Agile 2018

Agile 2018
Speaking at Agile 2018

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Incomplete leadership is good leadership.

The world has plenty of leadership styles there are leaders who inspire fear and others who foster deep admiration.  The spectrum streams from the sublime to the ridiculous.  My thoughts on the subject have evolved over the years.  I have experienced many forms of leadership and what strikes me most is this notion of the “mask of command.”  According to this theory of leadership, a leader must create a persona of command which conceals weakness from people who they work. This week on the blog I would like to do a little unmasking.

I was an early proponent of the “mask of command.”  I would have an air of authority and credibility.  Anyone who has worked with engineers, creative professionals, and medical workers will quickly realize this is folly.  All of these groups are exceedingly smart, and all of them have been trained to be skeptical.  They know when you are putting on a mask and when you are inauthentic.  Once this lack of authenticity is detected, these kinds of professionals will tune out. 

Since professionals are not receptive to the mask of command, there has been a myth created around leadership.  Leaders of organizations must be “complete.”  They must have experience in the industry, work their way up the organization, and have the perfect mix of personal traits to succeed.  It has fostered a leadership style which discourages innovative thinking.  Bland and uninspiring leaders advance because they reflect the status quo of their organization.   They are not leaders but rather caretakers of their organizations.  The corner office and perks of executive leadership are enough to keep these individuals content.  If they are lucky, they will retire and let someone else do the necessary organizational change.  It is how organizations wither and die.

If the mask of command creates inauthentic leaders and the desire for perfect leaders creates uninspiring leaders what should a scrum master or agile coach aspire?  I have been thinking about this for some time.  It did not become clear to me until I read Deborah Ancona's essay in the Harvard Business Review, “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.”  In her essay, Ancona talks about the myth of a perfect or complete leader who in her words is a “…flawless person at the top who’s got it all figured out.”  Today, organizations with their inherent complexity and global reach require “incomplete,” leadership who can delegate their weaknesses and play up their strengths.  Leaders do not have to be the perfect fit instead they should be good enough to help the organization.  Instead of the emperor or general, a leader is more like a therapist or pastor to support the organization see a better way. 

Ancoma goes on to describe four leadership skills every person has in varying degrees: sensemaking, relating, visioning, and inventing.  Those traits overlap each other, but it is clear to me that if you are equally good at all four of these areas, you are not good at any individual area.  Steve Jobs was fantastic at visioning; he was lousy with people and relating.  George Patton had great sensemaking and scared the pants off the German generals.  He was also insubordinate and bad at relating with his troops or commanders.  Meg Whitman took the chaos at HP and used her sensemaking and relating skills to improve the organization.  Not any of the leaders, I cited were “perfect.”  They were flawed and human.  They were good at certain things and delegated everything else.  It is why I think Omar Bradley was the best thing to ever happen to Patton. 

As a leader and scrum master, we need to accept we are imperfect.  I excel at sensemaking and visioning.  I will admit my shortcomings. I struggle with relating and inventing.  Only by acknowledging these vulnerabilities can we build trust, and to succeed trust is essential.  We also need to accept that each leader is incomplete.  Some will hide behind the mask of command, and other leaders will feign equal competence in these four areas of leadership. 

I have a different vision of leadership.  It is one where the masks fall away, and smart people work together for a common goal with a sense of trust.  It may be a little touchy feely but if it is good enough for the Harvard Business Review it is good enough for me. 

Until next time.


Monday, February 19, 2018

It is worth it!

The work is worth it.
I have been doing plenty of reflection.  I blame the dispiriting winter season in my hometown of Chicago.  The cold winter nights force you to confront your past and ponder your purpose.  My friends and social media contacts are asking me plenty of questions about my weird profession.  These kinds of existential moments make me want to do a little explaining.

I joined the agile reformation in 2009.  I was working as a contractor for a family run medical supply company.  I was thoroughly miserable.  I had no job security and little hope. I spent each day grinding out code for capricious people who treated everyone not family as medieval peasants.   Family disputes would boil over on to the sales floor, and anyone caught in the crossfire could lose their job.  It was such a dispiriting place to work.  I witnessed the ten-year-old grandson of the founder tease a salesperson saying, “Daddy says you are fired.”

In the middle of this night of the soul, a project manager decided the team should try “agile.”  It began with daily stand-ups and doing releases in two-week chunks.  It ended with unemployment.  The project manager left for a better job.  The IT Director realized I had more credentials than he did so I was a threat, and it made me expendable.

Between job searches, I did research and the more I learned about Agile, the more I realized it was a better way to lead software projects.  I also realized that the concepts while simple to explain were hard to implement.  Thanks to the Agile Manifesto and the early proponents of the scrum, there was a way to perform technology work without abusing people and providing better value to the business.  I would spend the next four years as a developer spreading the word about this new approach.

Things finally came to a head when I left my last role as a senior developer and became a scrum master full time.  I was no longer some developer mentoring others.  I was leading other teams and setting an example.  I thought I was ready.  I was wrong.  Over the last five years, I have been tested and challenge in numerous ways.  I have succeeded in public ways and failed in equally public fashion.  I am not the scrum master I was five years ago.  Everything I have learned along the way has made me better.

I keep thinking about a quotation from Dave Burgess I tweeted out last week.


The last nine years of my agile journey have been challenging, but it has been worth it.  I am a better leader.  I am a better developer.  The software is getting shipped on time, and the office is a little less capricious.  I do not have entitled ten-year old’s threatening to fire me, and the business community seems to be catching up to my way of thinking. 

This hard journey is probably worth it, and I am proud to be sharing it with you.

Until next time.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Flying my Pirate Flag

I am letting my pirate flag fly.
Being a full-time scrum master or agile coach is a labor of love.  An agile coach needs devotion.  The successful scrum master needs to do more than manage the version control system.  At times, they need to act like Don Quixote jousting at windmills.  All the time, they are they misfits in the organization attempting to get it to improve when inertia governs the corporate culture.  It is very lonely, and it requires reservoirs of passion which many people do not possess.  This week, I talk about the passion for being a scrum master.

It takes a unique individual to get up before the sunrise and make a phone call with a group of developers half a world away.  Additionally, that person spends hours to coordinate product owners and executives so that those developers can work efficiently.  A scrum master handles this responsibility with no authority, everyone involved has the right to say no; It takes a particular kind of person to lead and facilitate this type of activity.  It requires passion.

Being human beings, we are creatures guided by emotions and reason. The modern business has toxic emotional situations and pressures to perform.  Over time, it leads to burn out and passive-aggressive behavior.  A person does not give it their all because it will not make a difference to our bosses or the organization.  Only the application of passion can get someone through the day.

Currently, I am reading a fantastic book by Dave Burgess entitled “Teach Like a Pirate.”  Using techniques he has developed over his career as a teacher, Burgess talks about how to be a better teacher using techniques to build a passion for the subject, build rapport with students, and create situations where enthusiasm can triumph.

What is refreshing is Burgess, knows the difficulty of teaching and how high school students can be the most terrible room for any professional.  What is interesting, is that one of the first things he talks about is the need for passion.  He is also brave enough to admit that he cannot be brimming with passion every day.  He calls people who do freaks.

So unless they are all freaks, how is it that outstanding teachers can maintain a passion for what they do?  Burgess gives a simple answer, and that is to ask questions about what inspires passion in a person. The first question is what subject areas in your field of expertise excite you?  For me, it is metrics and measurement of continuous improvement.  Nothing is more satisfying than putting an easy to understand chart on the wall explaining the team is improving.

The next question is what part of your job is the most satisfactory?  It is the reason you keep doing it.  I have written about this for years.  When software ships and the team feels like they have done a good job is what keeps me taking the call from India each day.  The final question is about personal passions.  For me, it is board games, family, friends, craft cocktails, and good food.  Those things provide me with inspiration and love for what I do.

So in the lonely world of a scrum master or agile coach, it helps to find your passion daily.  With Dave Burgess and “Teach Like a Pirate,” I might have seen a means to do that.

Until next time.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Five simple steps.

Constraints matter.
I have been involved with Agile for nine years.  One of the greatest discoveries of my agile journey is the realization that I am learning new things and continuously improving the way I conduct my servant leadership.  I was encouraged to read Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s, “The Goal,” and it exposed me to the theory of constraints.  Now that I have finished the book I have a few thoughts on the subject.

I have written about the theory of constraints in the past.  The main gist of the book is to identify bottleneck or limitations in an organization.  Once you find a restriction, work can be done to mitigate the effects of that obstacle.  It seems common sense, but in the rush and frustration of our daily jobs, we often miss these common sense approaches.

Goldratt shows his most revealing insight. The mitigation of constraints follows a clear and easy to reproduce the process. The process is as follows:
  1. Identify the system's constraint.
  2. Decide how to exploit the system constraint
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decisions
  4. Elevate the system constraint
  5. If in the previous steps a constraint have been broken return to step 1, but do not allow inertia to cause a system constraint.
Five steps and it does not matter if you are working in a machine shop or managing a bunch of creative professionals, a person can improve the efficiency of a process.

I have been struggling with the notion of exploiting and subordinating a constraint.  Fortunately, the theory of constraints has plenty of academic support and an excellent blog about these five steps.  I look forward to using them at my firm.

Until next time.