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Teamwork

One necessary change in an agile transformation is teamwork. Agile organisations are structured by teams. People who were used to work on their own, will become team members and work inside a team on the team's goal.

That is already a big change for people. In order to support the team's goal and to work together with other team members, they must extend their focus area from single task to a team goal. Extending the focus area requires experience. Depending on the experience of a team member, the level of contribution to the team's goal varies. Some members are capable to see the big picture others can only see certain aspects. Some know to use all the technologies, some only a couple of frameworks. Some can connect the dots between all the disciplines, some have only experience in their own discipline.

Good teamwork combines all the different level of experiences in the necessary knowledge areas. Inexperienced members learn from other more experienced members and grow. In a well functioning team the individual focus area is growing through the learnings supported by the collaboration between team members.

Everything is the Team

Teamwork is an excellent means to focus on higher-level goals and to cope with the complexity that is required by the solution to reach that goal. But this capability is not infinite. Depending on the collaboration within the team and the learnings the team members have absorbed, there is a limit.

In an agile transformation we want to grow teams. We want to extend their capability to work on higher-level goals. Usually the perfection vision of a team is to extend the Definition of Done, to grow the skills towards Continuous Delivery and the responsibility towards DevOps, to define also the UX, discover product ideas and also to understand the business. Well, you need a lot of experience within the team to cover all of that. The team must absorb a lot of learning. That requires also time and dedication.

If we expect the team to grow too quickly and load expectations onto the team, to do everything within the team, then the team members can be overwhelmed with number of duties in their hands. Especially in a scaling context and in a large organisation the complexity to cope with is hugh. There is a limit of complexity a team can cope with.

The Right to Focus

Finding the right focus of a person is crucial to be in a flow. With flow I mean, that a person is challenged but not overwelmed, challenged to still learn, challenged enough to be not borred. My colleage Mark Bregenzer created the Team Knowledge Model as a tool for Scrum Masters and coaches to make the state of flow transparent to the team. See this documents on less.works for more on the Team Knowledge Model.

Organisations have to provide the focus to the people working inside. Employees have right to be focused (this is how Fredmund Malik states it). If an agile transformation leads to a growing focus of teams, we must be aware that there are limits. The existing experience and the pace of learning new things set the boundaries for the growth of teams.

But there are also other important prerequisits that help the teams and the team members to cope with the growing focus area.

  • Small Batches - working on smaller ingrements of the product reduces the complexity, the teams have to digest.
  • Pull System - it prevents overburden and helps to focus on the right level.
  • Learning culture - especially to learn from mistakes, so team members experience more learning opportunities.

These are standards that are usually adopted in every agile transformation. There are good reasons to stick to them.

 

Agile organisations are often seen as the opposite of bureaucratic organisations. Many people think, that Agility means to rid of existing strict rules and processes in order to get flexibility. To some extend this is true.

Usualy the word bureaucracy has a negativ touch. It means that an organisation is strictly driven by rules and processes and that a group of people that works in bureaus are executing the rules and have the power to make the decisions. It is a form of administration.

Rules have value

At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Weber a German sociologist published an slidely different take on bureaucracy. He claimed that bureaucracy is the liberation of the people from autocracy. Before bureaucracy, the main administrative model in organisations was autocracy. The autocrat has the power to decide everthing at anytime. People cannot rely on certain rules or laws and must expect at any time to be effected by the autocrat's decisions.

In a bureaucracy the decisions are made based in fixed rules (or laws). Weber sees the following advantages:

  • Handeling based on predictable rules without arbitrariness
  • Processes are done by educated staff
  • Independent from personal relations
  • Independent from political view

Well, we all know, that autocracy is coming back in some areas.

Frame for self-organisation

Getting back to agile organisations. The simplistic opinion, that Agile means to get rid of bureaucracy is a trap. I have experienced that managers - who claim to lead an agile organisation - don't focus on rules, don't define focus areas or don't nurture lateral leadership. "Agility means there are no rules. The people will figure it out." But without rules forming a frame for self-organisation, the law of the jungle is coming back. Often a hierarchy is still present, that defines, who is in charge. The people with the most power make the decision or arbitrarily intervene. We are back to a form of autocracy.

With agile organisations we transform bureaucratic organisations in the 21st centrury. It's more a bureaucracy 2.0 than the opposite of it. Agile means that rules that are adaptive. People of the organisation are involved in changing the rules and setting up agreements rather than rules. Both, the rules and agreements are part of the order that is necessary in a funtioning organisation. They give orientation and focus for the people within the organisation.

Agreement are better than rules

The wording is interesting here. Rules are more formal, they are setup and imposed by others. Rules are pushing us towards obedience. Agreements are created by two or more parties for themselves. Their goal is collaboration and they nurture intrinsic motivation (nice post about it by Joshua Freedman). In agile organisations we reduce the number of rules and create more room for agreements. Rules are the frame. Within the frame the self-organisation happens. Agreements are an important part of the self-organisation. Rules as well as agreements are made transparent, so everyone knows about them. The perfection goal is to replace rules with agreements. One example is the current trend in the Agile movement towards OKR (Objective - Key Results). The Key Results in OKRs are agreements between a manager and a group of people. People will be intrinsicly motivated by agreements. That fits more to an agile culture than to impose objectives on them.

Maximize agreements and make rules adaptable

A management is usually in charge of the rules. They are responsible to set the frame for self-organisation. They also have to provide a mechanism to inspect and adapt the frame. Within the frame the people are asked to make agreements. To ensure that agreements are made, lateral leadership is necessary (Coaches, Scrum Masters). They look after the group's processes and help the convergence towards agreements. They also drive the continuous improvement of the agreements and interface with the management on the adaption of the frame of rules.

So, rules to some extend are necessary, especially to give focus to the people. I will cover the "right to be focussed" in a next blog post. Without framing rules and without lateral leadership that ensures agreements are in place and respected, the people are missing an order within the organisation. To avoid chaos, the gap will be filled by powerful people who make the decisions. So, be aware of the hidden autocracy in organisations that falsely claim to be Agile.

Software development is a complex endeavour, that’s why Agile is very relevant. Agile methods enable us to cope with this complexity. I want to give one explanation why Agile works.

Ashby's Law - Photo by Dave Gray
Credit: Flickr - Dave Gray

This post will also prove that command-and-control is not working to solve a complex problem. I will show this by linking software development to Cybernetics, the science of controlling. The special discipline of Management Cybernetics was introduced by Stafford Beer in 1959 and relates Cybernetics to management. Economist Fredmund Malik references Management Cybernetics in his work. As I mentioned in the previous post, the science for leading agile organisations already exists.

Ashby’s Law

Ashby was a pioneer in cybernetics. Ashby’s Law is also called the Law of Requisit Variety. Understanding Ashby’s Law requires to understand variety. The variety is a measure of a number of distinct states of a system. This measure can be used to exemplify complexity in a system. Ashby’s Law describes the condition for the variety in two systems, that make it possible for one system to control the other.

Simplified, the law leads to the following rule: The higher the variety of the controlling system, the better it is able to cope with the variety of the system under control. If the system that I want to control has three different possible distinct states and the controlling system has only two possible distinct states, then the direct control will be impossible.

Let’s take another simple example to explain this law in our domain. The system that we want to control is an existing legacy software and the controlling system is a programmer that needs to fix a defect. Variety in a software system is higher, if the software system has more lines of code. The more options the programmer knows to change the code, the better are the chances to fix the defect. Or on the side: more simplicity in legacy code leads to better chances to fix the defect.

Imported to note is that we have two possibilities to get to a successful control and therefor a successful software development.

  1. Reduce variety in the system under control, which means simplify the problem that we are facing. It would mean to simplify the software or the scope of the problem.
  2. Create a controlling system with more variety, which means you get a more complex organisation in the project team.

Agile and Ashby’s Law

Let’s apply this to a another example. The system that is under control is a business problem that needs to be solved by creating a piece of software. The system that want’s to control is the project team. What can we do to improve the variety of the project team:

  • Skilled team members - the more tricks they know, the more options they have to contribute to the solution.
  • Collaboration between people to combine the variety of every single person. This increases the total variety of the team.
  • Team members from different function in one project team - a tester may see different options to solve a problem than a programmer.

These are only three things that help the project team. What are the things that reduce the variety of the project team, which we should avoid:

  • Hire less skilled people or don’t train people - well, that’s obvious.
  • Have a single person that commands other team members to execute his ideas. The variety of the whole project team is reduced to the variety of this single person.
  • Less possibilities to collaborate. Team members wont share their thoughts and combine them with others.
  • A fixed organisation with defined roles (Architect, Lead Developer, …). This reduces the options that the team has to re-organize and adapt in the solution process.

This explains quite nicely why so many things in Agile are helping us to get the job done. It also explains, why a command-and-control culture is not helping us to solve a complex problem.

What are the implications for management?

In Agile we make all the things explicit that increase the variety, e.g. self-organised teams that are empowered to make the decisions, no explicit roles in teams and close collaboration. As a manager you create the environment for such an organisation. This organisation is a complex social system and can be very precious, when it’s functioning well. You can compare it to a biotope. Like with a biotope, you cannot mindlessly intervene in the system. Making a change in the system may have destructive results, that you cannot foresee.

Since it seems very difficult to lead such a complex social system, managers usually fall back into old habits. They constrain the individuals, introduce roles, create hierarchies or directly intervene in the solution process. But all this reduces the variety in the development organisation and therefor will create a system that is not able to cope with the complexity. Additionally the complexity of the problem to solve will be reduced by demanding big upfront specification. And then we are back to the waterfall environment.

How can you create and lead an agile organisation, to actually cope with more complex challenges of the enterprise? I will cover this in the following posts.

There is a lot of noise around the management of Agile. A new discipline of Agile Management seems to be necessary and is discussed on conferences, in articles and is the base on new consulting products.

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Agile as a body of knowledge has its roots in Agile Software Development. For many years the community ignored the managers. Statements that managers aren't needed anymore in agile organisations were not very helpful to adopt new agile methods. Nowadays the management practices are much more in focus by the agile community. We understand that management plays the important role in the change process towards Agile.

What is an Agile Organisation?

The agility of an organisation can be described as the ability of this organisation to adapt to new market conditions. Depending on the products and the market the required agility may differ to actually qualify it as an Agile Organisation. Even with traditional processes a company could achieve some level of agility. Agility of an organisation's business alone is not enough to call it an Agile Organisation.

What I mean with Agile Organisation is the use of agile methods and the compliance to the Agile Manifesto for a group of people within a company. For example a multi-team Scrum organisation that creates one product can be called an Agile Organisation. The management of the Agile Organisation is the focus of this post.

What is Agile Management?

Agile Management is the management practice in the context of an Agile Organisation.

The term Agile Management indicates that there is something special in the management of Agile compared against the management of traditional organisations. While this may be true depending on the context, the knowledge in science of complex social systems and self-managed teams exists already for many year. The agile movement has not invented a new type of management. It rather discovered the knowledge and has incorporated it into the Agile body of knowledge. This means for managers that want to move to Agile - apart from learning the essentials of agile methods - they can re-learn or improve the knowledge about management based on what already exists in science.

There is nothing unique about the management of agile organisation, so I did not recommend to use the term Agile Management. It's because people may anchor on the wrong things: agile people may think that Agile Management is new and they have to teach managers their own - agile - way of management and managers may think that Agile Management is not adoptable in their company or it's a buzz word, that has nothing todo with real management.

My experience is that using the word Agile for everything, like Agile Marketing, Agile World or Agile Management, is not helping us to adopt our body of knowledge. I usually explain the real business benefits and the insights to convince people. Labelling it as Agile often creates immediate resistance.

What is good management?

We had a discussion on our company how an agile manager should behave. We brainstormed several properties of an agile manager, that I cannot fully recall. It was something like: supportive, empower the team, remove impediments, ...
My colleague David from the UK noted, that all these properties will make the manager a good manager (in the context of product development). Even, if no agile methods are used at all, a manager that behaves and leads his people like this, would create a very helpful environment for product development.

This means that we have organisations out there that are not using agile methods but with good management. I met some of these managers. Although they were not heading an agile organisation, they understood very well, what it takes to lead in the context of Agile. One difference is that agile organisations require good management. Agile does not stick in an organisation with bad management.

In the next posts I will continue with the topic "Leading in Agile".

Credits: Photo from Flickr Michael Heiss

What is a Digital Transformation?

The term digital transformation has been coined some years ago. It describes the process for an organisation or society to change in the digital age. Caused by more connectivity between individuals, the possibilities for new types of interactions have dramatically increased. This creates new forms of how we live together.

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Source Flickr: Tom Bennett

If we look closer on organisations and commercial companies in particular, we can observe more potential business models. These business models have much more variety than the standard eBusiness models that were implemented over a decade ago during the internet bubble. With mobile commerce and social media, customers can be reached via different channels in many places. This makes it possible for a business to get in touch with the customer at the right time and the right place. The value that is delivered to the customer can be higher but depends very much on the experience he or she has with this interaction. If the company is doing it right, the delivered value leads to more customer satisfaction and binds the customer more closely to the brand.

These new business models are also an increasing threat for traditional businesses. Due to the leverage a new market player can create, it may disruptively change even a whole industry. We have seen this in the music and currently in the publishing sector. Also the automotive industry is changing because the traditional vehicle-centric business model does not meet the expectations of young digital natives anymore. Automotive companies must shift from the vehicle-centric to a customer-centric business model. They will provide mobility services rather than vehicle products.

What needs to be changed?

As elaborated earlier, the business models will change. How does a company find a new business model? It’s an innovative act to create a new business that is attractive for customers and successful. Not every company culture supports innovation well. Very often they have been optimised for efficiency. Even when the senior management calls out for more innovation, the culture may prevent it. How can you create a culture for innovation?

A new business model can be successful but very often they fail. According to Forbes, 9 out of 10 startup go out of business. The environment for a new business is very uncertain. Often the strategy to implement a new business model is to invest a lot of resources and time founded on many hypotheses. These hypotheses are ideas that are later often proved to be false. Companies need to come up with new methods to deal with this uncertainty without spending a lot of resources and time.

The existing structure of a company is often another hurdle to overcome as well. Especially the new innovative cross-channel business models require changes of the internal processes that connect different departments and even devisions. The silos of such an organisation obstruct the process to find the solution. Creating the best solution requires phases of divergent and convergent thinking of together with multiple departments. Silos must be overcome to get the best out of the company.

Why is Agile helpful?

What we mean with Agile is the Agile with a big „A“ - the body of knowledge that is growing in the agile community. Agile (with a big „A“) is not just for software development. Although - due to digital nature, software plays always a big role in a new digital business model. Within the agile community the knowledge is growing on the whole value chain. Agile consists of practices that turn an idea into cash. Agile helps to deliver more customer value in shorter cycle time, hence increasing competitiveness.

Within the agile community the method Design Thinking is combined with software development. Design Thinking is used to create innovative ideas for new products. Main concept of Design Thinking is the interdisciplinary team that consists of people from different departments. This method helps product development teams to be more innovative.

The uncertainty to develop a new business model can be overcome by using the Lean Startup method. This method is combined with agile software development and develops new business models by testing underlying hypotheses step by step with minimal resource usage.

Apart from these new methods, the common agile software development methods help companies to get quicker from a business idea to real customer value. Cross-functional teams deliver digital value and use practices like Continuous Integration to get this done on a larger scale. The power of Scrum to drive the change in an organisation is a good catalyst for a digital transformation.