Leading Tech Teams

Leading Tech Teams

Slides from my workshop at I T.A.K.E. Unconference 2014

Scaling Agility: The Technical Angle

Scaling Agility: The Technical Angle

Slides from my talk at I T.A.K.E. Unconference 2014

Behavior follows system follows mindset


How can you get different results? Should you change people’s behavior? Should you create different working systems? Or should you address their mindset? I think it’s the latter.

Jurgen Appelo spawned an interesting thread on Facebook by saying:

You cannot change an organization’s culture. What you can change is your behavior and your influence.

Several people joined in and voiced their opinion. I both agree and disagree with Jurgen. The following lines will try to describe how.

I believe behavior is a result of the social system people are working in. So, if you’re a tester and you’re being measured on the amount of bugs you report (a systemic feature), you will tend to open more bug reports to meet your targets. And you’ll do that even if the agile coach or the management writer advises against it. Or if you’re a project manager who is handed down a fixed price, fixed scope contract, all the arguments of the #NoEstimates crowd will likely fall on deaf ears.

I believe the system is a result of your mindset. What do you believe about people? Are they lazy and always trying to cheat? What do you believe about social systems? Should we focus on efficiency, utilization and optimize for each function (development, marketing, product management etc.). Then you will design hierarchical, silo-ed organizations, controlled via budgets and projects.

Based on the two assertions above, I don’t think it’s enough to change your own behavior to achieve meaningful results in the organization. Changing your behavior does not affect the collective mindset. What you can do however — on this I agree with Jurgen — is influence other people, try to get them to change their mindset. In other words, effectively engage in double loop learning.

As a coach, I must spend at least a third of my time trying to change mindsets. “Why should there be a development and a QA team?” “Can performance be managed via yearly performance reviews?” “How is the team leader role helping us achieve our goals?” “Should we have one developer per module?”

I find that I can’t start influencing people’s behavior until we start debating questions like the ones above. Only when we agree to learn more about each other’s deeply rooted beliefs can we start designing new systems. And these new systems, in turn, usually generate different behavior.

Behavior follows system follows mindset.

Optional Conference impressions

This week I attended the Optional Conference organized in Budapest. Below you can find my notes.

My talk on the Agile Mindset

I gave a talk at the conference comparing the agile and the traditional mindset. It’s the stuff I’ve written about in a paper earlier this week. Here’s the presentation from the conference.

Notes from other talks

Here are some notes I jotted down during the talks:

  • Budgets don’t work because they force two different numbers into a single one: the estimate and the target budget.
  • It’s hard to manage people in Generation Y, because their parents made sure they have everything. As such, they can’t be threatened or bribed. Instead, they must be inspired.
  • There are two types of stress and we want to avoid the second. When we start adding pressure, at first eustress kicks in, but with enough additional pressure we become distressed:
    • eustress is good, it helps achieve results
    • distress is not good, because it triggers the limbic system (our primitive brain)
    • agile helps because it generates mainly eustress
  • If you want to get into a state of flow, you need the right balance between the difficulty of the problem you are solving and you own skills. This model of flow illustrates the various combinations between difficulty and skill.
  • Ericsson is doing agile in a 112.000 persons organization. The R&D department is more advanced in terms of adoption, and they have a massive 24.000 people involved.
    • The program manager for a product being developed by 450 people told the story of trusting too much in incremental architecture and being bitten by it when they had to make significant investments to switch from a simpler database to a more scalable one.
  • Deutsche Telekom is another massive company who is transforming to agile. In one city, they have 100 teams who are organized using agile concepts: long lived, cross-functional, collocated. To ensure a constant flow of ideas, periodically one person is rotated between the teams.
    • The team members rate their managers on how well they embody the company and agile principles.
    • Teams have veto rights on new hires.
  • Rational arguments are not that useful for convincing people. What works better is storytelling.
  • Boris Gloger had the closing keynote. He advocated for an agile management style based on strong leadership skills. He emphasized four: clarify the purpose, give positive feedback, listen and use appreciative inquiry.
  • I need to learn more about holacracy, human system dynamics, radical management and appreciative inquiry.

Agile and HR

More and more people are asking me about how to “marry” agile and HR practices. The performance review is one of the most pressing concerns for HR professionals, and they want to align the practice to fit with agile principles.

Jurgen Appelo advocated during dinner for dropping the practice altogether, but my feeling during the Open Space was that most managers were afraid of this perspective (I ran a session on this exact topic). Boris Gloger gave me an interesting idea to chew on when, after discussing various alternatives, he said “So, are we thinking that the HR manager should be like a ScrumMaster for the organization?”

I’ll have to clear up my thoughts on this, but I feel that’s an interesting direction to explore.

How Disney and Pixar manage creative people

A recent blog post on Harvard Business Review got me really excited. It’s an interview about how to manage in a creative environment with Ed Catmull, the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. His words match many of my beliefs about modern management, and I’ve highlighted below my key takeaways.

Embrace diversity
Disney has several studios doing animation, so a lot of traditional managers would push for unification of technology in search of economies of scale. Ed advised his employees differently:

“You may look at the tools that the other has, you may use them if you want, but the choice is entirely yours. You don’t have to take ideas from anybody else.”

Deliver quality
There was some media attention that Pixar had to push to 2015 the movie The Good Dinosaur, originally planned for 2014. Ed isn’t worried though:

Ultimately, there’s a criterion whether the film is good enough and we don’t let the other stuff get in the way of it. One thing I don’t believe in is the notion of a perfect process. Our goal isn’t to prevent all the problems; our goal is making good movies.

Create a spirit of trust
When Ed took the leadership position, there were several people leaking information about the movies to the press. Instead of entering an Inquisition mode, he focused on building trust. He had a speech in front of the employees in which he highlighted that when somebody goes to the press, they break their colleagues’ trust. This simple message was way more powerful than threats to change behavior:

When I said that, the entire audience burst into applause. For the one or two people who were talking to bloggers on the outside, what they saw was that everybody else in the studio was really upset that somebody was doing this. So the message didn’t come from me, the message came from that response of the audience − and whoever was doing it stopped doing it.

If you want to learn more, Ed has a longer article (How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity) and a book (Creativity, Inc).

Is your mindset blocking your agile transformation?


In the last few years I’ve been involved in several agile or lean transitions. Some of them went smoothly and for others we had various challenges.

Upon reflecting on the main causes that slow down or even kill transitions, I became convinced that the prevailing mindset of the organization is one of the key blockers. To fully detail my view, I’ve written a paper called Mindset as barrier (PDF, 9 pages).

Give it a read and tell me what you think.

(Image from: https://flic.kr/p/bwXYfa)

Three conferences in three months

For the next few months I’ve decided to put some of my ideas to the test by sharing them (as a speaker) with the attendees of three great conferences. Read on if you’re curious what I’ll be speaking about.

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