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Your Team Needs You

The introduction of Agile into a corporation has many impacts on the team, and many impacts to the executives leading those teams.  In my experience, many Agile projects fail, not because the team did their best, but because the executives that should have been supporting the team failed to do so.  This lack of support can be manifested in many ways.  I’ve seen executives fail by doing the following:

  • Failure to help with the prioritization process
  • Failure to pay attention to the teams
  • Failure to treat the team as a team
  • Fixing Time, Cost, and Features

And many, many more.  I’ll address each one of these in turn, detailing why the practice is wrong and how to better approach them.

Failure to Help with the Prioritization Process

This is a classic mistake.  The executive fails to set clear priorities for the development teams and product management teams.  With agile, the team really can deliver quickly and at low cost, but if priorities are constantly changing, they’ll be switching from one important priority to another.   What’s worse is when executives don’t agree on the priorities, and use the team as leverage to make their priority win.  This fracture can lead to teams that work on one feature in one iteration, and a completely different feature in another.  The end result is that nothing is driven to completion and nobody is happy.  My recommendation is this:  Pick a single functional area or feature and stick to it for a least one quarter.  That’s enough time to complete meaningful work that can be shipped to your customers.  Occasionally, priorities will change and need urgent work, but this is almost always the exception, not the rule.  So help your team, figure out what the corporate priorities are for the next quarter.

Failure to Pay Attention to the Teams

Agile demands visibility into what’s going on inside of the development process.  This visibility can be very enlightening.  Problems that have been swept under the rug for years suddenly will become very obvious.  What’s more, teams that are functioning well want to show you what they’ve been doing.  When executives don’t pay attention, however, the teams often are quite demoralized.  If nobody cares, then neither will they.  My advice:  Attend every showcase you can.  Demand that your teams have showcases and show what they’ve been working on.  Ask the tough questions in the showcases and get answers from them.  Your teams will appreciate it.

Failure to Treat the Team as a Team

Old school management styles demanded that managers focus on the individual and the functionality of that individual instead of the team.  Agile changes this paradigm.  Too often, executives will focus on the individuals of the team:  Are they performing?  Are we paying them too much?  In fact, sometimes some executives will even celebrate individual behaviors that are damaging to the team.  For example, suppose you have a developer who is a great coder.  However, this individual does not work well with the team.  They’re moody, and they often “go dark” for long periods of time, without coordinating their efforts.  At the end of the iteration, they check in code and “save” the entire team.  This individual should not be congratulated.  Instead, they should be encouraged to work as a team member and help the entire team be successful.  I like to see executives that reward team members that spend the entire iteration helping other team members, rather than trying to be a hero.

In summary, the team succeeds or fails together.  Empower the team to do what it needs and help them keep each other accountable.

Fixing Time, Cost, and Features

The final item that I’d like to talk about is Truman’s Triangle.  On more than one occasion, I’ve had executives try to fix all three aspects of Truman’s triangle.  They try to set “stretch” goals and refuse to deal with the reality of the velocity of the team.  If your team isn’t performing, artificially fixing time, costs, and features is a recipe for failure.  Often, executives will pretend that all are fixed and they encourage the entire team to give a heroic effort to accomplish the task at hand.  This isn’t really fixing the cost part of the triangle.  Instead, you’re making the team perform at an unsustainable speed.  Long term, this is bad for your company and should be avoided.  You’ll have more churn in your employees, a lower quality product and less satisfied customers.  My recommendation is to instead fix Cost and Features.  Get into a rhythm of releasing early and often.  I recommend that you have a release (public or internal) every three months.  Once you get into this rhythm, you’ll be releasing to your customers on a regular enough schedule that the pressure to release by a specific date will decrease.  Your customers will know that features are showing up regularly, and a delay of three months won’t be a big deal.


This list is certainly not all encompassing.  My final advice is to adopt a servant leadership attitude for the team.  Instead of trying to manage them, figure out how you can serve them.  Find out what’s blocking them and move it out of the way, even if that means that you need to face the reality that you may be the major blockage.  Changing your management style may be painful, but in the end, your company will be better, and you’ll be happier too.

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Posted on Monday, January 24, 2011 8:35 PM | Back to top

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