Self-Selection at a Big 4 Consulting Firm

The Federal Consulting space is not necessarily the place where you would expect to find opportunities to try self-selection. However, after our talk at Agile DC, we met a Big 4 Consulting Firm executive that was interested in trying it. A few months later they did and they invited Jesse and I to facilitate and observe the event.

The team participating in the event was diverse: ~70 analysts, product managers, and engineers in the DC area, Orlando, and Salt Lake City participated in self-selection via video conference between the three locations. They would be choosing to work on one of nine different teams, all for the same large Federal client. They had decided to work self-selection into their existing planning process at a point when their client had just exercised their most recent option year. Projects ranged from new products to managing existing/legacy systems to solutions architecture.

Self-Selection: Round 1

Preparation

The Human Capital team for this portion of the company had done a wonderful job of preparing their teams and materials for the event, which was key to the event running smoothly. They had spent 2-3 months getting teams used to the idea of self-selection and answering questions along the way. They read the book Creating Great Teams by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole and by the time we arrived, they had chosen teams, team leaders, and built some beautiful team and individual templates to use during the event.

Example: Individual Participating in Self-Selection
Example: Team Template

What Changes When Self-Selecting at a Consulting Firm?

Rules

In Self-Selection, the #1 rule is always Do what’s best for the company. Because this is a consulting firm that works with clients, the rule was modified to Do what’s best for the client, the firm, and you! This was posted prominently on the wall at the front of the large room where the self-selection event was held. Their second rule was that teams should be capable of delivering end-to-end.

“The Mantra”

Getting in Touch

Some participants already knew each other from past projects, but some of them were meeting each other for the first time. Team members had plenty of time to meet during breakfast, lunch, and the self-selection rounds, but until this happened, a few of them seemed nervous about it. One Product Owner even asked, “How on earth will I interview nine candidates in 10 minutes?!”  The reality is that self-selection is a mindset change. Your potential teammates are already at the company, so there should be no need to re-interview them (assuming your company hires to a particular standard), instead you are simply confirming that they have the skills to work on your team. I caught up with him after the event and he was really happy with his team. It turns out that he had plenty of time to chat with potential teammates throughout the event and, after experiencing self-selection, understood the power of people choosing themselves.

Other team members, including a couple of team leads, weren’t able to make the event due to current client commitments. The Human Capital Team had ensured that each person that couldn’t make it had a proxy: someone who would act in their best interest and make decisions on their behalf. All of the team lead information had also been pulled into a contact list that attendees were encouraged to use if they had questions throughout the event.

Work Norms

For many companies, how teams work (their hours, location, etc) is fairly similar across teams. Each company tends to have a culture that dictates how team members behave. The differences across teams are subtle.

At a consulting firm, the team norms tend to be dictated by the client (i.e. how often are teams at client sites, can they work from home, what hours do they work?). During the team pitches, one person in particular made sure to ask a couple key questions again and again: Can individuals work from home? How often are we at the client site? This was helpful in level-setting and gave participants additional key information before they made their choice.

Agenda

The agenda for the day worked really well.

Registration/Breakfast (9:30am EST) Pick-up trading cards, a copy of the FAQ, and a copy of the team sheets.
Welcome/Kick-off (10:00am EST)
  • Mantra/Rule Reminder
  • Why are we doing self-selection?
  • Agenda for the day
  • Self-Selection Logistics
Product Owner Presentations (10:45am EST)
  • 5-10 Minutes each
  • Q&A
Lunch (12:00pm EST) Time to chat with Product Owners and ask more questions.
Self-Selection Rounds (1:00pm EST)
  • 10 minutes for each self-selection round
  • Examine team gaps
Pre-Reflection (2:30pm EST)
  • Attendees fill out a survey about the event
  • Execs join the self-selection team and learn which teams were formed
Reflection (3:00pm EST) Time to give live feedback as a group.
Close (4:00pm EST) Dismissed for Happy Hour!


We stuck to the agenda more or less until we got to the 3pm live Reflection Round. The teams didn’t seem interested in giving much live feedback to the executive team, so they closed early and hung out until the 4pm Happy Hour!

Executives were only present during the welcome sessions and reflection periods. In between, they didn’t even have access to the trello board we used to keep track of the teams across sites. They felt it was very important that they didn’t have any visibility (or accidental impact) on the selection itself.

Round by Round

Just like Opower’s self-selection event, teams were formed in just 3 rounds. The main difference between this event and Opower’s was the amount of movement in rounds 2 & 3. There was a lot more movement here. Here’s how the event generally worked out:

Round 1

After Round 1, only one team was set (had the right number of people and skills). People generally chose their first choices and then a contingent gathered at the front of the room to watch the teams being formed (kind of like watching the stock ticker at the New York Stock Exchange).

Individuals watching the results on the big screen

After the round, several teams were missing java developers and database administrators (DBAs). Others had too many functional analysts. Once the gaps were read aloud and written next to each team, Round 2 began.

Round 2

Things got interesting this round! On one team, seven friends had signed up for a team with six slots. I offered to help sort things out, but they said they had an idea and by the end of the round, had six people signed up for the team, but looked a little sad.

It became apparent that we didn’t have enough java developers or senior java developers to fill all of the java development slots. At this point, the entire room recognized this fact and decided that some teams would have to hire for those slots. One team lead began talking to a sharp analyst that he’d worked with in the past and convinced him to learn java as a stop-gap until they could hire a senior developer. The analyst had already been thinking of moving in this direction and became more and more excited about the opportunity.

Two other analysts were trying to decide how to pick which of them would stay on their first choice team. One had a second choice: the team that was already “complete”, but he called the manager of that team anyway to see if he could work out a deal. In the end, he ended up moving to another team entirely.

By the end of this round, about half of the teams were fully-formed. Outside of the java developers, we still needed a DBA for one team, a handful of analysts for another team, and two teams had one or two too many functional analysts.

Round 3

Opower had encountered a giant stalemate at this stage. Our consulting firm was in better shape. The several small two-person stalemates that did crop up were largely worked out by the end of the round and one woman in Salt Lake City stepped into a requirements analyst position after never having done the role before. The upside for her was working with someone in the same location and trying something new. She seemed really happy about it…and so did one of the Company Partners that stepped in once the event was done and said, “I never would have expected her to step into this role, but this is really, really good!” The same partner also pointed out that several people had stepped up in ways that she never would have expected. There was a look of delight on her face as she was read through the team lists.

By the end of Round 3, all teams were balanced and ready to go, minus a few java developers that needed to be sourced elsewhere.

Results & Feedback

The results were generally positive. 79% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with the teams they ended up on. Only one person out of a total of ~70 was dissatisfied.

The question of “What primarily drove your self-selection choices?”, was a multi-choice answer. In the past, we forced people to choose one answer, but here they were entitled to choose all of the answers that applied to them. The results were very useful; now we know what crossed everyone’s minds most often. Instead of primarily choosing based on what was best for the company, here you see the most popular reasons were that people wanted to work for a specific person or do a specific type of work.

As you can see above, there’s a lot to love about the self-selection process, but not everyone left elated. Two of the three negatives at the bottom are things we can easily address in the next round of self-selection. The template can be updated to include more project scope or a link to the project backlog. More technical resources can be invited to self-select, or we set expectations from the beginning and point out earlier that the java developer role on your team will be hired later. Another activity that will make the event run more smoothly might be a few pre-event meet-ups where people can learn more about each other (happy hours, sharing sessions, etc). There seemed to be a large number of people that had never worked together and were getting to know each other that day.

I believe that the awkwardness around making final decisions and the feeling of this being a sorority/fraternity event can be addressed with practice. The idea that you’re making these decisions without the mask of the management team doing it; the ability to point to someone else and blame them for a mistake is weird and different. You’re a bit exposed when you are the one that gets to choose to make that next step in your career on your own. That is at once a scary and marvelous thing. Owning that choice gets easier with practice and making the right choices gets easier with practice too.

It was a pleasure working with the Human Capital Team at this consulting firm. We wish them the best of luck with their new teams and many more successful rounds of self-selection in the future!

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