Monday, December 29, 2014

The Virtues of Agile: Focus

Focus Matters
This is the last of our series of articles about the virtues of Agile.  This week we cover the topic of focus.

Countless leadership books and seminars have said that focus is one of the most important skills a person or group can have if they want to succeed.  My favorite book on the subject incorporates science fiction into this scholarship.  For a software developer, focus is the key component to getting work done because it requires a tremendous amount of concentration to create software.  So of all the agile virtues, why have I saved focus for last?

This is because I strongly believe that focus comes about when the other four agile virtues are practiced.  I feel that it is not possible to have focus unless your teams have courage to get the job done, they respect each other and outsiders, are open to new ideas and challenges, and have commitment to get the job done.  The other four virtues act as lenses which generate the focus necessary to achieve goals.

I also feel this is easier said than done.  Today a person faces more distractions and obstacles to focus than any other period in contemporary business.  E-mail, instant messages, social media, and endless meetings seem to tug and pull at us like evil seagulls looking for a snack.  Add to the mix the office politics which accompanies an organization and you have a toxic stew of distractions.

This is why I like the scrum process so much.  A developer or scrum master can concentrate on a fixed goal for a fixed period.  It is easy to tell someone asking for additional features to say, “…that is a great idea we will put it into the backlog and then we can discuss it during sprint planning.”  Requests for favors go away because developers who work for me just direct those requests to the business owner and scrum master to prioritize.  This cuts down on “me to!” development which doesn’t add value but adds complexity to the project.

I am also discovering that focus needs to be reinforced on the team.  A scrum master should always say what the overall goal of the project is and how meeting sprint goals is just another land mark along the way.  A scrum master also should keep meetings to a minimum so that people who work under him or her can concentrate on what it takes to get the job done.  Finally, as a leader, the scrum master should pick a few attainable goals and stick with them.  This should create focus for the rest of the team.  If this strategy is good enough for the Secretary of the Navy then it is good enough for me.

It is easy to write about scrum.  It is much harder to actually do it in the real world.  I hope that this series has given you a chance to reflect on the agile virtues and how to use them in the real world. I look forward to sharing more of my acquired wisdom in the New Year.

Have a safe and sane New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Virtues of Agile: Commitment

Commitment is a strong bond
This is part four of five of our series of articles about the virtues of Agile.  This week we cover the topic of commitment.

Commitment is one of those things which is earned just like respect.  Sadly, our contemporary business culture makes it hard to make commitments which harms the success of organizations and makes it harder to for commitments to be made by line employees.  This creates situations where employees are “tuned out” of what is happening in the organization and who just go through the motions of serving the needs of the customers.  It is depressing and feels like being on a losing sports team.

As a scrum master and business leader, you need to commit to your team members and over time they may commit back to you.  There is no promise in this situation.  Some employees are just commitment phobic.  This is because they see work and the rest of the world as transactional.  They want to make sure that they have some “What’s in it for me?” moment.  So if they provide a service they get a compensation they feel they are due.

Commitment is different from this transactional model of viewing the world.  It is giving yourself over to something greater than yourself.  For the American armed forces, that this the “unit” which you belong.  For clergy, it is to your religious mission and for the entrepreneur it is to the business they founded.  This means that commitment requires sacrifices of time and behavior.  Many religious orders require vows of celibacy.  For the entrepreneur, it means long days of travel and work with no immediate pay off.

That said, commitment creates fiercely strong bonds between people who have made those commitments.  Military leaders work hard to develop these commitments to their troops because they know when shots are fired in anger they will have to count on those people to shoot back.  Business leaders need to work just as hard because while the decisions they make may not be life or death, they do effect the lives of the people who work for them.  Treating people like disposable tools to be replaced when they wear out is not going to generate commitment.  Something else has to be done.

Making sure that employees are constantly being trained and retrained to do their jobs better is one sign of commitment.  Another is providing them a game plan for how to improve their careers.  Nothing is worse for someone than stagnation and giving people a chance to grow and develop is an example of the organization making a commitment to them.  Business leaders can also get to know not only the employees but their families.  Asking about a daughter’s soccer game or looking at pictures of a Christmas recital can go a long way in showing employees you care and are committed to them.

There is no guaranteed pay off for this but when you need people to work overtime or deal with adversity a little commitment on your part could yield some commitment on theirs.

Have a Happy Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Virtues of Agile: Openness

Everyone should feel safe in the Sauna
This is part three of five of our series of articles about the virtues of Agile.  This week we cover the topic of openness.

When I talk to business leaders about openness, I try to relate my experiences at my local YMCA as a metaphor.  As I have gotten older I, like so many of my peers, am trying to take better care of myself which means trips to the “Y” for some exercise.  It also means I get to sit in a hot tub and spend about a half hour in the sauna.  It is in the sauna where we can learn a lesson about openness. 

Each person in the sauna is naked or warring a towel.  Someone usually is reading a newspaper or magazine, someone else is chatting about the day’s events with a friend, and everyone mentions how warm it is in the sauna.  What does not happen is violence.  The reason why is there is no way to sneak a weapon into the sauna unless you are willing to do something extreme and uncomfortable.  The worst thing which can happen in the sauna is you are embarrassed about your shape or have a tattoo or piercing you might regret.  Everyone is forced to be a little open in the sauna.

An agile team and the organization should be like a sauna.  The low dry heat represents the pressure we face every day in the business world.  Everyone should be willing to be metaphorically undressed when in the hot house of business.  This means agendas are out in the open for everyone to see.  If someone does something embarrassing the others react to it with good natured respect.  If someone feels faint or passes out they get help and provide assistance.  In the sauna, we are all a bit naked and tired.  

This does not mean you have to be totally open.  Confidential information, like salaries and trade secrets, do not have to be discussed in the sauna if someone does not want to discuss it.  Sometimes, information needs to be parceled out in small bites and that too is acceptable.  What is not acceptable is outright deceit or lying to have advantage over the others. 

This is why openness is difficult to cultivate in an agile team.  For years developers and executives have been trained that “knowledge is power” so they tend to hoard information.  In an open team, the rookie developer would know that the old hand on the team has not worked with LINQ statements over his career and might need help.  The veteran may know the business and why a certain approach is being used to fix a problem and should share that with junior developers instead of having them hacking away at code in the dark. 

Openness begins with a scrum master who lets the team know what is going on each day in the stand up and during the course of the day.  They help the developers stay focused by avoiding distractions and having them concentrate on sprint goals.  They also have to good sense to look the other way when open of the team members metaphorically drops his towel and makes themselves vulnerable.  I also make a point about joking about my lack of muscle tone to keep the team loose. 

Openness is about being safe with in your own skin and when exposed to the skin of others who are in the same situation you are in.  Without this virtue team collaboration is partial because everyone will be concerned about agendas, possible threats to their career, and lack of safety. 

Until next time.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Virtues of Agile: Respect

This is part two of five of our series of articles about the virtues of Agile.  This week we cover the topic of respect.

Of all the values of Agile, I think that respect is the most difficult to define.  I believe that this is because it is the one virtues based on emotion more than any other.  You cannot force a person to respect another person. It is a situation which develops over time when two people work together.  In high pressure atmospheres, like technology, respect can also be fleeting.  The person you respect today could be a colossal impediment tomorrow.  It is a difficult quality to cultivate and develop among professionals.

In my experience, it is also difficult to give respect to others because for most of my life as a professional respect was something which was earned.  Someone did not receive respect from you until they earned it by helping you or accomplishing something worthy of respect.  I remember this being the case during my years in debate and I also saw it in the realm of technology.  People who understood how to implement technological solutions were elevated above others and were granted respect by junior developers.

Since I have been a scrum master for the last year, I have seen that respect is not something earned from others but something you give others and they repay in back to you.  Respect is a virtuous cycle which reinforces itself with in the team.  This is not just about knowing the names of the people on your team.  It is about knowing if they have children and what they are doing.  It is about giving time off for them to attend Christmas programs.  It is also just shutting up and listening to people.

This is contrary to much of the leadership advice we receive from public figures like Donald Trump or Kevin Trudeau being leader is not so much about being in charge but being a servant.  A leader serves the people he is supposed to in charge because the only way that they succeed is by helping others instead of being a selfish jerk.  It also means that you are going to have to swallow some pride and learn to work with others who seem impossible.

It has become obvious to me that most of my problem employees are not really problems per say but they are having problems with their job and it is my duty to fix them.  A developer accustomed to cut and paste programming was floundering, after a few training courses and working with MVC5 and Typescript they are a dependable member of my team.  In addition, he volunteers to help in situations I was not expecting to contribute.  It happened because our relationship moved away from conflict about him not hitting sprint goals to him actively participating in the team.

I am not perfect on this front.  I struggle with names on a regular basis and I have to suppress my more narcissistic tendencies.  Some people I have a very difficult time respecting because they have toxic personalities or are self-centered but I try and hope that a little dose of respect will go a long way.  Respect is not easy but if you truly want to have it on your team them you are going to have to provide it to you team members.

Until next time.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Virtues of Agile: Courage

Agile requires courage
Beginning this week and until after New Years the blog with be covering the five virtues of agile development.  This is part 1 of five talking about courage.

As a scrum master and software professional we spend a great deal of time talking about how to “do” agile but we really do not talk about the values that act as the foundations of agile development.  I wanted to take some time at the end of the year to discuss these founding virtues of agile.  I suspect that it is easy for technical professionals to talk about the steps they need to follow rather than the feelings they need to have in order to do the job with a sense of pride.  Speaking from experience, it is very hard for software people to talk about feeling because we use reason, logic, and engineering principles to do our job.  The funny thing is that we feel stress, we have relationship problems when work goes bad, and we feel rage when treated like short order cooks instead of technical professionals.

According to courage has two definitions; first, the ability to do something that frightens one and finally, strength in the face of pain or grief.  I would like to add that I consider courage to be the ability to do the right thing when no one is looking and the hard thing when everyone is watching.  This means that people on a software development team and within an organization need to be empowered to do the right thing when the situation calls for it.  Often with people worried about promotions and job security, when faced with a difficult choice they freeze and do nothing.   I feel this happens because an atmosphere of fear is created within an organization in order to keep people in line.

Melanie Greenberg in psychology today categorized six traits for courage; they are:
  • Feeling Fear Yet Choosing to Act
  • Following your Heart
  • Persevering in the Face of Adversity
  • Standing up for what is Right
  • Expanding Your Horizons; Letting Go of the Familiar
  • Facing Suffering with Dignity or Faith.

I really cannot think of a better discussion of what it takes to have more courage.

The expansion of courage begins with senior leadership.  It starts with allowing people to make decisions and then coaching them to make better decisions after the fact.  It involves coaching people to take smart calculated risks.  It involves trusting people to make choices.  It means that when a wrong decision is made you find out why it was done and then help correct that person so that they do not make a poor decision again.  It also means that when you are confronted with a choice you make a brave decision because nothing undermines courage among a team than a leader who is cowardly.

As a technology leader, I struggle with courage all the time.  I take inspiration from great leaders like Richard Winters, Colin Powell, Harvey Milk, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Adlai Stevenson.  I also count on the support and help of the people around me to do the best I can.  I am not perfect and falter like everyone else but I try to exhibit courage in my daily life.  I owe it to my agile team, the organization I work for, and the customers who depend on me.

Until next time.