Monday, November 12, 2018

Some thoughts on personal change

A typical day for a scrum master; doughnuts and coffee
I have called working in the business world bipolar, toxic and an excuse for mental illness.  I still feel this way, but along the way, I have encountered numerous pockets of decency and professionalism.  I have made plenty of friends along the way.  This week, I took a massive step in my professional career and resigned from my present organization.  I will be joining another firm on November 19th.

When I was growing up in the 1980’s, my parents and teachers spoke about how a career was a pathway or process.  You would join a company and throughout your career advance up the organization.  Your loyalty to the organization came with a measure of job security, and a means to support a family.  I was instructed people succeeded and failed based on individual merit.   The recession of the early 1990’s and over twenty years of being a technology professional have proven those ideas false.

I have spent plenty of time around the damaged, neurotic, and mean people who make up a significant minority of business professionals.  In my worst moments of vulnerability, I have choked back tremendous amounts of rage and bitterness.  In my better moments, I have forced myself to see the good in others.  I was disappointed from time to time, but often my optimism was rewarded.  I leaned on colleagues to muddle through the long days and lack of support, and I relied on my fellow agile coaches who saw something in me I did not.

It is easy to see the bad in the world and wallow in nihilism.  Creating a reformation is going to be hard work.  A modern shareholding company is the closest thing contemporary society has to medieval feudalism, and those in power will do anything to remain in charge.

Fortunately, there are others like me who are agitating for change and a serious business case for making those changes.  Developers, agile coaches, scrum masters, product owners, and random strangers want these changes.  Together, we will work to make the modern corporation more sustainable, sane, and satisfying place to work.  I have spent five years learning to be a great scrum master and coach.  It is now time to put that experience to use expanding the agile reformation. 

Until next time.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Psychological Safety in a Bipolar Business World

Psychological Safety means treating
 people like humans instead of insects. 

The global economy is a bipolar place.  The wealth and highs of success transform people into demigods.  The lows reduce human beings into squalid grubs struggling to survive.  For the white-collar professional caught in the middle, it feels like being in a bivouac of army ants.  You are being pulled in all directions by the tensions of others and the environment.  It is a stoic existence where we have no choice other than rely on others for our own survival.  It is alienating and undermines many of our desire for meaning.  The agile coach and scrum master must struggle against this reality each day.  In the corporate world, we should treat people as human beings instead of insects foraging for the benefit of an elite. 

The alienation of workers and disengagement it causes is why many consultants and agile experts are starting to discuss something called “psychological safety.”  John Dobbin wrote a great article about the subject on LinkedIn this week.  Pioneered by organizations like Google, psychological safety is behavior which allows people to work together in an environment of mutual respect and innovation.  It mirrors the work of Kim Scott, a former Googler, who wrote the book “Radical Candor.”  Aside from being the product of Google’s “don’t be evil,” days these two ideas come from our primitive reptilian brains.  Conflict with co-workers, a challenging boss, or business conditions create a situation where our fight, flight or freeze reactions to danger are triggered.  The emotional response is helpful during an avalanche or an attacking lion, but can create a toxic sludge in the cubical farms where many of us earn our living.

Unlike a backed-up storm drain, cleaning up the mess from the fight or flight response requires tremendous amounts of emotional labor and a huge dip in productivity.  From personal experience, I have had weeks of anxiety and self-doubt thanks to being ridiculed by a manager in front of product owners.  The episode gave those same product owners license to ignore coaching.  The sludge became more difficult to wade through at the office.

As I have become more experienced as a coach and scrum master, it is clear to me that psychological safety needs to be encouraged.  People need to feel you sincerely care about them and you are willing to hold them accountable. Leadership is more about creating this environment of learning than giving orders and controlling others.  I am still learning about how to do this as a professional but the Harvard Business Review is giving me a good head start. 

As a knowledge worker you should not be strung out like an army ant holding the colony together.  If the office is a toxic sludge of anxiety, it is time to grab a shovel and start the difficult process of creating psychological safety. I we fail we are doomed to live in a bipolar business world.

Until next time.



Monday, October 29, 2018

Agile Coaching must work with Corporate Leadership.

They made great art but the rivalry was toxic.
 Don't let this happen to your coaching relationship
with business leaders.
One of the best things about being an agilest is the network of smart and committed people who are willing to provide insight into how they are solving business problems.  I know if I ask for help I receive plenty of suggestions and feedback.  I wrote a blog about how agile is good at exposing toxic leadership inside an organization.  I received some criticism from people I respect who thought I was creating a false conflict with leaders.  Let me explain myself.

Organizations are coming around to the Agile Reformation for one apparent reason; it is good for business.  Faster time to market and more precise focus on meeting customer needs translates into profits.  Business leaders are also discovering disengaged workers, and toxic leaders are a drain to the bottom line.  It is just like what baseball manager Tommy Lasorda said, “Happy Cows make more milk.” The reality of the benefits of Agile provides an opportunity to make business better.  It also means business leaders and agile coaches have a vested interest in working together. 

The tension between leadership and agile coaches happens when agile exposes inefficiencies in the broader business.  Development teams release software, but the business users are not interested in testing.  Network professionals block the use of Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment tools because they see it as a career threat.  Finally, pointing out a toxic leader can jeopardize the balance of power in office politics.  I struggle to navigate these situations. 

Often when teams become more agile, the surrounding business is stuck in the status quo.  It is inside this shadow zone where a company makes the transition from doing agile to being agile.  The metaphorical rubber hits the road in that place.  The only way it can succeed is if business leaders buy in, agile professionals lead by example and teams follow through.  A woman I respect very much said, “Do your job, tell the truth and if it does not work out it is their problem.” 

A large organization can behave like an addict they know they are involved in the self-destructive activity, but they cannot stop.  Only when the organization realizes they have to quit will they.  A scrum master or coach needs to be available when they are ready to make the change.  Leaders should be partners in any agile transformation.  Collaboration and cooperation should be the guiding principles of this relationship.  If it collapses into codependence and conflict, then it is time for the coach to admit failure and go elsewhere. 

Until next time.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Agile Exposes the Bad Boss

A bad boss is just toxic.
I was getting on an elevator at the office and I decided to make small talk with someone as we were heading up to our respective floors.

“Ready to set the global economy on fire,“ I joked.

My fellow traveler got a gleam in their eye and said, “The flames are so colorful.”

I got off on my floor and breathed a sigh of relief.  The metaphorical pyromaniac was too eager to be pulling my leg.  The experience brought into stark contrast how tired many of us have become in the business world. The daily frustrations of working in a modern office force many professionals into the cynical behavior of inflicting harm on others as a means of satisfaction.  It is perverse, and it is wrong. The cynicism in the elevator is one of the reasons I have been such an enthusiastic proponent of agile.  I firmly believe there must be a better way to structure work so that it is sustainable, sane, and satisfying.

Inc. Magazine and Monster.com pointed out this week that 76% of bosses in business are “toxic.”  This toxic leadership is why so many people rely on jaded cynicism.  It is crucial as an agile coach and scrum master to break this cycle of toxicity.  According to the article in Inc. magazine, a toxic boss exhibits some or all of the following traits.

  1. They are power-hungry
  2. They micromanager
  3. They are absent
  4. They are incompetent
It is up to people like me to expose these bosses to the organization and coach them to be better.

The Power Hungry

Working for a power-hungry boss is a little like being a supporting cast member in Game of Thrones; you are going to wind up suffering a cruel ending to satisfy someone else’s ambition.  It surprises me how many business leaders think servant leadership is similar to the game “Masters and servants.”  The reality of servant leadership is much different.  In the end, what everyone needs to understand is a power-hungry boss is concerned about one thing; themselves.  A power-hungry boss will put personal interest over the needs of the company and employees.  Agile exposes the power-hungry because they often become impediments to shipping solutions.

The Micromanager

The hardest part of leadership is the lack of control we have over our fellow humans.  A leader can spend years training people to do the right thing and meet a certain performance level, and they can still disappoint at critical junctures.  To combat this helplessness, managers create processes and steps which they expect people to obey like robots.  It creates an illusion of control where employees do what they can to avoid hassle rather than what is necessary to succeed.  Thus, reports have perfect typography and proper tab spacing, but the data within that report shows lead conversion is falling.  The emphasis on working solutions instead of comprehensive documentation in agile should expose micromanagers.

The Absent

Over the years, we tell countless stories about military leaders who “lead from the front,” instead of from behind a desk.  I am currently reading one about William Slim who commanded the 14th Army of Burma during the Second World War.  It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of authority.  In an office of cubicles, having your office is a status symbol.  It gives you the power to shut people out and focus on administrative duties.  The autonomy and control over who has access is a powerful motivation for people to advance into leadership.  In reality, a leader has to be more visible to the people they are leading.  A leader should know about the people who make them successful.  If the leader is not around and they become distant figure the people who make them successful will ignore them in time of crisis.  Agile attempts to counter this kind of toxicity with its emphasis on face to face communication.

The Incompetent Leader

A leader should not be able to do your job, but at the very least they should understand what it takes to do your job.  What I have discovered over the years is people who have never managed a computer network or written a line of code often lead technology teams.  These people know how to manipulate budgets and control the project, but they do not know how to direct technology professionals because they think they are no different than shipping clerks or factory workers.  Agile with its emphasis on cross-functional teams and delivery exposes the incompetent.

I am a big believer in the idea that you should tell and expose the truth wherever you find it.  Sooner or later, someone in a position of authority is going to act on that truth.  I feel this way because it is how we defeated leaded gasoline and paint.  It is how we have reduced smoking in the United States by half since 1964.  It is an approach which led to the birth of agile.

If we are honest with ourselves, we should acknowledge the power-hungry, micromanagers, the absent, and incompetent and expose them so their toxic effect on the workplace can be mitigated.  It matters, and if we are not successful, all we can do is watch the pretty colors as the world burns.

Until next time.

Monday, October 15, 2018

When the Story is Not Done

Things go wrong during sprints.
One of the most important facets of agile is the quick cycle times make it possible for people to react to change rapidly.  The end of each sprint is an opportunity to gauge success and look for areas of improvement.  The speed forces us to do work in smaller chunks and gather feedback and direction from customers.  An agile team can bite off more than it can chew in a sprint.  Today on my blog, I want to discuss some recommendations on how to handle stories which take longer than a sprint.

In a perfect agile practice, each team completes all of the work they commit to in a sprint.  The need to “roll over,” critical work to the next sprint does not happen.  In the fallen world where most of us live and work, stories do not get finished at the end of the sprint.  It creates a challenge because the unfinished story might delay a release or throw a delivery timeline off schedule.

The Scrum Guide does not say much about what to do when a story is incomplete at the end of a sprint.  Since there was no consensus, a beginning scrum master just rolled over the story and asked the team to finish the work in the next sprint.  The approach was no different than letting a milestone slip in a waterfall project.  The collective wisdom of the web stepped forward, and experts suggested an incomplete story should return to the backlog and reprioritized.  If the story still had value it can be placed in the subsequent sprint; otherwise, it can wait.

Concentrating on what is important rather than what is unfinished each sprint is what makes agile so powerful.  Unfortunately, unfinished work can become technical debt overnight and create conflicts inside the agile team.  Many stories are incomplete because the team has not met the standard of care for the story.  Unfinished unit tests and incomplete acceptance criteria are prime culprits for this situation.  The group wants to split the story and lower the number of story points so that it does not look like the velocity of the team is impacted.  The truth is velocity is affected.  The team failed to deliver story points in the previous sprint, so the velocity has gone down.  A team should both see and feel the effects of not meeting the standard of care.  People outside the team should also see an honest portrayal of the challenges the team is facing.  There should be no secrets on an agile team or in an agile enterprise.

When a team fails to deliver this is also an opportunity to bring up in the retrospective what caused this kind of setback.  Product owners should understand there is more to a story than writing code and developers should be more assertive about how they communicate.  The team should own up to the failure and try to do a better job next time.

Failure is hard, but it educates better than any success ever could.  It also makes future victory sweeter.

Until next time.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Agile and the Toxic office

The Open office plan circa 1960.  
A modern office resembles the dark vision of Jean-Paul Sartre’.  In his play “No Exit,” he traps three characters in a room.  The characters psychologically torment each other.  The lights never dim and no one can escape.  To Sartre’, “hell is…other people,” and they are impossible to escape.  It sounds like a perfect description of the modern office with cubicles and open floor plans.  By design or neglect, the contemporary office has become a toxic hell which white collar workers navigate each day.  As an agile coach and scrum master, you need to fight this toxicity and make work better. 

The open office is not a new concept.  As business expanded, hundreds of people were needed to perform necessary clerical work.  Captains of industry required contracts typed, checks deposited, and in a time before computers numbers crunched.  Many of these jobs became obsolete with the advent of computers and photocopy machines.  Today, an employee with a laptop can be more productive than an entire 1950’s office pool.  It is impressive when you think about how office work has changed over the last seventy-five years.

It is also surprising how little has changed.  Alcohol abuse is still a problem in the corporate world.  The “Peter Principle” which promotes people to their level of incompetence is still in practice.  Finally, according to Gallup, two-thirds of workers in the United States are disengaged.  I feel strongly Agile came into being because competent, hardworking people thought it was possible to do better.

The reason offices converted too open plans is the combination of perverse economic incentives and naive notions of what it takes to build a collaborative team. In cities with large business communities, rent is at a premium.  In Chicago rent increased by 20% in 2016 and currently leases at $50 to $60 a square foot.  Based on the price pressure, business owners have the incentive to get the maximum amount of use out of each square foot.  The open office makes that possible and managers can squeeze more people into less space.  The open office plan began with Frank Lloyd Wright and his Johnson Wax office building; it also has an origin in German design from the 1950’s.  The open office would facilitate conversations, collaboration, and innovation.  The reality of open offices is an environment employee’s loath.   

It does not help the shareholder value theory of business motivates many managers.  To these managers, the only thing which matters in increasing the share price or dividend for the company stockholders.  Thus, the open office and the shareholder model of business creates a fiendish replication of Sartre’s hell.  We are trapped economically in a space which is designed to torment us.  It is this combination of poor work environment and leadership which ignores stakeholders, customers, and employees are why I think we have such a severe problem with disengagement and alcohol abuse in office culture.  When there is a disconnect between your work and your wellbeing, something has to give; for many, it is their self-esteem and enthusiasm for work. Marxist philosophers call this “Labor alienation,” and it is just as bad today as during the sweatshops of Dickens.

Agile came into being because people doing the work of building the world economy through there was a better way.  These people were project managers and technologists.  None of them were Fortune 500 executives.  Individuals and interactions, responding to change, customers collaboration, and working systems were more important than everything else at the office and embracing these values we say we are trying to make the office less toxic. 

Many of us feel we are powerless to change things in the office.  Agile gives us the tools to expose dysfunction and reduce alienation.  We have to be brave and smart enough to use those tools; otherwise, we will continue to have the same office as we have had for seventy-five years and there will be "no exit," for us. 

Until next time.

Monday, October 1, 2018

No secrets on an agile team.

No secrets on a crap game or agile team.
I went to San Diego this week to talk about “Healthy Ownership,” with other agile professionals.  The experience got me out of the office and listening to others and their challenges making their workplaces better.  During the discussion, I recalled an old saying I learned when I worked as a dealer and pit boss at Harrah’s casino, “There are no secrets on a crap game.”  It occurs to me that wisdom can be applied to any agile team.

Working a crap game in progress, for the uninitiated, is confusing.  Dice are flying in the air and depending on the number they land hundreds or thousands of dollars can be won or lost.  It is a loud, frantic, and intense game of chance.  Since it is so fast, the dealers need to have incredible arithmetic skills, manual dexterity to make payments, the customer service skills of a butler, and the grace under pressure of a bomb disposal expert.  It was the most difficult job I ever had.

The reason dealers and pit bosses say, “There are no secrets on a crap game,” is things move so quickly on a crap table that bets are often made while the dice are in mid-air.  Only by shouting out your bet and having it confirmed by a dealer does it “count.”  If the dice bounce off a player’s arm on a crap game the other players will get angry and will often leave the table.  The superstitious behavior of gamblers encourages craps dealers to vocalize everything they do.  A dealer repeats back bets to the players.  A dealer often recites the payouts they are making and where those bets are located on the felt in front of them.  All this happens because the game needs to keep moving and no one wants to lose out on a bet.

In a world where agile teams have healthy ownership, the teams should exhibit three qualities.

  1. Open Dialog.
  2. Increased Empathy.
  3. Collective Ownership.

For a crap game to be successful, open dialog needs to exist on the crew.  It is why everything is vocalized.  At casinos, my experience was crews were scheduled together so they learn to work together.  Finally, everyone on the crew is accountable if someone cheats or something goes horribly wrong.  It seems the casino business was into healthy ownership before agile professionals.

What does this mean for software development teams?  To achieve open dialog, the development team, scrum master, and product owner need to be in constant communication.  Stand up meetings need to be frank and to the point.  Product owners should listen in and make sure they can answer questions.  Scrum masters should facilitate discussion using the product backlog as the central hub of information.  Finally, developers should follow up on acceptance criteria to make sure what they are building is what the product owner needs.  If anyone is in doubt the should speak out.

To increase empathy on the team, the scrum master and product owner should share a work space.  It allows the scrum master and product owner to understand each other’s routine.  Using video conference equipment also helps.  It lets individuals see each other as real people instead of disembodied voices on a conference call.  Teams should work together in open spaces with areas for mob programming and rooms for privacy; I find both are necessary for the success and sanity of developers.  The most important piece is to make sure each member of the team understands the challenges and responsibility of the others so they may have empathy.

The final outcome of collective ownership is necessary for Healthy Ownership to thrive. It means the scrum master, product owner, and development team share equally the success and failure of each sprint.  I find this to be the most difficult outcome to achieve.  It requires highly skilled people to give up a little of their ego and make sacrifices for others.  To borrow a phrase from Benjamin Franklin, the agile team needs to hang together or all of them will hang separately.

To have healthy ownership an agile team needs; open dialog, increased empathy, and collective ownership.  The development team should not have any secrets just like a casino craps crew.  Following this model will create the healthy ownership which will help every team a success.

Until next time.