I recently learned that a local software development company decided to implement Agile “properly” and in the process let go everyone with any process knowledge of experience. “Dev will do it themselves” was the message these people got at the door.
(If anyone is in need of good people with experience related to product or project management and delivery, customer engagement and similar email me at email@example.com to put you in touch with few I know very well.)
I won’t go into a rant about this particular company or any similar stories I have heard in the past when people misunderstand frameworks like Scrum or Lean and make fatal mistakes like letting people go or assigning them the wrong roles — some quite possible intentionally abuse some of the principles of Agile to get rid of those who disagree with their style or direction. This post is about something else — it is about the human side of agile, i.e. the emotional intelligence required to implement agile properly and the pitfalls when this part is ignored.
Let me ask this question: What is the biggest benefit from implementing an Agile process like Scrum in a development organization? Is it the ability to adapt to change? Is it the improvements in estimates? Is it the better performance and efficiency shown by teams after they worked together on several sprints?
Now let me ask this one: What is the biggest benefit from government regulated savings/investment plans (like RRSP, RESP, TFSA and similar in Canada)? Why are governments like Canada investing in incentives like tax savings or tax deferral programs to get people to invest in such plans? Is it because they want their citizens to enjoy a nice retirement without financial worries? Is it because they want all students to have access to quality education?
The real answer to the savings question is that humans are inherently bad at making decisions that impact their future and the government incentives are designed to help us avert financial disasters by making it attractive to go against our impulses and put some money aside for future needs/times. In fact, we are so bad at doing this that we also need the help of a slew of financial advisers, investment portfolio managers and spending counselors to help us in making the right decision now to put those $200 a month aside so we can enjoy them sometimes in the future when we won’t have income opportunities.
Of course, not every adviser is driven by altruistic motives, nor do they have the experience and knowledge to truly help us with our finances and disasters do happen with our money. Also, the very premise that we won’t have access to income while enjoying retirement or sweating over University exams is becoming more and more questionable. But for better or worse, this system have probably saved many people from their own impulses and mistakes and allowed them to keep their lifestyle at a more or less desired level throughout the years.
What does this have to do with Agile? I have come to realize that the value of Agile processes is similar to the processes for governing of our finances and incentivizing us to reduce the mistakes and make more good decisions when it comes to our spending and savings habits. Agile is a methodology that provides built-in mechanisms that reduce the impact of bad decisions and emphasize the value of good decisions to improve the success of a project.
The various frameworks following the Agile methodology are focusing on getting groups to function better in a collaborative team setting and to optimize one or more outcomes of that collaboration — e.g. business value, performance, reduced cost, etc. The individuals in the team are investing their attention, talents, ideas and similar when working on a product and their framework of choice guides them to help them make good decisions about those investments.
Just like we make mistakes with our financial investments, despite all of the obvious choices and incentives that should make it easy to do so, we do the same with our time, focus, energy, creativity, etc. In a purely rational setting, it is fair to expect that you can put together a number of people to collaborate on a problem and they should be able to utilize all of their skills and talents to come up with a solution (or a list of solutions that they have proven don’t work). But the number of failed projects around us tells us that isn’t the case. Putting people together doesn’t magically make them collaborate and produce value.
We’re a product of evolution and we have to deal with noises coming from cultural background, internal fears, social awkwardness, unspoken rules that constrain our behaviour when in groups, our own multi-faceted intelligence, with many facets involving our emotions, the expectations from our family and friends, our personal passions and ambitions, etc. On top of that, in a work setting we have the company culture, organizational hierarchies, wages and related incentives, needy managers, unhappy customers, etc.
Little wonder teams rarely do succeed. If one decides they should cooperate and put all of their energy and openly contribute their ideas to the project, they surely must be full of confidence, have a good grasp of the domain in which the team operates and consider themselves experts and leaders who enjoy support of their managers and the company because of the good results they have delivered in the past. Alas, most of the rest of us are not these people and for us it is hard to decide to cooperate.
This is where we need investment advisers and counselors. This is the purpose of the customer stakeholders and product owners, agile coaches and ScrumMasters, release managers and DevOps experts, agile managers and project sponsors. They all contribute in creating environments in which collaboration becomes the obvious and only choice for the team members, who over time come to realize their impulses have changed and collaboration is their primary choice even when there are incentives for the opposite.
By letting teams cooperate on their own, you ignore the fact that they’re human beings and will likely carefully dance around the openness and vulnerability needed for a team to function. Very likely, few team members will emerge as the leaders and conflict will be a constant presence, with no opportunity for resolution. It is possible that the emergent leaders have strong emotional and social capacities to work on creating the environment needed for collaboration. But by the very fact that they’re responsible for delivering the product you need the team to work on, they will likely get consumed in their own work and ignore the team dynamics and the opportunities to defuse conflict and foster collaboration.
You need additional stakeholders whose purpose is to coach, mentor, protect, support and hold the team accountable to allow collaboration to happen so you can benefit from the skills and talents from everyone in the group. These people need to not only understand your business, company culture and customer needs, they also need to be strong in their own emotional and social intelligence, privy to the challenges and opportunities offered by group dynamics and focused on creating the environment needed for the collaboration magic to happen.
It is all too easy to misunderstand Agile frameworks as project management processes. I hope by seeing them as mechanisms that allow the seed of collaboration to be planted and as opportunities to reduce mistakes in how to invest the talents brought into the group by the individuals working in the team, organizations will come to realize their real value is not in managing change or getting more efficient in delivering new features or better quality – they’re ultimately creating more humane way of work and all other benefits are side effects of the focus and attention put by the team and the stakeholders in such a setting.
Until that happens, the reality of the people facing the stupid decision made by their company (both those who were let go and those who will stay to suffer the consequences) is that agile, when misunderstood or abused, looks and feels ugly!