Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More on Center of Excellences

I recently learned that there are many categories of Center of Excellences. Like every first comic book licensed movie in a series, an important feature of each Center of Excellence is its origin. There are two basic types of Center of Excellence, grass roots and top down.
A grass roots CoE comes about when a group of like skilled individuals self organize. They pool their responsibilities and collaborate on how they want to do things. It's a lot like any grass roots effort, be it adopting Extreme Programming, Test Driven Development, or whatever. If the people who are most affected by a decision to move in a direction are the ones who actually make that decision they tend to approach it with enthusiasm.
The top down CoE is what my CoE is. Our VP, and maybe his boss, told us one day that we were reorganizing into a CoE. Like any big change that is pushed on people this one wasn't met with open arms. What we, the top down CoE, are doing now is modeling our group against the grass roots CoE. The grass roots people put together standards and best practices for how they do their different tasks. We, the top down CoE, now are tasked with writing our own standards and best practices. I'm going to call it now and say that our standards and best practices are going to be pretty scarce.
What's the difference? I think the difference has to do with the origin of the decision. The origin really says a lot. In a grass roots organizational decision the people involved with that decision have to be adequately motivated to organize and follow through with that decision. They are sufficiently invested in that decision to put forth the effort to make it work.
With an externally made decision, those who are affected most have nothing invested in the decision. All they know is they have a whole bunch of new stuff they need to do and they don't see value in all of it. If the new CoE provides aspects that are less pleasant than before they are going to focus on those aspects, conversely unless previous pain points are alleviated they probably aren't going to notice much that works better. It's probably going to fail.
The key difference between the grass roots and the top down CoE is the grass roots comes to being to meet the needs and alleviate the pain points of those who are affected by them. They work to meet the needs of their managers so they can work together in a Center of Excellence structure. Their decisions are mostly made by the stakeholder to meet their own needs. Their only challenge is to demonstrate significant benefit to their managers.
In the top down Center of Excellence the decision is made to meet the needs of the managers. The mangers are driving the decisions and the schedule to meet their own needs. Those most affected, the individuals, are secondary drivers of the decisions. Their needs may not even be considered while making policy and organizational decisions. To those who are needed most to make a CoE work there is little to no perception of value in their CoE.
The charter of my own CoE is to mimic the characteristics of an organically developed CoE. The needs of my own set of peers is far different from the one that we are modeled on, the model doesn't perform the same type of work.
What doesn't improve the situation is the perception that the majority of decision makers within our organization are not considerate of those for whom they are making decisions. They just don't consider how people will actually get things done when they create processes and policies. Because the decision makers are removed from the process they have no visibility how painful or inefficient their decisions are. It's not that the managers want to make bad decisions, they just don't have the time or the insight to make really good decisions. It's very hard for one person to define a process for other people that works well.
Is there a silver bullet? Maybe not a silver bullet, but this is my recommendation. The decision makers in my organization are going to need to be more receptive to the individuals below them. They need to be willing to accept suggestions from below and allow those suggestions to drive change. If they are unwilling to do that the CoE will fail to achieve its goals.

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