Three Collaboration Secrets to Create Your Agile Culture

Three Collaboration Secrets to Create Your Agile Culture

I've been working with managers and technical leaders on a big problem: How to create an agile culture. The managers and leaders want to create a successful agile culture. The people on the teams—they often want to be “left alone” to do their work. That's not horrible. However, the team members don't work as a team. They don't live an agile culture.

Mary, a dev manager new to the company, realized that the project teams weren't collaborating. They wanted to, but each person had way too much individual work to do. Each of the devs she served was supposed to work on three different products. The testers had it worse–they were supposed to work on five different projects. The UX people weren't even assigned to one feature team. They took the requests as they came.

Mary realized that while the teams used the words and tried to use agile ideas, they couldn't possibly succeed. She decided to start with her peers.

Secret 1: First-Line Managers Collaborate to Limit Everyone's WIP

First-level managers need to collaborate so the team members spend less time waiting for each other. Mary used the ideas in Measure Cycle Time, Not Velocity to create value stream maps for several of the teams. Each value stream map looked a lot like the map where people worked as individuals. In each case, the wait time overwhelmed the work time.

Mary realized the teams had several problems:

  • The managers asked team members to work on projects that were outside the scope of the team. Why? Because their managers asked them to do so. (The managers were supposed to “deliver” this other work in addition to the project work.)
  • All these initiatives meant the organization was not managing the project portfolio.
  • Every person was so busy with their personal work that no one was available when the rest of the “team” needed them.

Mary worked with several teams to create their value stream maps and cumulative flow diagrams to see how the work got stuck and how much WIP (Work in Progress) each team had.

Each team was drowning in unfinished work. Mary decided to address the project portfolio.

Secret 2: Collaborate on the Project Portfolio to Limit Organizational WIP

Mary's peers weren't stupid. They felt the pressure that the lack of project portfolio management created. Mary asked her boss, Tim, when the managers collaborated on the project portfolio. Her boss shrugged and said, “Once a year.”

Mary showed Tim the data about cycle time and cumulative flow. She said, “If we reevaluate the project portfolio once a quarter, or even once a month, the teams won't have so much WIP.

Tim wasn't so sure he wanted to fight that fight again. Mary said, “But, this time, you have data.”

After a week or so, Tim agreed. He would see if his peers would collaborate on the project portfolio and say “No” or “Not yet” to some projects. He used these ideas:

The managers “mobbed” (as in all worked together on the problem) of how to manage the project portfolio. They created several lists:

  • Must finish now, in this quarter
  • Next up, for next quarter
  • Parking lot for now.

And, the managers limited the total number of projects to one less than the number of teams. Why? Because not all the teams had enough of the necessary skills to finish the work. After a month, they still had too many delays, so they reduced the number of projects to half of the number of teams.

When the managers limited the organizational WIP, the teams finished more work.

The managers didn't find these conversations easy. The conversations were loud. And, several times, the managers took breaks for 10-minute walks, to cool off.

And, because the managers collaborated to reduce the organizational WIP, the teams were able to collaborate.

Secret 3: Collaborate as Teams

Mary asked various teams if they wanted to learn how to pair, swarm, or mob. Mary's experience was that when teams limit their WIP (Work in Progress), their throughput increases. They get more done as a team.

Not only do they finish more, but they need to estimate less. Why? Because the team starts to learn what a team-day looks like. Not a person-day, a team-day. The team can start to count stories instead of estimate size or duration.

What about distributed teams? If your team has sufficient hours of overlap, they, too, can pair, swarm, or mob.

The nice thing about swarming and mobbing? The team doesn't need a standup. The team doesn't spend a lot of time walking the board. That's because every team member focuses on the same thing. And, when the team learns what a team-day looks like, they spend a lot less time estimating. How much time would you save if you don't need to reconnect on the work, or walk the board, or estimate?

Mary realized that starting with the teams wouldn't work. She first started with the various management levels. Then, when the teams weren't overloaded, she helped them learn to collaborate.

When people collaborate at all levels, they can create a successful agile culture. Mary says that looking for delays and measuring cumulative flow were key to her ability to influence everyone to create a more agile culture. That might work for you, too.

Learn with Johanna

Create Your Successful Agile Project is now available in audio, wherever you buy audiobooks. I wrote more about these ideas in that book.

I'm still in technical review for the Modern Management Made Easy books. If you like buying books in progress, please do pick them up. If you prefer to read completed books, please wait!

I'm happy to announce the Influential Agile Leader will be May 6-7, 2020 in Boston. Yes, we are taking registrations now at the best possible rates. (Do you need to use training money before the end of the year? Register now and you can take advantage of one hour of coaching with either Gil or me.

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Till next time,


© 2019 Johanna Rothman

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