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It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it

….And that’s what gets results

This week I’m speaking with my esteemed colleague Shaun Smith at an agile event.

Individuals and Interactions: The Forgotten Priority

We chose to focus on one of the agile oldies. The first thing we state in the manifesto.  Because people and interactions are usually forgotten when we start to plan for change.  We all too often dive into creating programmes and long term plans and BIG CHANGE.

Our session hopes to attempt to redress this balance,  challenge some assumptions and make sense of why this is.  Or maybe we’ll just tell some stories.  Depends on the people present and what would be more enjoyable and useful for them.

See what I did?

We chose to put the people over the process (or in this case the powerpoint)

We won’t plan it to death and we have one simple outcome –  to help people think about how they interact with people when planning and inspiring and managing change.


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

The 10 to 6 effect

Many years ago I had the fortunate experience of working with a hyper-productive and wonderfully lovely team of about 100 people.  Within us we had many smaller teams, that topic is for another post.

One simple act of leadership

The first thing that happened was the leaders of the group asked the people to choose their working hours.

Shared purpose and specific outcomes

Immediately this group of people had a puzzle to solve.  The puzzle had one specific outcome.  What times will we be working from tomorrow onwards?  The puzzle was meaningful and had a hard deadline – the end of that day.

There were constraints.  Every two weeks everyone had to share their work and plan together.  This needed to be between 9am-5pm to make it easy for our users and business sponsors to attend.

Some wanted to have their own flexible hours.  Most wanted to work with other people.  Some just wanted a particular lunch time. As the conversations flowed people started discussing their personal needs.  There were long commutes, picking up kids, rush hour traffic in central London and some even opened up about prayer needs and health problems.

Shared ownership and motivation

As people were getting personal they all became willing to bend their first thoughts to accommodate.  I doubt most people ever get to know these things about their colleagues. We’re often shocked by the variety of situations people face.

As humanity and empathy emerged deep thought and dialogue was becoming infectious in the group. It also meant they decided they’d rather work together all the time if they could. Indeed they were the only group I’ve known of this size who all paired quite naturally.

Some bright sparks decided to get everyone to put up stickies with their suggestions, they then got rid of the duplicates. Everyone had three dots to vote on whatever suggestion wished.

Permission and trust

The most popular vote was 10am until 6pm.

The people and management accepted the proposed hours. This acceptance initiated the building of trust. And it paid off in later iterations when the teams would help each other get stories over the line.

It also gave everyone permission to ask for what they needed to do the job.

And thanks to the relationships formed that day, the people were good judges at who they needed to work with to make a great team.

Healthier and happier

Ah.  Missing rush hour.

Most people I know would vote for this in their ideal working day.  This team made it happen.  People got in pretty chilled.  Some had even managed to work on public transport – no noses in armpits thank you very much.  It cost less for some to get to work.  We managed to hire brilliant people from further afield.

And 6 pm was pub time. Even people with families and busy lives would pop in of an evening, have a coca cola (ahem) and chat.  It was  dinner time too.  I found one of my favourite restaurants of all time through this crowd.

Eventually they were also spending break times playing together, hanging out on weekends.  Lots of lifelong friendships (and more!) were born there.

A plea from me

So I ask you, ditch the theories for a moment, stop looking for methods, and know you cannot force people to change.

Try a single, simple act of leadership instead.

Learning together creates a better future

I often work with other coaches and this is usually a good thing. Sometimes though I get dismayed at the number of “experts” who want to force people to change to doing things their way.

When I come across peers who want to do change “to” people instead of explore “with” them I often think of a story I heard many years ago. So long ago in fact that I can’t remember the details but here goes anyway.

Some volunteers arrived in a small village in Africa. Their aim? To tackle the childhood malnutrition that besieged the area. Of course there had been others before them. People who lectured, people who taught, people who tried their best to get the villagers to do things their way. But the people resisted and no-one knew why.

A smart young volunteer had observed that a few of the local babies seemed well fed. These families in general were not suffering in the same way. The volunteer decided to find out the secret of these well-fed babies. She proceeded to learn the language and communicate with the families of these children. As the trust grew in these relationships the volunteer discovered more about these parents. They would take a local worm or insect (ah my middle-aged memory) and grind it into the milk. They then fed the babies and young children this mixture.

Now the village knew that this particular form of protein was edible. Yet the villagers deemed it beneath them to eat and so many did not even consider it.

With this volunteers help the mothers of the well fed children stood up and told their neighbours what they had done. At first the villagers were not entirely enthusiastic.  But some courageous first followers tried in secret.  And soon the village had much less problems with malnutrition. Success in any language.

I love this story because it shows how simply taking time to see, and being open to the unthinkable, can make the difference between life and death.

Of course in our professions we are rarely faced with such choices. But even in our pedestrian world, it is just better to do things with the people involved. Not to them.  Be open.  Be courageous.  Be wild.

The angry scrum master

agile catI once met an angry scrum master.

He took “protecting the team” quite literally. So every time someone disagreed with the product owner, or had bad news or a question to share…he did it for them.

The battles between scrum master and product owner were painful. As a distributed team (UK/US) they needed to make the most of their opportunities to work together. But every time they tried to do some planning there would be many misunderstandings and disagreements. And usually people left the conference call feeling low. After a while the team just stopped delivering.

So, behind closed doors, the angry scrum master and I had our first coaching conversation. And much to my surprise the angry scrum master was a caring but frustrated individual. He was stressing and striving to do all he could for his team’s success.

Over the course of our chat he came to realise that “protecting the team” did not mean inflicting help on them. Or always doing it for them (whatever “it” may be). We spoke about how it had affected his relationship with the (influential) PO. We spoke about how that in turn had affected how the team felt and how if had affected their work. We spoke about how he felt at the end of each day.

He changed his outlook and made some resolution when that first meeting ended.

Encourage the team members to speak for themselves. If they can’t make the sprint commitment – speak up. If they had a question for the business or each other – speak up. And if there was something that the team just couldn’t agree as a sensible thing to do – speak up. He realised his job was to help them feel comfortable opening up and to help them be mindful when someone else was sharing.

In just a few short weeks the relationship between PO and scrum master recovered quite well. The team meetings became joyous, raucous exchanges of ideas, thoughts and personal commitments.

They made their next release to boot!

Success is down to people not methods

I felt the need to tweet  the other day.

“Why do so many use trad methods to influence agile change? I prefer to talk to people, get their input, iterate and continuously publish…”

and it seems to have struck a chord.

The ever growing popularity of agile is creating huge need. Need for experienced people to help organisations start doing things better. Because of this emerging massive need we have a surplus of Agile methodologists all selling their own brand.

Often the drive to install the method means people forget people and interactions over and above process. 

I recommend this post,  It describes how an agilist sees the usefulness of methods…vs how traditional thinkers view it.

Psst. Wanna buy an agile?

In the last decade almost everyone who has heard of software development has cottoned onto Agile methods and how they can help teams and organisations be better and add more value. This has led to a massive increase in demand for experienced thought leaders, coaches and “do-ers”. A demand that far outstrips supply. To fill the gap there is a fairly new clutch of branded agilists.

This is where it gets tricky to operate as a buyer of agile help. And trickier still as an ethical Agilist who cares about people. I am sick to the back teeth of wandering into so-called agile organisations and finding a horror story where agile is akin to snake oil. (It really doesn’t help when the goal is agile. What do they think that means? What do they expect agility to give them?)

One client I worked with had been using a so-called agile supplier to develop a simple website. I joined six months in only to find the code had never been deployed anywhere, and heck there was nowhere to deploy to. It took a further three months to convince the supplier team that they really couldn’t claim “shippable product increment” unless they knew 1. where to deploy it, 2. how to deploy it and 3. had tried deploying it. The same supplier refused to share stories with the development team until planning day, refused to see that a retrospective was a key opportunity to inspect and adapt…and various small things that meant that 14 months later and the team still had no infrastructure, and instead of delivering a minimal product they were looking for complexities to add…simply to keep the agile development team working at full capacity.

To top it all off my client was happy with the supplier because they were seeing something every two weeks..albeit simply html wireframes. And they were nice people. They never once challenged anything in the legacy organisation. Even when they were running months late and with massive challenges, no-one was asking why. There were multiple other reasons why this group failed to deliver, if only I could find a fractal and relational modelling tool I’d show you!

Yuk.

Often during transformation people learn some awkward truths, and sometimes it’s deemed to be the agile consultant or consultancy who are merely trouble makers – or even agile itself is commonly blamed (we tried that once – it made things worse/didnt work). The gains to be made from change are not always apparent, and through intelligent dialogue problems are often uncovered that have been around forever…but not seen. Only then can we get better. When we know what the problems are. However if you never look, you never find, and the status quo or mild improvement can sustain a consultancy for years if stage managed. (I know of one independent consultant who has made £1million plus from selling pixie dust and charm)

Agility penetrates every layer of your organisation, not just development. It also doesn’t come in a neatly rolled ready to go carton. It takes skills, experience and tools to assess and work with a client to define the way forward. Sometimes it’s the right thing to install a method like SAFe or Scrum and change on the go, sometimes it’s better to keep the status quo and use a method like Kanban to figure out which bits really need change. And sometimes it’s just a couple of tweaks, a mindset shift, facilitation and information that’s needed.

So here I am, writing a series of blog posts designed to help you suss out if you’ve hired a charlatan, a wanna-be or an ego-maniac. Some of you will be lucky enough to have hired agile experts. But not many I’d wager.

Beware of….the agile consultants who

  • evangelise their own personal method (unless you’ve hired Jeff Sutherland, Ken Schwaber, Dean Leffingwell or their peers)
    • I see so many coaches and leaders come into organisations with their mind set on what they want to do, instead of understanding what their client needs. Worse still I’ve come across people in leadership positions (usually interim) who truly believe they have a (undocumented and untested) way of being Agile that is the best and only way for everyone.
    • This is dangerous because your team, your organisation is the testing ground for someone elses philosophy. It also usually comes with a “softly softly” approach which will cost you a lot in consultancy fees as they try to stick your square peg into their round hold.
    • How to spot one..they’re usually saying “My agile” or “The way I do agile”
    • For these cases – sack them. They are dangerous. Don’t even try to conquer their ego.
  • only has one string to his bow and wants to install it
    • Often baby coaches have had a singular fabulous experience in an Agile team and believe this can be recreated everywhere
    • Usually invested in only one of the Agile methods…and picks faults in the others. Doesn’t really get Agility and equates it to specific methods..which aren’t really the point here.
    • How to spot one…they slag off other methods or people who use multiple methods
    • For these cases…well it’s difficult. I was one of these myself many moons ago and I appreciate the opportunities I had to grow and learn with each new group. I recommend keeping them if they are open to trying new things and recognise their limited experience and knowledge. I’d sack them if they insist “X is the only way to be Agile” or if they continue to piss off your experienced Agile folks

We’ll explore more ways to rumble your agile consultant and consultancy in the coming weeks…..