Managers can help Agile projects succeed if they understand their environment better.
The previous article considered practical examples of how managers are affecting the environments of Agile projects in large organisations.
While there are benefits to adopting Agile methods, most of its research and methodologies are focused on the inside-out aspects of running software development projects.
Management plays an important role in the less-researched outside-in environment that exists around the periphery of a project team which is also largely determined by the organisation and not the project.
We considered three key themes that have emerged from some research being done in this field; Management behaviour, organizational inertia and motivational methods.
Leaders in project environments play a key role in determining how much these considerations affect the teams and their success.
Stronger leaders are able to counteract the organizational issues so that teams are protected but in a worst case scenario, the project is hindered by both poor management as well as onerous corporate bureaucracy.
Managers who have control over such environments can use this understanding to adjust the way they exercise their power and authority.
This article seeks to help managers understand the Agile project environment along two dimensions; level of organisational inertia and a spectrum of management behaviour.
Software projects are often at the mercy of organisational inertia,
“I’ve seen environments where they want to be Agile but it takes them six weeks to procure a laptop for the development team. When they eventually get it, their deadline doesn’t change.”
Management behaviour is a proxy for the quality of leadership in a project environment, teams look for commitment to Agile principles and whether managers have truly changed their mindset from plan-driven control methods to a more collaborative style of running projects.
Overlaying these two dimensions creates four possible zones which are characterised by the predictability of success in each scenario.
Managers can use this insight to adjust how they support their teams but full advantage of this research-based insight does require a significant level of maturity and self-awareness to diagnose and accept one’s own managerial style.
The zone of predictable failure occurs when a project operates in a large organization that has high inertia plus the managers in its environment display negative behaviour.
Based on the findings from the research it is highly likely that Agile projects in this zone will fail, no matter how well the project team attempts to accurately apply its methods.
There will be delays in setting up the project, difficulties in communicating across silos and the managers that are meant to assist the project team by removing these blockers are neither engaged nor are they willing or able to support the team.
It is a perfect storm of adverse conditions that even the most resilient and self-motivated team members are unlikely to prevail against.
It is advised for these teams to revert entirely to the existing methods of the organization and accept the negative impacts of policy and process.
It is also likely that the more expert developers and highly skilled IT professionals in these teams end up feeling like martyrs for an impossible cause and will leave unless the project is re-aligned with the way the broader organisation works.
In the next scenario, consider that many large organisations are highly agile, they have achieved the right balance of decentralised decision making with common and useful frameworks that achieve efficiency but avoid bureaucracy.
The zone of lost opportunity is where such an agile, large organization is able to support Agile software development projects but the managers are still unable and / or unwilling to display the right levels of personal leadership that are required to help drive the project to success.
It is a lost opportunity because with better trust and support in the environment the project’s Agile approach would have resonated well with the organization and probably succeeded.
Teams in this zone should persevere and build broader networks in the organization that counter-act the anomaly of the traditional management styles they encounter.
It is also highly likely that structures and managers will change and in future the project team could have higher chances of success with new management teams.
The zone of predictable success is where Agile teams have the highest chance of delivering the two key benefits of Agile methods; faster implementation and higher quality software.
In this scenario the broader organisation is efficient and well suited to Agile methods and senior executives have structured departments to harness value.
Recruitment and performance processes within this culture also produce managers that support their teams through regular interaction and often co-locate with teams to actively encourage and celebrate success.
These managers keep residual organizational inertia to a minimum by challenging unnecessary, bureaucratic work processes but ensure sufficient controls to apply effective governance.
The organization is also responsive to the needs of the project team and the managers find it more natural to act as leaders rather than micro-managing teams to strengthen their power base.
These are the best possible conditions for introducing and maintaining Agile work methods, to achieve the 5th principle of the Agile Manifesto, “give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”.
However the zone of leadership is more common because most large organizations have high inertia but are trying to reduce it by adopting Agile.
This often places Agile project teams on the frontline of driving new ways of working and they desperately need support from managers who should champion their cause rather than help the organisation hold them back.
Strong, collaborative managers embrace leadership skills to help drive this journey and create a safe environment for their project teams to deliver effectively.
Positive behaviour managers of Agile teams in high inertia organisations will have to display leadership because traditional management practices will work against the team and reinforce a typical corporate organisational culture.
Effective managers can also take this opportunity to lead the broader transformation by using software development as an example for how the organization could be more agile.
Some may consider this a career limiting move but others will welcome the learning opportunity of working faster than their organization while also balancing the demands of a highly interactive and collaborative Agile software development team.
One limitation of this model is that large organizations are rarely homogenous in terms of how they operate and how much inertia and bureaucracy is evenly distributed.
Additionally, Agile-friendly managers are more often a product of an agile enterprise rather than an anomaly found within an otherwise bureaucratic, inefficient large organisation.
Agile has been around for decades but the research indicates that these four scenarios and are constantly encountered by teams in a range of industries.
The manager is often the fulcrum between organisation and team, how well they balance enterprise and Agile interests has a significant impact on the success of the project.
In the previous article we looked at three key factors affecting such success and in this article we considered a model of four scenarios or zones of success.
Managers that have an influence on Agile projects can become more successful by understanding these factors and applying the model above.
This is counter-intuitive to the way managers usually operate in large organizations but with sufficient maturity and self-awareness these managers can respond positively to such needs and achieve success in those projects.