Agility and Project Leadership

Bridging the gap between traditional and agile project management and leadership.

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Agile is not enough! Be Anti-FrAgile

Typical withdrawal symptoms of Agile coaches

The Agile Paradox: Necessary evil or evil necessity of having managers?

Is a Holarchy more conducive to Agile, or is just a bunch of malarkey?

Like taking candy from a baby: Kanban's 90% problem

Agile is not enough! Be Anti-FrAgile

Some time back I wrote about the idea of being FrAgile rather than Agile, in which one seeks out complexity and chaos rather than the traditional route of avoiding them at all costs.  Back then I wrote that:

This is very new and I’m still thinking it through, but rather than the reductive process of extrapolating out the clearly defined project activities in a controlled iteration, could there be a way to let these “run loose” so to speak, see what kind of behavioral patterns and team dynamics result and just help facilitate the team to channel the flow patterns till they deliver what they need?

Well, after having read Taleb’s book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”, it dawned on me that this interesting thinker had already come to a similar conclusion.  This idea ties in nicely with his other books such as “Fooled by Randomness” and “Black Swan” in that it outlines a strategy where one can actually thrive in a world run by uncertainty.  As Taleb states, Antifragile is a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world. . . . The antifragile, and only the antifragile, will make it.”

As this PwC study outlines quite nicely:

The idea that businesses might be experiencing an unprecedented amount of “stress and disorder” should come as no surprise. CEOs and other senior executives consistently describe uncertain future business conditions as a key concern.

The term “antifragility,” coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, is defined by the source of its strength. Like the human body, whose immune system gets stronger from exposure to germs and diseases, the antifragile system improves or responds positively when shocked.

While fragile systems are easily injured and suffer from volatility, antifragile systems grow stronger in response to volatility. So-called robust systems remain unchanged.

The fragile are susceptible to large lethal shocks.
The robust can handle adversity but stay the same.
The agile move and adapt rapidly.
The antifragile grow and improve (evolve) from external shocks.

Antifragile is beyond stable, beyond robust; stable and robust systems resist shocks but stay the same . . . antifragile systems as those capable of absorbing shocks and being changed by them in positive ways . . stable systems, because they don’t change, eventually experience shocks large enough to cause catastrophic failure. Antifragile systems break a little all the time but evolve as a result, becoming less prone to catastrophic failure. . . . Antifragile systems adapt and evolve in response to stress and changes to their environment.

When the magnitude of change stays within a normal range, robustness can be a state that seems resilient. During periods of unusual change, only the antifragile organizations prove to be resilient.

Life, Taleb says, is not as predictable or explainable as the rationalists would have us believe; instead, simple sets of rules help us to navigate through a complex and constantly changing landscape. He argues, “We have been fragilizing our economy, our health, education, almost everything—by suppressing randomness and volatility…If about everything top down fragilizes and blocks antifragility and growth, everything bottom up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder.”

I think the disparities resides in the fact that we live in volatile world, yet rather than using this fact of our business existence to our advantage, organizations seek to do everything to possible to avoid or at best minimize it.  Agile was on method created to address this by breaking up projects into smaller chunks so as to adapt, iterate and deploy quicker so as to better manage this volatility.  But this is not enough!  I think one has to adopt the mindset of proactively introducing targeted disruptive shocks which are enough to induce and promote growth and innovation, but not so much as to completely damage the project and teams. 

Basically, it is no different that the health benefits of doing weight resistant exercises that actually cause micro-fractures in the bones and micro-tears in the muscle that in turn cause them to heal, the result of which is stronger more robust bones and muscle and overall health.  Too much of this is bad since you don’t allow the body to heal, too little and you won’t gain the health benefits, but there’s a point that becomes just right.  Furthermore, your body will adjust causing you to gradually up your game, which in turn further strengthens your body and overall health.

I’ll be writing more about this Anti-FrAgility which I think is the next big evolution.

Posted on: September 26, 2014 11:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Typical withdrawal symptoms of Agile coaches

It seems some Agile coaches are getting withdrawal symptoms from having to manage self-organizing teams who, how shall we say… don’t exactly self-organize.  So what’s the solution?  According to this article on InfoQ, just what the good doctor ordered: Some prescription processes!  Actually I meant prescriptive, but prescription sounded better and both words pretty much have the same connotation which is if something is not going right, it may be best to prescribe a formal directing process to get your team on track. 

Though the Agile camp has a tendency to mock the “command and control” mentality of the traditional crowd, the realities are that not all teams can be handled in such a “hands-off” way.  As quote from Mike Carey:

Pure Agilists have always pushed for a more "hands-off" approach. It's interesting to me how married some of agilists become to a certain methodology - conversations with these people usually boil down to "you should let people do whatever they want, but if you're a good coach and they really get the principles then they're most likely going to go with my favorite methodology.(…) The problem is, they've got a point about the coaching. You can't leave teams all to themselves; you have to support them somehow. I'm not saying all Agile teams need a dedicated Agile Coach, but they need the resources necessary to ensure the direction in which they adapt is in accordance with Agile principles and the environment that will support them when (not if) they fail.

Or this one from Robert Galen:

I honestly get the importance of self-directed teams within agility. I want teams to sort out things on their own. But I also think that we should occasionally provide some direction as coaches instead of always deferring to “it depends”—especially if we’re dealing with brand new teams that don’t have a whole lot of experience

My feeling is that the pendulum swung too far on the side of an exuberant call to action to facilitate the self-organization of the teams early in the evangelization of Agile, which I’m pretty sure many Agile project managers, coaches, ScrumMasters, or whatever, took to mean I need to be “hands-off”.  As any good project manager would know regardless of your religious affiliation to a particular method whether Agile or not, is the fact that one could easily cross the line and abuse this sentiment by just being plain lazy with directing and coaching your teams.

It would become a vicious circular exercise in that if you were to ask such a person why is the team so disorganized, such a person would answer because they are managed “hands-off”.  This would beg the question to ask them, “why are you so ‘hands-off’ in the way you manage them?”  The reply from the person would be “because I’m an Agile coach and Agile coaches are ‘hands-off’”.  Such replies would make any manager cringe.

To avoid these withdrawal symptoms, you sometimes need to prescribe some good old fashion style of leading and directing your teams towards the goal of completing the project and delivering value to your customers.  The best ones know how to push and pull back to find the perfect balance of directing and being hands-off.  We all could use a little good medicine!

Posted on: September 11, 2014 03:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Agile Paradox: Necessary evil or evil necessity of having managers?

“Ninety-five per cent of changes made by management today make no improvement.”

Dr. Edward Deming - “The New Economics” 1994

It is no secret that Deming often chided upper managers as being the cause of bottlenecks, revenue loss, and ill-conceived decisions based on short term thinking that is the result of the lack of utilizing sound data driven processes and decisions.  The Agile movement is just as notorious for blaming management as well as the bureaucratic organizational structures which in turn create the need to compartmentalize people and feed the desire to have them all follow a prescribed waterfall-ish process.

So it was serendipitous that I ran into this blog post from a “Lean and Kanban” advocate from Germany named Arne Roock, who states to “stop bashing managers”.  As he states:

First of all we should not offend all the people with management titles out there.  Furthermore I’ve argued that we need people who are not part of our autonomous teams. They need a good standing in the organization and must have a good understanding of our systems. They are responsible for managing the team’s interactions, re-designing the system and observing and acting upon local optimization. And sometimes they need to change the setup of a team. For me, that’s exactly what a good manager does. So let’s stop bashing managers and start working on establishing another understanding of management!

This pie chart from the post does a good job of mirroring management based organizations in the world:

Interestingly, one could say about 95% of the companies out there are run by a hierarchical management structure.  And the ones who claim not to have a management structure is probably because they are small solo or run by a few partners type businesses, that at some point will start hiring management when they grow.  So the realities are that it is virtually impossible to work in any company of some comparable size and scale that would not have some type of management in place.

Even ones who are adopting so called “management-less” structures such as Zappos’ agenda to follow a “holarchy” style structure will inevitably have some management structure in place.  In fact, one could argue that the CEO Hsieh’s very agenda to have a management-less structure was made because his is in fact the head manager!

The famous father of modern sociology, Max Weber, advocated that capitalism, ironically, could not run without bureaucracies and managers because to do so would run contrary to the egalitarian and democratic foundations of a country like America for as he famously stated:

In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of the capitalism… could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to the whole groups of man.

In other words, if it were not for bureaucratic management in place both in government and companies, there would be no check points for decisions to be made such that equal voice and equal votes could be vetted for all involved.

What it boils down to is an Agile paradox: What are the necessary evils of management that need to be in place, so that they do not become just evil necessities that hamper our ability to deliver projects with high velocity?

What’s your answer?

P.S. – I wrote a post on my site about project managers being perceived as necessary evils as well.  Let me know what you think!

Posted on: May 26, 2014 11:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is a Holarchy more conducive to Agile, or is just a bunch of malarkey?

Last year Zappos made big news by announcing that they would get rid of job titles, managers, and the infamous functional hierarchies.  For as this article from Quartz outlines:

During the 4-hour meeting, Hsieh talked about how Zappos’ traditional organizational structure is being replaced with Holacracy, a radical “self-governing” operating system where there are no job titles and no managers. The term Holacracy is derived from the Greek word holon, which means a whole that’s part of a greater whole. Instead of a top-down hierarchy, there’s a flatter “holarchy” that distributes power more evenly. The company will be made up of different circles—there will be around 400 circles at Zappos once the rollout is complete in December 2014—and employees can have any number of roles within those circles. This way, there’s no hiding under titles; radical transparency is the goal.

Rather than a traditional hierarchy compartmentalized into functional areas, a holarchy is more of a concentric circle of embedded layers, much like an onion wrapped around an individual with a specialized role.  Here’s a good illustration of a city gone holarcy:

With all the talk of Agile and its emphasis with small co-located and self-organizing teams, would this structure be more conducive for it?  A company filled with these holarchys would look similar to a “Scrum of Scrums”.

Aside from the announcement by Zappos (which was probably more of a PR stunt), I have not heard more about this onion style corporate structure, so it might all be just a bunch of malarkey!

What do you all think? 

Posted on: May 13, 2014 04:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Like taking candy from a baby: Kanban's 90% problem

I had written previously about Agile 90% problem, in that once you gain a wide adoption of Agile in your organization, it becomes harder and harder to squeeze more productivity gains from it.  Kanban which has its roots in manufacturing is now one of the pet processes in Agile, especially as it pertains to Lean software development.  Therefore, it was of utmost serendipity that I ran into this video clip from TV Land taken from an infamous “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel faked their way into jobs in a candy factory and the disastrous results that inevitably ensues:
The metaphorical and ironic subtext of this video clip could not be more applicable!  For I believe Kanban has a similar though different efficiency problem that Agile in general has, in that as your workflow becomes more efficient in Kanban, the more work your organization will pile on top of you.  Sure, you can try to control it through constraining WIPs, but just like Lucy in the candy factory, they will slip through while you and your teams are struggling to juggle them all in a tragic-comical manner.
In the end, it is just as much about effectiveness as it is about efficiency and the moral of the story is “be careful what you wish for as you might just get it and once you do, you better have a backup plan!”  More on this topic to come.
Posted on: April 27, 2014 03:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

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