Last week I posted Part 1 of my “Agile – Principles over practice” blog where I introduced a key reason for Agile failures – prioritizing practices over principles. I’ve learned that you can follow all practices perfectly and still fail at Agile. Not paying attention to the principles behind Agile is one of the leading causes of failure.
Incorporating Agile principles is the harder part of Agile – things like working through communication issues, distrust and lack of accountability. We often might skip working with these principles because it involves more time and effort than we may want to invest. But it’s almost always the harder things that give us the most benefit. Culture changes and principles… these are the harder parts of Agile.
So what are some of these principles or culture changes that are the harder parts of Agile?
One of the first difficulties is communication. I often see people using the Scrum Master to deliver their messages to others in new Scrum teams. They are used to having a project manager, and a Scrum Master is a whole new ball game. I was once a Scrum Master working with a brand new Agile team, when three different team members came to me, trying to communicate “through” me during our first sprint. One of them said- “Dwight, I need this information from Debbie before I can start coding.” Debbie was only 20 feet away from us, but they were accustomed to having a project manager handling all their communications. A key Agile principle is communicating face-to-face whenever possible. But for many, face-to-face communication can be scary, especially when they’re used to living in their cubicle without having to talk to people very often. So each time this happens, I immediately walk the team member over to the other person’s desk and have them communicate the message directly. Help your teams get into the habit of communicating face-to-face, using that as their first option instead of as a last resort. Wasted time is not Agile.
Collaboration is another one of the hard parts. Agile is all about people working together, talking together and coming up with great ideas together. We are fundamentally at risk whenever someone works on something by themselves. At our Mindtree Gainesville Delivery Center, our Agile pods/teams have video walls with large screen live video feeds all day long for teams that can’t be physically in the same location. This creates a virtual collocated workspace. Team members at any location step up to the video wall and collaborate together, face to face, as though they were in the same room.
A collaboration issue I sometimes see is when a waterfall project manager becomes a Scrum Master. Project managers can make great Scrum Masters, but watch out for those who bring a command and control style along with them. Agile is not about command and control, but some new Scrum Masters tend to manage and direct instead of collaborating with stakeholders and the team. Great Agile teams are not managed- they’re encouraged to collaborate and figure things out themselves. Often, the lesson is learned better by experience (good or bad) than by being told what to do.
I also see a similar pattern with new Product Owners, except that here, the behavior is the opposite. Many new Product Owners are used to creating requirements, handing them off to the development team and then sitting back and waiting for the finished product, with little or no further involvement. Continuous collaboration between the Product Owner and the team, along with timely course correction, helps ensure that what’s delivered at the end of the sprint is just what stakeholders intended. But this can be time consuming for the Product Owner, and many new to the role are either not ready for the commitment, or just don’t know that they need to be so involved. I encourage Product Owners to get involved with the project team throughout the sprint. This way, the Sprint Review becomes purely a formality, as the Product Owner has already seen several iterations of the software during the sprint and guided the team to build exactly what the stakeholders want. This is what an ideal work situation should be like.
In conclusion, collaboration and communication are two of the main hurdles dealing with corporate culture and principles that we need to get ourselves and our companies to do well. They can make a big difference! The principles can sometimes just seem like common sense, but common sense is in reality, not very common! We have to make a conscious effort to execute the harder parts of Agile, and not just the easier parts, i.e. the practices.
Next week, we’ll look at three more areas that commonly cause problems on Agile projects. See you then.