Is There Really a Problem or Are You Creating One?

I’ve had this post sitting in draft for about half a year now.  Figured it’s time to publish it now that it’s new and improved with 80% more insights!

Original Post:

A couple of years ago I was talking to Don Gray about “seeing the train wreck” in advance of it happening.  By this, I mean it can be hard for managers to take an objective look at what’s really going on in their organization.  We were talking about observations we made while at client sites that seem to be completely oblivious to the people working there.

Why is that?

Are organizations blind? Am I imagining things?

One of the skills I’ve been refining over the last couple of years is observing systems and the people in them.  Sometimes as a coach/consultant your job is to just watch what’s happening and help the organization “see” by helping them look in the mirror.  Often people within organizations don’t have the same perspective as an outside coach or consultant.  I remember walking into a client office one time and “feeling” the stress in the air.  Before I talked to anyone, I went right into the VP’s office and said “what happened today?  People seem really stressed out.”

He was quite surprised to hear that, there had been a large production emergency that create a rather nasty ripple throughout the company.  For me it was no big deal, I wasn’t part of the system, I was a consultant and it was easier for me to see that stuff.

That was as much as I had written at the time.  Fast-forward to the present with 80% new and improved insights!

One time I was working with a team and was observing their retrospective.  Their manager (who is also a team member)  had been away for most of the sprint and the team mentioned in the ‘what went well’ list that they had got all the work in the sprint done.  They also mentioned in their ‘not well’ list that it was hard to make decisions without their manager being there.  But they did make those decisions.  And they got all the work done, imagine that.    One of the team members who was handling adhoc requests had mentioned that it would have been nice to be part of the core team and working on the same work as everybody else.  He felt it was almost possible this time, but then again, maybe it’ll somehow work out next time (without actually changing anything).

That team member had been with the team for about 3 or 4 sprints if I remember correctly.  History was showing many adhoc requests and not once had he been involved with the regular team work to this point.

I remember sitting there thinking “wow, can’t they see that?  What’s wrong with them?  Do they really think things are just going to magically get better by doing nothing?  There’s no ‘what to try’ for the next sprint, no discussions, nothing! They think it’s ok to have to wait for their manager to decide on everything? They call themselves and agile team?  Sheesh…

Then I realized something and I will have to thank PSL for that.  It’s not them.  It’s me.  The team was happy.  They were happy to get all the work done without their manager and they were also happy they didn’t have to go through the pain of having to make their own decisions without their manager now that he was back.

There is nothing wrong with that.  The work got done, the team was happy.   I wouldn’t call them an ‘Agile’ team, but what they are doing works well enough for their culture and there’s really no need to do anything differently.

In an organization that relies on control and hierarchy, having a self-organizing team might not be the right thing to do and it can cause more damage to the system by disrupting the culture if the team starts to make their own decisions that management doesn’t agree with.

What I learned at PSL helped me realize that my observations were more about me than anything else.  If you are familiar with Myers Briggs, my type is ISTP (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving). One trait of an ISTP is keen observation skills because of our dominant Introverted Thinking preference coupled with our auxiliary Extroverted Sensing preference.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, here’s the simple version:

ISTP’s gather data from the outside world through our five senses and then internalize it quickly.  It’s sorta like in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke ‘feels’ that his friends are in pain on Bespin.  Cool eh?   ISTP’s are great in a crisis and sometimes invent problems so we can solve them.    It may actually be a real problem, it may not be but to me, my observation is my observation so I am learning how to be more aware of the system the problem is in so I can make better decisions.

I’m rambling.

The important lesson I learned is to figure out a more gentle approach to holding a mirror up in front of a team or organization because I may simply be over-analyzing a situation or making an observation into a problem that doesn’t exist.   Either that or the organization is just in denial!  There are many reasons why organizations and teams behave the way they do and I’ve worked with many teams, some that just ‘get it‘ and some that don’t and that’s fine.   At the end of day what matters is that the organization is happy with the results whether it be from a team that is led by their manager or an Agile team that really gets Kaizen.

If your organization is struggling with Agile, there’s a reason for it.  The practices your attempting may clash with your culture.  You may be trying a certain practice that conflicts with the type of work you are doing (IE: trying to use Scrum for support or software maintenance)  You may have managers with personality traits that conflict with ‘embracing uncertainty‘ so they aren’t able to transform from a control oriented manager to an Agile manager.    It could be any number of things, once you figure out your culture, organizational goals and understand your people and the work they do, you’ll be in a better position to see if you really need to adopt Agile in the first place.  And you’ll have a better idea of how to go about doing it.