Lean Thinking

10 November 2015

Executive Coaching

Written by Published in Agile

In the agile community, we tend to focus a lot on teams. This is a natural thing to do as building high performing delivery teams is where agile started. We tend to see management as an impediment to good team functioning. We talk about "the frozen middle" and "lack of executive support". We teach scrum masters and product owners how to shield their teams from management.

If we are going to stay in delivery team land, this is fine. We can build high performing teams and shield them from management as we always have, but if we want to take agile further - build truly agile organisations rather than just agile delivery teams - we need to take a different approach to management. We need to start engaging them as allies rather than treating them as the enemy.

There are limits to how far we can go with just teams. By just optimising delivery within a larger organisations that is disfunctional, we sub-optimise. Teams will deliver efficiently, but they will not be delivering the right things for the organisation and its customers. The work that makes it into the teams will not be the right work. The system that feeds the teams is still broken.

If we want agile organisations, we need to fix the whole system, not just delivery teams. As Demming said -

"The workers are trapped in a system and the system is owned by management"

So to fix the system, we need to fix management.

Easy to say, much harder to do.

The big problem we have with reaching out to senior leaders is that many large organisations (the sort that can afford agile coaches) tend to be very hierachical and as a lowly agile coach, it is often difficult to navigate the layers and get access to the people who can fix the system. In some large organisations, senior leaders are revered almost like demigods... a hush will decend on the room... A GM has graced us with their presence. Everyone put on a tie and look smart. There is actual, real fear of these people. You can feel it when they walk in the room.

But you know what? Once you do get to talk to senior leaders, you find out that they are people. People, doing pretty much what the rest of us do - working in a job and trying to do their best at it in an environment that keeps shifting around them (ony they tend to wear nicer suits while doing it). Just like us they are trying to make the best decisions possible with very limited information and under enormous time pressure.

They are also quite often extremely isolated. Particularly in companies with a very aggressive management culture. They have to be seen to have all the answers. Reaching out to their peers for help is equated with weakness and they will be eaten alive. Often they feel overwhelmed and really struggle with uncertainly. This manifests in many ways, from the overly agressive crash or crash through manager to the indecisive, won't make a decision without mountains of data manager and everything in between.

In short, they are people. Real people, just like the rest of us, dealing with the same real problems the rest of us deal with, but often without the support network of peers that the rest of us can draw on for support.

They are often actively looking for advice and help on how to do better (ever wonder why there are so many management books on Amazon?). What we need to do as agilists and coaches is to show them that we have something to offer that they can make use of in what they do. We need to be able to show that we can help them.

Again, easy to say... but how do you get access? How do you start that conversation? You start with what you have. You obviously have access to someone on the organisation, otherwise you wouldn't be there. Ask to talk to their boss to find out what problems they have with the way things run and how you can help solve them. It really doesn't matter how low in the organisation you start, just get started. Talk to their boss. Have a conversation about their role and the challenges they face in it. Find out what their biggest pain points are.

Frame the conversation around the agile transition that is happening lower down - "Change is happening, how can I help make your job easier in the face of that change?" That way it looks like they are managing change rather than asking for help.

9 times out of 10 it will be a plea for data to help them understand progress without the usual gantt charts. That's an easy one to solve. It doesn't really matter what the problem is, use your skills and techniques as an agilist to help them - problem with scheduling work? Teach them Kanban. Problem with resource management? Teach them WIP limiting.

Once you have that initial conversation going, expand it. See what you can offer for their other non-agile problems. Become a trusted advisor.

Then ask to talk to their boss. And so on up the chain. Also ask to talk to their peers in other areas of the business. Use them as a bridge into areas you don't have direct access to. Build a network of introductions upwards and outwards.

Providing coaching and advice to executives is one of the most valuable things we can do as coaches. If we really want to transform organisations and unlock their potential, we need to get senior leadership on side and involved. We can't do that if we stay down at the team level. We need to show that we have something to offer at their level as well and the only way we are going to do that is by becoming their trusted advisors. We need to become coaches for the organisation, not just its teams.

Written by Published in Agile

What's the first thing you do when you look at a map? Find your destination? Maybe. Start planning a route? Sounds logical. But there is something missing. One fundamental step that renders the other two useless. That first step is locating where you are. Obvious really, but essential. Unless you can position yourself accurately on the map, no amount of accuracy in destination identification, or time spent in route planning, will get you where you want to go.

That's obvious when looking at a map. Very few of us (my mother excluded) will locate our destination then confidently set off without working out where we are now. My mother, on the other hand, will locate her destination, see that it is on the left hand side of the map and confidently set out towards the left. Consequently her excursions often end up in interesting places. Trouble is, the same principle applies to organisational change and in that context, very few of us perform the first step. We jump straight into desired state, plan a few actions and off we go. We don't spend much time, if any, on step one. We don't measure where we are first. The result is exactly the same as looking at a map without locating youself on it. You will start off confidently in a random direction and end up... somewhere. If it's at your intended destination that will be by good luck (or the help of someone you asked for directions) rather than good map reading.

Written by Published in Agile

When talking to stakeholders about why they want their project to go agile, the most common reason they give is speed. Faster time to market. Faster delivery. Fast, fast fast. If you dig a little deeper though, and ask what they mean by fast, they don't say things like "before our competitors", they will say things like "when you promised it". A lot of the time, speed is a kind of code for "no delays". Make us a commitment and stick to it. Don't jerk us around. What they are really looking for a lot of the time is not more speed in delivery but more predictability.

Predictability is really important to the wider business. They may have trade shows booked, advertising campaigns locked in, shareholder briefings prepared. If commitments aren't met, it can have big impacts on the rest of the organisation. I know of one organisation who sent out letters to a million customers advising of a change on a particular date, only for that date to slip by 6 months. Not only is that not a good look, it's expensive too, as a million other letters needed to be sent out advising that the change would not, in fact, be happening, then another million when the new date was announced. Fortunately, an agile approach is ideally suited to giving the business the certainty it needs. How can this be when the agile approach doesn't try to lock down everything in advance? How can you have predictability without certainty?

Written by Published in Scrum

It's a couple of days before the end of the sprint, we're in the standup, there is still a bunch of stuff "in progress". "We can't finish it" says the team. "We're blocked. The code is frozen for the sprint demo so we can't check in 'til next sprint, and besides, we need to spend today getting the demo prepared for tomorrow so we can't do anything else anyway". I've seen more than a few teams lose days out of their sprint making sure their end of sprint demo is perfect. They end up essentially running an 8 day sprint rather than a full 10 days. The demo becomes the primary focus of the sprint. It's not supposed to be that way.

The scrum guide says that the teams should spend no more than an hour or so getting ready. Why do so many teams end up spending days? It's because they have lost focus on what the ceremony is about. The purpose of the demo is to show the team's progress towards working software. It's not a sales pitch. No one is selling anything. It doesn't have to be perfect. I think teams fall into the perfect demo trap because they call the thing a demo. The recent trend is to call it a showcase which is just as bad.

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