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I don’t believe in self-organized teams…

Image by Martin LaBar (going on hiatus)

Imagine my surprise when a candidate for an agile organizational coach role within our organization shared with me his perspective on this topic.

“Can you share with me your reasoning?”, I asked him intrigued.

The candidate went on to explain that people need direction and that people cannot self-organized without clear objectives and direction.

Indeed, I thought to myself. Who said people and teams shouldn’t be given clear objectives. On the contrary, in my opinion, clear goals are necessary for teams to organize otherwise you end up with a bunch of people who will try to find a reason, a purpose why they are all together – and their self-created goal may very well be different from what you had in mind in the first place.

Where I have a problem is that people associate self-organized teams with “abandoned teams” meaning you simply let the team figure it out – whatever “it” is.

In order to reach the level of autonomy they need to demonstrate extra-ordinary performance, teams need to reach the right level of maturity. Consequently, the manager’s leadership style is critical to achieve that objective. Within Pyxis, we often rely on the combination of the situational leadership and the group development stages to determine the proper level of involvement from the manager.

(Tuckman’s stages of group development, Situational leadership theory)

One of the way to achieve the right level of maturity is for agile managers to determine WHAT must be accomplished and let the team determine HOW it will be done – I already shared my opinion on this topic. Granted, things are more complex that I make them sound in this post but self-organization is indeed possible when the right environment is created for the team – including clear objectives – and it is then given the latitude to operate and determine how best to achieve the given goal.

If only managers would be willing to let go some of their (need to) control and trust the teams, a higher level of performance can be attained.

As you may have guessed, the candidate wasn’t called back for a second interview…


Between a rock and a hard place – The managers in an agile transition

Image by NCM3I bumped into Steven last week. Steven is director of application development in a large organization and like most manager in his early forty’s, he looked tired and although he is usually a happy individual, his smile wasn’t radiant this time.

In agreement with his teams, Steven initiated an Agile transition a few months ago. I was part of the team who presented to Steven the benefits of a transition and the impact on the team members and their managers. I saw Steven again in a group training I was giving a few weeks after the beginning of the transition to managers and executives. That time again, Steven was very excited and motivated about what he was hearing, except that during the training I could see the light bulbs over his head and in the questions Steven was asking – how is this going to impact my role as a manager? Steven saw the obvious benefits and understood some of the changes he would need to make to his leadership style but I could tell, it hadn’t fully sinked in.

So here we were, less than 3 months in the transition and Steven wasn’t as chipper as he used to be…

  • Me: “Hey, Steven. You look tired. How are you doing?”
  • Steven: “I’m OK… I’m tired… [silence] The transition is killing me!”
  • Me: “How so?” [I asked anticipating what he would tell me next]
  • Steven: “The team is having a blast and I can see their performance has increased compared to the past but I don’t think I can cope with this new approach”
  • Me: “You seemed so excited about the transition when we started. What changed?”
  • Steven: “I now realize what you meant when you talked about changing my leadership style and my role. I’m still up to the challenge but my boss is totally clueless about all of this”
  • Me: “What do you mean? Haven’t you brought him in the loop from the beginning?”
  • Steven: “Yes. Yes, I have but that’s not the problem. The team’s performance increase is directly linked to the new approach they have been using and the fact that I leave them a lot of autonomy but my boss still asks me to behave like I used to – like he manages his team today. That’s where it hurts the most. I can pretty much deal with everything else but I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place”

Unfortunately, we (as consultants) do not do such a good job at highlighting this fact before we begin a transition. We work closely with the teams to help them adopt better methods and practices, to increase their overall performance by allowing them to be self-organized. We work on getting the teams to a highly performing level. Then we go get executive sponsorship to secure the initiative (and the budget) and make sure we get support to handle difficult issues but what about the people in the middle?

We develop training programs for Agile managers and we support them with organizational coaching but we don’t do such a good job at telling them upfront how much pressure they will be under once the transition begins. How much their role is likely to change and their leadership style needs to be adapted to the new reality.

For those who haven’t yet have felt the pressure, here are some examples of what to expect:

  • You may be willing to trust your team and let them self-organize but is your boss in agreement with this new approach? Will he be as involved (micro-managing) in your activities as he used to be? And more importantly, will he be expecting you to be as involved with your team as you used to be?
  • You may be willing to tolerate mistakes in order to increase your team’s learning and with a strategic perspective to increase long term performance but will you hear about your inabilities to control your team during your next performance review?
  • You already produce status reports, dashboards, emails and others information to keep everyone (including your boss) informed of what is going on in your unit. Will you need to translate everything that the Agile team is producing to fit the traditional reporting mechanisms? Can you challenge what information is currently being produced to ensure it does bring value to people?
  • You expect your team members to handle the details of their activities and you believe in actually seeing (touching, feeling) the end results while your management team expects you to assess progress using Gantt charts. Do you need to educate your entire organization to the new approach? Does the fact that you are adopting Agile make you the evangelist for the entire organization?

Obviously, I don’t mean to scare anyone – especially the managers – with regards to adopting Agile. The approach has a lot of merit and value for many organizations but in order to help with adoption, coaches and consultants need to pay attention to the people in the middle and help them find their new place, otherwise we are very likely to find serious resistance and potential failure of such initiatives – nobody likes to be stuck between a rock and a hard place…

Agile in a Command-and-Control Organization : What to do when upper management forces overtime?

Image by MyLifeStoryMy colleague François Perron launched a very interesting discussion on our private wiki – “As a coach, what to do when executives and upper management force the project team to do over time in order to meet deadlines?”.

As you can probably guess, this initiated very interesting discussions and an obvious reaction to such an approach.

Everyone agreed that due to the project visibility and the position of the organization within its market, the project launch date was critical. Everyone also understood that the organization had very few options so nobody debated the need to achieve results. The discussion was strictly around which measures to use in an Agile context.

I’ll admit up front that I am biased toward intrinsic motivation (I really loved Drive by Dan Pink) and the fact that it is well suited for an agile environment.

As such, my first impression to the conversation that was going on were:

  • Does the organization wish that employees spend more hours at the office (attendance) or would they prefer more engagement (commitment)?
  • If their choice is to increase the hours of attendance, imposing overtime will achieve this goal while giving them a false sense of increased performance. People will show they are working longer hours but the real throughput is unlikely to be much higher. In addition, software development is a brain intensive activity and reducing the amount of rest people get is likely to increase the number of mistakes they make.
  • On the contrary, if the organization wanted more involvement, the inclusion of team members in determining the best way to achieve the results would probably come to a better decision – even possibly leading the willingness to do over time

It appears to me that by forcing overtime, the executives and senior managers will probably collect their bonus and congratulate each others in the short term only to realize in the longer term that they have simply pushed the problem forward for others to deal with – and possibly request more over time in the long run.

The world would be a better place without accountants

Image by Venn DiagramIt dawned on me recently that organizations are lead and managed by accountants. Accountants come in many shapes and forms and not every accountant wears brown socks.

I suspect you will disagree with my statement arguing that your CEO isn’t a former accountant or that your CTO didn’t even take a single accounting class in his life and I would agree with you. Not all accountants carry a pocket size calculator.

I personally don’t have many complaints about accounting itself, after all there is value in knowing how much money enters your coffers and how much you had to spend to generate the associated revenue. That makes perfect sense to me. Where I have a problem is when common sense leaves the building to make place for accountant-based logic and the need to book everything against the right account and the use of money within certain time intervals.

Confused? Let me explain.

Let’s take project management [Ah, now you are starting to see a link between accountants and Agile projects]. In many of the organizations I had the pleasure to work with, compliance to project plans was more important than delivering real value to customers. Nobody asked if it made sense to add new features or change the sequence of activities in an attempt to deliver business value to customers faster. People are concerned with compliance to the plan. And where does this need for compliance come from you ask? Accountants.

Before the debit-credit masters come running after me with their red pen, I will confess I used to be one of them (sorry!). I understand the mindset, their perspective of the world and most of all, the need to put things in neatly defined categories – some can be amortized while others can’t – but I digress.

The project timelines are derived from the accounting cycles – the money is allocated for a certain budgeting period instead of true market needs. The phasing and allocation of the resources is driven by the departmental allocated budgets. The profile of the resources assigned to a project is driven by who has the money as opposed to who has the skill set.

Does any of this make sense in a context of business excellence? That’s one of the reasons why I like Scrum with its focus on delivering the highest business value sooner. Scrum isn’t perfect, I know but it forces people to make decision based on business value, not accounting rules.

Scrum is also great a giving visibility the what is really going on within a project as opposed to estimated project completion for cost computation. In heuristic tasks such as software development is it really critical to know that task ABC costed $357? Chances are, you are unlikely to do anything useful with that information. Why wouldn’t you rather determine the cost of an iteration (or a sprint) so you can compare it to the business value delivered. As I stated earlier, there is value in accounting but when everybody starts to behave like an accountant, it is a sure sign that common sense is gone and that the organization is ripe for an Agile makeover.

I don’t feel so good – I’m a people manager in an Agile organization

Image by Leonard John MatthewsAt the Agile 2010 Conference this week, out of the two hundred or so sessions presented, a number of them talked about the role of the manager in an Agile team. A few people believe managers are no longer necessary once the team has self-organized while others say people managers are still required. Either group failed to provide compelling arguments for their position.

The notion of self-organized teams keeps gaining visibility and acceptance. Those who have adopted the approach can’t stop talking about the benefits. At the same time, people realize that managers are unlikely to disappear from the organizational landscape anytime soon. In this context, it is with a mixed-feeling that Agilists talk about the role of the people manager in an agile organization – mostly as something not so useful but that the team needs to keep around in order to maintain their autonomy – something similar to the appendix.

The most common explanation for the appendix’s existence in humans is that it’s a vestigial structure which has lost its original function – source wikipedia

Then a few things happened.

First, I got to attend Michael Spayd‘s session called “Blueprint for an Agile Enterprise: Plans, Tools & Tech to Build a Human Enterprise”.

Want your whole organization to be more like an Agile team? Starting teams is well understood; expanding Agile to the organization is definitely not. Using 8 years experience applying organization development to Agile, we’ll unfold a 7 layer organizational architecture for building a human enterprise. Each level has an overall perspective, specific tools and key practices. Part tutorial, part demo, we’ll create a change plan for one participant’s organization, exploring culture, leadership, change, team performance, and management’s role. You’ll leave with a plan template and many ideas – source Agile 2010 Program

Then, I went to Damon Poole’s session called “Getting Managers and Agile Teams Out of Each Other’s Hair”.

One of the most talked about and least well understood concepts in Agile is the “self-managing” team. This session will provide a new perspective on self-management by examining the external roots of the practice and by taking a bottom-up look at what it is, the benefits, and how it works. We’ll see how twelve widely adopted Agile practices contribute to self-management by reducing and/or redistributing traditional management activities. These practices provide a framework for delegation, communication and coordination; and encourage team ownership, commitment and accountability – source Agile 2010 Program

Finally, I also attended Jim Highsmith session called “What do Agile Executives and Leaders Do?”

In some circles agile executives and leaders are admonished to buy pizza and get out of the way. In others they are asked to be supportive of self-organizing teams. But leading agile organizations requires more. There are specific activities that help build agile organizations that can weather business turbulence. This session will explore those activities that an agile leader or executive must “do,” including: revising performance measurements; facilitating self-organizing teams; developing strategies for operational, portfolio, and strategic agility; and assessing how agile to be source Agile 2010 Program

After the sessions, I sat in the lobby of the conference and read some of the blog feeds I subscribe to and came across these…

Obviously, something’s up!

The role of a traditional people manager

In many organizations and depending on their level, people managers are expected to plan, direct, organize and control (Deming‘s Plan-Do-Check-Act) – more specifically, the role of the manager is to:

  • Define the individual objectives
  • Assign work to team members
  • Determine priorities of the tasks
  • Monitor progress of the activities
  • Make decisions for the team
  • Get visibility into the work of the team
  • Mentor and train employees
  • Protect the team’s financial and human resources
  • Provide career development opportunities
  • Build relationships with other departments and teams
  • Motivate the team members
  • Communicate information

What self-organization removes from the equation

Once the concept of self-organized team is implemented, there are a few things that were traditionally the responsibility of the people manager that now fall on the team. The activities are:

  • Assigning work – team members now select their tasks instead of the manager
  • Determine priorities – team members now determine the order in which they should to complete their work
  • Monitor progress – team members track their own progress and make it visible and accessible to those who need to know
  • Make decision for the team – within the team, team members get to make their decisions
  • Get visibility into the work – team members track their own progress and make it visible and accessible to those who need to know
  • Mentor and train employees – when possible, team members may decide to implement a mentoring program within the team
  • Motivate – self-organized individuals are known to be more motivated than traditional teams, hence the reduced need for the people manager to retain this activity

So what is left for the people manager?

In order for the people managers to transform into Agile leaders and feel as part of the team, we already stated they need to modify their role. The agile manager will achieve higher level of performance and possibly increased personal job satisfaction by macro-managing – working with an increased perspective as opposed to getting into the details. As such, the activities the agile managers need to retain are to:

  • Define high level objectives for their team and department instead of focusing on the tasks
  • Determine priorities in the objectives of the team and department instead of the activities
  • Monitor progress toward achieving the objectives
  • Coach employees
  • Continue to protect the team’s resources
  • Support employees in their career development
  • Build relationships with other departments and teams

I realize that this type of transition is easier said than done but with the willingness to recapture an important role as part of the team and with some external help, the traditional managers don’t have to became extinct professionals.

Collaboration or Cultivation – How we see our organization

Image by atomicShedI attended Israel Gat‘s presentation at Agile 2010 yesterday called “How We Do Things Around Here In Order to Succeed”.

The path an Agile roll-out should follow depends on the core culture of the corporation: control, competence, collaboration or cultivation. Irrespective of the specific culture, the Agile roll-out invariably tests cultural integration, wholeness and balance. It exposes inconsistencies between approach to customers versus approach toward other constituencies such as partners and employees. To create and capture lasting value, the Agile initiative must be linked to a coherent corporate culture. This workshop holds the details you need to know about how to forge this critical link.

The session drew parallels between an organization’s culture and people’s character. Israel defined culture as “how we do things around here in order to succeed” hence, the name of the session. From an organization’s culture perspective, Israel divided the world into 4 quadrants (Control, Collaboration, Cultivation, Competence). The quadrant were derived from axis of 2 spectrum from Possibility to Actuality and from Personal to Impersonal. It turned out François decided to attend the same session which turned out to be useful since the group was divided into smaller group for the exercises. François and I join a group which we thought was most representative of our organization. Interestingly enough, we went with 2 different groups. Below is what I captured to be the essence of the Collaboration theme (what I thought represented Pyxis the most) and the Cultivation team (which François thought represented Pyxis the most). Note that the description came from the various groups and not the speaker.

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Power and knowledge is distributed
  • Emerging and contextual leadership
  • Required maturity and commitment
  • Better buy-in from the group in the decisions being made since people feel part of the process
  • Group usually composed of generalists
  • Continuous learning and improvement of the group
  • Loyalty to the group
  • Chaos in critical situations
  • Let’s have a meeting mentality
  • Failures aren’t celebrated
  • Conflict avoidance by group members
  • Longer time to make a decision
  • Lacks specialists
  • No more ‘stars’ – ability to stand out of the group is eliminated

This group structure pathology is when relationships become more important then results.

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Forgiveness
  • High engagement
  • Personal passion
  • Learning
  • Challenging
  • Creative
  • Easy to respond
  • Diversity
  • Trust
  • No problem is unsolvable
  • Loyalty
  • Fuzzy direction
  • Inability to prepare
  • Geared to the right personality / character
  • Hard to align
  • Can deter people
  • Spin in circles
  • Fear of conflicts

This group structure pathology is when subjective impressions by charismatic leaders over rules the objective data. At the end of the session, it was interesting to notice that we were probably both right in our assessment. It turns out, Pyxis is a Collaborative and Cultivating culture. Now is time to do something interesting with this information.