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Micro-battles and the Learning Center

Besides the obvious fact that they’re all music acts, what do the Beatles, Green Day, the Four Tops and Jimi Hendrix have in common? Sometimes, they just couldn’t settle on a song title and played the parentheses game.

  • The Beatles: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
  • Green Day: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”
  • The Four Tops: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”
  • Jimi Hendrix: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”*

Well, at least we’re in good company—we can’t figure out what to call the war room (aka the learning center). We love the war room’s action orientation, and we love the learning center’s emphasis on continuous learning. So, we ultimately decided that the war room would be for the Win-Scale team and the learning center would be for the Leadership team. Let’s take a look at the learning center.

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The learning center is the site of all Leadership meetings and the key symbol of your company’s commitment to micro-battles. It’s the nerve center for managing the micro-battle portfolio and collecting what you learn. As your micro-battle portfolio grows, it will provide a perfect reflection of your journey.

Step one: Get a room. You’ll need four walls (luckily, that pretty much defines a room, so we’re in good shape). Now, let’s walk around the room. We’ll describe it here in steady-state mode, when you have 20 to 25 micro-battles up and running, and your Leadership team is meeting regularly with each micro-battle team at the end of every four-week cycle.

Wall 1: Shift mindset and behaviors

This wall is devoted to reinforcing the behaviors and skills you’re developing on your journey to scale insurgency. It has two sections.

The first section provides a visual reminder of the mindset people need to bring to micro-battles and the Leadership session. As we discussed in our “poor Freddie” blog posts (Win-Scale and Amplify), it is critical that all team members share the right mindset before starting a session. Half of this wall is dedicated to a set of core slides that remind everyone what the objectives are—namely:

  • We’re fighting the growth paradox: Growth creates complexity, and complexity kills growth.
  • We share an ambition to become the scale insurgent in our industry.
  • To do so, we’ve launched micro-battles that challenge our behaviors and routines, both as micro-battle leaders and as leaders of the micro-battle portfolio.

We carry a lot of baggage, so we need to be aware of all the junk we might inadvertently bring into the meeting and kindly leave it outside the door.

The wall also has space devoted to recording patterns of behavior as they emerge in the Leadership sessions. Because you’ve been at this for a while, the second half of the wall is filled with your greatest hits from previous meetings, as well as some less-than-great moments.

  • The good: This is an updated list of times when you really embodied the leadership behaviors of a scale insurgent.
  • The bad: This is an updated list of times when you really showed how easily you can screw this thing up.
  • The ugly: This is a list of issues you need to talk about right now, based on last month’s session. This is the negative feedback, the things that everyone felt eroded the full potential of the last meeting. You need to review this list carefully to stay mindful not to screw up again.

When the group walks into the room, the first stop should be this wall. The Leadership champion (the person in charge of the Amplify process) will remind everyone of your ambition and then note the patterns of good and bad behaviors that are emerging. He or she also forces the group to stare hard at the ugly so that you get into the right frame of mind.

Wall 2: Focus on “what really matters”

The second wall is all about how your micro-battle teams are performing. It has three sections.

The first aligns the full portfolio of micro-battles against your “insurgency on a hand.” With the thumb, you articulate the insurgent mission, and with your fingers (where you are biologically constrained) you list the three or four spiky capabilities necessary to deliver on that mission. To reinforce these capability spikes, you launch micro-battles. The first visual on the wall maps the portfolio of micro-battles to these capabilities.

The second section highlights the results of the latest Amplify cycle for each micro-battle. There’s a place to display progress on a couple of fronts.

  • The latest hypothesis on the micro-battle mission: This shows the team’s current thinking on the prototype, the likely repeatable model and the behavioral changes required to scale that model fully.
  • The latest customer feedback from the previous cycle’s prototype testing: You want these walls screaming with the voices of your customers.

Finally, the wall provides a single picture of where each battle is in the evolution of its prototype, and what that means for the likely timing and method of rollout.

  • Timing: How close are you to nailing a repeatable model and moving to full rollout? Understanding how each micro-battle fits into the schedule immediately highlights bottlenecks and opportunities to align specific milestones to key corporate events (like Top 100 leadership meetings).
  • Method of rollout: As we discussed in our scaling skills blog post, the choice of rollout method boils down to two things: a) the degree of behavior change required, and b) how much of the organization will be involved. Placing all the battles on this matrix gives the team a good sense of the complexity of scaling and helps identify common patterns. Micro-battle leaders will see which other battles are using similar rollout models. And the Leadership team will be able to identify bottlenecks—for example, if all micro-battle teams are trying to go viral by working with the stars of the same geography.

Wall 3: Get things done

This wall catalogs the demands on the Leadership team and keeps track of the current status of those demands. It has four sections.

The first section lists the commitments the Leadership team has made to each micro-battle team and the status of each commitment. The micro-battle teams will constantly request resources or actions to remove obstacles in their path. The Leadership team will commit to working on each of these things and determine when teams can expect action. Listing the commitments and status makes this transparent to everyone.

The third wall also records the Leadership team’s progress toward “solving the specific 10 times before debating the ideological.” We’ve argued that the people who get ahead in insurgent companies are those who make problems smaller. The opposite is true in incumbent organizations. Leadership teams that act like insurgents avoid the ideological debate and resolve the issue directly in front of them. At the same time, they keep careful track of how they solved the issue. The rule of thumb is that once you have resolved a specific issue 10 separate times, you are allowed to discuss a broader, horizontal solution. And when you discuss it, you’ll benefit from the experience of solving it 10 separate times. This wall is filled with flip charts on topics like pricing and inventory, where the team tallies solutions and determines when it’s time to go horizontal.

Next is a place to record the Leadership team’s backlog of other micro-battles the company is likely to launch. In steady-state mode, micro-battle teams are entering and leaving the portfolio, often raising issues that require another micro-battle to fix. The goal here is to keep track of all these discussions in the iterative fashion of an Agile team (i.e., these are the micro-battles we are pursuing, and this is the full list of those in our backlog).

The last section records specifically the number of Top 100 leaders engaged in battles and, more broadly, how much of the organization is affected. There’s always a shortage of leaders. All micro-battle teams want the same guy from supply chain or the same two resources from IT. But you’re never able to get all the stars of your business involved in all of your micro-battles. If you look at your Top 100 leaders, you often find that only 10 are leading micro-battles; by definition, stars are critical to the company’s day-to-day work, and it’s hard to free them up. This section is a place to balance priorities, to see where your stars are overstretched in micro-battles and where they are stranded in day-to-day tasks that may be a lesser priority.

Wall 4: Celebrate success and learning

The final wall is all about celebrations. It records three things.

  • The heroes: In every Leadership session, your leaders should be asking the micro-battle leaders which heroes most supported them that month. You’re looking for folks in the organization who do what it takes to make things happen for your front line and customers. This wall celebrates those people and records what you’ve done to reach out to them. It reinforces the idea that “it takes a village”—that the best companies create a huge web of heroes, all linked informally, to make sure that no customer issue falls through the cracks.
  • The stories (and photos): This wall also captures the best stories, the best photos and the most wonderfully embarrassing moments.
  • The results (including customer shout-outs): Finally, it captures heroic impact. When a micro-battle moves to scale, you want to record it. When customers notice a huge difference, you want to celebrate their voices.

Imagine that room. You walk in and remind yourselves you’re on a journey toward lasting behavioral change. Next you check where you are against each micro-battle and see patterns for timing and method of rollout. Then you see how you’re running the portfolio of micro-battles and how you are involving the true stars of the business. Last, but certainly not least, you celebrate success and the voices of the front line and customers. In the end, because all the lessons and commitments are on display, you are also encouraging peer-to-peer discussion and peer-to-peer learning.

*I love pop culture references. For more, see Speed: 10 ways to create a faster companyBenga: The best of cultural integrationAh, look at all the clever people and Prosody: What every CEO can learn from songwriting.


Scaling as a Capability: 10 Lessons from the Masters

Scaling is at the heart of the journey to sustainable, profitable growth.

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