Trust the Force, Luke

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A young Luke Skywalker was told to

Trust the Force.

It was difficult for him until he eventually started to see results. This blog is about a similar leap of faith.

Think about these two statements…

  • If you are truly committed to building customer value, then you will be building what the customer wants (needs) and the customer will be delighted. Because of this they will buy the product or even buy more of the product, while increasing the likelihood of remaining loyal to you.
  • If you are truly committed to empowering your employees, then you will provide a work environment where they feel ownership of their work and can make their own decisions, and they will be more motivated to activate their brainpower, improving morale and increasing the likelihood that they will go the extra mile to create a quality product. *

These are mutually inclusive (and recursive) sentiments, and the answer to how they are done can be summarised as:

  1. Teams need to step up
  2. Managers needs to step back

Easily summarised, but not always easily done.

My personal feeling is that agile helps teams more than projects. It especially helps teams in complex environments where the results of your efforts are un-knowable.

You have to try things and see if they are working out or not.

Managers hate these environments. It makes them very nervous, and once their fear kicks in they feel the need to grip a little bit tighter.

Cats watching a bird through a window
My very naughty cats :-0

When my cats bring in half-dead birds I always try save them. This usually involves earnest attempts to get the cat to drop the bird. The cat fears losing the bird and bites down harder. The bird usually dies.

So how do managers avoid this basic fear response?

One answer is to step back from the mechanics of how agile teams work and instead concentrate on business and customer value.

Know enough about the principles and roles so that you can remove barriers. Set up the right work environments.

In place of fear, managers have to trust teams.

Traditional "Command & Control" structures foster a lack of trust between managers and employees. If you are busy controlling things then there is less time for enabling and communicating activities. They encourage employees to disengage and can breed fear of repercussion.

They also remove any sense of ownership from teams. This leads to low levels of intrinsic motivation.

If your annual review system looks like a "carrot and stick" system, you may have a problem.

A very happy, trusting cat.
A very happy, trusting cat.

Teams need to step up to the plate for this to work. Trust is a two-way street, and gone are the days of turning up on Monday and being told what to do.

Time and cost are your fixed items, (you get paid and you are here 5 days a week). What really matters is how much value you can generate. Traditionally this tends to be called "scope" but we often deliver "scope" that has little value.

The various techniques that we use will dig deeper than scope, and get us in touch with actual customer needs, and how to deliver value to them. Customer value can be a fleeting thing. It requires delivering:

  • The right thing
  • At the right time
  • In the right market conditions
  • To the right customers

Teams that are very close to customers and enjoy quick feedback loops are much more likely to hit this moving target.

Quite often it also needs us to stop delivering the "wrong thing", in order to clear the decks for delivering the "right thing". Again this is most likely to happen in teams that are close to their customers and have the power to do so.

So, in summary:

  • Focus on customers and what value you can deliver to them
  • Focus on employees and teams. Remove blockers and get out of their way so they can get on with making you money. Build relationships based on trust instead of fear. **
  • Managers need to step back
  • Teams need to step up
  • We can use agile values & principles to to make all this happen

* From : Mario Moreira (Being Agile)

** Public Sector organisations usually shy away from discussions about profitability but the fundamental principles are still the same. Other measures may well be substituted for profit: productivity, targets, benefit etc…

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