Saturday, September 26, 2009

Seek Ye First to be Agile to be Truly Agile

No, that's not a typo. Seek first to be agile to be truly agile. In other words, agile teams need agile developers.

"Well, duh!" That's like saying "Race cars need race car drivers," isn't it? Exactly.

As agile adoption continues its inevitable and inexorable advancement into the mainstream, the ranks of "traditional" development organizations jumping on the agile bandwagon continues to swell. I suspect that not just a few of these organizations are going in practically blind, pushed into the vortex by the pressures of having to stay competitive and productive in these challenging times. These are the organizations that can no longer ignore the overwhelming evidence that agile methods are in fact effective after all.

So, they start retooling their processes. They abandon their MS-Project plans (good riddance!) in favor of Rally or Mingle and switch to regular timeboxed iterations as recommended by agile. They start retooling their people, too. Well, some of their people. Team leaders, senior developers, and project managers are sent to attend two-day workshops to get certified as Masters and Owners in the new agile process. If they're lucky enough to have the money, some teams will even do the smart thing and hire a Coach.

Yet for some, despite their best efforts to go agile, there will still be little or no joy of agility.

There are many reasons why teams fail with agile but common sense would tell you that one reason is simply that the team itself just isn't agile. But then again, as Murphy would say: Common sense isn't.

So how can you overlook or ignore the fact that your team just isn't agile enough to be agile? I don't really know for sure but my guess would be that it has a little to do with not knowing what you don't know, empathy, pride, and survival instinct.

Let's say you work at a pizza joint. Your boss just bought this new pizza delivery truck: the Jiffy. You've heard a lot of talk about it before and your boss even said once that it was just a crazy gimmick that would soon go away. But after hearing about the success that other pizza joints are having with the Jiffy, your boss realizes he might be losing out on something good and decides to take the plunge and get a Jiffy too.

The Jiffy is supposed to help you make pizza deliveries a lot faster. Your boss has a lot of expectations and so do you. Make and deliver pizzas faster, pizza sales go up, boss makes more money and you make more tips. Everybody will be happy. It will be great.

The Jiffy dealer recommended that for best results, there should be at least one Certified Jiffy Operator (CJO) who can oversee the use of the Jiffy and ensure safe and proper operation. Of course, you being the pizza crew chief and senior pizza delivery guy, your boss sends you to the CJO course to get certified.

During the course, the instructors teach you all about the Jiffy and how you and your pizza delivery team will use it to deliver great-tasting pizzas in thirty minutes or less. They take the class through a number of fun and thought-provoking exercises on the principles of Jiffy operation and efficient pizza delivery. You even get to drive a go-cart around a small closed course so you can get an idea of what it would feel like to make and deliver pizzas in a Jiffy. Of course, the go-cart is nothing like an actual Jiffy but you are made to understand that the principles you learned are pretty much the same. Fine, how different could the real Jiffy be, right?

So, with a crisp new Certified Jiffy Operator certificate in hand and the secret CJO handshake in mind, you go back to your motley crew of seasoned pizza makers and deliverers and tell them to get into the Jiffy so you can start making and delivering great-tasting pizzas in thirty minutes or less. Your guys don't know anything about the Jiffy but since you've just been certified, they climb in with you with full trust in your ability to handle the Jiffy and lead them through the new pizza-making process. With everyone strapped in, you get in the driver's seat and head out.

The going is slow on the first few deliveries. But that's understandable, you tell yourself and your crew. Things will get better as we all learn the ropes and get experience in the new Jiffy workspace, which by the way, is everything you all expected it to be and more.

You're all excited about the Jiffy and its potential but also a little overwhelmed because you start to see that there are so many different features of the Jiffy that you didn't get to really learn about in the CJO course. But it's fine since you're familiar with the basics and you're following most of the important instructions in the Jiffy Operator's manual.

After a while however, your crew's performance in the Jiffy starts to suffer. You start missing deliveries and pizzas are made that are not quite what the customer ordered. You wonder if there's something wrong with the Jiffy or with how you're using the gadgets. You start to doubt if that CJO certification course really meant anything. But you begin to realize that the reason you and your crew are falling short in the Jiffy is not because of the Jiffy itself. Rather, it's because your crew is not really equipped with the right skillset that will make them successful in the Jiffy.

You realize that the guys in your crew are still relying on their "traditional" pizza making skills and habits instead of the new pizza-making techniques they need to use in the Jiffy. They need to learn how to use the automatic crust roller instead of kneading and tossing the pizza crust by hand. They need to learn how to punch in the pizza quality checks into the PQ-Unit, the automated pizza quality checking device, before they even start putting the pizza ingredients together. And they have to add one ingredient at a time, running the pizza through the PQ-Unit every time a new topping is added to make sure the pizza they've made so far is still all good. And that's just for starters. There are many other "traditional" work habits they need to unlearn.

But the guys on your crew are just not used to other ways of making pizzas and you don't know how long it's going to take for them to learn how to make pizzas the Jiffy way. You do your best to teach them by showing them how to use the new gadgets and techniques but you kind of end up doing the bulk of the work they should have been doing. Meanwhile, you're getting behind on all the other things you're supposed to be doing as the CJO and it's getting more difficult to get the Jiffy to the next delivery stop in time. You like the guys in your crew because they're good pizza makers and you know they have skills; just not the skills you need to make the Jiffy run as efficiently as it could be.

Your boss asks you how things are working out with the Jiffy and you tell him things are going pretty good. You also tell him there's a bit of a learning curve and you''re going to need some time to get everybody on the crew retrained on all the new Jiffy techniques. Your crew is still delivering great-tasting pizzas although maybe not under thirty minutes all the time.

Get my drift? You can't really do it in a Jiffy if not everyone in the whole crew knows how to do it in a Jiffy.

I'm not much of a gambling man but I'd be willing to bet a buck that there are teams out there in the wild like my CJO and his pizza crew. If you've had similar experiences, I'd like to hear what you do to cope with a team that's just not as agile as it should be.

DISCLAIMER: The "Jiffy" and the people, events, and situations described above are fictional and are entirely the figments of the author's sleep-deprivation-driven imagination. Any similarity to actual pizza delivery trucks, people, events, and situations are purely coincidental.

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