6. October 2013 / Michal Vallo
In the past few weeks I witnessed several episodes which made me think, made me sad, made me to reflect and finally ended as this small article.
Another Agilia meeting we organized was crowded indeed. Many regular visitors, great deal of new comers. Wonderful mix. Upon beginning, the speaker asked audience, who is already using Scrum. Well, forest of hands raised up. And I can confirm it, many of visitors claim they use Scrum for more than 2 years. Seems experienced audience. Presentation started, and questions were coming. BUT! Something hit me, and it was really strong strike.
What is wrong? Questions from audience shows, it is not clear what agility is about. Speaker presented his experience with implementing Scrum into project. They had process, but were not delivering value. Or better said, they did not care. They were processing tasks derived from specification. It was fix time fix price project broken into series of small waterfalls called Sprints. Objective was to process all requirements and hope, deadline will be met. It was their expectation, because it is general believe project managed by agile way will be completed somehow faster. What is the difference here from waterfall project? None at all! So, why do people really believe, that breaking fix time fix price project by very short milestones, and doing daily status, will make the project agile?
Then I asked a question, how they defined and measured value on the project. Apparently, question was not understood by anybody. Basic element of agility was not understood by anybody. I do not expect perfect knowledge from speaker and audience, purpose is share some ideas, kick off discussion, and get people engaged. And here was experienced audience, as they claimed, not beginners. We expect discussion will encourage us to think about our own practices. It should not be about argument, why we cannot do this and that. It is about how to break our limits we have created ourselves, that prevent us from switch to agile and to deliver real value. Without compromise!
As a consultant, I can see in companies, that level of knowledge about Agile is very superficial. Superficial knowledge leads to premature changes into agile processes, wrong goals and expectations. Lack of courage (comfort zone) and superficial knowledge are reasons why process and principles are crippled to fit into existing organizational schema with as little change as possible. Agility is first thing to be removed then, as it is primary source of conflict. And finally, fact that knowledge is inferior or superficial, is presented as local tailoring of the process.
With adopting agile techniques, we aim to create highest possible value. And it is different objective than to complete project within time and within budget. There is no upfront specification, there is no upfront fix time, fix price, fix scope contract (well, there are goals, objectives, ideas and some more stuff, but it is another story). In agile world, through intensive collaboration with customer and users we try to uncover what value is and try to understand, how it can be created. Then process can be adapted accordingly, product/solution requirements are designed on the fly and there is guarantee, final solution will be much better fit to customer real expectations than traditional approach.
What makes me worry is not fact that process is crippled and agile concept entirely misunderstood. I often see, that people who work on such project, often do not see or do not know their approach to project is completely wrong. Then, they are often hired to another one, this time as experts already. Without even knowing how good agile organization looks like.
One of my friend visited me in my office. He wanted to share with me his recent experience, where he worked for many months as Product Owner in one organization. He was happy as it was great experience. We talked together about his experience and I asked him, what his role was about, or how he did this and that. And suddenly, I start asking him how he counted business profitability (value). He was not, it was THEM. As Product Owner, he didn’t come into touch with money. So I was curious, how he could prioritize backlog or deal with production team. I asked also, what he knows about product, about market, about product design and some more things. I learned, he do not understand very much the product and principles beyond. Business decisions were done by THEM and his role was to make sure requirements as arriving from THEM are being implemented. His job was basically messenger among various THEM and development team. His activity was pushing on lazy developers to make faster and not to forget some details. (A job very similar to project managers, who just start their career and do not have enough experience yet, or who are working in less knowledge intensive environment, typically in small web agencies).
I do ask myself, what kind of practitioners are there in the field? Product Owner is key decision maker. His role is to understand market, understand how value is being created, how to design solution and also how to create requirements and needs for the product. It cannot be just administrator and messenger without authority over product.
I am surprised, because the company he was working for is quite rich, but they do not have budget for appropriate training of people. Why? People are not too much enthusiastic about their profession. Why? Is company culture intentionally managed this way? Or it just evolved that way as nobody is managing culture at all?
I see this as serious issue in technology industry. Agile approaches to business operations can deliver tremendous value. Wrong implementation and amateur approach can and are already causing a lot of damage to agile community. There is many failed implementation, which serves for many as a proof, that agile is not working. In my experience, I saw several failed implementations. They all failed due to lack of training for new approach. People believe, they can use common sense here. I doubt. Common sense is relative. It is different for university graduate and different for nonqualified people. Whenever I go to dentist, I do not want an individual approaching me with common sense. I want professional, passionate, and of course certified by credible authority. Technology industry is about knowledge. We cannot compete here, if we do not have knowledge.
The country was visited by His Holiness, Dalai Lama. I was curious, and went to his presentation. I found as most interesting the part about education. He mentioned, that each prayer of Buddhism have had one, sometimes two main students, who became its followers. There were also many other students, and some of them became teachers. These students often modified original praying so new stream of Buddhism appeared. Today, especially in western world, Buddhism becomes more popular. And there is possible to find many communities there, which are dedicated to particular stream of Buddhism. Many of them were created the way that somebody travelled to Asia, found his teacher, and after his return back he follows practices by this teacher. However, all these streams of Buddhism, they originate in the same source and have same foundations. Today’s practitioners, in vast majority, do not know about these foundations. They focus superficially on symptoms. Their teacher wears yellow cup, so they also do. All this without understanding why and what was behind.
There is many similarities here, with agile movement. We also have many stream of Agile. Some are closer to original idea, like Scrum, DSDM, XP, Crystal Clear, and some are not so close, like LEAN, Kanban, or SAFe etc. We have many prayers, who pray their own version of Agile. We have many interpretation – e.g. if we have daily [scrum] meeting, we are Agile, or if our daily [scrum] meeting is longer than 15 minutes, we are not Agile. And what is missing is deeper knowledge, or understanding of foundations. Simply the purpose. Seems, this evolution is natural and it happen also in other areas of human life.
In knowledge economy, we design very advanced products or solutions. There is often great deal of thinking and creativity involved. And these parameters are really not predictable. In the same time we are in business world, where is expected that we will deliver with good level of predictability. How to resolve these contradictions? In Agile we implement techniques, which goes beyond development process. To achieve change, we need to radically modify our approach to work. We primarily address people, their motivation, and especially their discipline through certain rituals, helping us to break comfort zone. We address knowledge, because overspecialization is against principles of creativity and innovation. And finally we address environment, because creativity is the best, when collaboration among engaged people can happen. All three qualities must be present to we could call ourselves Agile. These principles have practical implications – on company structures, objectives, managerial style, organization of production and many more.
All successful agile adoptions I saw resulted in dramatic change at all levels of company, structures and objectives. But there are many more unsuccessful ones. Those have in common avoiding conflict, avoiding change or dismissal of inefficient structures, avoiding to demand discipline, or were unable to create common vision. They are not successful no matter how many people writes in their CVs about its enormous success. If we are unable to overcome power games and hypocrisy, results are unlikely to happen. Results requires courage and personal leadership.
About author: Michal Vallo helps companies deploy agile techniques and improve performance. He is agile trainer, coach and manager at Aguarra and founding member of Agilia community and organizer of Agilia Conference.