Monday, November 23, 2020

Emotional Effort is Required to Lead Agile.

Feel your feels. 

The software business is filled with plenty of highs and lows.  It is a profession filled with intelligent and mercurial people.  The trade is one of the few which resists automation because it requires humans to wrangle ones and zeros into something which mimics human thought.  You would think the people who work in this profession would be cold bodies of logic.  Instead, software developers are very messy and human.  Today, I want to discuss how we need to embrace the spectrum of human emotions that are part of the agile software development process.  

To learn how to write software, you have to have a unique mix of skills.  You need to understand the logic and how programming languages can execute that logic.  You have to learn how to be creative and manage levels of stress most employees never face.  Finally, you have to deal with frustrations and uncertainty because your first solution to a problem often does not behave as it should.  

The level of frustration combined with deadline pressure does something to a person.  If they seem grumpy or distracted, it is because they are attempting to solve a knotty problem.  When they are working, they are often trying to concentrate and focus.  Concentration is essential, so when someone interrupts them, the natural reaction is to lash out.  Spending time with computers and other inanimate objects creates a sense of isolation, making it hard to transition into social situations.  Finally, pride and ego issues come into play because developers want to look smart to their peers and valuable to the organization.  

Mix all these factors with traditional office politics and team dynamics, and it creates a complicated landscape for a coach or leader to navigate.  Spend time listening to people, both what they have to say and how they are saying it.  When a developer says, “I am fighting with a few bugs,” the tone of voice decides how you should react to the situation.

The office's pressure affects the team, home, and personal life can upset an individual’s balance.  A talented developer was having marital problems, and he quickly devolved into a weird and counter-productive spiral.  I squirmed as he shared very personal details of his marriage and its dissolution.  I should have been grateful that he trusted me enough to share those details.  Unfortunately, the team became front row spectators to their peer’s emotional disintegration.  It went from something which was a personal tragedy to a distraction for the entire team.  The kindest thing we did was take him off the team and work on independent projects.  It was what was best for him and the other developers at the office.  

The easy thing to do is fire the employee and not deal with the chaotic behavior.  Working with people is messy, and we should embrace that reality.  We welcome it because of the interaction of emotions, ideas, and people creates friction, generating the heat and light of new ideas.  A person I respect very much says, “you just need to feel your feels.”  

We need to respect and understand our emotions.  We also must respect and understand others' feelings if we are going to lead and coach them.  It is both the human and logical thing to do.  

Until next time.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Delivery Counts in Agile

You are successful when you deliver.

One of the most common misconceptions about agile is the belief most of the time and energy of an agile team is spent talking about creating software instead of building it.  Plenty of articles have been written about the subject.  I disagree strongly and this week, I want to talk about it. 

At the scrum gathering of 2014 in New Orleans, one of the Keynote speakers joked about deadlines not being real.  He said flippantly there is always another sprint and work is never finished.  The rest of the room chuckled because each of us had heard this sentiment echoed by a developer or testers.  I have said it myself in jest.  The truth is deadlines matter in agile.  If a team is not delivering software at a steady cadence then it is not a good team.  

The empirical nature of software development with agile demands the delivery of software for customers.  If the team is struggling to deliver a shippable increment at the end of a sprint it is up to the team during a retrospective to figure out how to do better.  Instead of solutions being imposed from above, it is up to the team to come up with answers.  

The team coming up with solutions to problems is called self-organization.  Experienced developers mentor junior developers.  Business people provide meaningful direction about how the software should operate.  In the middle of it, all is the scrum master who helps remove impediments and forcing the team to become better.  It is a process that requires plenty of conversation and experimentation.  The bo-product of these efforts is working software in a production environment.  It is why the agile manifesto says, “Working software of comprehensive documentation.”

Software professionals are not successful unless they are delivering value to stakeholders and customers.  In the consulting world, you are not paid if you do not ship software.  In the enterprise systems world, shipping software affects pay-raises and promotions.  Being flippant about being able to deliver working software is a lousy career move.  

The process of Scrum requires the team to deliver value to customers.  Each iteration the team does show off what the team has delivered and gives them a chance to prepare for the next series of work.  The customer sees each step of the way and they can make corrections if necessary.  

I am touchy about this subject because the accusation that agile does not deliver value has no merit.  An agile team delivers each sprint, and if they cannot they self-organize to find a way in which they can.  We still spend plenty of time talking about software but in the world of agile all of that conversation is focused on the delivery of working software.  

Until next time. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Resolve Matters More Than Ever

Resolve is fun and difficult!

Four years ago, I wrote a rather glum blog in the aftermath of the election of 2016.  I struggled with plenty of feelings and the realization I had a skewed vision of my fellow citizens.  In that darkness of the soul, I over-ate and did some reflection.  Today, the election results are different, but I do not feel any big jolt of joy.  Instead, I feel a deep sense of resolve.

I said the following in 2016, “Even in darkness, we can find resolve and purpose.”  Today, I feel more committed to that sentence.  We are in the middle of a terrible pandemic, the economy is deeply dysfunctional, and political polarization creates a toxic brew of resentment.  Fixing these challenges is daunting.  I have na├»ve faith that collectively, we can overcome these difficulties.  I feel this way because it is up to people of good faith to do the hard work to help unify the country and deliver value to its people.  People like me.

I joined the agile reformation because I felt there was a better way to work.  The toil and struggle of working on technology projects could be fixed and agile with four values, and twelve principles showed the way.  It was easy to learn the ideas of agile but carrying them out in the real world is complicated.  You cannot host a meeting with a slide deck and expect people to start leading their businesses differently.  Agile requires technical excellence, servant leadership, psychological safety, and putting in the extra effort.  

The goal of agile is to make the workplace more satisfying, sustainable, and sane.  If people like myself can make work better for others, then we can slowly begin to neutralize the poison which exists in society.  People who can support families and who work in healthy environments are less likely to support authoritarianism.  I am working to make the world a better place, one cubical at a time. 

We are still in a dark time.  The world is not going to fix itself.  It requires smart people working hard to create reasonable solutions that people can embrace.  It is not going to be easy.  Agile and servant leadership will provide direction and purpose.

I look forward to continuing to lead change and help make work better one step at a time.  I am proud to be part of the reformation, and I hope you will continue to follow me as I share nuggets of wisdom I gather along the way.

Until next time.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Epics are a Big Deal

Epics, like this hard drive from 1956, are a big deal.

It is easy to be philosophical about agile.  I do it and so do other bloggers.  We want to connect our vocation to broader trends in business and economics.  This week, I will concentrate on the basics of agile because you cannot be philosophical all the time.  Today, I want to focus on epics and what purpose they serve.  

According to the Agile Alliance, an Epic is a recent innovation.  Mike Cohn introduced the concept in 2004, and epics represent larger user stories the team cannot complete in a single sprint.  These kinds of stories are great placemarks to contain similar work.  Business people rarely understood user stories, but they often understood epics because they did not want to deal with too much detail.  A business person would not understand a required field validation for a web form, but they would understand when an entire page was ready to review.  The product owner would create the epic and then place the stories necessary to complete the epic underneath it.  It makes it easy to understand the hierarchy in the backlog, facilitating plenty of helpful discussions.  

When a client or executive asks when something will be ready, with epics, you can have a meaningful conversation about deadlines.  For instance, a data entry epic has ten stories with an estimate of three-story points each.  The team completes twenty-story points a sprint, so you can say with confidence that it will take a sprint and a half to do the work.  If there are similar epics, you can project out the entire length of the project. 

Epics do have a drawback; an inexperienced team or product owner will often use them as hampers to hold unrelated collections of stories.  If this happens, the scrum master or coach needs to step in to make sure epics deliver value and provide meaningful organization to the backlog.  Otherwise, an epic behaves like an empty closet, which can hide clutter when others inspect the backlog.  

Epics are a way to organize the backlog.  Epics also provide a helpful way to forecast out the development for clients, and the judicious use of epics even aides communication with stakeholders.  It is a good practice to use them in your backlog.

I look forward to hearing how you use them.

Until next time. 


Monday, October 19, 2020

Pragmatism is the Foundation of Agility

Agile can trace its ancestry to this guy.

I spend most of my life working with technology.  Each day, I rely on the interconnections of wi-fi, electricity, and software to provide me with a living.  Each day, I interact with professional people all over the globe.  It is an intellectually demanding career as I attempt to help others innovate and meet the challenges of the global economy.  It is a career grounded in the Agile manifesto and empirical thinking.  It is also a career grounding in the American philosophy of pragmatism.  Today, I want to discuss the influence of pragmatic thinking on the agile reformation.  

Pragmatism arose out of American Universities in the aftermath of the civil war.  Diverse thinkers like Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey outline the main ideas of this mode of thinking.  According to pragmatism, the truth or meaning of a statement depends on its observable practical consequences rather than any metaphysical attributes.  It became a famous school of thought and guided many of the reforms which were part of the progressive movement during the early Twentieth century.  Dewey, in particular, believed in the power of education to make America a better nation.  

Pragmatists are not motivated by lofty ideas or tortured trials of logic.  Instead, they are experimental, testing out the practical consequences of ideas and comparing them to each other.  Today, this idea lives in the agile manifesto when we say, “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”  Each organization is an ecosystem with different people, processes, and challenges.  It means that coaches and scrum masters need to avoid out of the box solutions for each problem.  An early morning daily scrum may not be practical for a team divided between two time zones. It is up to the team and coach to find a time that works for everyone.  Current structures may prevent people from doing estimation well.  It is up to every agile professional to find a way to size work.  Sometimes it requires no estimates or using billable hours instead of story points.  Thus, each organization is different, and it is up to us to be pragmatic about how we work.  

It is possible to apply the principles and values of the manifesto without being dogmatic and inflexible.  We must adapt, inspect, and be transparent without decision making.  We keep saying working software is an accurate measure of progress because anything else is a waste.  The work of any good scrum master should be creating software that delivers value to a client.  

It is why I think that the Agile reformation has its roots deeply sunk into the fertile soil of American Pragmatic thought.  We want to see the practical consequences of our work and the value we deliver to our customers.  Each scrum master and coach inherits from the legacy of the early pragmatists.  I am glad I am part of this club. 

Until next time.  

Monday, October 12, 2020

Agile Requires a Different Kind of Leader

The office has not changed since the jazz age.

The American office has not changed much since the jazz age.  At first, they were modeled after the workshops of cloth weavers.  Soon clerical work was mimicking the factories which grew out of the industrial revolution.  Before today, an army of office workers manually copies documents, did spreadsheets by hand, and processed payments.  Seated at long tables, these workers toiled under the supervision of bosses who micromanaged and made sure work was compliant. An office worker from the 1920s may not recognize the technology of today, but they will remember the command and control structure along with the micromanagement.  We have been managing our businesses the same way for over one hundred years.  It is about time we change.  

I joined the agile reformation because I believed there was a better way to do work.  Countless overtime, unrealistic deadlines, bureaucratic structures that guarantee nothing gets done, and poor leadership is rife in the modern workplace.   I suspect that this kind of toxicity explains why the use of anti-depressant drugs has increased so much in the last twenty years.  I promised myself when I was in a leadership role; it would be different.  

I am now a business leader, and each day I struggle to keep that promise. One of the critical skills is approaching people with curiosity instead of judgment.  Another necessary trait is emotional control because when things go wrong, others are counting on you to hold it together.  Finally, coaching others means letting them make mistakes and learn on their own.  The last trait is the hardest because the client and customer are unforgiving.  

It occurred to me many people advance to leadership roles playing office politics instead of delivering solutions to customers.  Hiding information, having personal agendas, and authoritarian styles of leadership are natural in toxic work environments, and poisonous people thrive within them.  Spread it around countless organizations, and it is clear to see why the business has not changed much over the last 100 years.  It is why the agile reformation is so powerful; it exposes this toxic behavior and makes business more successful.  Toxic people hate that and in large bureaucratic organizations spend plenty of time strangling these initiatives.   

The elevation of different kinds of business leaders will signify the growing maturity of agile in the business world because, without these new leaders, agile will fail.  If agile will grow in the next twenty years, we need a different kind of business leaders.  Someone who embraces coaching, servant leadership, and grace under pressure is necessary for scrum to survive further into the twenty-first century.  We better get started.  

Until next time. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Authentic Self is the Only Self a Leader Needs

We are all a little weird,
might as well bring it into the office.

We spend plenty of time discussing leadership on this blog.  I have spent most of my life learning lessons from a colorful group of mentors.  I have learned from marines, casino managers, technocrats, and creative professionals.  I have also spent time coaching young people in speech and debate.  The other day, one of my former students decided to blog about her experience working as a grade school principal.  I strongly recommend you give it read.  Something struck me in her prose and it was her observation that each day you have to bring your authentic self to work.  

Working in a global business can be dreary.  I had experiences of managers taking stuffed animals off desks because they did not look “professional.”  I vividly remember a vice-president saying, “I want the rest of the business to treat us as professionals instead of propellor heads.”  It meant that nerf guns, plush toys, and pictures of significant others came off desks.  It was sterile and depressing. Under fluorescent lighting and open office plans, we muddled through writing software.  It was joyless.  

I remember a plastic dinosaur left in a planter.  An administrative assistant adopted the creature and put a ribbon around its neck for a little color.  Six months later an executive having a bad day wrote a memo and instructed security to remove the planter because it did not reflect the professionalism of the firm.  The subtraction of the dinosaur did not increase the company dividend or share price.  It did not win a new customer contract or improve company morale.  It was a petty exercise in authority and power.  The experience stuck with me.  

Since childhood, I have always been a square peg in a round hole.  I was bullied mercilessly as a child by my peers.  I spent most of my middle school years getting beat up by others.  It was only in high school that I learned to begin the process of self-acceptance which continues to this day.  I found refuge in speech and theater.  I learned discipline from JROTC.  Writing allowed me to express myself in deeply personal ways.  I was a weird kid but that weirdness informed my personality and made me the person I am today.  

I bring that weird kid into the office each day.  I do not take myself too seriously but it took me about 25 years to learn the difference between being self-deprecating and negative self-talk.  I idolize goofy people like Bill Murray and Ernie Kovacs but discovered there was a time and place to be goofy and when to focus.   I have the perspective of a journalist in a business environment and I like calling out non-sense when I see it.   Naturally, my career has been very difficult because I am not a cookie-cutter executive.  I speak truth to power which is difficult for people unaccustomed to hearing “no”.  No one would accuse me of being a sycophant.  

Today, people still consider me a little weird but I try to be loyal to the people I serve.  I want to listen to their concerns and needs.  I am willing to tell a joke or wear a silly hat if it breaks tension on the team.  I will make bets with my team for them to surpass themselves which explains why there is a video of me somewhere on the internet dancing to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.  I work for an organization that lets me be my authentic self and it makes me a better leader.  Being vulnerable and authentic is what makes leadership work.  I remember learning the term “mask of command,” in college.  Over my career, I have discovered the mask falls away and in times of crisis, you are exposed as the person you are.  It is better to have others know you as you are rather than as you want them to perceive.   

Being a leader is a life-changing opportunity.  To be successful, you need to put away your mask and bring your authentic self into work.  The people you serve will respect you.  It is the only way to make this opportunity worthwhile.  

Until next time.