Creating the Best Environment for Succeeding at Agile:Part 1 of 2

From one manager to another – you need to rethink your model of leadership.

Agile Software development has its roots in iterative product development characterised by small, autonomous teams that are highly empowered.

As early as 1986, Harvard Business professor of Strategy Hirota Takeuchi proposed changing the “relay race” or sequential approach of product development into a more iterative, “rugby” approach.

Large companies are interested in Agile because it offers faster implementation times to produce software that is also more aligned to their customer requirements.

The main principles of Agile are contained in the Agile Manifesto which was drafted in 2001 when leading thinkers convened to chart a new course for the IT industry.

Many argue that a new course is not required and Agile is just a cover for running fast and loose projects without the governance and milestone gates of traditional, more reliable, waterfall cycles of development.

The annual chaos theory report argues otherwise, as early as 2010 they found that nearly twice as many projects in the survey were considered “successful” when using Agile (43%) than traditional Waterfall (26%).

This well respected study also found that “Challenged” or “Failed” Agile projects were less than Waterfall (45% vs 59% and 12% vs 15% respectively).

One of the largest banks in South Africa, Standard Bank embarked on an organisation wide Agile transformation as a key enabler of new ways of working in IT.

CTO Mike Murphy cites clear benefits improvement metrics that make good business sense, plus “the business feels more in control, and the IT group is no longer operating in the dark. In fact the IT group feels more empowered under this model.”

However many large organisations still struggle to adopt Agile at this scale and they point to organisational culture, existing methodologies and complexity as barriers to achieving the benefits of Agile.

This author is conducting a research project assessing whether managers in the organisation have a role to play, using the premise that according to the Agile Manifesto a project environment needs to be created to “give the project team the support they need and trust them to get the job done.”

Software development teams are usually at the bottom of an organisation’s hierarchy and developers in particular do not have anyone below them to delegate work to or exercise any authority over.

Their environment is also something they have little control over and yet they require it to be supportive and trusting to succeed in their Agile endeavours.

Most Agile research, literature and methodology is focused on inside-out thinking about roles, work cycles, ceremonies, artefacts and tooling – the emphasis is on what the team needs to do to deliver the project.

But what about the environment that the team inherits and inhabits, from the organisational space it occupies to the physical working area?

This is the outside-in thinking that our research is focused on, in particular the people who have the power over these environments: the managers.

Their practices are derived from transactional leadership thinking, they contract with their workers who are rewarded for performing well or punished for lack of productivity.

This industrial revolution thinking has largely given way to the advent of the modern workplace however it still makes the mistake of treating today’s knowledge worker like a factory worker.

The Agile Manifesto is derived drawn more from servant leadership principles and successful Agile teams display this type of thinking in how their environment is set up and the way in which the project team interacts with it.

Initial findings from the research shows three key concepts that directly involve managers which relate to the quality of an Agile software development team’s project environment.

Management behaviour, organizational inertia and motivational methods emerged through the first batch of data in the international grounded theory study which interviewed senior, experienced managers and Agile practitioners.

The power and authority vested in managers places heightened expectations on them such that their daily actions and language is scrutinized by lower level teams for clues about their trustworthiness.

Lower level workers look for commitment to Agile principles in their manager’s behaviour and whether they have changed their mindset from plan-driven control methods to flexible and shorter work cycles requiring a much more vulnerable, collaborative style of leadership in management.

According to an Agile consulting director,

“It’s the difference between espoused theory and theory-in-use. We say we believe Agile values but how we act is sometimes different.”

According to the study, manager accessibility, team level deadline setting, question-based conversations and vulnerability in retrospectives are examples of specific manager behaviours that have an impact on project environments.

Large companies also have processes and policies intended to reduce risk and apply governance.

Their operating models and cultures are characterized by the degree to which they centralize decision making.

Less centralized companies allow individual business units to operate more independently but within agreed frameworks and mandates.

Software projects are often at the mercy of these operating models, the impact on their success is characterised in the study as 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.”

Managers should rethink their role from exerting authority over a team to serving them and in this case advocating for the fastest possible process to get the team whatever equipment they need as quickly as possible.

Large organizational factors can be an advantage to project teams; access to a wide range of skills, established market share and lots of data.

Strong managers that can be influenced to support Agile become pivotal in the success of project teams if they remove these barriers and leverage organisational value.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three new models of motivation described in the book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” by Daniel Pink which reflects new management thinking about achieving high performance in the work place.

Agile theory is well suited to harnessing these motivators but often it is in spite of the corporate environment and not because of it.

Managers have the power to create space for autonomous working in their teams which also encourages self-directed learning to achieve mastery.

True leaders in the workplace always set a compelling vision for their people, this is the purpose that is proven to motivate teams far more than extrinsic rewards.

Go-live parties and on the job encouragement also shouldn’t be a compensation for organizational inertia or poor management behaviour on failing projects.

Motivational methods in the work place are much more powerful as a positive multiplier effect in a healthy project environment, “at the end of a release, the guys were made to feel really valued, management never came down on us.”

Agile software project environments need to be supportive and trusting but are affected mainly by management behaviour, organizational inertia and motivational methods.

Leaders in these 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.

While they have institutional norms of doing this that are easy to revert to, it is clear that because Agile project teams are mainly self-organising, they need to operate with a high degree of autonomy.

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 their projects.

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