How Others See Us Is Important Too

April 24, 2011

I was having a conversation once with an executive sponsor who was frustrated by friction between competing organizational silos. One silo adopted Agile, the other stuck with more traditional plan driven development. Each side mocked the other’s “head in the clouds” or “lost in the past” approach to projects.

When I was asked what I thought about the situation I found myself saying something along these lines,

“We (the Agile teams) have become very good at being open and collaborative with each other. We have created these marvelous cross-functional teams and have done a great job of breaking down the walls that used to exist between team members. From an insiders perspective on any given team we have made dramatic improvements to the way we work.”

“However, from the outside we don’t look that much different. In fact from the outside, we still react with hostility when provoked and we don’t offer much transparency into our work beyond using a handful of project tracking tools. It’s just not enough. I have high expectations of an Agile development team. I believe that an outsider who works with an Agile development team should come away from the experience feeling like they were welcomed, informed, and energized. I want a team using plan-driven methods to welcome an Agile team, because they will be that much more likely to succeed. The experience will be one of openness and a general willingness to work together.”

“But that’s not often what we get. Instead we get fear, hostility and resentment on both sides. Some of that is human nature. Some of that is silos. And some of that is because we focus too much on the process. I think we should leave the process out of it. Working on a project is a chance to make friends and meet new people.”

“What I need are people who are friendly, open and honest. People who smile when I walk into the room. People I can crack jokes with. If I lead with friendship, I can make more ground than if I lecture them on Agile practices. People should feel at ease when they work with my teams. They should know that they are safe.”

At this point in the conversation I was:

  1. out of my chair
  2. pacing the room
  3. and gesticulating wildly

The first two meant I was feeling emotional, the last one meant I was talking. I was surprised at the heat of my own passion on the topic. In writing it down, it even sounds naive. But here’s the thing: I’ve worked with enough Agile teams to know that they can be real jerks to outsiders…and that is a shame. I would have hoped that all of that vaunted openness and transparency would make that go away, but it doesn’t.

If Agile in whatever form is ultimately to be successful, then both people inside and outside the team need to feel safe and respected. If you are starting a new team, please realize that getting things working smoothly within the team is critical, but don’t forget to look at how your team interacts with others to – in many ways it’s just as important to the success of your team – perhaps even more so.

Working with Agile Teams has to be better

December 9, 2008

Like many folks I work in an environment where multiple methodologies are used. Some are insiders: the various and sundry Agile methodologies like Scrum, XP, Lean, etc. Others are outsiders: Waterfall, RUP, and so on. One thing I realized the other day was that it’s not enough just to make the “insiders” happy. The team can be as happy and cozy as peas in a pod with their Agile methodology, but if everyone else is miserable, then “Houston, we have a problem.”

With that in mind then, an Agile team has to provide the following experience for everyone in the organization:

1) They need to be more responsive
2) They need to be more organized
3) They need to be more helpful
4) They need to be faster, smarter, better, etc.
5) They need to be more fun to work with

If they aren’t demonstrably better in a whole host of different ways both measurable and intangible, then an Agile team isn’t really worth much. They can be productive as hell, but that’s not enough. If operations hates working with the Agile team because all they do is pump out code faster, then we may have made the teams life better at the expense of others in the company.

We need to keep the big picture in mind. Adopting Agile has to provide benefit to more than just the team and the product owner. It has to benefit sales, marketing, operations, security – the people who aren’t necessarily on the team.

The Planning Meeting from Hell

May 13, 2008

I was facilitating a planning meeting with the team a week ago and it was not going well. We had our stories all ready to go before the meeting. The stories were well formed. All we had to do was come up with a list of tasks for each story. How long could that take? An hour?

An hour later we finished the first of nine stories. It had taken us an entire hour to identify 3 tasks! It was like pulling teeth. I’d ask the team to provide a list of tasks…silence. I’d take different approaches, “how do we break the story down?” I’d suggest different kinds of tasks…silence.

I swear to God I don’t beat my teams with a stick. But the silence was ominous. Why couldn’t they come up with even the simplest tasks? I racked my brain trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Was I intimidating the team? Was someone else?

Then it hit me. They didn’t know the architecture of the product! Of course they didn’t know what tasks they would need. They simply had no clue! I spent the next week working to make the architecture of the system visible to the team. Information radiators with diagrams of the static class design. Interaction diagrams, you name it. The next time we had a planning meeting, the tasks came quite naturally.