Agility and Project Leadership

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

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Google considered the best US company to work for due to HR agility

The oversimplification problem of Agile

Continuous Dysfunction: When Agile's obsession with being done becomes toxic!

It’s the Product Owner, stupid!

Is Walmart going Agile? Not really…

Google considered the best US company to work for due to HR agility has just released its report on the 50 best places to work in the US (and pretty much abroad since most companies these days are global) and not surprisingly, Google came out on top.  It sound from the report that this is due to all the perks employees receive, but what was pretty interesting was an article by Insider Monkey that outlines how Google utilizes an Agile form of HR management:

Glassdoor’s CEO, Robert Hohman talked about what makes Google the best in business in this category... “[...] What Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has done is that they have sort of borrowed the agile development methodology and applied it to HR. They are interviewing their employees frequently and they are trying to respond very rapidly to what they need, and what they heard Googlars needed as the employee base ages is more support in work-life balance [...],” said Hohman.

This greater support for employees that Hohman talked about was found lacking in Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) at least to the extent that Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL) showed commitment for that cause. The measures involving facilitating its workforce included increased maternity leave, introduction of maternity leave, and revamped onsite day care, according to Hohman.

Although Google has made it to the list seven times in a row, this is the first time that the tech giant has secured the number 1 spot. Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) dropped from the fifth position to number thirteen this year. Hohman mentioned that as the company is growing in size it is becoming harder for the company’s management to address the issues plaguing its staff.

I wouldn’t get too carried away by the Agile metaphor, as I don’t think they deployed Scrum on their HR practices (or who knows?), but rather they maintained agility with respect to how they monitored the employee satisfaction and changed quickly when things worked and didn’t work.  They are known for their ability to experiment constantly, measuring results and changing rapidly when needed.  This is a great recipe for any company to follow.  As I mentioned before, it’s more about agility than being Agile.


Posted on: December 15, 2014 11:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The oversimplification problem of Agile

There’s no doubt that Agile has been beneficial to the development of software and industries beyond, but one thing I have noticed is that people who get deep into it can have a tendency to oversimplify both the problem and the solution to which they are looking to apply Agile.  Just look at how complex many software systems are these days.  Many have millions if not billions of lines of code all strung together and these software applications interact with multiple other complex software applications often in real-time.  To facilitate this requires large, interconnected hardware infrastructure and storage of data that also requires you keep track of security, governance and compliance with rules, regulations and policies both private and public.

Can such complexity really be reduced down to simple user stories or prioritized backlog list then implemented in short iterative burst sessions?  Only once you have thought through and developed a solid object oriented design that incorporates things like patterns, re-useable software, and modular components… this requires you go through a process of structured and system oriented thinking that guess what, means you do some upfront design and requirements gathering!  Only then can you come up with well planned and defined iterations that will result in working software and software that you know will be modular and maintainable, rather than something that just “works”.

Do you think many who do Agile have a tendency to oversimplify?  Agree or not?

Posted on: November 30, 2014 12:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Continuous Dysfunction: When Agile's obsession with being done becomes toxic!

The second doctrine of Agile is having “working software over comprehensive documentation” which drives much of the obsession with being “done” in the Agile community.  In other words, the whole reason for doing Agile is so that you have something workable at the end of each iteration.  This makes perfect sense as the justification for breaking large chunks of work into smaller pieces is so that you can get a better handle on it, build subsequent pieces upon previously built items and change rapidly if needed.  This should foster better creativity and to respond the changes and feedback quicker.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to happen much in the real world as even one of the co-founders of the movement, Jeff Sutherland discusses in the Q&A on the launch of his new book “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” that was just recently published, that this is often not the case:

Recently I visited 12 of the largest and most successful companies in Silicon Valley on a book tour. They average number of Scrum teams in these companies was more than 200, many much larger than that. I was impressed at the scale at which Scrum is being implemented...

Unfortunately, over 80% of these teams do not have tested, working software at the end of a sprint. This creates huge delays and many problems. Scrum becomes slow, hard, and painful. It is a gross violation of the second value in the Agile Manifesto ["Working software over comprehensive documentation"]. Therefore, it is “Bad Agile.” The Product Owners and customers cannot count on anything except being late.

I want to communicate to all teams, that for Scrum to be fast, easy, and fun as at the Ashram college, you must have working product at the end of the sprint.

My feeling is that it is because of the obsession with being “done” that causes this continuous dysfunction since it compounds the problem in an opposite direction.  Let me clarify what I mean:  As was just mentioned, the ideal situation is to have a working deliverable at the end of each iteration (or “Sprint” in Scrum lingo) which would drive the improvement of subsequent iterations into a form of continuous improvement we all assumingly acknowledge.  This would create that whole idea of teams that gel and self-organize and at some point the customer would get what they want and stop.

But let’s look at this from an opposite direction: If we take Jeff Sutherland’s metric that 80% do not achieve the condition of being “done” at an iteration's end, it stands to reason that this problem would have the opposite effect and each failed iteration would cause more failed iterations into a detrimental cycle of continuous dysfunction.  Though the ideal situation is to allow failures, my feeling is that the majority of executive management bought into the idea of Agile to avoid failures in the first place so that no failures are tolerated at all, even though failures can sometimes lead to breakthroughs.  This situation would be made worse if you adopted Agile in an environment that is really not meant for it: e.g., if it was introduced into a large compartmentalized organization (note that it was metioned in the Sutherland quote that Scrum teams number 200 and above!).

So these Agile teams that fail to produce a working deliverable work even harder and as anyone knows, they would inevitably hit a point of diminishing returns and end up like that famous quote on insanity “where you do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result!”  And if Silicon Valley startups are failing 80% of the time, the non-startups which mean regular companies not doing cutting edge software and technology, probably have a fail rate in the upper 90th percentile.  Yikes, than that means there’s some serious dysfunction out there!

So what’s the solution?  Maybe be less rigid about being “done”, but than that kind of defeats the whole agility thing.  Perhaps a bit more planning to make sure the iterations produce something done?  But do this too much and you end up with waterfall done in prolonged chunks.  Maybe waterfall is better since you fail big and start over again.  It’s the proverbial choice of whether you want to die instantly but painfully, or by being poked a thousand times which is not as painful but agonizingly prolonged.

What do you think?  What's been your solution?

Posted on: November 16, 2014 02:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

It’s the Product Owner, stupid!

Similar to the 1992 US presidential race where Bill Clinton successfully defeated George H.W. Bush by creating the catchy slogan (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) to focus back on the economy, one could hold a similar sentiment with Scrum in that the majority of the focus is on the ScrumMaster, wherein at least from my perspective, all evidence seems to indicate that it’s the Product Owner who should be the focus.

In other words, it’s the Product Owner, stupid!

The reason for such a sentiment is the fact that the Product Owner is a key stakeholder of the project who’s vision of what’s to be developed and built correspond directly to what the Scrum team actually implements.  This is the main person that drives the prioritization of the product backlog list.

But more important, this individual needs to have extremely strong business savvy skills and be able to communicate that in a manner that can be built to preciseness so as to reach a state of “done” at the end of a Sprint.  Sure the ScrumMaster facilitates this and that role is important, but if the vision doesn’t match the end product, it’s really the Product Owner who’s accountable for this.

In my own experience and in discussion with Agile PM’s, the lack of having a true Product Owner is what usually causes Scrum projects to go south.  Often times they will throw some business analyst type person into this role who has no real understanding of the product scope and is the person who is supposed to act as an intermediary to get requirements from a Product Owner type person in the first place!

So don’t be stupid.  Make sure you get a real Product Owner, though I know it can be pretty darn difficult.

Posted on: October 31, 2014 07:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is Walmart going Agile? Not really…

In this Wall Street Journal article, it points out the latest initiative of the retail behemoth Walmart in their attempt at being more “Agile”.  Agile that is in the traditional sense of applying this to their giant IT division for software development that is spread over 130 “Agile” teams.  
First of all, I don’t know what the size of the teams are, but if there’s 130 of them and they adopt the principle of keeping Agile teams at a reasonable size, that means a team is comprised of at least 5 people.  Since it’s Walmart, let’s assume it could be a team of 10.  That means there are around 1,300 groups of people all supposedly Agile.  I wonder if Agile was used to deploy and mobile them?  That’s definitely a Walmart sized group of Agile teams for sure!
Anyway, as the article further states:
Over the past two years, parts of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have begun to embrace a methodology known as Agile for rapid and flexible software development. Still, the methodology, now gaining ground beyond its core base of technology company practitioners, can’t be applied to everything, said a Wal-Mart employee at a conference in Silicon Valley...
At least in Wal-Mart’s e-commerce businesses, using the Agile approach was a response to the increasing complexity and dynamic market conditions that require solutions to be delivered faster, according to a 2013 report. Wal-Mart competitor Inc. began using a particular Agile methodology called Scrum nearly a decade ago. The conventional approach to building software, known as the waterfall method, often takes companies a year or more to deliver a complete feature-packed product.
“I am a firm believer that Agile is just one tool,” said Mark Tallman, who has worked in project management at Wal-Mart, speaking at the Strategic Execution Conference in Santa Clara. Mr. Tallman, who now works in disaster recovery at Wal-Mart, said that an Agile approach doesn’t work very well for building data centers. “There are things that have to be done waterfall,” he added.
So the article doesn’t go into if Walmart has witnessed any tangible evidence of faster delivery of their software projects, but it does seem as though initially they looked at the “Agile methodology” (why do people keep on perpetuating the idea that Agile is a methodology?) as a “one size fit all” approach and did not think more strategically where it could be used best, how to introduce it iteratively and incrementally (so as to be more Agile, ironically) and especially how this would impact a monolithic culture that’s trying to shoehorn a modular method that needs a modular corporate culture to thrive.
This outlines what I wrote about previously, in that as a movement such as Agile grows in popularity, so does the rigidity with which it is applied.  People look to incorporate tools and techniques quickly without the deeper thought as to what the underlying principles are and how to really use that to effect change.  
It’s about creating a culture of agility not just “doing” Agile!
Posted on: October 28, 2014 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

- Oscar Wilde