Welcome to our new team member : Alex Ikon or AI for short!
The start of the year is often when teams, departments, or even whole organisations are being reshaped and reformed with new priorities and directions. It is thus a perfect time to consider how aspects of organisation design with a sprinkle of AI can improve team productivity.
In this article I am not talking about large or complex change. Rather, I want to focus on an aspect of organisation design: an activity review.
And, this year we will continue to see the explosion of Generative AI. It has been around for many years, in fact since the 1950’s. The boom of programmes such as Chat GPT and Bard, has made AI more popular and accessible with many organisations and teams looking to see how they can use it.
CASE STUDY: FMCG LEADERSHIP TEAM
In this article I share how a mid-level leadership team (CEO -3) both undertook an activity review and explored how AI might be incorporated into the work of their team.
In late 2023 I was invited to work with a team that wanted to improve their team performance. Their focus areas included having greater clarity on the allocation and responsibility of key tasks and activities. This work was triggered by patterns of team behaviour including deliverables being missed or dropped due to unclear ownership and a lack of alignment on team priorities.
This was also a tech savvy team, so in parallel we ran the following thought experiment.
“What if we were to include Alex Ikon (generative AI) as a new member of the team?”.
This provided a great opportunity to conduct an activity review so that a role description or job scope could be defined for Alex. The team wanted to take this seriously, so we applied a blend of organisation design and continuous improvement methodologies.
Focus on Team Activities
As with all good design work, we focused on what needs to get done before diving into who needs to do it. We began by creating a comprehensive list of the teams’ activities, prioritising tasks that were time intensive, clearly lacked an owner, or were heavily connected with others in the organisation – ie stakeholders external to the team.
We were fortunate to have everyone in the room so were able to use post it notes and a large board. To make sure we focused on what was important, each person had only 5 minutes to develop their list of activities. One by one these were then shared. It became clear very quickly which activities mattered, which were important to the team, or were the cause of team tensions.
The Power of Continuous Improvement - ESSA
Once we had created the list, we sorted the activities by applying the ESSA approach from the world of continuous improvement. Namely:
- Activities that the team could Eliminate or stop doing. These are non-value adding activities or are already being done elsewhere in the organisation.
- Activities that with a bit of work could be Simplified.
- Of these, which could then be Standardised. The issue of optionality and being too flexible to the multiple ‘special’ needs of others in the organisation was having a negative impact on the team.
- Which activities might lend themselves to being more or totally Automated.
The order here is important. You do not want to be spending time on automating multiple versions of the same activity which, after investigation, can be eliminated.
Given the seniority of this team, it was not surprising that many activities could not easily be simplified or standardised. This triggered a further conversation around what work of the team could be delegated to teams below. To what extent was this team falling into the habit of “sucking working up”?
Interdependency of the Team
Interdependency is a key characteristic of a team. Without this reliance on each other for individual and collective success, you have a group rather than a team. And whilst all teams are groups, not all groups are teams.
With this in mind, the next task was to look at the activities and determine which required a level of interdependency and which could be done independently. We split into two groups: one looking at independent and the other at interdependent activities. What was key was that for activities which could be done independently, the team agreed on how they would keep each other updated where needed.
Allocation of Activities
The next step was the allocation of activities. As we were not starting with a blank page, this was more about realignment than redesign. The key here was aligning on who would be responsible for key team activities. This did not take away from the team needing to be involved, rather addressing the experience of important team tasks being dropped because there was no clear owner.
As the team stepped back to survey the work they had done, all in the space of only 2-hours, there was a collective sigh of relief. They could see that by refocusing what they worked on and that there was clear ownership, the team would be more productive and have greater impact.
So what about the newbie? Alex?
Over coffee the team started to play with the idea of having AI as a full member of the team. This was not actually going to happen, today, as the wider organisation was still working through corporate policies, guidelines, restrictions, etc etc for the use of AI. However, the team does believe that it is simply a matter of time before AI is embedded in the work of many teams.
How might the team use the skills and expertise of Alex, their new AI colleague? Examples included:
- Most simply, the summarising and disseminating of notes from team meetings; both virtual and in person including tracking of action item follow through
- Once a process had been shared with Alex, ask about the pros, cons and unintended consequences of eliminating certain activities or activity steps. Further, help craft a message for impacted stakeholders to support the change.
- Develop Alex with BOT capabilities so that common questions usually directed to various members of the team could be answered by Alex through a chat function.
- Add process and product standards to Alex’s knowledge base. This would allow sites to ask Alex about potential risks when making process changes and provide potential risk mitigations.
- Conduct market scans and apply these to scenario planning providing the team with options to discuss.
- Project manage the collection of data including sending email reminders to those yet to respond so that the team, and their stakeholders, have real time dashboard.
- Preparation of internal reporting and presentations to ensure alignment with required formats.
The potential work of Alex in this team fell into two categories. Simplification of tasks and at the other end collection of and initial analysis of complex data.
Considerations for the Team
There is a growing body of literature on the concerns of generative AI and the associated legal and ethical implications. This team took a very ‘local’ or close to home perspective. We also touched on what they would not want AI working on. These included anything reflecting the line managers responsibilities for leading people. For example, performance based conversations and feedback. Further, any representation on behalf of the team externally to the organisation.
There is still a lot of work to be done to truly understand how AI can be fully embedded into teams. However, there are already many ways that AI can support teams to be more efficient in their work.