Agile teams can get totally fried in the wrong culture. So be sure you are not only addressing the practices around agile, but the people and culture are just as important. Read about Behavior and Cultural impacts on making good stuff, especially with Agile Teams.
When we think culture, we often think about nationality and or regional cultures. Culture is often a dinner discussion with my wife and friends, it’s great to reflect upon how our upbringing, surroundings, and maybe even our genetics drive our work habits, how we work with others, and how we see and work with authority. Culture is a difficult thing to work with because it’s engrained in us.
A few weeks ago, VersionOne released the 7th Annual State of Agile Survey. Within the survey, it is obvious that culture is the leading challenge to all aspects of agile adoptions and transformations. There were two questions within the survey that really highlighted the cultural challenges (note, I plucked out the key responses that impact culture – be sure to check out the full survey):
Concerns about Adoption
- Lack of Upfront Planning – 34%
- Loss of Management Control – 31%
- Management Opposition – 27%
- Dev Team Opposed to Change – 18%
Specific Organizational Failures Behind Agile Failures
- Failure to integrate people – 34%
- Failure to teach team-based culture – 28%
Prior to the survey being released, I already started making a list of those human behaviors and or cultural behaviors that I’ve seen impact the ability of an organization to build good software, let alone those behaviors that negatively impact an organization’s agile initiatives. Here’s my list:
- Fear of Losing Control. This is primarily an individual fear; however, it can also be engrained in the organization. I’ve heard, “if I don’t put these controls on how the team works and if I’m not making decisions, when they screw up — I’m the one that is going to hang.” Of course, the idea of control being lost ultimately becomes a myth, because we generally see everyone’s engagement raise up a notch or two. Thus, resulting in more people being involved in making the decisions at the proper levels — hence scaling the organization.
- Gate Keeper Culture. Often a subset or product of Fear of Losing Control, this is the manager or director who acts the liaison between his or her direct reports and the rest of the organization. I’ve seen and even lived in environments where all communications have to go up and down the ladder. Or, where in order to talk to someone on the “protected” team, you have to walk past the Gatekeeper and they then take the message or grant permission as long as they are part of the discussion.
- Measurement of Success is Based upon “On Budget and On Time”. Many organizations, especially IT organizations live in the world where they try only be concerned with what they can control — and that is generally, “we deliver what was signed off and will do it based on a budget and set schedule.” Well, we fail to recognize that we should be measured based on the success of the product either in the marketplace or the usage internally. The funny part is when we time box and quit focusing on the when and who, and instead focus on the what — everyone is happier including the development teams.
- “What’s My Role” Fear. This is the protectionist behavior where managers and or team members don’t see a fit for themselves or don’t find a fit for themselves as an agile transformation takes place. These team members or managers generally start start creating barriers to deflect blame while at the same time climbing to the roof-tops to shout out about the failures of the team and process. If others are looking at the right thing (e.g. product moving out successfully
- Victim Mentality. Have you ever heard, “it’s always been that way and it’ll never change”? Well, this is the typical response for the person who either doesn’t want to deal with change — or they’ve been told “NO” so much, they just give up. Personally I used to be one of these people, then I learned quickly — if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And, if it is something that could have really positive results — isn’t it worth the risk?
- Super Hero Culture. Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate hard work and stepping up your game to make sure we succeed as a team. But constantly over committing and being let to overcommit constantly is not a good thing. I’ve also seen that individual who loves to be on a pedestal, thus when we start working more as a team — they’ll often be the person making back room deals to do more work or take on the clandestine project that our Scrum Master isn’t supposed to know about. Again, hard work is great — but we have to respect the concepts of sustainable pace, transparency, and “The Team”. Remember we regularly deliver value.
- Us/Them Culture. This one is obvious, but it takes on a few forms including department silos, role based silos, and Ivory Tower silos. Department silos exist when we have complex solutions that require the integration of products from multiple departments and a bad or no rapport between the teams. Role based silos will generally exist in early agile adoptions where the value of diversification and cross-functional teams have not been visible yet. And Ivory Tower silos are those “I’m a Director” or “I’m the Product Manager” and you just do what I say — this never results in team work, unless the team is conspiring together to take down the Tower. If people talk about the managers in the organization as “The Suits”, then you might have some Ivory Tower silos and possibly going in the opposite direction.
What challenges, either culturally or behavioral, have you’ve experienced? I’m interested to here about those that not only impacted your agile implementation, but those that impacted delivery good product.
A colleague of mine at VersionOne, Dan Naden who works to support the Agile community, delivered several open questions from a recent Agilepalooza and asked for help answering. The one that jumped out at me and my experiences was “How do we change from individuals in workgroups to effective, self-organizing teams?”
When I first started looking at this question, I was keying in on the word “individuals” and how individual team members impact our ability to come together and self-organize. The more ideas I got down on paper, the more I came to the conclusion that it is generally not the individual team members that prevent teams from self-organizing and becoming effective. It is usually everything but the individuals that prevent teams from self-organizing. Based on my experience where I’ve lived through an inability to self-organize to efficient self-organization — the individuals are usually never the primary blocker. The things that I’ve seen prevent teams from becoming effective and self-organized are:
- Teams Are Too Large. Teams that are too big will not self-organize because the team members are made insignificant because their contributions may or may not impact the overall product delivery. Not too mention that when teams are too large you will usually see the Alpha team members overpower and control the non-Alpha team members. This is why the recommended team size is in the single digits (I’ve seen the range of 5-8) thrown out there. Not only does right-sizing the team make planning more efficient, but it also reduces the discussion circle; thus, making it easier to share information and shorten the time to make and react to decisions that impact the team and the projects.
- Workspace Challenges. Studies have shown that the right workspace leads to highly productive teams and in talking with many teams, it’s obvious that the wrong workspace fosters silos as well as the perception of meetings purgatory. Ideally teams are co-located and share a workspace that is conducive to easy chair-spinning conversation. A workspace with plenty of whiteboards, private zones, and an information radiator will ensure a well informed, collaborative team. When this cannot be achieved, the use of rapid and personal communication tools can help teams. IRC chat, video chat, and online collaboration tools are good ways for team members to collaborate.
- No Vision. There are multiple layers of vision – company, product, project, and team. Obviously a team can control their vision; however, it’s usually a product of the upstream visions. So if the leadership and stakeholders are not sharing the vision. And more specifically, if the team does not have a shared vision of what they are working towards, then there is nothing to bring the team together to achieve. A clearly communicated and shared provision provides a group of individuals a common goal to achieve — this improves focus on decision making and clear definition on what it means to done.
- The 3 C’s. And I’m not talking about Ron Jeffries’ Card, Conversation and Confirmation — I’m referring to a Command-and-Control Culture. It seems that even once a leadership team decides to adopt agile and they genuinely buy into agile values and principles, the individuals on the teams are still reluctant to take ownership of how to win (a.k.a. achieve). Not until the the team is forced to make decisions, do they actually make decisions. Team members that have worked in a culture that is historically command-and-control tend to have either a victim mentality in that they simply don’t believe change is happening, or they simply are scared to put their neck out there in fear of reprisal even when there’s never been a history of this kind of action. The only way that I’ve experienced changing this culture is to have the leadership share the vision and then leave the room (a.k.a. get out of the way). When the team has success, the leadership shouts it from the rooftops and when failure occurs the leadership should ensure learning and accountability ensues — however, doing so from a distance.
- Lack of Shared Trust. A core challenge that organizations (the whole organization) have is the inability to trust others to make decisions. This usually stems from two factors: (1) a command-and-control culture that is a result of traditional project/product failures, and or (2) management team members that have been key to the organization over a period of years and have lived the battles — thus, they feel that because of their experiences — they must be a part of the decision. Remember that trust can go both ways, if the teams don’t have that shared vision — then trust of those making decisions is surely lacking.
So, how do we change from individuals in workgroups to effective, self-organizing teams? We give our teams the environment they need to be productive, provide a clear and shared vision, have leadership get out of the way yet be there when needed, and finally we celebrate our small wins and ensure that we learn from our failures (I’ll assume that this stuff sounds familiar; however, if it doesn’t give this a read www.agilemanifesto.org). I’m sure there are more organizational behaviors and I’m certain that individuals impact our ability to self-organize, but I firmly believe that everyone has the ability to work as a self-organized team and if they are empowered to do so — they will do it effectively.
Please let me know what you think. What are some organizational challenges that you’ve experienced that prevented teams of individuals from becoming effective, self-organizing teams? Or, do you think the organization has nothing to do with it and it’s the individual team members?
As a quick follow up to the earlier post about Dan Pink’s Drive, I also like the following video put together for Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From. I haven’t read this book; however, I’ve stumbled upon more than one post online that references the ideas from this book on ideas.
Some folks don’t agree with the concepts presented; however, I find it to be a fascinating take on how ideas formed in the past and how they might be developed in today’s integrated information society. Let me know what you think.
You can pick up the book here: