Lean Thinking

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We have all heard about organisations that have successfully made the transition to an agile way of working. Some of us may even know someone who knows someone who says they worked at one once. But much like sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot or the Tasmanian Tiger, most of these claims evaporate under even basic scrutiny. Now, I know there are agile organisations out there. Organisations that have been born in the agile age and have been built from the ground up with agile principles in mind. I'm not talking about those organisations.

I'm talking about the old, legacy organisations. The ones with decades of process and culture to remake. The ones we are always being told (mostly in press releases or flashy conference presentations) are transforming themselves into new, agile organisations. Shedding the baggage of the past and embracing the bright, agile future. But scratch the surface and how many have actually managed to transform themselves? "But transformation is hard", I hear you say. "It takes time and many organisations just haven't had time to complete the job. What you ask isn't fair". And indeed, transformation is hard so let's relax the criteria a bit - how many organisations have actually managed to establish even the start of a real agile culture?

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We have all heard the story of the hyperproductive team. That beautiful creation that is 400% more effective that regular teams. The team that never stops getting better. But how many of us have actually seen such a thing in the flesh? I have been lucky enough to see one or two but most teams never reach those lofty heights. Why? Is it because we have the wrong people? Not smart enough? Not talented enough? Not committed enough? I don't think so. I have seen very talented teams struggle while teams that had much less raw talent went on to do great things. Although talent helps, there is no guarantee that a talented team will become hyperproductive and a less talented team will not.

Is it the methodology they use? Is scrum the recipe for hyperproductive teams? Is it Kanban? Crystal? SAFe? Less? Again, none of these things seem to matter. I have seen teams struggle and succeed with all methodologies. So what is it then that allows some teams to become hyperproductive? In my experience, there is one thing that allowed my hyperproductive teams to become hyperproductive - they are parts of hyperproductive organisations. The hyperproductive team is a myth.

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When a team in an organisation decides to do something a bit different (like adopting agile), the rest of the organisation tends to push back and force the team to conform to the normal way of doing things. A team, isolated and on their own, can only resist that pressure for so long until they have to give in. It's like standing outside in a thunderstorm - sooner or later you will get so uncomfortable that you will have to retreat to shelter.

But what if you could take some shelter with you? Something like an umbrella perhaps? It's not exactly comfortable standing under an umbrella in a raging storm but it will let you withstand the elements for longer than you could if you didn't have one. This is what we do in organisations when we start to engage leaders. When the team's leader gets engaged with the change, they can provide some shelter to the team. They become the team's umbrella. But as anyone who has stood outside with an umbrella in a storm will know, the protection they provide is limited at best. We need something better.

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We've all been there. We know that there is a better way to do what we are doing. There has to be. The universe isn't cruel enough for this to be the only way. If only you had a few minutes to think about the problem you are sure you could come up with something much better. Problem is, you don't have a few minutes. You are flat out trying to get whatever it is you are doing, done. And because the way you are doing it is inefficient, it's taking ages and you are already at risk of missing your deadline. You just have to keep going and hope you have some time once it's finished to work out a better way for next time. Of course that never happens because the next task is also inefficient and so that time to improve never materialises.

As AA Milne said in Winnie The Pooh -

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it."

Welcome to the improvement paradox.

03 October 2017

Teams As An Ideal Gas

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I have a confession to make. I'm a bit of a physics nerd. Actually that's not true. I'm a huge physics nerd. I'm not a trained physicist, I'm an engineer by training (which is pretty close...BTW that loud noise you just heard was a bunch of physicists' heads exploding at the thought of being compared to an engineer) but I have always loved physics. All that sets the stage for my next sentence - I was reading an article the other day on ideal gases (as you do) and suddenly thought that gases make a great metaphor for our teams. Stick with me on this...

An ideal gas is a construct physicists use to better understand the behaviour of real gases. Real gases are messy and awkward and do some strange things (like heat up when you compress them) which make studying them difficult. An ideal gas is a conceptual model of a gas that you can use to infer the behaviour of a real gas. In an ideal gas, you assume that the particles that make up the gas are free to move without impediments and when they interact, they do so in a perfectly elastic collision - both particles rebound and go about their business with no loss of energy. The speed of the particles is related entirely to the temperature of the gas. The hotter the gas the faster they move. This also makes an ideal gas a model of an ideal team.

19 September 2017

Pirate Teams

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A few months ago I saw a meme floating around contrasting a good agile team with a group of cowboy coders. Their chosen metaphor was a nautical one. The good agile team was the navy (age of sail style) - disciplined, focused, effective, working together for a common purpose. The bad team was, of course, pirates - rough, undisciplined, attacking stuff at random, scary but ultimately ineffective.

I looked at that, and knowing a little something about pirates (real ones, not the Long John Silver/Jack Sparrow/Captain Hook type Hollywood ones) it didn't quite ring true. In fact, if you look a little deeper, the age of sail navy is actually quite a good metaphor for traditional organisations and pirates actually make a great agile team. Since this is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, heave to for a moment ye scurvy dogs and let me explain.

05 September 2017

Why Do Agile Teams Slip?

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"Come and have a look at my team" says my new stakeholder. "We have been doing agile for a few years now and while we started well, I think we have slipped back to old habits". How often have you heard this when starting a new engagement? Quite often? What do you see when you take a look? It's usually lack of planning, absence of meaningful retrospectives, ineffective standups, lax WIP limits, poor metrics, mini waterfalls. Yep. They have slipped all right.

When you ask the team why they think they have slipped, you will usually get answers like "we scaled up and things went wrong" or "the rest of the organisation is pulling us back" or "some key people left" or something like that. In my experience these are never the real reason. They may have contributed, but the underlying problem is something else entirely. That underlying problem is almost always the same - they never had the basics right in the first place.

Written by Published in Agile

Last time we looked at some of the challenges around organisational change and the need to flip the system from one attractor to another. But where does that leave us? We know organisational change is hard. We know that we need to change the state of the system. We know that traditional approaches run out of steam and the system settles back to where it was before (often after thrashing wildly). We know we still want to change organisations. But how? How should we be doing organisational change?

Traditional approaches fail for a few reasons - they try to do a massive change all at once but don't add enough energy to push the system into a new state, or they add so much energy that the system breaks completely and descends into chaos, or they go the other way and try to do a low energy change but they can't sustain for long enough and they don't manage to shift the system. So what do we do?

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