A Lesson from the movie “300”

So, you’ve experienced the Agile transformation now. Your team has a planning meeting, everybody goes to the stand-ups, and you do the obligatory review and retrospectives. You might even deliver some value to the customer every now and then. Sure, it’s an improvement over what you used to do, but it’s hardly living up to the hype.

Bob the tester is still pissed off that nobody ever listens to him (they call him the “Bob the Test Monkey” behind his back). Joe, the senior developer, knows that this Agile stuff is just another management fad – give it a year and it will all blow over. So he refuses to really engage, and bitches constantly about the number of meetings he has to attend. There’s Frank, the scrum master who moved to Agile because the boss told him too. He thinks it’s great, but he’s really a hands off kinda guy and tends to skip things he doesn’t think are necessary, like rigorously tracking impediments. And it seems like everyone else on the team is just waiting for something to happen.

This is a classic scenario where the team is technically “doing Agile” and they still suck. And I would argue that it is by far the most common scenario that teams moving to Agile methods find themselves in. This is where teams struggling with these issues start groping for the “silver bullet” that will solve their personnel issues. The fact of the matter is that these sorts of issues aren’t solved by methodologies. A process won’t fix these problems. It might make them more visible, but it isn’t going to resolve them for you. These problems are hard. Really hard. These problems require courage to resolve.

Have you seen the movie “300” or read the graphic novel? OK, regardless of what you may think of the movie, there is a scene that captures the essence of this dilemma. The setup is this: The king of the Spartans, Leonidas, is leading a hand picked team of 300 of the very best of Sparta’s warriors to defend Greece from invasion by the Persian armies of Xerces. It is almost certain death for the Spartans, for there are only 300 hundred of them against a Persian army that numbers in the tens of thousands. Yet the Spartans march forth into battle relishing a glorious fight. They know that they are the best fighters in the world. They and their comrades are bred to be the best fighters from childhood in a relentless training program. Only the toughest survive. So we know that this team is the best of the best.

On route to the battle a Spartan goatherd confronts Leonidas and asks to join the ranks of the Spartans going to battle. Unfortunately, the goatherd is hideously deformed. In this scene, he begs Leonidas to join the 300. You can tell that the goatherd yearns to prove himself – he wants nothing more in his life than to fight alongside the rest of the magnificent Spartan warriors (and their lovely six packs…). Leonidas considers the request, then asks the goatherd to raise his shield above his deformed shoulders. He can’t manage it. Leonidas rejects his request to fight with the Spartan soldiers. The goatherd is absolutely devastated. He is left behind as the Spartans march off to their destiny.

Was Leonidas cruel to reject the goatherd? Here we have someone who wants to be a part of the team. The softy in me says, “Go ahead Leonidas, let him join the gang. Give him a chance!” Everyone has something they can contribute. Rejecting the poor deformed goatherd just feels too awful. You can see the burning, pleading desire in his eyes – how can you snuff that out?

But that’s just what Leonidas does. However he’s not cruel about it. He is brutally honest. He honors the goatherd with a frank assessment and doesn’t pull any punches. Leonidas already has the perfect team. To admit another member to the team with a weakness only serves to weaken the team as a whole. In fact, its possible that Leonidas admires the goatherd’s dedication, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of pointing out his tragic flaw. The fact is, there are certain things that Leonidas just can’t compromise on.

So let’s return now to our Agile team. As we survey it, unlike the Spartans, we already have members with weaknesses. They’re easy to identify, usually everyone on the team is perfectly aware of them. If Bob the tester doesn’t have the testing skills the team really needs, then a hard decision needs to be made. If Joe isn’t engaged, odds are we are putting the whole team in jeopardy of failure. And Frank the scrum master is the one who should probably be responsible for confronting these sorts of issues – only he’s a “hands-off” kinda guy.

What would Leonidas do? He would confront the problem head on. I can guarantee you that Leonidas is not a “hands-off” kinda guy. I bet he would ask Bob the tester to raise his shield. And if Bob couldn’t manage it – then it would be time for that hard decision. Confront the problem without compromising the dignity of the person involved. Once it is identified, bring it to the team for discussion and resolution. OK, this last bit probably isn’t something that Leonidas would do, but there are no Kings on an Agile team either.

How about Joe the dev? Someone has to have the guts to step in, one on one, and confront the issue. And Frank the scrum master? With any role on any team, there are certain things you are responsible for that can’t be compromised. For scrum masters it is performing the fundamental rituals of scrum. There are plenty of areas for compromise and flexibility within development projects, but there has to be a bottom line somewhere.

In my experience, people tend to shy away from this sort of confrontation. Let’s face it, it can hurt. But if we expect ourselves and our teams to be the very best, then we have to hold each other accountable to the highest standards. That means confronting weakness when we find it. Not because we want to be cruel, but because the only way we can overcome it is to identify it first.

So the next time that you find yourself wondering what to do about that sticky issue on a team, ask yourself “What would Leonidas do?”

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