ticket by ticket and try to analyze it, and then ask them what they did yesterday, what they're doing today, and what, if they had any blockers. Let's switch it up. How about asking them if they want help upfront? Maybe that will start the conversation and the dialogue. 

Next, talk about any stretch goals that people are aspiring to achieve at the end of the day. That starts off the day in a positive way. And then there is a aspiration that people can reach, and then the hope of dopamine that they can achieve them, meet those stretch goals. And at the end of the day, and this is really important, what we practice at VMware is something called a spindown. A spindown is that end of the day, where you talk about all the wins that you had at the end of the day, the learnings that you had, and any kudos or shoutouts that the other team members want to give to them. This helps with team building. This also helps in having the team dynamic buildup and ending the day on a high note. The most important thing that is spindowns provides is that psychological end of the day. We're all working and moving from one video conference to another, and maybe we are pair programming through any of our collaboration mechanisms. But having that at that end of the day, so to speak, will signal to us that we can relax. We can now spend much more quality time with our loved ones. And that really helps improve the safety level and reduces the stress of folks, when they know that their day has ended. 

The third one is meeting. We need to have shorter meetings. Because we are remote, I've observed at a lot of meetings now run support forums, people just like to talk. They want to interact. They want to speak, they want others to catch up. All those hallway conversations are now going to start entering into these. We want to have a separate place for those. There are a lot of applications that can help, and we'll probably talk about those when we talk about collaboration. But you want to make sure that we have shorter meetings and smarter meetings. So 25 minutes instead of 30 minutes, and 15 minutes instead of an hour. We want to have breaks so that people can stretch, people can have those, their blood flowing, they can exercise a little bit. They can just context switch from one to the other. And then question whether you even need to have a meeting. If it's a decision that has to be had, and it can be done through any kind of a collaboration tool or a poll, try a poll, try Roman voting on Slack or any one of your collaboration tools and see if you can eliminate a meeting just for the sake of getting a decision. 

And then demos and retros. Let's make sure that our demos are focused more around the business value. We video record the demos, and these video demos are much more valuable right now because they convert as learnings for our other teams, and also for people who would have miss the demos. Electronic retros, and then afterwards, try to switch up your retros. Try to talk about one thing that you can do from the next situation or your next sprint that will make the sprint much more collaborative. Silent mapping is an exercise that I use where I just project a whiteboard on the screen. And then I have people just to draw silently. And they can express how they're they felt the sprint went, and that gives a glimpse into the psychological safety of the team, whether they're happy, and whether there are other topics that have to be discussed. 

From a collaboration perspective, we already have a lot of tools, but we need to take into consideration the fact that we're now predominantly distributed. So multiple geos and multiple time zones is something we need to focus on. From a tools perspective, we need to make sure that they're realtime, they're persistent, they're reliable, and they have good UI/UX, and you have a low barrier to adoption. We don't want to have teams spend too much time just waiting for ITR, for our ticket to be processed before they can join into the collaboration efforts. And we also want to pick or identify tools that integrate well with your ecosystem. Pairing. Because we're doing things remote, pairing is really important because that helps us with realtime collaboration, increased discipline, better quality, good morale, mentoring. I can go on and on about the value of pairing, but that is something we really want to push in a remote world. And then finally, distributed data. We want to have a single source of truth so that anyone can query upon it and get to this same result. We want to have common measures and we want to have data analytics. And most of these analytics, we want to focus on the business value that the team is providing and the happiness index and the collaboration levels. The number of meetings, for example, would be a good data point to measure so that you can do ROI off a meeting, at the cost of a meeting versus the value that you're getting by not having one. 

Communication is the third one, and remote communication has always been challenging. We have various static and passive methods such as email and newsletters and quarterly business reviews and so on. But what we want to focus on in a post-COVID-19 world is we want to make sure that your meetings, and shorter that they are, are going to be much more valuable, that you're going to get more ROI out of it, or you're going to actually achieve something out of a single meeting. We want to make sure that all the communication that we're sending are relevant to people. We want to focus on quality and not quantity. Now that everyone's remote, suddenly you have an uptake in the amount of emails and communications and newsletters and webinars and blogs that are being sent. So you want to make sure that your signal to noise ratio, as I call it, increases. Your quality over quantity is really important here. Visual indicators is another one. We are really visual people, for the most part, right, and that's evolutionary. So let's harness that and use it. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that's a very famous saying, right? So let's use that. Rather than sending a huge email or a newsletter about how things are going in text, why not convert it into an infographic, and that's something we want to focus on. 

So I talked about valuable meetings, and I use this thing called a POWER start, and I wanted to share with all of you. This was taught by my coach and mentor, Lisa Atkins. The first thing is whenever we set up the meeting, we want to make sure that we have a clear purpose for the meeting. At the outset, we want to identify what are the outcomes and deliverables that are resulting from this particular meeting. We want to make that very clear to people even upfront so that they can come with the right frame of mind and also the right data that will help us achieve those outcomes. We then try to communicate what's in it for them, like, what is the value they're going to get so that there is that hope of dopamine or serotonin when they attend that particular meeting. Then we want to engage the participants with excitement and passion. We want to make sure that we impress upon them how invested we are in that particular meeting. And then we want to make very clear what are the roles and responsibilities? Who are the people accountable for making the decisions? Let's make sure that each of the meetings has an action item at the end of it. Operating principle for a lot of my meetings is that, if there is no action item coming out of a meeting, it was a support forum. It wasn't really a meeting

So let's make sure that it's much more actionable and we actually pushed the needle and get value out of the meetings. The next one is to show the community connectivity and relevance of all the work that people are doing. And this is tough for an organization that is undertaking a lot of initiatives, but it is essential and there are a lot of tips and tricks that one can access and one can use in order to show this connectivity. But very simply, and this is one, one example of a mind map that I've shown that we've used for one of my partners, this shows all the connectivity of the various initiatives. So any project or task that a person is undertaking can be connected all the way up to culture, DevOps, operational, automation, or technology improvement in the organization, and then they can feel that pride or the serotonin of driving that particular initiative and helping achieve the business outcomes for that. The next one is visual indicators, and we talked a little bit about it, but use dashboards. Dashboards are really important, and they also connect to that single source of truth that we've pushed for. This is really helpful because people can then configure their dashboards very specific to what they are interested in, what their KPIs and outcomes are, and it's not something very generic.

 And then we talked about newsletters. Let's make sure it's a little bit more infographic-based rather than text-oriented. We obviously want to share the value. Think about having like a five-minute vignette or some recording of a video with the person where they can demonstrate the pride, the pain, and the challenges that they went through and it's all captured on film. That's something that you can use and it can be shared very easily, and it can be consumed. create a podcast where people while they're walking, or while they're on their health regimen, or in between breaks, they can listen to a podcast about these things. And that goes into enablement, the fourth one, and enablement, the goal is to move very quickly from what the western world calls a pathological organization into a bureaucratic organization, and then into a generative organization, and you want to increase the cooperation level. And for this, we want to embrace failure. We want to embrace that failure is something really important, and celebrate failure. And in one of my previous roles, I used to have a failure wall where people used to put on stickies what failures they undertook. We also want to encourage team agility. Team agility, and we all know the values of team agility. It's commitment, it's courage, it's focus, it's openness, and it's respect. And if implemented really well, we actually will unearth, and we'll be introducing a sixth hidden artifact, which is trust, and that's what team agility actually pushes for. So in conclusion, the four areas that we want to focus on are execution, collaboration, collaboration, communication, enablement, all within the role of having empathy. And if we do this, and if we keep this at top of mind and make sure that we acknowledge and are empathetic to people who are stressful, our psychological safety will improve, our remote team workforce will start feeling much more comfortable, and I am sure that we will evolve all to the point where we will continue to embrace remote work in the future and change our methods of working in order to transform our entire organization.

Thank you. (upbeat music)