The Dormant Environment

Death Valley Spring 2005 Bob Canfield

I was listening to a TED talk and the speaker threw out the word “Dormant”.  He used it to describe Death Valley which is named Death Valley because, well, nothing grows there.  No rain=No growth.  However, something happened in 2004….it rained (7 inches in fact) and in the Spring of 2005 Death Valley was having quite a hard time living up to the name.  The floor of Death Valley was covered in flowers.  Turns out Death Valley isn’t dead.  It’s dormant.  Underneath the barren landscape was loads of potential just waiting for an inviting environment.

I’m a little obsessive about environments – specifically environments for teams to be successful.  Today, more than ever, there are companies, consultants and coaches out there trying to crack the Agile nut in order to deliver value more frequently, efficiently and of higher quality.  It’s a HARD nut to crack.  The frameworks, Scrum, Kanban, XP and the consolidation of them in SAFe provide the manual and direction for companies to take.  Yet….they’re [still] not seeing the expected and much-desired results and I believe, with every nook and cranny of my heart, the reason lies in the environment.

DORMANCY:  The state of quiet (but possibly temporary) inaction. – Definition from http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu

Underneath the surface of the frameworks we’re using or, if you prefer, the foundation, are the Agile and lean values and principles.  But, I don’t believe the appropriate amount of time and attention is spent on teaching these.  Certainly not to the point where they’re understood well enough to be put into practice.  What’s more, I don’t believe most environments are suitable for the demonstrative manifestation of these values and principles.  So then what you end up seeing are the process side of frameworks in action – not people.  The frameworks are designed to bring the values and principles to life.  Frameworks need people to bring THE FRAMEWORK to life.  So, really, you need people to bring the values and principles to life and the environment, generally, just isn’t conducive.

Occasionally, there will be a micro-climate where, somehow, a team is flourishing.  I’ve heard these teams referred to as “magic teams”.  The magic of them is they created their own environment or micro-climate and bucked the odds – kind of like the Spring of 2005 in death valley.  Which, goes to show you, it’s not actually magic…it’s the environment.  Creating the environment is the key to unlocking the potential of people to bring the framework and the values and principles to life which will then bring the amazing results we’re all searching and striving for.  Oddly enough, those micro-climates are noticed by others as well.  The magic team is sought after and asked about their secret and the magic team will gladly, willingly give it away and, then, those seekers will tell you all the reasons why replicating it just aren’t possible elsewhere.

Maybe we just take for granted the environment will be there or it will evolve to meet the changes in process and approach.  Or, perhaps we don’t even want to think about the environment because changing or creating environments is difficult, hard work.  Also, there’s nothing telling you that a framework NEEDS any certain type of environment.  All of that said, I can’t think of a single organization who isn’t fully capable  and up to the challenge of creating an environment to enable success.  Especially if, at the end of all that work, the results would be nothing short of spectacular.  I would go so far to argue that the environment of every organization is dormant….quietly inactive.  I may even take it a step further and say the “environmentalists”, or those with the ability to be, are complacent.  Meanwhile, there’s all this potential just there, waiting for the right environment or a very persuasive environmental activist to get the ball rolling.

 

 

 

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Thinking Before Leaping to Agile

So, you think you want to “Go Agile”?  The very first question I have for you is:  Why?

Before you embark on a path as challenging as an Agile adoption be very sure, from the outset, of your goals.  And, let me be very clear here, the goal cannot be “To meet a mandate from our <insert title here>”.  It also cannot be “We just need to deliver more, faster.” There’s no doubt there are benefits to be had through an Agile adoption, but you will need to know WHY you want to take this journey.  More importantly, the people you will be asking to embrace, support and implement this change will need to know why.  If you’re not able to explain it – to put your goals out there – STOP.  Don’t take one more step or have one more conversation about it until you do.  Then, once you’re clear on those goals look to see if there’s anything about people on them.  The heart, soul and awesomeness of Agile lies in people.  If there’s nothing in the goals about people, STOP.  You will not realize the goals you have laid out without considering, paying attention to and cultivating your people.

What about people is important to an Agile adoption?  Well, all process and structures/frameworks depend on the people working within them to bring them to life.  In an Agile adoption, people and their ability to trust you and your ability to trust them is vital.  There will be things you learn about your company that will be uncomfortable and they need to be able to bring them up to you, their leader, to help change them.   Additionally, they will need an environment where they really can live the Agile Values.

When I reflect on the goals an Agile organization should consider they’re, actually, rather simple.

  • Are we delivering more value to our customers?  How do we know?  Your customers will tell you.  Ask your customers prior to your effort to tell you how they feel about the services and benefits you provide and, then, continue to ask them.
  • Are our operating costs going down?  Is your call center experiencing less call volume?  Is it easier to resolve an issue when they do call?  Do you need less and are able to deliver more?
  • Are our associates reporting a higher degree of engagement?  Do they feel empowered?  Do they feel they have real, true ownership of solving problems?  Do they feel their managers are, more than ever, focused on their development over their work?

Agile alone isn’t a Silver Bullet.  Maybe it seems that way OR someone is positioning it that way to you but just “doing Agile” will not deliver the results you’re probably looking for.  “Doing” Agile will get you some improvement – in the 25%-35% range.  “Being”  AND  “Doing”  Agile has the potential to deliver exceptional (400% improvement) results.  Being Agile depends on you, the leader.  When you announce the intention of an Agile adoption, you’re making an agreement to adhere, as closely as possible, to the Agile Values.  What’s more, your people will believe you and it’s critical you mean to live the values and you’re asking them to do the same.  Your actions from that point forward will confirm (or not) your commitment to those values and, essentially, your people.  So, WHY do you want to go Agile?

This Old House – Agile Edition

When you’re transitioning to Agile, there’s a lot going on all at once.  It occurred to me  it’s similar to home renovation – a really, really big home renovation.  Personally, I LOVE old homes.  I love going to see them and, one day, I want to buy one and fix it up.  Sometimes, I walk into a house and while I’m oohing and aahing my husband is groaning.  He’s groaning because the houses don’t generally meet any criteria he has for a home.  I’m oohing because I can see the potential a house has.  All you need is some imagination, good bones and time.  That’s what an organization needs to create a great environment for Agility too.

IMAGINATION:  To begin, you need to be able to ooh and aah instead of groan. You need to be able to see what is possible for teams, management and your users.  If you don’t have imagination absolutely everything about the process will frustrate the hell out of you.  You can’t hire someone to “take care of it” for you or oversee it.  Nope.  You need to be willing to be architect, general contractor and all the subs.  If you have imagination and can envision what it will look like you have an open mind.  An open mind is necessary because everything you thought you knew about “how your house was built” is going to get thrown out the window.

GOOD BONES:  There are some things that just need to be in place.  It’s no good and not practical if you have to bulldoze the house and start from scratch.  You need smart people who are willing to opt in and give Agile a serious go.  You need managers who are way more into the products their company produces than they are into their “turf”.  These managers must also understand how to support, motivate and develop people.  You need a culture of drive and commitment.  You need a business who will look at the business differently.  You need a company that invites people to opt in instead of mandates.  OPEN MINDS are essential.

TIME:  It took a long time to build what is, arguably, good enough.  To change, grown, learn and be great you need time.  You know the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day”?  An Agile transformation doesn’t happen overnight either.  This renovation is going to take time.  Since you know that, you also need to know to be patient.  Also, you should know that you will never be “Done”.  You will always and you should always look for things to improve on.

In my vision of a great Agile environment there are spaces for teams to work together, as a whole team and places to pair or collaborate with a smaller group.  There’s technology available for distributed teams to use.  People laugh!  Anyone walking by can see what the team has going on and how awesome they are.  There’s some corporate furniture around but teams can put their own identity on their spaces too.  There’s a wall for anyone who wants to put an idea up to try and others can join in the effort.  Directly opposite is another wall that celebrates the successes and failures (learning) from the efforts of these self-organizing teams.  The environment is safe for everyone to be open, honest, disagree and try anything they think will be for the good for the team, the company or the user.  This safe environment also has a hum – there’s energy and people are genuinely happy to be there and be a part of it.  There’s also an endless supply of post-its (all colors & sizes), sharpies (all colors), magnets and flip charts.

As with any major project, you’re bound to hit some snags.  That’s OK.  It’s all part of the adventure.  You have no idea what you will learn along the way and the creative solutions you will find.  The time, thought and care you put into creating this environment will be huge.  If done well, at the end, you have teams of completely happy and motivated individuals.  You have a safe environment where learning, trying and trying more is encouraged.  You have users who are loyal and more than satisfied with the products you are producing.  All this because of the environment.   There’s no need for razing the house to get to the land.  Keep what’s good and useful, ditch the rest and strive for the perfect environment.

All Pain and No Gain

In an Agile transformation we all focus on getting the teams set up, training them and get them working in Scrum (or whatever).  Then, you have these teams going and you see some improvement but maybe not the BIG BANG improvement  you thought you would see.  So, you start looking into what the teams are doing.

Are they having stand up? – CHECK!

Are they doing Sprint Planning? – CHECK!

Are they having Retros? – CHECK!

Are they using a Scrum board and burning down daily? – CHECK!

Is it effective? – Ummmmmmmmm

The thing is, the tactical parts of Scrum are in place to teach the teams how to think and work differently.  A team can only get so far with the tactical elements alone.  In order to realize the benefits of Agile, a team needs to shift their mind set and so the all the people outside of the teams.  The tactical part of Agile is easy.  It’s the Cultural part that’s really difficult.

If teams are having challenges breaking down the work into small enough increments, you may be able to address it with some training and hands on guidance during planning.  However, if the business cannot think differently and insists or MORE it may be that the team isn’t empowered to break it down smaller.  Or, maybe, in demo, stakeholders are critical of the “little” the team has ready and pressures for MORE.

If teams aren’t continuously improving and having their retros, it could be that the team needs some instruction/coaching on what continuous improvement means.  Maybe the Scrum Master isn’t leading effective retros and needs some help there.  Or, maybe, the team isn’t given the time for retros because of some outside forces insisting they do something differently.  Maybe the Scrum Master doesn’t have time to learn how to be a Scrum Master because they’re busy writing status reports, going to status meetings and completing documentation for an organization that hasn’t embraced Agile yet and relies on Project Management artifacts and methods.

I’m staring to think an Organizations transformation doesn’t start with teams at all.  I think it starts with everyone else.  Scrum and Agile are easily applied to any type of work.  The Agile values and principles are also applicable to any type of work.  Maybe the teams should be left alone until everyone else understands how to work in this way.  In focusing the effort outside teams first, the culture shift could start with those who have the ability to stifle or supercharge the teams.  Once everyone outside the teams are ready for the teams THEN the transformation can begin.

Because, until the culture starts changing – in earnest – an organization is really just going through the motions NOT transforming.

If you measure to a minimum, guess what you’ll get…

The minimum.  If you wanted the minimum, then, congratulations!  I’m pretty sure people don’t strive for the minimum though so what should be measured  instead?  Measure progress against the end goal.  I know.  I know.  It’s crazy talk but, seriously, if there’s a goal you want to hit why not try to assess yourself against it?  I guess the argument of “we want to know where we are against the least acceptable  metric” may hold some water.  However, I don’t want something that tells me 100% meet the minimum.  I would MUCH rather know that 8% meet the target and 70% are pretty damn close.  Those who are meeting the minimum now have a little competition and may actually kick it into high gear.

If I know who is closest to the target, I have a chance to leverage their insights and help those who are anywhere close get closer.  I can see what everyone has in common (who isn’t excelling) and work towards identifying a root cause to help make it easier for them to hit the target.  If 100% are meeting the minimum, what does that tell me?  What can I do with that information? Reward it?  Um……

I know!  Let’s set an interim target!  Guess what you’ll get?  100% are meeting the interim target.  And it all starts again.  Seriously, folks, let’s strive to meet the goal.  Let’s not sell ourselves short and give ourselves crutches.  People want to do well and if well means the minimum, that’s what you’ll get.

Personally, I love a challenge.  When I’m not challenged, I get lazy.  When you expect greatness from people you will get greatness.  When you expect mediocrity you will get mediocrity.  Shoot for the stars people!!  Then, when you have scooped them all up, shoot for another galaxy.  I DARE YOU TO BE BETTER THAN YOU ALREADY ARE!

Focus on those who OPT IN

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on where to focus.  In a large transformation effort, there’s more than one area requiring attention:  Teams, Scrum Masters, Middle Management, Leadership, Performance Management, Space, Culture…..  You name it, it probably needs some care and feeding so, where’s a person supposed to spend time?

Initially, my thought was to focus on those people or places that were not far along the change curve.  Then, I realized how much effort and time went into that category.  We talk about empowering people and teams to deliver value.  Why shouldn’t the same apply to learning and change?  If you make training, workshops, blogs, books, coaches and every possible thing imaginable available, people who want to learn and change will avail themselves of those resources and more.

The time we spend “selling”, convincing, cajoling and, yes, begging people to give it a try is wasted.  Those people will either opt in or not.  I’m not saying zero time should be spent on this category.  I AM saying it’s a pull system and, when asked or requested, some time should be spent there.  Spending time pushing it isn’t valuable. As people are ready, they will pull – just like a team and a backlog.

Focusing on those who are opting in makes sense.  Results will happen.  People will be happier.  Formerly opt-out people will notice and they will come.  When they’re ready, you should be too.  Be ready to help, coach, guide and keep the road as clear as possible for their own transformation journey.  The cycle will continue.  It just takes time.

Middle Managers are like Addicts…

This weeks experiment for softwehr and I is to write about Middle Managers.  This topic generates a LOT of good discussion.  In fact, I’ve already talked about it here.  I’m actively experimenting with this group daily, using Dan Mezick’s book: The Culture Game, trying to find some keys.  I’ll tell you up front I’m failing a lot.  My failure (I like to call it learning) is due in large part to the fact I’m trying to instill some new habits and responses that aren’t instinctive yet.

What is it I’m trying to do?  I’m trying to get people in the middle layer to change the way they view and execute work.  This group is tough.  What’s the value proposition for them?  It’s easy for teams: you will be empowered and valued for the skills and creativity you bring.  For Executives, you are going see more value being delivered, a reduction in defects and operational costs, improvement in associate morale and MORE revenue!  What’s not to love right?  For Middle Managers….you guys get to???  So, here’s what I am trying so far:

  1. Everyone has a choice to opt in or out.  I am focusing on those who are opting in. Normally, I focus on the other set thinking that’s where the problem is.  It isn’t.   There is absolutely nothing to be gained by trying to convince them.  By focusing on those who are opting in, I am creating viruses.
  2. I am asking if the purpose I believe we are striving for is aligned with their thinking.  Aligning to a common goal/purpose is essential.  Often, we are not.  However, I have found that stating my “own” purpose gets them thinking AND I find some converts.  How do I know this?  The converts refer back to it throughout the meeting and ask me questions following the meeting to understand what I was trying to get at.  They want to learn.  Virus created.
  3. I am taking every possible opportunity to teach…what are elements of high-performing teams, why is the environment essential and all kinds of other interesting systemic cultural impediments.  Sometimes, I’ll get a polite nod and murmur other times, I see a laser-like focus appear in their eyes and they ask “What are we doing to solve that?”.  HA!  Got ya.  I now have a virus AND someone to go and tackle the impediment.
  4. Every day I set out to do something “brave”.  Sometimes, the brave thing is any ONE of the items above.  Other times, it’s bolder.  The worst thing that happens?  I fail/learn.

Notice there’s nothing on here I’m forcing on anyone.  Middle managers are like addicts.  They have to recognize and accept their problem before they seek treatment.  My role isn’t to treat them.  It’s to help them be aware and find their value proposition in this change.  I help them be aware by doing the things above and some more. Eventually, more people attain awareness and results WILL follow (I have to have faith here).  Those who haven’t yet experienced it start asking those who have “How did you do that?” and the virus spreads.

The middle layer can make or break your transformation.  It’s a constituency we must pay attention to.  They’re the most difficult ones to reach.  They are afraid.  Seriously, download Dan’s book on your Kindle and read it a couple times.  As you’re reading start trying.  You have to start small to make it big.  Just like a virus.

Frameworks are full of….

People.

A process doesn’t work without people.  A framework doesn’t work without people.  Process and frameworks are meant to facilitate the delivery of value.  Value isn’t delivered unless you have people.  If everyone can agree on this we should also be able to agree that, in order for the implementation of a new framework, process or effort to deliver value to customers faster, people are THE lynchpin.

If we agree people are the lynchpin, we need to agree on what they need to be a strong lynchpin.  If I think on times where I have performed the best, there were common themes:

  1. I trusted those I was working with and was trusted by those I was working for
  2. The people I was working with were all focused on the same goal
  3. We all had high standards for ourselves, our product and each other
  4. Having FUN was not an afterthought

There are a few more but, these are the “biggies”.  Note, there is nothing in here about how we worked together.  I say this because I think, sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the process – or framework – of work.  Actually, the simpler the framework, the harder it is to implement because it is so very reliant on…people.  When you look at Scrum, it’s very light on the process and how.  Kanban is even lighter.  Simple processes imply a faith and trust in people to do the best they can, be open and honest with themselves and each other and try to be better each time.

Heavy processes or frameworks imply a lack of trust in people.  Otherwise…why all the process?  Process is made of checkpoints, flows, owners, approvers, accountable, responsible and the list goes on and on.  At the end of the day, people either did what they set out to do or they didn’t.  A process or framework won’t actually guarantee success.

People will.

When a company or team decides to implement a new framework, they need to first look at the people and decide a few things.  One, do they have people they trust?  Two, are they (the people making the decision) open to working differently?  Three, do they believe the framework they are implementing and the people they have to work within it will truly help us achieve their goal?

Processes and frameworks for the sake of having them are no good.  It’s not good for the company, the people or the customers.  Make sure there’s an environment for people to be successful in.  Keep the framework/process as light as possible and.  Ensure people are working on valuable products.  Leave the people alone unless they tell you they need you.  Then, be supportive and enable their learning and success.

It’s about the People NOT the framework

I’ve been hearing little murmurings…..

“SAFe is great because we can still keep watch over everything”

“Reporting will be robust with SAFe.  We’ll know how each team is doing at all times.”

“We’ll need really good Integrated BSAs and Tech Leads to monitor and approve the decisions.”

There’s NO PASS ON THE CULTURE CHANGE with SAFe, Scrum, Kanban or any other Agile framework.  I’m very serious about this.  SAFe is still based on Agile values and Principles.  The great picture doesn’t mean you don’t have to change the way you think.  It doesn’t.  I believe, when done correctly, it makes it less scary to change culturally but there MUST be change.  When you look at the picture, turn it upside down.  Team on top and Portfolio on the bottom.  It’s STILL about delivering value to the customer and the people, on the teams, are the ones who do it.

You can’t realize the full benefits of Agile until the culture change starts.

I’ll say it another way.

If you want to realize the full benefits of Agile, you will need to change the way you view people and work.

Here’s another way.

When you do not change your culture and Agile doesn’t work it will be because you didn’t change your culture.

Do not blame Agile.  Do not blame Scrum.  Do not blame SAFe.  SAFe is an excellent framework to learn how to apply the Agile/LEAN values and principles. So is SCRUM. Neither is a silver bullet.  The silver bullet is your brain and it’s ability to change.

Knowing and Understanding is different than Applying and Learning

As I intimated in a previous post, when I first heard about Agile and Scrum, I poked around a bit and came to the conclusion it wasn’t very different from what I was already doing.  I figured it was no different than normal Project Management except I would have a captive project team (YAY!), all the work going on would be on a board instead of .mpp (EVEN LOUDER YAY!) and there would be 1 fifteen minute daily meeting rather than all the other endless meetings.  Yeaaaahhhhhh.  So, that wasn’t right.

I found some people in the department who did know this and started learning from them.  When I say started learning I started accumulating knowledge.  After I spent a good amount of time listening to others, there were pieces that started to click.  I still didn’t have the whole picture partly because I was getting information in pieces and partly because I didn’t “get” it and, as a PM, didn’t believe what I was hearing really either.

As more and more pieces started to fall into place I began to understand.  That is I knew, in theory, what I should expect and what Scrum should look like.  Once I reached a level of understanding, I was able to ask much better questions AND accumulate more information.  If you thought I was going to say I could apply it (well), I’m sorry to have let you down. I did start looking at the the team, the organization and myself a little differently and tried to think about how all of this information could possibly be applied.  My attempts had not been very, well, awesome.  I had theories…

I set out to figure out HOW to effectively apply my understanding of the information I knew.  Do you know what???  It’s really difficult to tell someone HOW to apply the information they have.  People can give you suggestions and they will be good ones.  True Learning happens when you just go and start trying it out.  We tell teams to do it right?  Fail fast (which means learn fast to me).

Talk about scary.  It’s scary to be with a team and just try stuff out.  However try you MUST.  You will learn so much faster and you can apply all that learning to grow and get even better.  You need courage, trust, some more courage and a desire to improve.  Knowing is useless unless you’re learning, applying and learning some more.  If I had started trying to apply all that knowledge earlier, I would have learned faster.  Would there have been mistakes?  Yes.  What do we learn the most from?  Our mistakes.  See where I’m going here?

When people say “I know all about Agile and Scrum.”  Just smile and wave and wait.  In the meantime, get out there and experiment.  Don’t be afraid to learn and grow.