With Agile, No Warnings Needed

Have you ever worked on a project where the management and/or sponsors felt it necessary to provide you warnings: “This release better do this or have that. Otherwise, you're toast.”

I have, once. That's when I started to use release criteria and check with the sponsors/management to make sure they agreed.

I happen to like release criteria. Even better is when you use agile on your projects. You might get feedback before the release. Here's what a client did on a recent project:

  • They had release criteria and the sponsors agreed to the criteria.
  • They released internally every two weeks and asked people to come to the demos.
  • They asked the product managers and product owners to review the finished work and to make sure the managers/sponsors liked where the roadmap was going.
  • The team worked in ways that promoted technical excellence, so they could (relatively) easily change the code base when people changed their minds.

The project didn't fulfill all the wishes that managers and sponsors wanted. Those folks wanted the proverbial 15 pounds of project into a 5 pound bag. On the other hand, the team is on the verge of delivering a terrific product. (They have one more week to finish.) They are all proud of their effort and the way they've worked.

This morning, the project manager emailed me. “I'm so angry I could spit,” she said. “One of our sponsors, who couldn't be bothered to see any demos just told me that if he doesn't like it, he's going to send us back to the drawing board. Do you have time for a quick call so I don't get myself fired?”

This is a culture clash between the agile project's transparency and request for frequent feedback vs. the controlling desires of management.

We spoke. She realized it was a difference in expectations and culture that will take a while to go away. There are probably reasons for it, and that doesn't make it any easier for the team.

These kinds of situations are why I recommend new agile teams have a servant leader. I don't care if you call that person an agile project manager or some other term, but the person's role is to run interference between the two cultures.

The worst part? With the project's transparency and interim delivery of value, no one needed to warn anyone about anything. The data this guy was looking for was in the demos, in the meeting minutes and was easily accessible.

I don't know why people think they need to provide dire warnings. It's not clear what effect they want to create. Dire warnings make even less sense when the team uses agile and provides interim value and demos.

If you're using agile approaches, and you see this happening, decide what you want from this relationship. If you think you'll have to work with this person again and again, it might make sense to have a conversation and see what they really want. What are their concerns? What are their pressures? Can you help them with information at other times instead of a week before the end of the project?

Don't be surprised if you see this kind of a culture clash in your organization as teams start their transformation. Managers have a lot to do with culture (you might say they are the holders of the culture) and we're asking them to use different measurements and act differently. A huge change. (Yes, after the agile project book, I'm writing an agile management book. I know, you're not surprised.)

12 Replies to “With Agile, No Warnings Needed”

  1. I think what you wrote about is very common, particularly in organisations where the Dev team has been trained on agile approaches but the Management team has not (and perhaps they don’t see the value of such training).
    In the scenario you experienced, I wonder if that were the case.
    What a sad state of affairs for all concerned.

    1. Margaret, that is precisely the case. The managers think “agile is for the teams. I don’t need to change.” That’s why I keep talking about changing culture in my transition to agile posts.

      We will see what happens. It’s very sad. (I’m angry on behalf of my client and her team. And I don’t work there!)

      1. My gut feeling is that unless a catastrophic event happens – one painful enough to impact high within in the organisation (perhaps reducing revenue or losing customers), there probably won’t be the commitment necessary to change an organisation’s culture. And, it’s so hard (impossible?) to push change upwards unless you are able to show how the proposed change addresses the specific pain points experienced by those levels.
        I look forward to your book!

  2. I hope this is not being addressed as a problems that women face at the workplace because that is exactly what the politicized mindsets of the traditional management system want – to create smoke screens and diverting concerns to such an extent that the core problem, their attitude at workplaces, becomes opaque.

    The key to address these trouble making managers is to individually target them till they quit the job in fear (the same outcome that they play for with their subordinates) so that their status becomes a case study and a detriment for others that use the same techniques of management in that region because these are all regional practices influenced by culture or upbringing in that region, first, and if allowed to become successful due to non timely addressal, then they become trend setters for others to ape and then it spreads globally, like an epidemic or viruses.

    1. RJV, this would have happened with a man in the same position. As you said, it’s a management problem. This particular guy acted out of his personal beliefs: that he, as a manager, was entitled to change things whenever he wanted. For me, the question is why did he?

      One of the big problems in organizations is MBOs, especially for managers. The senior managers feel that MBOs are good for “pressuring” managers to “perform.” (I have not seen a need for anyone to have pressure, but that’s a different problem.) If a senior manager pressures someone below them in the hierarchy, that nonsense will roll downhill.

      Targeting a manager won’t change the culture. Well, it might if the culture is local. In this client’s case, the culture is pervasive. The agile teams are struggling with managers who love their illusions of control. Some of the middle managers and some of the senior managers believe agile approaches will help the company overall. However, there is one huge problem: the senior managers have not changed their project funding approaches and they have not changed the compensation for people.

      Senior management persists in maintaining once-a-year funding, which means everyone has to predict what they will do and not make allowances for possibilities during the year. Everyone’s performance, and especially managers, is based on individual work which includes their prediction of what they will do in the next year.

      That creates a dynamic that is unhealthy. Until senior management changes what they compensate, the culture cannot be agile. This guy is reflecting the current culture. Targeting him to make him quit (won’t work and) won’t make a difference.

      An organization is a system. Push here and pull there and different things happen!

      1. Johanna, Great probing insights that clearly show that you have applied considerable thought to the problem.

        However, as Mark Ruffalo, playing a reporter, retorts to a question by the Judge as to “Where is the editorial responsibility to publish these [some sensitive documents that are legally sealed]?” with “Where is the editorial responsibility in not publishing them?” in the film, “Spotlight”, the fact remains that the whole thrust behind the command and control mechanism is to inflict harassment at work, gloating machismo and believe it, that it is all done also due to the short sightedness of one manager who, in most such cases, has either a compromised person in the organization to use and fall back on and that is why it ‘plays out as’ because it becomes like a game where victory and the subsequent gloat over the employee getting fired is treasured like a trophy won and which is used as a corroborating proof of the bad manager’s prowess with psychology and which, eventually, unaddressed, becomes forced on others as people management skills!

        Just like timely acknowledgement and recognition of employees is an Agile trait, swift retaliation at bad traits is a must. In fact, at the least, this conversation is one such discouraging signal to that type of bad managers and with the ubiquitous presence of the social media, more and more ‘victims’ to command and control form of management should come forward and recount and this will act as the chief force in eradicating the bad practices.

        Just introducing the Agile way will not change the rigid mindsets – in fact, I know some who even would change the title of “…no warning…” to “Yes, we don’t need any warning to pay the due compensation because we have already paid. (Not to the person due the compensation but to those, like a bribe, whom they are afraid of). There is a lot of stubbornness in the mediocre and the lesser skilled desperadoes who participate in ensuring that bad practices are sustained wherever possible…

        Btw, what does MBO expand to?

        1. RJV, MBO means Management By Objectives. Too often, objectives are something like: “finish this project at this time.” The Objective is not necessarily results-oriented. (!!) The results are implied as opposed to spelled out.

          I can see where you’re coming from re the rooting out of “bad” traits. However, Deming said something like this (I’m paraphrasing): 94% of the problems are with the system, 6% are special causes. Here’s where my experience and therefore beliefs are different from yours: I believe that people are the product of the systems in which they work.

          That’s why you can’t just introduce agile to the teams; management must learn and practice agile, too. That’s why I am not in favor of firing someone yet; I want to try education and feedback and changing the system.

          I don’t believe this guy can work in any other way. He might not know how. In this organization, any manager will have the same problem. That’s because it’s a cultural problem. Remember, culture is these three things: What you can discuss, how people treat each other, and what the organization rewards. If you can’t discuss collaboration at the management level, and if the senior management thinks it’s just fine to hand down edicts, and the organization rewards individual work (possibly even busy-ness) not results, agile cannot take hold. We see the culture clash.

          There is no easy answer. If the organization is moving to agile and management is involved, sure, this guy needs help either changing how he manages or changing his employment. However, he’s not the root cause of the problem. The root cause is the organization’s culture, which is squarely in the hands (control) of senior management. Once the senior managers change, I bet this guy changes, even if he doesn’t quite know what to do. (Yet.)

          Some people are toxic to an organization. I don’t advocate keeping them around. On the other hand, most managers have no idea what their job really is. They’ve been mismanaged for so long, they only know to repeat that mismanagement.

          I recorded an Agile in 3 Minutes podcast about management earlier this year. See Manage. Most of the managers I’ve met are hanging on by their fingernails and they would like to do better.

          1. Johanna, Thanks for letting me know what MBO expands to.

            The Agile in 3 minutes podcast is succinct. Quite well done!

            And I really liked the “Results are implied…” part in your response to my comment. It clearly puts the kind of managers we are talking about in the correct perspective.

            I am not for rooting out the bad apple part neither am I advocating firing as a means to solve a problem.

            I am a strong believer, too, that the majority of problems are systemic however, coming from a less structured and more chaotic environment, I have reservations acknowledging certain factors or philosophy that conform better to a more structured and disciplined environment such as yours.

            People are a product of the system that they interact with but that is the point – people are a product of their system.

            Observations, principles of management that evolve out of the observations, if they acknowledge the fundamental difference that systemic obligations, regulations and laws of that particular region impose on the people, is what stands good, no matter how you test them.

            Johanna: “Remember, culture is these three things: What you can discuss, how people treat each other, and what the organization rewards.”

            Precisely. When what you can discuss gets defined is the first point of command and control.

            An organization (excluding the NGOs or the charitable or the philanthropic ones) functions to do business, earn revenue and as it grows over years, develops certain systemic obligations – the larger it grows, the magnitude of the obligations increases.

            These obligations (which are related to project funding, as you put it so well in a previous response, and from my point, to even project procurement, itself, which due to the political favors to gain projects, land for infrastructure and corporate contributions to party funding etc. to name just a few of the systemic overheads!) often dictate how a manager positions themselves (for gender parity) and paradoxically, when we acknowledge the systemic contributions in making a manager obnoxious, we actually begin to play the devil’s advocate for them.

            Deming, Covey or the many other management gurus have been more tuned to a system that is stable in at least one dimension – the law. When you have firm laws in place, a mature justice system then the practices that they advocate should be adhered to but when the underlying political process is not, then the same practices become like quicksand.

            Very few managers are pathologically obsessed with “My way or the highway” because competition, business interests does not allow them to be so nor to retain their job for long, and somewhere, the systemic products, the people that they interact with, are also supposed to have played their roles in diluting but after all these factors, if you are still faced with such incidents then unconventional solutions are the order of the day.

            Johanna: “Most of the managers I’ve met are hanging on by their fingernails and they would like to do better.”

            Sure, that is a healthy sign that there is healthy competition and the continuous self-improvement process is seen as a good sign in that culture.

            However, having said that, a justification that anything goes for a job in the region, to get the job and to retain it at any cost, and the means to do so is left to the discretion of the person because the culture of the region makes provisions for it is also not acceptable.

            Ends cannot be justified if the ends do not conform to the overall cultural or the systemic structure (in the organizational context, mentioning this so that the disambiguities arising out of subjective interpretations can be cleared).

            I remember the first (interaction, so to speak) software that I developed in 1989, in New Delhi, India, for a newspaper based in Bengaluru, now a kind of a silicon valley of India but then, not even a dot in the software map.

            My point of contact was a typical “Yes, sir” type (that one usually associates with people in those days) but not one who did not know his job.

            In a dial-up system, powered by a software called Procomm and each aspect of establishing a connection with the head office in Bangalore involved disconnecting and using separate protocols (http was not in then) for each activity in the communication transaction, I can still recall that he could find faults in his colleagues in the other city, if they erred, no matter their designation (and in those days, designations did matter as there was a stricter acknowledgement of hierarchical powers) and yet, he called himself a clerk!

            As an aside, if that person were to read this, today, he may even call out, “That is me he is talking about” because he prided himself as a clerk, even though he was a middle manager, as we know the position today.

            There was no Agile then, and no internet to enable cultural exchanges with far superior people. And it was not the West either where the mature system helps, imperceptibly.

            So, where did the maturity come from? Not from a CMMi or a Six Sigma either because they were not there.

            On this point,

            Johanna: “However, he’s not the root cause of the problem. The root cause is the organization’s culture, which is squarely in the hands (control) of senior management.”

            there is a difference in our positions, though quite possibly not on our viewpoints about Agile.

            The organizational culture does not define the individual that takes a paycheck on time and demands an increase or perks for extra efforts. If every individual has to be so strongly managed by the senior management and controlled then either the employees should be robots or they should be called as interns and not as managers.

            A manager, by definition, manages (something, whatever) and by implication, a great deal of maturity is expected of the entity because the person is supposed to be managing the career path of others within the organization and if the management (senior) does err in not exercising their powers and wisdom in redirecting lost managers, then what stops our “manager” from correcting them?

            My point being the clerk.

            My point being so many people, including myself, who have so easily made a difficult point to the board of directors and getting them to see the point.

            There is really no excuse, middle manager or otherwise, to blame it on hierarchical faults because the first responsibility is personal as is the paycheck unless, of course, the person shares the pay and distributes it to others so that they could be called upon to share the blame.

            I hope I have not taken up too much of your space and such a long comment is allowed! 🙂

          2. RJV, yes, long comments are just fine! I see now what you mean. Thanks for explaining. Let me check that I understand.

            Our mental models of the world affect how we see things, how we act, and what we call ourselves and expect from other people. The manager who called himself a clerk? Wow.

            I think what you call the maturity of the system here is a different culture. I’m not sure if you are familiar with Hofstede’s culture dimensions, but those dimensions explain some of the differences between the perspectives of the two people we are discussing.

            I have had mixed results when I present to senior management or boards. Some people have a difficult time letting go of their beliefs, even though I had data that proved their beliefs wrong. Their mental models did not allow for new information. That happens.

          3. Johanna, thanks for the approval of long comment! 🙂

            Let me again level out the differences that you perceive in my viewpoint because as I said, we are on the same page but the perspectives are clouded by our reference points over the two entities.

            I am presenting to you two sets of activities to be interpreted analogously as well as symbolically.

            There is a neighbor that raises dogs and as is the wont with dogs, they bark away at any suspicious movement outside the gate where they are positioned.

            Some pass by around the late hours of the night and the dogs start barking.

            The reactions are fascinating – if the neighbor yells at the passers-by for disturbing their (for gender parity) sleep, the passer-by states their rights, after all, it is the public road; but the law views it differently because it works on suspicions raised due to deviations in conventions and so, may hold the passer-by responsible for walking on the road so late at night, while other neighbors, who may not raise pets or like domestic animals, may take a view that if they raise dogs then why are they getting disturbed by the barking and the politician that lives around the corner, would root for the passer-by because the resident may be a pro-opposing party (“Our mental models…” as you put it so well)!

            Conformity is what makes for standards in social, professional and regional interactions.

            The second set of activities is what may make this another long comment but since it has to do with Agile, let me elaborate as much as possible. It is what will highlight what I mentioned earlier in another reply, about how things get ape-d for all the wrong reasons, always, and how unconnected people carry forward systemic faults to create smoke screens and make it almost impossible to identify problems for what they are and resolve them. You may think that the story as wandering but if you keep this aspect (the smoke screen creators), you will see the right persepective.

            It is also about how Agile is perceived by the non-committed (‘non-committed’ as in the Chicken-Pig story in Scrum) people.

            A wisecrack, in its arrogance and ignorance, decides, after hearing that “anything goes” in Agile, to blame everything on an “industry”‘s way of functioning – believe it, it is a real story but which cannot be proved because of the number of participants in the story who cover up every act of theirs with no explanation.

            How I am able to recount it is the arrogance part where the wisecrack could not possibly believe that anyone could know or make sense of what it was doing and to even be able to explain it with any credibility and so provides information on behalf of the mastermind of this activity of hoodwinking and smokescreens who devised the game (a solution) for it.

            But before getting on with the story, it is important to explain the ludicrousness of how anyone can blame everything on any industry’s way of functioning.

            A bank manager (this is only for example sake because it is the closest that I can think of to describe things in the right perspective – this sounds much like Watson’s recounts of those many clients who come consulting with Sherlock Holmes with weird stories like the Hound of Baskervilles!) finds that there are lots of fake and ambiguous loans being allotted by its bank (and across all branches) and the amounts are huge and blame was getting passed from one branch to another, so to escape what could be a systemic fault, finds a way by picking the most complicated person in the region to ask for solutions and the ‘complicated’ mastermind devises a kind of a ‘game’ – that of creating a game where people would be pulled into, voluntarily or by force or by playing on human traits (as in the dog-passerby story above) and since, people mean votes, politicians, who excel at blame games also get pulled into the game as they find that the game absolves them of many responsibilities as well as gives the mirage of being done for a ’cause’ (which could be then projected as them taking actions!) – that of exposing the evils of malpractices in industries – by making people replicate those malpractices (a camouflaged form of doing anything, a free-for-all, and then blaming it on “It as only a represented form, not real – as they show in National Geographic reproductions of real life accidents or events”).

            So, (for example) no “upfront documentation” gets interpreted as no blueprint or valid documents in property (real estate) deals, constructions; teams pick their own tasks is interpreted as “We will do what we want”; no hierarchy is interpreted as “insubordination” and no need to show respect and gradually, crimes, unconventional wisdom with no conformity to any value system or human values take precedence when making important decisions, solutions devised on an ‘illegal’ set of people’s consent or acknowledgement as trends; ‘chaos’ is interpreted as what makes mob mentality thrive and so on, become normal activities because in the closed confines of the ‘game’. every person is in an inclusive world with no purpose or goal because the ends is based on each’s personal agenda, guided by the one common agenda – that of creating smoke screens.

            Many big businessmen, big names have fallen prey in this game because the involvement of the politico ensures quick actions that are always for the people and against the business so, regionalism, nepotism is encouraged so much so that small confines of streets and rooms and office enclosures become regional confines within which moral and legal rights and spaces are contested.

            Such ludicrous activities need a lot of support (and such activities are ludicrous in form because politics, unchecked, is ludicrous) and that is where the machismo and the irrational get into the act because they see opportunities to either earn a quick buck or for ego massage – it becomes like the killer whales and Dolphins going gung-ho for the shoals of fish (herrings) – easy money and ego massages appear like lottery money in their dreams.

            The driving force, or the mental model as you put it, that goes around as ‘culture’, is what and how much of it that we allow without coming across some checkpoint that touches the raw and that is when we lay it really hard on the board of directors, without faltering! 🙂 So, maybe “letting go of their beliefs” is far too nice, if you take the second story into account, because it is not their beliefs but mis- or dis- beliefs that they pander with and that, too, only to satisfy their basic (or baser) instincts only and not necessarily due to misguiding forces.

          4. RJV, it sounds as if you are a bit of a Theory X person. (See Theory X and Theory Y.) I am a Theory Y person. We can agree to disagree.

            I do agree with you on the agile comments: in my experience, agile is the most disciplined approach to product development. The discipline arises from the people doing the work, not the people purporting to control them. That one difference drives the massive cultural changes necessary for agile.

          5. Johanna, haha, that is a new set of theories. Amazing how so many theories can exist because they succeed only in creating opaque images of stereotypes.

            Point is, even if one does have the angelic touch to make things work, a lot depends on the receivers who, if are not tuned to the angelic qualities like touch, feelings etc, will fail even the angel! A million dollar paint brush meant for fine canvases if applied on any surface coarser than what it was meant to be used on, will only damage the paint brush.

            Different surface canvases require different brushes; different people demand different types of treatment.

            That is why they say, do not paint the world with one perspective and all people in the same hue – there are practical, visible elements in our real world, to support the saying.

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