concocting  extraordinary  teams

July 02, 2006

Fitting Agile into your Ecosystem

(On June 14th, a colleague posted some objections about getting Agile to work in certain environments. This is my answer to some of his points).

Hi Alex.
You are definitely not alone in noticing:
... that managers and bosses have the real problem moving to agility.
I believe this is one of the reasons that some Agile practices have got such a bad rap - teams are rushing ahead without engaging management, without getting them onside, and without providing to them the information they need to do their jobs. Naturally, when management then feels the stress of change, they respond out of old habits - incompatible habits. Too often a power struggle ensues.

This has, in fact, become a major focus of thought and practice among senior Agilists, so I'm surprised that you also say:
Most of the discussions around agility are centered on what and how the developers must/should do.
As you know, you can pull up information on by tag. In fact, *I* couldn't use the tags if you hadn't coded that InfoQ back-end :-)

So: using this tag: you can find many items specifically aimed at managers and those in leadership positions. Follow the links - you'll see there is a lot out there! This has been a major theme since the "unlaunch" of InfoQ, because it is a major theme among the Agile community, which is made up of more than developers - there are more managers and CxOs joining our ranks weekly.

So, on what do you base your assertion that: "most of project managers and bosses will not embrace agility" ? Most of whose project managers and bosses? Yours? What tactics have you tried?

In my own experience, when managers are approached respectfully, with real solutions, it's not hard to get their ear. It takes time... patience is required. What does respectful communication consist of?
  • speaking with the goals of the listener in mind (upper management probably doesn't care about design patterns when the date is slipping. Talk about that date);
  • asking questions ,and listenint carefully to the answers - they'll tell you what they really need if you simply ask (and then you can couch your proposal in terms they will hear);
  • not bothering them with programming-level benefits like "it's fun" (unless employee retention is an important problem);
  • providing good background information from sources they can trust and understand. This means that philosophical articles like How Long Is a Piece of String must be balanced with practical information like Planning 101 for Agile Teams or Craig Larman's book Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager's Guide, if they express interest.
In addition, you mention:
I haven't met many managers that would spend time explaining their thoughts
... it's hard to believe that all clients you will meet are agile
Yes, the Agile culture change works best when it reaches throughout the organization. Wise organizations train teams *and* managers, customers, etc. I've seen numerous organizations do this: Business Analysts taking Certified Scrum training, managers attending Agile interest groups, CxOs walking through XPday asking questions.

On a recent contract, the team's manager made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the shift to Agile had to be entirely invisible to their customer departments. By the end of the second day of training, he was optimistic that perhaps one or two of his customers would be interested. In their planning meeting for iteration 3, an engineer said "It's really interesting to see how long you guys think this will take", as he left the planning session. He has been one of the team's biggest supporters, and always arrives prepared. A few weeks later, a senior manager (not related to development) publicly commented on the interesting things going on in that team. And at the 14-week pilot retrospective, when I asked "what surprised you?" the answer was: the positive response of our customers!

You are right: Agile is not a panacea. It does not fit all teams or organizations. However, Agilists don't see "they won't like it" as a reason to abandon hope. Why? because it's not terribly helpful (or respectful) to assume that people will answer negatively. We say: ask them. Show them. Engage them. Find a way to deliver some value, and use that to open the door to conversation. If they let us, we will take them by the little finger, and next thing we know, we're holding hands and collaborating, cranking out more value than ever before. When they resist, we try to be creative and create bridges, hoping that they will be temporary.

Sometimes it doesn't work. That's life. But I think you'd be surprised how much easier acceptance can be than we fear. This is why Agile work requires Courage. I say: "you have not, because you ask not". When we act with courage and respect, amazing things do happen. One of my goals is to collect on InfoQ the stories and case studies that tell such stories :-)

Wish me luck!