Jiri Lundak

Archive for the ‘Values’ Category

Courageously “Kicking Dead Weight”

In Agile, Leadership, Scrum Agile, Team, Values on March 31, 2013 at 2:22 am

This is the first installment of a small series on trimming away fat, that inhibits organizations in realizing full potential, when trying to adopt Agile ways.

First let me make one thing clear: this is also about one value, that often seems to fall by the wayside. I am talking about courage. People tend to minimize the impact agility has on their organization. This is a natural reaction, because we have all the inclination to self-protect, our position, our job, etc. On the other hand we – as Agile change agents – want to maximize the impact of agility in the organization. So, to take action, we must go against our natural inclination. And this is really hard… but usually worth the effort.

“Kicking dead weight” or getting rid of processes, ceremonies, activities and even people, that do not contribute to our goals, is very hard to do, but extremely necessary. It might even be very urgent in your project.

Years of experience show me, that many organizations (especially larger ones) have lost control of their appetite (for “resources”, for regulation and for simultaneously ongoing projects). How comes?

They take on more projects than they can handle. They add external people, because they have not enough themselves. They are not able to control this much people, so they add rules. They have not enough people that check compliance with the rules, so they add more people, making projects heavier and more complex. Then the cycle starts again.

Once people are hired, processes are installed and rules are established, getting rid of them is seen as daunting at best and impossible in all other cases. Why is this so hard? Because many people contribute to the problem (sometimes unknowingly) and only few, if any, try to solve it. Many people joining the company just take existing rules and behaviors as unchangeable company policy and have usually not the courage and/or time to act on it.

Now, let us focus on the people problem. How can we get on top of it?

Here are some basic principles, that come to mind:

  • Think twice about who you hire: First think “Do we really need to fill that position?”, then “Can we just shift forces internally?”, and if you really need to hire somebody “Has this person really the skills to help us?”. Choose wisely with highest possible standards. Put candidates to the test. Do not just let HR decide. Make your teams choose the people they want to work with.
  • If possible, never hire external people: If possible to not overcommit in the number of project you staff can handle. When hiring external experts, you often end up devaluating your own people. The simply do not get any chance to build up new skills. This is a death spiral, leading to even more dependency on exteral help. And what is worse, you even loose the ability to judge the goodness of the external people's work.
  • If you have to hire external experts: Do not create a Troian horse, where the providing company can send you anybody they like. Treat external people like your internal ones. Evaluate them with the same rigour and diligence as you would when hiring for a top notch permanent position. When hiring them, do it only for a limited period of time. Make it paramount, that they teach your own people how to do the job well. It is better to give the complete project outside or buying an off-the-shelf product, than having a pseudo-internal project.
  • People just do not cut it: If you have people on your team, that do not solve problems, but – on the contrary – often contribute to create them, then do not hesitate to try to help them. If they live not up to the chance, remove them. How do you know someone, who does not contribute? If you collaborate closely with your team, you will know. Else ask the team. They know the good people. External people, that are of no help, should be immediately removed.

I know this might sound hard, but it is the only way to improve things. But remember: it takes courage. You need courage to go counter useless policies within you company. You need courage to face a person, that you need to correct or even remove.

In the next installment we will talk about trimming processes.


Knowing when to Leave

In Agile Development, Career, Job, Team, Values on January 23, 2013 at 1:02 am

It was a long time with the same company. I nearly became part of the inventory. It was an awesome journey from a disorganized bunch of people, with no real concept on how to produce good quality software, that preferred to depend on external knowledge for managing projects, to a lean and mean software company, that produces 17 releases a year and had more than 135 releases go live during these 9 years.

We made a dent in the universe, for how long it lasted. We introduced Agile development practices and looked for talented people to join us. Self-directed people, good collaborators and able software engineers. We were trying to hire only the best of candidates (we hired only every tenth maybe).

This saved the company from failing. We were successful again.

And now I am leaving. Why that? It is not because of bad technological choices, it is not because of bad customer relationships and it is not because of a hostile business environment. These are problems of daily business life. We can cope with that.

The discussions of the last month have worn me down. I was not able to convince my peers, that we were drifting away from values we all valued.

So here we are. Our people were breathing the spirit of agility. They embodied self-organizing principles. They valued to be included in the decision making process. Sure not everything was rosy. But we never shied back from correcting ourselves. Unfortunately I was not able to counter the building up of positions, of creeping distrust. Though I tried to improve things I miserably failed.

But now there is hope again. People are talking again with each other, about their values, their hopes and their expectations for a better future. That is a good sign. But I am not part of the solution anymore and this makes me very sad.

In this dark personal moment, there remains one wonderful and encouraging thing deeply impressed in my memory: the pure and genuine solidarity with Agile principles, that most of my colleagues have shown, by underlining the value and positive effect the Agile way of doing things had in their lives.

Especially one colleague brought me joy and encouragement. We never talked personally about agility and its benefits in depth, he always seamed not to care much, just doing his thing, taking never any sides in 12 years. And now this… a long email, showing his personal benefits he got from the Agile way and how much he cared. This was very moving for me personally. Agile has reached the hearts and minds of people living it from day to day. This I call a movement!

So now, that I must go, I leave behind people, who for themselves have seen the light, who know what they want and know how to take care of themselves. So my wish goes out to them: be courageous, do not give in and continue to do good work! You know who you are.



In Collaboration, Leadership, Management, Team, Values on December 18, 2012 at 8:27 am

Here are some thoughts on closeness in a collaborative setting, be it from a managerial perspective, as well as from a purely co-working perspective:

Being very close has surely some downsides:

  • You might have to cope with the intricacies of a quirky person.
  • You see often very clearly the defects of personality in the person you are collaborating with.
  • You may lack some distance to the task at hand.

On the other hand there are a lot of positive aspects to being close to each other:

  • Trust increases between people collaborating closely.
  • You often understand why a person does what she does.
  • You get immediate feedback (emotional, unfiltered) to what you say and do. You can use this feedback wisely.
  • You can influence “in place” the situation, instead of arriving just after the fact.
  • You will know your collaborators so well, you will not need a one-on-one performance appraisal session at the end of the year (if not mandated by others).

For example management decisions communicated via email are more impersonal and open to interpretation than face to face communication, where reasons for a decision can be explained directly. Better yet would be to collaboratively reaching a conclusion. In this case the co-creation of a solution creates a bond of trust and buy-in, that is not possible otherwise.

In the last 10 years this kind of closeness has been practiced in software engineering (think pair programming, co-location of teams and the rise of instant messaging). Unfortunately it did not quite arrive in the managerial sphere above it. There are exceptional leaders practicing it naturally, but most traditionally trained managers are still “managing in a bubble”, disconnected and far away from the people working for them.


Are We Following Agility Blindly?

In Agile, Collaboration, Management, Values on November 14, 2012 at 1:22 am

Are we a swarm of agile fanatics, that do think in an undifferentiated way to have found the silver bullet for producing good software? Are we a bunch of people so convinced of ourselves, that we meet persons (like middle managers, bosses, CEOs or simple colleagues) thinking differently, with indifference at best and arrogance at worst?

Recently I was pointed to read the following article in the renowned German newspaper “Die Zeit”: “Der Sog der Masse”. The article (titled something like “The Pull of the Masses”, sorry for the imperfect translation – no native English speaker here), tries to discuss the power of mainstream thinking, where the big mass of people follows a quite small number of articulate people, that voice loudly a particular (but many times false) opinion.

Discussing the article was interesting. It was cited to indicate to a small group of people – that where voicing concern, that the company they were working for, was becoming less “Agile” -, that these people were speaking up, not because they were convinced of Agile values, but because they where following a small group of articulate spokespersons, without reflecting on their own.

Hmm…this happening makes me think.

Do we as proponents of the Agile community communicate well? Do we sell our noble goal – to give customers what they really need and delight them – really well?

We perceive ourselves as fighting against the mainstream of how software is developed and how work is managed. We are not mainstream yet, because many companies do not do Agile, although they say they do. At the same time there are companies that do Agile for quite a long time, but where people entering the organization perceive the existing culture to be “the mainstream”. When new managers want to bring in new (but old) practices, that the Agile community abandoned some 10 years ago, they feel like a new minority, with a fresh “new” perspective. They feel the need to challenge the existing thinking.

Is this bad? I do not think so. I always perceived the Agile community, and also most of its members, as open to “new” challenging thinking. But does this mean one should jump ship at first sign of contrasting thought? Not really. Having a conviction and standing in for a set of common values is not per se bad.

The main problem lies, as many times, in communication. As we know communication is always multidirectional. Whole books have been written on the subject. But one of the main hindrances I observed these days first hand, is the absence of deep listening, on both sides – the so-called “mainstream” and the “challengers”.

Following things hinder deep listening (and thus understanding):

  • Missing appreciation for all people.
  • Egocentricity (being focused on own goals).
  • Underestimation of people's value system.
  • Fixation on preconceived “solutions” and own worldview.

We from the Agile community should not fall prey to these kinds of hindrances for good communication. This would go counter our own values and quickly give us a bad rap.

I know we are mostly not following agility blindly. Let not people have the impression, though!

On Project Transparency

In Agile, Collaboration, Personal Development, Values on May 15, 2012 at 11:52 pm

One of the main agile values is “transparency”.

We expect it of teams, when it comes to reporting progress. We expect the individual developer to be transparent, when he is doing his work. We are selling Agile as a means to know where a project really stands.

And this very good! Why? Because it helps build trust.

But do we just build trust in case of success, when we meet our sprint goals, when we deliver a system into production or when our estimates match the actual effort? Often managers and business owners think so. But this assumption is down right wrong.

Just ask yourself: “Whom do I trust more?”

  1. A person, that has made an error and admits it.
  2. A person, that has made an error and tries to cover or downplay it.

But you may counter: “But if I do not want to stir up unnecessary controversy? I know the project is still on track. This was just a small miss hap.”.

Think again: What happens, if the customer somehow gets to know, that you tried to cover your failure or you just deliberately decided to let him take the backseat on an other customer?

Will you gain his trust or loose it? You are right, the first outcome – in this case – is no option.

Sure you might end up justifying your dubious choice or bad performance, and this might even trigger more than necessary attention on the customers’ side for the project. You have maybe more work and a hard time. But who is really to blame?

Some people like to blame others, especially when there are other parties they might depend on. But do you not think, that many customers are fed up with nobody taking responsibility for problems in projects? What about breaking the blame game and just explain to the customer, what led to the problem and what you intend to do to correct things, so that the project gets back on track?

Would you gain posture and trust doing so?

I know, somebody will come and try to convince you, that you can not – in this particular situation – tell the whole truth. “You need to learn to play the political game.”, he will tell you. He might even offer to “coach” you on this. “You need just to tweak your messages according to its receiver.”, she will say.

Think again? Can you keep track of what you said to whom and when? Does it become easier in a more complicated project with many parties with differing interests and stakes at risk? How does just saying the truth and explaining the situation stack up against this?

But what can I do, when I am in a tricky situation?

You have just two options (none of them is without problems, I must admit):

  1. Continue to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth: You will run into trouble with people, that do not like it or have different opinions (partner companies, your boss, your company owner, your sales department or even your customer). But you will be nonetheless be seen as trustworthy and congruent. Depending on your company culture, you will be allowed to continue your work backed by your colleagues or – in case of a negative outcome- it might be time to get out of the way. But at least you remained true to your deepest values. And it might even happen, that you are able to build a long-standing, strong tie of trust with your customer, which might lead to other projects being entrusted to your organization.
  2. Participate in the political blame game: Get entangled in the political mess, that many big projects are. Bend the truth to fit what the stakeholders in your company, in the customers’ organization or of some third party, want to hear. You might get away with it, because other participants in the political game, are bending the truth even more and many people, interested in hearing the truth, just do not have the means of recognizing it. Yes, you might be successful with your project. But what you can loose is much more significant: your credibility with colleagues and customers alike will suffer. Worse, you might get used to bending the truth. But it will not work on every project. So get used to the idea of being exposed sooner or later. And a reputation once ruined…

“But I am part of a larger corporation. Bending the truth is normal affairs around here. If you do not play along, you’re toast!”, you might say.

That is true. Honesty does not always pay dividends immediately and in all organzations. And there are certain places you just do not want to work at, if you want to maintain a morally sustainable position. And face it: there are some companies out there actually appreciating transparent, honest employees.