Agile as Organizational Therapy

November 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Agile is a meaningless buzzword for many because it is perceived as an answer in search of a question.  Too often, Agile is “cargo-culted” into an organization as an imposed process without first developing a deep understanding of what problems need to be solved.  True progress only happens when the solution is aligned with the problems people actually care about.

To make that happen, we need to take our organizations though a therapeutic process of surfacing and dealing with the hidden pains and frustrations than prevent top performance.  The good news is that we could use the same principles of agile to get us there.

  1. Agree on a Vision
  2. Define a Deliverable
  3. Commit to a Process

 1. Agree on a Vision

To motivate people to let go of the status quo and embrace change, you must give them a vision of a possible future that they see as:

  • Clear
  • Compelling
  • and Correct

This is hard work, especially for technical people who are not used to dealing with human hopes and fears (especially their own).  One insight I have found useful is that engineers express emotions through criticism. Listen deeply to what people complain about, and you will soon have a clear picture of both their pain and their aspirations.

The next step is to articulating what kind of Agile addresses the felt needs of the organization.  Agile is designed to create a virtuous cycle for building trust:

  1. Predictability creates
  2. Security which enables
  3. Risk that allows
  4. Learning which increases
  5. Momentum which provides
  6. Predictability

Different stakeholders will be drawn to different aspects of Agile.  Your challenge as Process Owner is to design a vision of Agile where everyone feels that their concerns are being addressed — and that you yourself still believe in!

2. Define a Deliverable

You know you are done with the first phase when people start saying, “Yeah, that would be wonderful if you could pull it off.” The next phase is to discover what it would take to convince people that you could pull it off.  The answers will typically be something like:

  • Get manager X to agree to Y
  • Find an actual customer who wants Z
  • Convince engineer A to work with engineer B

This is the tedious part, involving letting people vent, hosting awkward conversations, and a lot of horse trading. You may have to revise your vision — but never compromise it.  At the end, though, you should have a concrete first deliverable that everyone agrees is worth doing, and a clear understanding of the resources necessary to carry it out.

3. Commit to a Process

The final step is to call your shots:

  1. Tell people what exactly you are planning to do, when it will be done, and what they should expect and measure you against.
  2. Request that the organization release the resources necessary for you to do that.
  3. Then deliver.
  4. Or fail transparently, and let people know exactly where you screwed up.

The last is crucial.  Agile is never about perfection, but continuous improvement.  In many cases, letting people see that you set yourself up for clear public accountability and yet failed with dignity is more powerful than mere success!

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