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From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization

I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion table at the “Déjeuner-Causerie” in Montreal (last week) and in Quebec City (this week) where over 50 people gathered in each city to share their experience with Agile adoption.

From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization

Before I get into the main topic covered during the 3 hour breakfast, the participants shared with the group their topics of interest. Though the participants were at various stages of their Agile transformation and had different experiences with Agile, they shared common interests and as such asked interesting questions:

  • What is self-organization and what does it really mean?
  • Can self-organization really work?
  • How far can you push self-organization?
  • How do you get management on board?
  • Can this work in any culture?
  • How can people be motivated to work together?
  • We are only starting with Agile, what do you recommend I read?
  • and many more!

This post is a quick summary of the various conversations. Since most of these topics require further explanation, I will expand on some of them in upcoming posts (and conferences). For now, I wanted to share some of the discussions.

What is self-organization and what does it really mean?

Self-organization is one of the basic pillars of Scrum and is often misunderstood. People (and in particular managers) assume that letting a team self-organize is the equivalent of complete chaos. To avoid getting into such a situation, self-organization requires some constraints.

Self-organization is the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it through planning. This globally coherent pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel (all the elements act at the same time) and distributed (no element is a coordinator). - Wikipedia

In his book, Jurgen Appelo wrote,

No self-organizing system exists without context. And the context constrains and directs the organization of the system. - Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders

As I already mentioned, Pyxis is an experimental laboratory and as such we have attempted to let people self-organize without (or with very minimal) constraints. In an upcoming post I can share some of the conclusions of that experiment but for the sake of this post, I’ll leave it as a “failed experiment”.

So back to constraints. In our context, the constraints are as follows:

 

Though we apply it at an organizational level, the concept of constraints can be applied at an Agile project team level where the Vision is the equivalent of the Agile project charter, the Finance is the equivalent of the project budget, the Strategies can be replaced with the project’s objectives or outcomes, while the Culture remains.

Can self-organization really work?

Yes, it can but it isn’t easy. Self-organized teams tend to go through various stages and success isn’t immediately achieved. Unless an organization is willing to invest into building a successful team, self-organization won’t really work.

How far can you push self-organization?

That’s really up to each organization. For instance, we have successfully pushed the concept as far as letting employees determine their own salary. Sounds crazy? Sure does, but that’s only because you haven’t factored in the organizational constraints.

You have probably imagined people getting together and giving each other huge raises. That’s what would happen if there were no organizational constraints. Once the constraints are well determined and understood, the team members can determine who deserves what as long as they fit within their team’s budget.

How do you get management on board?

That’s a difficult one to answer. The first question managers typically ask is “What will my job be?”. People managers are used to controlling what their team does, when they do it and even how they will be delivering the work. As Dan Pink mentioned:

  • People are more motivated when they are self-organized;
  • People take their own commitments more seriously than the commitments made by others on their behalf;
  • Teams and individuals are more productive when they are not interrupted;
  • Teams improve when they can settle their own issues;
  • Changes in the composition of the team affect the productivity of the team members;
  • Face-to-face communication is the most productive way to share information. - Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

That’s the reason why Agile managers need to alter their leadership style in order to success in an Agile context.

Can this work in any culture?

Probably not. Well, not without some organizational commitment. During last year’s Agile Conference, Michael K. Spayd explained that some cultures are more likely to adopt Agile than others. As such, true self-organization is more likely to succeed in a Collaboration culture or in a Cultivation culture. William E. Schneider’s book (The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work) is very useful to help determine the 4 different types of cultures. Fortunately for us, Pyxis is a cultivation / collaboration culture.

How can people be motivated to work together?

Unfortunately, they can’t! Contrary to popular beliefs, people can’t be motivated – only they can motivate themselves.

To improve the team’s performance and the project’s results, we suggest that Agile project teams be staffed by asking people to volunteer for a project. Projects are typically staffed when project managers or people managers select the people who will take part of a specific project. Although that might seem like a good idea, it is much more powerful to seek volunteers. As one of the participant highlighted “I used to be bored to death in my normal job until one day, I asked (begged) to be part of a specific project. I’m so glad they granted my wish. I now work 55 hours a week! I am super motivated and nothing is going to make me want to leave that project”. Still think letting people select their project is a bad idea?

We are only starting with Agile, what do you recommend I read?

There are so many great books and blogs to help you get started with Agile. A while back, I published a getting started guide. I also read the following blogs:

I referred to the following books during my presentation

Upcoming events

If you wish to be notified of upcoming events, send an email to metrempe@pyxis-tech.com.

Great news the project is over! Now let’s dismantle the team

Image by pgcCongratulations, you have finally delivered the project! The team you have carefully assembled over many months can now be dismantled and people can go back to their normal job. That’s the natural sequence in the project management world – project is kicked-off, team is assembled, team develops solution, team encounters delays, team tests solution, team moves solution into production, team hands-off solution to maintenance team, project team is dismantled, and life goes back to normal.

I wonder if the Green Bay Packers will do the same now that they have won SuperBowl XLV or maybe the San Fransisco Giants may want to start their 2011 season with new players after winning the 2010 World Series. At least the F.C. Internazionale Milano should want to give it a fresh start after winning the Serie A championship, wouldn’t you think?

Nobody would consider breaking up a highly performing sport team but when it comes to software development, it is common for organizations and departments to split up team members and start new with their next project.

From a purely practical perspective, breaking up a performing team makes no sense considering the time invested in:

  • carefully selecting and recruiting the right people with the right skill sets and the right attitude,
  • hiring external consultants with specific skills to complement the existing team,
  • getting the team to work together despite the team members’ personalities, work methods and obvious looming conflicts,
  • training people on the organizational culture and business activities,
  • establishing a leadership style that will work well with the team’s expectations,
  • eliminating the bad hires,
  • building relationships with the team members and between the project team members themselves,
  • etc.

Team members need time to become highly performing. Why not keep those team members together after the completion of their project and assign them together to the next project – even if the skill sets doesn’t seem to be perfect at first glance?

Agile self-organized teams – is the team self-organized or not?

Image by Cyndie@smilebig!Where ever we read about self-organized teams, it often seems to be a binary thing – either the team is self-organized or it isn’t.

When people suggest that the team should become self-organized, the suggested process is presented as fairly easy and straight forward.

If you are amongst the people who believe these previous two statements, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. In exchange, I will offer you a free reality check. Team self-organization is neither binary nor straight forward – self-organization is an evolutionary process that takes time.

We have been helping customers implement self-organizations for years and we have been pushing the limits within our organization. Based on that experience, I am sharing 7 levels of self-organized teams.

  1. No opinion: Team members follow the direction of their manager. Not to be confused with Zombies or Living-Deads, these individuals are neither happy nor upset about being directed in their tasks – things are the way they are, period. These team members do not pay much attention to the organizational structure or who the actual leader is. They are strictly interested in “doing their job”. Although they may express an opinion with regards to the current structure, they don’t necessarily believe that self-organization is a better alternative. If you are moving towards self-organization, you shouldn’t spend much time convincing these people since they will gladly follow the official structure.
  2. Status quo: Team members have benefited from the current structure in the past and wish to preserve it. They are un-likely to want to change to any other team structure (including self-organization) until they clearly see the benefits of transitioning. To move towards self-organization, you will need to spend time demonstrating what the new structure will bring them specifically and gaining their trust so they are willing to experiment with what you are proposing.
  3. Selfish and irresponsible: Team members are happy to take advantage of being self-organized but only as long as it benefits them and that there are no increased responsibilities. Once a situation negatively impacts them (while benefiting the team), they aren’t willing to cooperate and when they are asked to take accountability for something, they shy away from the responsibility. In a nutshell, these individuals want the best of both worlds. To successfully transition to self-organization, it is critical to explain that they will need to make a decision and pick self-organization with responsibility or freedom outside the self-organized team.
  4. Interested and learning: Team members are very interested in being self-organized but aren’t familiar with the changes required for them to become autonomous. They are ready and willing to learn and fully embrace the proposed structure. These are key people in a transformation, they are the ones who will pull the others forward as long as you take the time to explain what they need to do.
  5. Self-organized: Team members are fully accountable and play by the rules of the team. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving the organization of the team in order to become fully autonomous and self-supported. They deliver great results and need minimum involvement to remain in their current state. This is where you want your teams to be.
  6. Leading a self-organized team: Although the team is self-organized, leadership is always required. These individuals will willingly take responsibility to organize the existing teams (they are team members and not managers) or the new teams you are hoping to transition to the new model. In a transition, you will want to work with these individuals to spread the new model and increase the number of self-organized teams.
  7. Independent: Team members are too much self-organized. As a consequence, they no longer wish to be part of the organization and wish to go on their own. Although rare, in the event that self-organization transforms into full-autonomy, it may be necessary to break down the team and use some of the team members to help lead other self-organized teams.

The road to self-organization is long but very rewarding. Each organization needs to determine how far they are willing to push the model and how fast they wish to move.

You may also be interested in this post: I don’t believe in self-organized teams…

Real-life laboratory for human experiments – The case of an Agile organization

Our organization is well known in Canada, France, and other French speaking countries around the world as a leader with the Agile approaches. We are one of the few organizations in North America with over 20 full-time agile coaches (employees).  For most part, our governance model relies on self-organization, the absence of hierarchy, and transparency in our decisions. This is what is well known from customers who have worked with Pyxis and potential employees who wish to join the organization, but what is much-less known is how Pyxis is a real-life laboratory for management, organizational behaviours, and team dynamics.

Most of the people who come in contact with people at Pyxis or who have worked with us will agree that the organization is different and throughout this year, I will share some of the inner working of our organization.

Pyxis helps software development companies to become places where results, quality of life, and fun coexist sustainably by being first and foremost an example of what it proposes to its clients and by coaching them.

We help our customers transition to Agile because we know it works – not because it is written in books but because we have been living the Agile way for 10 years now.

As the first post on the inner working of our Agile organization, I will explain the root cause of this difference. More posts will follow on self-organization, agile management, governance models, and growing a profitable organization by leveraging people’s inner motivation (remember autonomy, mastery and purpose?).

The fundamental reasons why Pyxis is different

After observing the organization from the inside for over two years, I have had the opportunity to appreciate that we are fortunate (and one of very few organizations) to have a real-life laboratory for human experiments – no, not the kind usually reserved to white rats. Our structure allows us to experiments with governance models (the way people are managed) and observe first hand the organizational behaviors that arise and the impact on team dynamics. We pride ourselves as being an incubator for highly performing teams and as such, we often experiment new concepts within our organization before trying them out on our clients – which is not often the case in consulting, but I digress…

The first reason behind our uniqueness is the philosophy of the founder. François sees the world differently from most people and although he has an opinion on many topics, his real contribution is that Pyxis is not a profit-maximizing organization. Like every organization, Pyxis wishes to generate a yearly profit but that is not the reason why Pyxis was originally created. Pyxis was born with a purpose to improve how software development is made and more importantly to improve the quality of life of people within those organizations.

This is critical to understand the organization because it leaves rooms for experiments (making mistakes is a critical part of learning), for employee satisfaction (people truly enjoy working at Pyxis), and deliver great results (highly motivated employees deliver better results).

There are other reasons why the organization is different but in my opinion, this one is fundamental.

We are surrounded by Zombies! We better do something…

I finally finished writing this post that I started just after Halloween – not because it is long or complex but simply because other things were more of a priority. Anyhow, back in October and in the spirit of Halloween, we had decided to rent a Halloween movie that was somewhat kid-friendly. Our selection ended up being Shaun of the Dead, a 2004 movie. Don’t worry, I haven’t turned into a movie critics and I won’t pretend this movie ranks anywhere in my top 3,000 favorite movies – that’s not the point here – but the movie made me realize how many (most?) employees are zombies.

“What the heck are you talking about?”, you ask.

I’ll spare you the gory details but there’s a scene at the end of the movie were the zombies end up being captured and turned into normal workers. The scene is great as it portrays the zombies perform mindless (and numbing) tasks while people around them don’t seem to notice them or even mind them at all.

[You may also be interested to read what Derek has been publishing on the topic of zombies in the workplace]

To simplify things and explain the analogy I came up with after watching this silly movie, I will start by explaining that in my opinion people (employees) fit into one of three categories.

The LIVINGS

Although at first, we may believe that everyone fits into this category you may be surprised to find out that it isn’t so. LIVING people are those who take full responsibility of their life while they don’t necessarily travel the path the most followed. LIVINGS do a lot of introspection to make sure they are living the life they truly want and they aren’t afraid to step outside their comfort zone.

In organizations, the LIVINGS aren’t afraid to look for a better way to do things and challenge the status quo. They aren’t happy just mechanically doing their job and they look for challenges that will make them grow professionally. You can find LIVINGS at every levels of an organization.

Although not measured scientifically, I believe there is only 20% to 30% of the working population that are real LIVINGS.

The ZOMBIES

At the other end of the spectrum are the ZOMBIES. Contrary to the LIVINGS, the ZOMBIES are dead workers. They perform routine tasks without getting intellectually and/or emotionally involved. No matter how old they biological body actually is, the ZOMBIES are counting the days ’til retirement – or if retirement is more than 5 years away, they are counting the days until their next vacation, until next week-end, and sometimes the hours until the end of the day.

In industrial times, ZOMBIES were seen punching in and punching out of their day job. With the advent of modern technology and the disappearance of the punch clocks, ZOMBIES can pass their time updating their Facebook page, sending useless emails and performing tasks on their computer to keep their body active since their soul has died.

Although not measured scientifically, I believe there is between 20% to 30% of the working population that are dead ZOMBIES.

The LIVING-DEADS

Somewhere between the LIVINGS and the ZOMBIES is the majority of the working population. The LIVING-DEAD are very difficult to distinguish from the LIVINGS as they seem to perform their tasks with some interest. The main difference between the LIVINGS and the LIVING-DEAD is that the latter were once part of the LIVING population but at some point in their career, their brain has been captured by ZOMBIES – just like in the Shaun of the Dead movie, once a living is bitten by a zombie, there is a gradual decline toward becoming a full-fledged zombie.

Although not measured scientifically, I believe the majority of the working population (between 40% and 60%) are LIVING-DEAD.

Can ZOMBIES and LIVING-DEAD transform back into LIVINGS?

Contrary to the movie, the LIVING-DEAD and the ZOMBIES can come back to becoming LIVING individuals but the road back is difficult. The sad news is that most large organizations are based on rules, on controls and on structures that help breed ZOMBIES by converting LIVINGS into LIVING-DEAD. The good news is that there are ways out – I know, I used to be a ZOMBIE myself…

What category do you fit into?

3 behavior changes to increase team performance

Image by Marc WathieuIn addition to working on a new Vision (more on this in an upcoming post) and establishing new strategies, I’m operating a small cultural transition.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – Peter Drucker

Our organization’s culture is “collaboration / cultivation” (from The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work) and like other organizations with a similar culture (and despite our success), there are a few areas for performance improvement.

As such, I believe there are 3 behaviors that are preventing our organization and the various teams from reaching the “High Performance Team” level (The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization). My attempt to increase the teams’ (and the entire organization) performance level is by focusing on the following 3 behaviours:

  1. Setting clear agreements
  2. Eliminating gossips
  3. Operating with integrity

Why focus on these 3 behaviors?

Let me start with a simple example to highlight what typically happens in many (including ours) organizations. You will certainly quickly understand why this is dysfunctional and can easily lead to sub-optimal performance. I invite you to follow a typical conversation…

  • Sarah: “Mi Mark, I’ve been having issues with payments from a customer. Can you help me?”
  • Mark, in the middle of typing an email: ” Sorry, I wasn’t listening. You need help with something Sarah?”
  • Sarah: “Yes Mark, we have sent reminders to your customer but still haven’t received any payment. Since you are the account manager for this customer, I was wondering if you can help me?”
  • Mark: “Yeah. Well, of course. What do you need me to do?”
  • Sarah: “I don’t know. Maybe you can give them a call to see why they aren’t paying their latest invoice.”
  • Mark: “OK. I have a few things to take care of today. I should be able to help you”.
  • Sarah, walking away: “Alright. Thanks.”
  • [3 days later]
  • Sarah, talking to herself: “I can’t believe it. I asked Mark to help me with something important and he still didn’t get back to me. Doesn’t he understand that receiving payments is important for our company. It’s always like this with him, he says “yes” but never does anything.”
  • [Sarah enters the coffee room]
  • Mary, smiling: “Hi Sarah. How are you today?”
  • Sarah, clearly upset: “Not good. Mark is so unreliable. I asked him to help me contact a customer and he still hasn’t done anything. It’s been 3 days already.”
  • Mary, nodding: “I understand what you are saying. I’ve asked him to contact a customer to invite them to an upcoming conference and he still hasn’t done anything. It’s over 2 weeks already.”
  • Sarah, pouring milk in her coffee: “Why is it that we have to do everything around here?”
  • Mary, approving: “You know, Mark is not the only one. Do you know that I’m waiting for Don to submit new content for the web site? It’s been 10 days already and Don hasn’t done anything. I don’t know what to do!”
  • Don, entering the room to get a coffee: “Good morning ladies!”
  • Sarah, walking away with a cup of warm coffee: “Good morning Don. Have a good day!”
  • Mary, smiling to Don: “Hi Don, how was the hockey game last night?”
  • [For 15 minutes, Don and Mary continue their conversation about the hockey game]
  • Mary, walking away with a donut and a coffee: “Nice talking to you Don. Have a good day!”

I doubt that these conversations only take place within our organization but what I’ve noticed is that they are detrimental to high performance. Here’s what’s wrong with this story:

  • Lack of clearly defined agreements – who does what? by when?;
  • Absence of difficult conversations – when commitments are broken, people don’t have open discussions around the situation at hand;
  • Talking to others about someone else’s issues – people resort to involving third parties in a situation that would better be resolved between those who had an agreement;
  • Not living up to the promise – commitments are taken lightly and there are no consequences for not delivering on them.

So here’s what I’m proposing to the teams in an attempt to take the organization to the next level.

Setting clear agreements

It is critical to establish clear agreements in order to avoid disappointment and mis-trust. To obtain a commitment and make sure that people have a true agreement, it is critical to make a clear proposal that can:

  • Be accepted in full;
  • Be rejected completely;
  • Be renegotiated.

Once the agreement has taken place, each party must then honor its commitments.

Eliminating gossips

Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation [...] The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of dirt and misinformation – Wikipedia.

Instead of pretending to address a situation by involving a third party, eliminate gossip and go directly to the person with whom there is an issue and work at resolving it with them.

Operating with integrity

integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others “have integrity” to the extent that one judges whether they behave according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold - Wikipedia.

For me, integrity is very simple as it means to “Do what I say and say what I do”.

Finally, in the possible event that someone can no longer deliver on their commitment, they must inform the other party as soon as they realize they won’t meet their commitment and re-open the agreement.

This may seem trivial and very simple to implement but I doubt any organization has actually been able to implement these behaviors on a large scale. I trust that we will become a highly performing organization once we are successful at doing this.

Between a rock and a hard place – The managers in an agile transition

Image by NCM3I bumped into Steven last week. Steven is director of application development in a large organization and like most manager in his early forty’s, he looked tired and although he is usually a happy individual, his smile wasn’t radiant this time.

In agreement with his teams, Steven initiated an Agile transition a few months ago. I was part of the team who presented to Steven the benefits of a transition and the impact on the team members and their managers. I saw Steven again in a group training I was giving a few weeks after the beginning of the transition to managers and executives. That time again, Steven was very excited and motivated about what he was hearing, except that during the training I could see the light bulbs over his head and in the questions Steven was asking – how is this going to impact my role as a manager? Steven saw the obvious benefits and understood some of the changes he would need to make to his leadership style but I could tell, it hadn’t fully sinked in.

So here we were, less than 3 months in the transition and Steven wasn’t as chipper as he used to be…

  • Me: “Hey, Steven. You look tired. How are you doing?”
  • Steven: “I’m OK… I’m tired… [silence] The transition is killing me!”
  • Me: “How so?” [I asked anticipating what he would tell me next]
  • Steven: “The team is having a blast and I can see their performance has increased compared to the past but I don’t think I can cope with this new approach”
  • Me: “You seemed so excited about the transition when we started. What changed?”
  • Steven: “I now realize what you meant when you talked about changing my leadership style and my role. I’m still up to the challenge but my boss is totally clueless about all of this”
  • Me: “What do you mean? Haven’t you brought him in the loop from the beginning?”
  • Steven: “Yes. Yes, I have but that’s not the problem. The team’s performance increase is directly linked to the new approach they have been using and the fact that I leave them a lot of autonomy but my boss still asks me to behave like I used to – like he manages his team today. That’s where it hurts the most. I can pretty much deal with everything else but I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place”

Unfortunately, we (as consultants) do not do such a good job at highlighting this fact before we begin a transition. We work closely with the teams to help them adopt better methods and practices, to increase their overall performance by allowing them to be self-organized. We work on getting the teams to a highly performing level. Then we go get executive sponsorship to secure the initiative (and the budget) and make sure we get support to handle difficult issues but what about the people in the middle?

We develop training programs for Agile managers and we support them with organizational coaching but we don’t do such a good job at telling them upfront how much pressure they will be under once the transition begins. How much their role is likely to change and their leadership style needs to be adapted to the new reality.

For those who haven’t yet have felt the pressure, here are some examples of what to expect:

  • You may be willing to trust your team and let them self-organize but is your boss in agreement with this new approach? Will he be as involved (micro-managing) in your activities as he used to be? And more importantly, will he be expecting you to be as involved with your team as you used to be?
  • You may be willing to tolerate mistakes in order to increase your team’s learning and with a strategic perspective to increase long term performance but will you hear about your inabilities to control your team during your next performance review?
  • You already produce status reports, dashboards, emails and others information to keep everyone (including your boss) informed of what is going on in your unit. Will you need to translate everything that the Agile team is producing to fit the traditional reporting mechanisms? Can you challenge what information is currently being produced to ensure it does bring value to people?
  • You expect your team members to handle the details of their activities and you believe in actually seeing (touching, feeling) the end results while your management team expects you to assess progress using Gantt charts. Do you need to educate your entire organization to the new approach? Does the fact that you are adopting Agile make you the evangelist for the entire organization?

Obviously, I don’t mean to scare anyone – especially the managers – with regards to adopting Agile. The approach has a lot of merit and value for many organizations but in order to help with adoption, coaches and consultants need to pay attention to the people in the middle and help them find their new place, otherwise we are very likely to find serious resistance and potential failure of such initiatives – nobody likes to be stuck between a rock and a hard place…

Agile in a Command-and-Control Organization : What to do when upper management forces overtime?

Image by MyLifeStoryMy colleague François Perron launched a very interesting discussion on our private wiki – “As a coach, what to do when executives and upper management force the project team to do over time in order to meet deadlines?”.

As you can probably guess, this initiated very interesting discussions and an obvious reaction to such an approach.

Everyone agreed that due to the project visibility and the position of the organization within its market, the project launch date was critical. Everyone also understood that the organization had very few options so nobody debated the need to achieve results. The discussion was strictly around which measures to use in an Agile context.

I’ll admit up front that I am biased toward intrinsic motivation (I really loved Drive by Dan Pink) and the fact that it is well suited for an agile environment.

As such, my first impression to the conversation that was going on were:

  • Does the organization wish that employees spend more hours at the office (attendance) or would they prefer more engagement (commitment)?
  • If their choice is to increase the hours of attendance, imposing overtime will achieve this goal while giving them a false sense of increased performance. People will show they are working longer hours but the real throughput is unlikely to be much higher. In addition, software development is a brain intensive activity and reducing the amount of rest people get is likely to increase the number of mistakes they make.
  • On the contrary, if the organization wanted more involvement, the inclusion of team members in determining the best way to achieve the results would probably come to a better decision – even possibly leading the willingness to do over time

It appears to me that by forcing overtime, the executives and senior managers will probably collect their bonus and congratulate each others in the short term only to realize in the longer term that they have simply pushed the problem forward for others to deal with – and possibly request more over time in the long run.

I don’t feel so good – I’m a people manager in an Agile organization

Image by Leonard John MatthewsAt the Agile 2010 Conference this week, out of the two hundred or so sessions presented, a number of them talked about the role of the manager in an Agile team. A few people believe managers are no longer necessary once the team has self-organized while others say people managers are still required. Either group failed to provide compelling arguments for their position.

The notion of self-organized teams keeps gaining visibility and acceptance. Those who have adopted the approach can’t stop talking about the benefits. At the same time, people realize that managers are unlikely to disappear from the organizational landscape anytime soon. In this context, it is with a mixed-feeling that Agilists talk about the role of the people manager in an agile organization – mostly as something not so useful but that the team needs to keep around in order to maintain their autonomy – something similar to the appendix.

The most common explanation for the appendix’s existence in humans is that it’s a vestigial structure which has lost its original function – source wikipedia

Then a few things happened.

First, I got to attend Michael Spayd‘s session called “Blueprint for an Agile Enterprise: Plans, Tools & Tech to Build a Human Enterprise”.

Want your whole organization to be more like an Agile team? Starting teams is well understood; expanding Agile to the organization is definitely not. Using 8 years experience applying organization development to Agile, we’ll unfold a 7 layer organizational architecture for building a human enterprise. Each level has an overall perspective, specific tools and key practices. Part tutorial, part demo, we’ll create a change plan for one participant’s organization, exploring culture, leadership, change, team performance, and management’s role. You’ll leave with a plan template and many ideas – source Agile 2010 Program

Then, I went to Damon Poole’s session called “Getting Managers and Agile Teams Out of Each Other’s Hair”.

One of the most talked about and least well understood concepts in Agile is the “self-managing” team. This session will provide a new perspective on self-management by examining the external roots of the practice and by taking a bottom-up look at what it is, the benefits, and how it works. We’ll see how twelve widely adopted Agile practices contribute to self-management by reducing and/or redistributing traditional management activities. These practices provide a framework for delegation, communication and coordination; and encourage team ownership, commitment and accountability – source Agile 2010 Program

Finally, I also attended Jim Highsmith session called “What do Agile Executives and Leaders Do?”

In some circles agile executives and leaders are admonished to buy pizza and get out of the way. In others they are asked to be supportive of self-organizing teams. But leading agile organizations requires more. There are specific activities that help build agile organizations that can weather business turbulence. This session will explore those activities that an agile leader or executive must “do,” including: revising performance measurements; facilitating self-organizing teams; developing strategies for operational, portfolio, and strategic agility; and assessing how agile to be source Agile 2010 Program

After the sessions, I sat in the lobby of the conference and read some of the blog feeds I subscribe to and came across these…

Obviously, something’s up!

The role of a traditional people manager

In many organizations and depending on their level, people managers are expected to plan, direct, organize and control (Deming‘s Plan-Do-Check-Act) – more specifically, the role of the manager is to:

  • Define the individual objectives
  • Assign work to team members
  • Determine priorities of the tasks
  • Monitor progress of the activities
  • Make decisions for the team
  • Get visibility into the work of the team
  • Mentor and train employees
  • Protect the team’s financial and human resources
  • Provide career development opportunities
  • Build relationships with other departments and teams
  • Motivate the team members
  • Communicate information

What self-organization removes from the equation

Once the concept of self-organized team is implemented, there are a few things that were traditionally the responsibility of the people manager that now fall on the team. The activities are:

  • Assigning work – team members now select their tasks instead of the manager
  • Determine priorities – team members now determine the order in which they should to complete their work
  • Monitor progress – team members track their own progress and make it visible and accessible to those who need to know
  • Make decision for the team – within the team, team members get to make their decisions
  • Get visibility into the work – team members track their own progress and make it visible and accessible to those who need to know
  • Mentor and train employees – when possible, team members may decide to implement a mentoring program within the team
  • Motivate – self-organized individuals are known to be more motivated than traditional teams, hence the reduced need for the people manager to retain this activity

So what is left for the people manager?

In order for the people managers to transform into Agile leaders and feel as part of the team, we already stated they need to modify their role. The agile manager will achieve higher level of performance and possibly increased personal job satisfaction by macro-managing – working with an increased perspective as opposed to getting into the details. As such, the activities the agile managers need to retain are to:

  • Define high level objectives for their team and department instead of focusing on the tasks
  • Determine priorities in the objectives of the team and department instead of the activities
  • Monitor progress toward achieving the objectives
  • Coach employees
  • Continue to protect the team’s resources
  • Support employees in their career development
  • Build relationships with other departments and teams

I realize that this type of transition is easier said than done but with the willingness to recapture an important role as part of the team and with some external help, the traditional managers don’t have to became extinct professionals.

Secret Revealed! Guaranteed Success for your Agile Transition

Picture by charchenSo you have initiated an Agile transition and have faced some resistance to change! Or maybe, you assessed your current level of Agile Maturity and are hoping to achieve the next level. Better yet, you and your team are planning to launch an Agile transition that is not driven by the wrong reasons.

That’s great!

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read: Getting Started – Reference Material for Managers Who Wish to Understand Agile and Scrum and What consultants don’t tell you before you begin an agile transition.

Let’s cut the chase and get to the point. Are you ready? Here it is. The secret to a successful Agile Transition -> Make people look good!

Yes. That’s it. Surprised?

I’m not talking about psychological manipulation. I’m talking about finding what drives the people you are working with and the managers around them and then capitalize on their drivers in order to get them to get on board with the transition – and better yet become evangelist for your transition. Here are some examples:

  • Suzy is hoping to get promoted to Vice-president within her organization. She heads a business line from which you need support and a dedicated Product Owner. Why don’t you explain to Suzy how innovative her group would appear to others if she agreed to embark on the Agile initiative?
  • Peter is struggling to increase the performance of his group. So far, he hasn’t shown much interest in the transition but you found out that he has been under high pressure from his manager to increase the performance of his team. Why wouldn’t you show Peter how using an Agile approach could help get his manager off his back?
  • Monica is a project manager who has lost several key people in previous months. She is usually by-the-book (i.e. PMBoK) but during a recent lunch, she admitted that she would be willing to try something different if only it would help her retain the contributors she needs to make her project successful. Why don’t you take this opportunity to get the project manager on board with Agile by offering to help her?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not asking you to lie, to cheat or to fake the objectives and expected outcome. I’m telling you to get others on board and working WITH you by telling them the whole story and helping them understand that there is something in it for THEM too.

Agile relies heavily on communications and interactions. Why don’t you start with all the people directly and indirectly impacted by the transition? Sure, it will require more time in the short term to influence people into supporting you but in the long run, you will be glad you did it.

Go ahead. Try to figure out what drives people around you or what issues they are facing. Find a solution that can help them and you’ll end-up with a win-win scenario and a successful transition.

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