This ain’t no Christmas tree

Have you ever found your­self in the role of an agile coach who has to lead an agile trans­for­ma­tion with­in a soft­ware com­pa­ny? If yes, you will know what I’m talk­ing about in this post. If not, let me reas­sure you that this is not a piece of cake. On the con­trary, it is one of the most com­plex cul­tur­al changes that you could ever facil­i­tate with­in a com­pa­ny. Nev­er­the­less, is also a very inter­est­ing life expe­ri­ence for all those who are involved, espe­cial­ly if it has a hap­py end. 🙂

So, if you’re on the dawn of such a trans­for­ma­tion project, where do you begin from? Talk­ing to var­i­ous agile prac­ti­tion­ers that were at a cer­tain point involved in intro­duc­ing agile to a new team, I noticed that there is a strong temp­ta­tion to look at cur­rent prac­tices and process­es and to make assump­tions about the dif­fi­cul­ty of the tran­si­tion, main­ly based on the dis­crep­an­cies between the agile approach and the cur­rent one. But, if you do that, you will very prob­a­bly get a wrong impres­sion. Because it is not about chang­ing tools and process­es, but chang­ing peo­ple and their inter­ac­tions1. Which is dif­fi­cult. Very dif­fi­cult. Some­time even impos­si­ble. So, how do you that? I have no recipe, of course. I’ll just share my expe­ri­ence and hope that it is use­ful to you.

I always liked the anal­o­gy between agile and a tree. The deep roots are the val­ues, the strong stem is made of prin­ci­ples, the sol­id branch­es are the frame­work and the leaves are the prac­tices that thrive when the entire organ­ism is sound and healthy. Is a refresh­ing view upon what an agile coach must plant and grow with­in a com­pa­ny.

Since we’re talk­ing about plant­i­ng, first you have to make sure that the com­pa­ny man­age­ment is aware of the com­plex­i­ty of this trans­for­ma­tion. They are the soil of the new agile tree. And if the soil is not the right one, if is too rocky (inclined to tough dis­ci­pline) or too acid (intol­er­ant to mis­takes), the tree won’t stand a chance. If you are lucky, the man­age­ment already got an ideea about the impli­ca­tions when they decid­ed to jump into this change. If not, I would strong­ly advise you to start from here: pre­pare the soil by spend­ing as much time as you can talk­ing to the right per­sons from man­age­ment. Explain them as clear as you can what are the cul­tur­al changes that must occur for this trans­for­ma­tion to be suc­cess­ful. Don’t be sat­is­fied with just a com­plaisant nod­ding and a friend­ly hand shak­ing. Insist on the most hurt­ful top­ic: man­age­ment has to let go on com­mand and con­trol habits. I’m not sug­gest­ing you to be rude and pushy to the man­agers, but to find the right words and the right con­text to intro­duce and empha­size the neces­si­ty of this very impor­tant change: from micro-man­age­ment to lead­er­ship.

The next log­i­cal thing would be to get the tree. As a coach you already know how this tree should look like, so why not pro­vid­ing the teams with a ful­ly grown one? All said and done: you just need to intro­duce the agile tree to the teams. Train­ings should start as soon as pos­si­ble. But there is a ques­tion that rais­es at this point: where should you start from with the first intro­duc­tion of the agile tree?

The prac­tice I’ve seen around me dur­ing the last years sug­gest that the most impor­tant aspect to talk about are the branch­es of the tree, which are the frame­work, be it Scrum, XP or Lean devel­op­ment. There’s where the fruits will grow, isn’t it? At the first glance, the mechan­ics of any Agile method­ol­o­gy are easy to under­stand and, as a train­er, there is a com­mon trap to believe that intro­duc­ing these aspects to team mem­bers is a huge step for­ward. It is a step, but — unfor­tu­nate­ly — a small one. And the main dan­ger on insist­ing about the mechan­ics is that peo­ple will get the wrong ideea that agile is just a new set of rules to be care­ful­ly fol­lowed.

I also assist­ed to intro­duc­to­ry train­ings where a huge empha­sis was on agile val­ues and prin­ci­ples. This doesn’t worked well either. At a cer­tain point the train­er start­ed to sound like a reli­gious preach­er, talk­ing about a ide­al­is­tic world where every­one is open and trans­par­ent, hon­est and coura­geous, ded­i­cat­ed and dili­gent. Peo­ple became sus­pi­cious: is agile the right approach for us? why is this coach so odd­ly pas­sion­ate about it? is this some sort of sec­tar­i­an com­mu­ni­ty that we must join?

So, you need to find the right bal­ance between the two sides of the agile tree: mechan­ics and mind­set. And my best advice is to build this iter­a­tive­ly, not incre­men­tal­ly. Don’t go for the full the­o­ry of mechan­ics, then move to mind­set and val­ues. Nor the oth­er way around. Instead let the teams know a lit­tle bit about the fun­da­men­tal val­ues of agile, dis­cuss briefly the prin­ci­ples and explain the basics of mechan­ics. Lat­er come back on val­ues, make some con­nec­tions with the top­ics you already intro­duced, go deep­er with prin­ci­ples and mind­set and unveil some of the advanced aspects of the frame­work.

Every now and then, you should check on the cli­mate around your new agile tree. How is the weath­er today? What is the fore­cast? I hope you got it that I’m talk­ing about the HR crowd. Do not for­get to have reg­u­lar chats with them. Because you can­not talk to employ­ees about agile val­ues, when recruit­ment, hir­ing, induc­tion and career man­age­ment are based on dif­fer­ent con­cepts. You can­not grow the agile tree if there is no rain to nour­ish the roots — per­for­mance man­age­ment should fol­low and reward the good prac­tice of the agile val­ues and prin­ci­ples. Align­ment of HR pol­i­cy with the agile trans­for­ma­tion is not fac­ul­ta­tive. And it is also impor­tant for the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the entire change, because every­one is expect­ing this kind of con­sis­ten­cy in the orga­ni­za­tion.

So, make no con­fu­sion: an agile trans­for­ma­tion doesn’t come as a Christ­mas tree, ful­ly grown and ready to be cel­e­brat­ed. Instead think of this agile tree as if you would plant it in a nurs­ery. Let it grow grad­u­al­ly. Have patience. And make sure that along this jour­ney the agile tree is always healthy.

  1. Every­one knows this in the­o­ry, but many of us for­get about it in prac­tice []

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