If It Was My Organization

Taking an idea from The Feedback Wrap, this post was written on a beautiful Sunday night by the pool on the eve of Agile 2016, and after a skimming of “Why Business People Speak Like Idiots“. I’m in a mellow mood, but feeling a little annoyed with whole world of Agile lately.  Remember when good leadership was good leadership? Now it HAS TO be Agile leadership. Ugh. I spent a good chunk of the day chasing Pokemon (Pokemen?) with my 9-year old daughter, and am feeling a bit reflective about a recent gig I finished that was a nightmare. I feel like I’m in between something filled with purpose, and something else filled with necessity, and didn’t really like this post when it poured out of my brain and onto Notes. It did sound good in my head though, you can be the judge. I didn’t copy edit this post at all. Wrote it in one sitting and hit publish.

If it was My organization…

How do we compare teams?

What estimation technique is the best?

Should we do Agile, or be Agile?

What’s the best way to….?

Do we blame the method or the practitioner if…

If you have an evening to kill, check out any Agile related forum on Linked In. They’re filled with a glut of questions seeking binary answers, and for each question there are 17 coaches and consultants arguing about why their answer is the best answer.  We argue about how stupid people are when they make mistakes, or openly attack people for having a different viewpoint, but I wonder how many coaches and consultants giving advice have actually had a real job and felt what it was like to be stuck working with someone with the dreaded ‘fixed mindset’.

Do these coaches know what it’s like to have to fire someone because your organization can’t make payroll? I do.

Do these coaches know what it’s like, like it or not, to have to fire someone who’s under-performing because their boss is pressuring them? I do.

Do these coaches know what it’s like to sign a big name client with an account manager who’s a complete asshole, and you have to kiss their ass because we need the money? I do.

Like sports, it’s pretty easy to be an arm-chair quarterback, and we’re ALL guilty of it. What if the organization you were hired to coach was YOUR organization? What would you do if you have shareholder responsibilities? Go private? What about when you encountered people with the dreaded ‘fixed mindset’, would you fire them? Would you demand nothing be measured because Deming says you get what you measure?

What about product? Should you just go with the flow and see what happens? Switch verticals when you feel like? Implement Lean? Agile? Scrum? SAFe? LeSS? DaD? Nexus?

What about tools? Standards? Let teams pick? What if you’re regulated (PCI, DSS, Segregation of Duties, SOX etc)? Just use sticky notes and hope the auditors say it’s ok?

What about the managers? Just make them be Agile? Tell them to lead courageously? Tell them to manage the system? What the hell does that mean?

When I was managing a small team a looooong time ago, I wanted to hire an Agile Coach. My boss, the CEO asked me, “how do we know it was worth it?” I told him that I guess our velocity should increase. After all, if we’re hiring someone to help us be more effective, shouldn’t we be faster, or better?

Why else would we spend the money?

I’m glad Linked In forums didn’t exist back then, or I’d have been subject to the beatings I see handed out by expert practitioners. It’s a shame the rational voices get drowned out by trolling of zealots. I can say that because I used to be one. I probably still am to a certain degree, but I’m in therapy for it.

I recently started doing some work with another enterprise organization and just like the others I’ve worked for, there’s no real purpose for Agile yet. Agile is sorta a barrier to entry in today’s software world. Of course, us consultants will say that’s no reason to go Agile! There’s plenty of chaos, plenty of “get lost consultant” attitudes, and of course, there’s some big enterprise framework brewing somewhere that’s going to destroy all the moment we build over the next few months, but oh well, that’s the way it goes sometimes.

This time around, I’m asking myself: “what would I do if this was my organization?

What I’d like to do: Admit uncertainty. I’d talk to all my direct reports and tell them that everyone is doing Agile, so we need to do it too. I’d want some type of plan, but I’d lead with confidence. I’d make it a priority. I’d personally talk to every coach that was hired. I’d give them some of my time regularly.

What would probably happen: I’d get brought to one of those meetings where the board (or my boss) wants to know where the hell this ‘project augmentation budget’ is going. I’d say it was for process improvement and such, but have nothing to show and eventually, I’d cave and terminate the coaching contracts. After all, challenging the board is a great way to never get a job in this town again so unless I’m prepared to move to a new country, best play it safe.

What I’d like to do: Fire all the managers. Sorry, “the manager” is an endangered species. Grown ups don’t need managers. Human systems have natural hierarchies, not made up ones. Agile SHOULD be #NoManagers in my opinion.

What would probably happen: I’d want managers trained on how to be Agile even though our L&P curriculum is already filled with Danial Pink this, and Ken Blanchard that, and Kurt Lewin something or other.

What I’d like to do: Abolish performance management. Individual performance management doesn’t work. It’s demotivating people! We need intrinsic motivation! We need Agile mindset! We need…more buzzwords!

What would probably happen: Well, I can’t really fire 45 HR people, so I guess we’ll make an Agile performance management plan. Instead of annual carrot/stick reviews, we’ll move to quarterly carrot/stick reviews.

Overall, if it was my organization, and faced with the 3 problems I’ve had in the past, I’d handle them differently today.

  1. Can’t make payroll and need to fire someone? I’d say we all take a 5% paycut to keep that person on. That’s the culture I’d want to create.
  2. Have to fire someone for under-performing? I’d say no even if it meant losing my job. I’d talk to my boss about finding somewhere for this person to work in the organization…the roles we had him in just wan’t a fit. He was ridiculously smart and stuck in an implementation role.
  3. An asshole for a client? I’d back my employee. 5 years ago I’d fire that client. Now I’d take a more rational approach. I’d either coach my employee on how to solve the problem, manage the problem, or cope with the problem. If we need the money, we need the money and most bullies I’ve encountered in business are generally unaware so I’d at least be an ear for my employee.

By the time you read this sentence, about 30 companies would have been created in the US, and just as many would have died. ( http://www.moyak.com/papers/business-startups-entrepreneurs.html ). Whenever I see an Agile discussion that mentions Kodak, or Nokia, or Nortel Networks and how they died because their leadership was too stupid to predict the future, I laugh. There are millions of companies worldwide. Millions! Some like to quote the S&P 500 stat that the average lifespan of the corporation has shrunk to 12-ish years today from 60-some-odd years in the 50’s.  Of course that’s happened! What did you expect? 3 automakers would rule the world forever? Virtual money wouldn’t start to put a dent in big banks? Free wifi wouldn’t destroy big telecom revenue? 47 people wouldn’t invent some GPS devices that prevents my wife from losing her keys every 9 seconds? (they don’t work by the way, she loses her keys every 6 seconds – love you honey!)

Companies are emerging, dying, merging, and being taken over. That’s the natural order of the world of business.

So, given there’s very little chance you, the Agile Coach with zero business training and experience, can be the saviour for an organization, what would you do?

Me? This time, I’m taking a different approach. Help this client find problems, and fix them. That’s it. That might mean helping them find the right JIRA plugin, or sharing some article I found about some dumb technical problem I ran into that they might not have yet. Most importantly, I’ll be explicit about my intentions to annoy the shit out of them every time I hear “we have to” or “they won’t let us” (oh, and I’ve done that already). My job is to help them explore options, but let them chose, it’s their projects, teams and organization.

People don’t want to feel like they’re being fixed. At some point a window is going to open, and as a change agent, sometimes you need to simply be aware enough to jump through it.