Monday, May 7, 2012

Five Whys of the Agile Disconnect

Let’s use the five whys. To what end? As a CEO or CIO you need to determine the root cause of the confusion regarding agile. You have sensed significant disconnects between what organizations and their leaders say about agile.

Let’s set the stage. Let’s assume that leaders have good intentions. Their goal is to grow or operate the business well. Let’s also assume that teams have the same goals. They want to contribute to the success of the business.
To further set the stage, agile has emerged from the bottom up. Agile’s origin came from software developers who gathered to determine how to improve software development and delivery. From their historic gathering came the Agile Manifesto – A quick view of the agile manifesto makes it apparent that agile has changed the software development and delivery paradigm significantly.
Finally, most, if not all of your leaders in your organization rose through the ranks understanding traditional project management. They navigated its pitfalls and managed the organizational politics to either become effective leaders, or manage the perception of effective leadership. In either case, the prevalent mental model of the leaders in your organization is waterfall.
With the stage set, let’s begin asking the five whys.
First why: Why do leaders and teams have a different understanding of agile?
First response: Teams received training, either by an external source or through self-education. Many leaders believe they understand software development; after all, they have leveraged project management in their organization for years. Their past successes are testimony to their knowledge and skill.

Second why: Why have only teams received agile training and not the leaders?
Second response: Teams are interested and motivated to learn agile and are likely to have been the instigators to brining agile to the enterprise in the first place. Leaders either believe they understand all there is to know about software delivery or that agile is only for developers thus there is little motivation for them to learn something new.

Third why: Why are only the teams motivated to learn agile?
Third response: Teams are frustrated by failed projects, they want to find a better way and have learned that agile, done well, is having success. They are motivated to grow their skills and want to make a difference. Executives have had success as evidenced by their position. For them, the pain of failed projects is not as evident.

Fourth why: Why aren’t leaders motivated to find a better way to deliver projects. Aren’t they tired of failed projects and don’t they want to improve the system?
Fourth response: Information is frequently filtered by the layers of the organization before it gets to the senior leaders. Most leaders would be surprised to learn of the issues experienced by teams. The impression of team and organizations is often shaped by the filtering and perception management rather than reality.

Fifth why: Why are the problems experienced by teams filtered prior to reaching the leaders? Don’t leaders need to understand the systemic issues of their organizations?
Fifth response: Competition at the top of the pyramid is intense. Presenting problems to your boss is often viewed negatively. You are perceived as not being able to manage your organization. Thus only information that convinces your boss that you are good manager makes it to the top of the organization.

Wow, the root cause is identified by the response to the fifth question. It is significantly different than what you might conclude from the response to the first question. Each question uncovers another layer of the problem. The first layers, while somewhat true, are only superficial. Typically, it takes about five questions to uncover root cause.
If you stopped at the first question, you might conclude that all you have to do is provide leaders with agile training. If such a class was offered, how many leaders would attend? Of those that attended, how many would focus on the training? If you stopped at the first question you might not understand why executives don’t have an understanding of agile.
If you stopped at the second question, you might see that agile is often introduced by the teams and not the leaders. That often leaders are so disengaged that they don’t realize that agile is even part of their organization. For those that do know their teams are doing agile, they are likely to conclude that agile is for developers not executives. If you took the steps to inform leaders about agile, how many leaders might stop agile before it could blossom? If you stopped at the second question you might not learn why executives are not motivated to learn about agile.
If you stopped at the third question, you might think that all you have to do is make executive aware of the issues experienced by failed projects. If they knew of the systemic issues experienced by their organizations they would be able to address the issues given their position. If you stopped at the third questions you might not learn why executives don’t know about their systemic organizational issues.
 If you stopped at the fourth question, you might think that all you have to do is stop the filtering of information. This would provide visibility into fundamental challenges faced by software developers. If you stopped at the fourth question, you might not learn why the filtering is taking place to begin with.
By asking the fifth question, you learn that it is the system that is at the root of the problem. As a leader, you have inherited and perpetuated a system where relationships and perceptions matters more than fact. Real data doesn’t matter and is consequently lost. Systemic issues of the of the organization are hidden by the organization. Rewards go to those that manage perceptions, not facts, to those that build relationships not value.
Image a leadership meeting where executives were expected to bring system issues to the executive team. The executive team would then review the issues and attempt to identify root cause. They as leaders would take accountability for the failures brought about by the system and would be invested in identifying and eliminating root cause.
How are you executive meeting run? Do your peers spend time demonstrating their skills as a successful senior leader? Are real issues of the enterprise ever identified? If they are, do your peers look for root cause within the system for which they are accountable or do they look elsewhere to pin the blame?
Try the five whys sometime. Not as an exercise to pin blame, but to identify root cause. Once root cause has been identified, use your leadership to remove barriers and measure results. Become a leader driven by data. Use the five whys to uncover root cause. Improve productivity by utilizing continuous improvement. Bring an end to the self-serving leaders focused on the thin veneer of relationship and perception management.
The top of the pyramid is narrow. You want effective leaders that drive organization continuous improvement. Change the culture by asking for data. If you don’t believe the data, go to the source. You may have inherited a dysfunctional system, but it does not mean you have to sustain it.

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